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Republished with permission from palabra.

We came to Colombia’s Pacífico region, to tropical towns that invoke the magical realism of Gabriel García-Márquez, in search of Francia Márquez’s origins. This Black woman, a social leader, had recently shocked the mostly white and male political, social and economic elites of Colombia and Latin America by daring to run for presidenta of Colombia. In a set of primary elections on March 13 to choose candidates for the country’s national coalitions — leftist, centrist and rightist — she finished third among all aspirants from all three alliances, even ahead of the winner of the center’s contest. And in a political system in which presidential candidates traditionally handpick their running mates for the vice presidency based primarily on tactical value, she earned the right to complement front-runner Gustavo Petro’s leftist ticket.

Political analysts pointed out that Márquez, an environmentalist, would solidify Petro’s left flank among those who suspected him of being just another career politician too eager to compromise. Her surprising pull and great influence in the leftist camp catapulted her to the candidacy, even though Petro had sought to widen his base by attracting a figure from the center-right and some of his strategists believed Márquez could become a handicap because large sectors of the population would find her unpalatable. For being a woman. For being Black. For being poor. And ultimately, for being from Pacífico, one of many disregarded regions in the country when it comes to poverty, violence, inequality, and institutional abandonment.

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THE YOUTH

It’s June 16, three days before election day in Colombia. In the town of Guapi, on the banks of a wide and brown river of the same name, with canoes and multicolored birds against a backdrop of dense jungle and a grayish sky, and we are dining with young people who belong to the local Afro Colombian majority (97% of 30,000 residents). They are members of Guapi’s Youth Platform, a group of Francia’s followers. Even as these territories without any roads and with slow and unstable internet connections seem far removed from any international forums, their knowledgeable and eloquent speech is impregnated with the most current global debates yet remain deeply rooted in the deadly problems of Pacífico.

The men in the group listen to Claudia Ximena Caicedo, 26 and Francisca “Pachita” Rentería, 27. They all share many grievances, like prejudices against their race and provenance, but the girls have gender to add and summarize it like this: “We are women, we are Black and we are from Pacífico: discriminated against three times.”

Hope and determination are also their common, magic ground, incarnated in one real person: Francia. And she and Petro are leading the polls, though by a 0.3% margin. Colombia feels on the edge of a democratic revolution or a violent involution. They are aware that the government of current president Iván Duque is detaining youth leaders in the big cities to prevent unrest, charging them with disproportionate crimes like murder and torture, and security forces are setting up plans to confront protests that could arise as a result of real or perceived electoral fraud. Many of the detainees are from Cali (the nearest metropolis, one hour away from Guapi by small airplane) and are known here for their participation in the national demonstrations of May 2021, which challenged the government’s economic policies and left more than 70 dead, most of them at the hands of state forces. Many more disappeared.

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The people of Guapi demand roads, support programs and opportunities to sell their agricultural products in bigger markets. But most of all, they crave peace — peace they knew briefly between 2016 and 2018, when former president Juan Manuel Santos reached an agreement with the country’s most powerful guerrilla organization, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and its members, laid down their arms and returned to society. A peace the people of Guapi accuse Duque of having boycotted and broken. They say murder, kidnapping and extortion by criminal gangs, FARC dissidents and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN, the last remaining political army) are as high in the region as in the worst times.

“The simple fact that violence is reduced will be the chance for us to grow, to develop,” says Angela Morales, a member of Guapi’s Association of Community Councils, which regulates the common possession of land as mandated by Colombia’s 1991 Constitution. “War is theirs; they live off of it. Though at war, it’s not them who die. It’s us, our children, our brothers.”

SELF-RECOGNITION

The Pacífico region comprises four departamentos — Chocó, Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Nariño — on the Colombian coast. Among the poorest in the country, is forgotten by the state except by military officers and civil officials who profit from their alliances with armed drug-smuggling and racketing gangs that take advantage of the lack of roads and weak institutions.

The latter is so cruel a reality that in April, the chief of the army, general Eduardo Zapateiro, didn’t bother to counter claims made by Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. Otoniel, the boss of Clan del Golfo, the country’s largest criminal organization, that the clan used to pay military officers to facilitate their operations in this area. Instead, Zapateiro attacked candidate Gustavo Petro for his comments on this matter. “As soldiers are murdered by Clan del Golfo, some generals are on its payroll,” tweeted the leftist politician. “The cúpula (military elite) corrupts when the narcotraffickers’ petty politicians end up being the ones promoting the generals.”

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The abandonment and betrayal of Afro Colombians dates to the independence from Spain. In 1813, the libertador Simón Bolívar promised freedom to the slaves who joined his army but when the time came, the white, land-owning revolutionaries created new legal norms to mask continued slavery until 1852. Both Black people and women — as well as the indigenous population — were denied the right to vote. “They never cared whether we did or didn’t participate in presidential elections because they never needed us to win,” said Alí Bantú Ashanti from #VotoPacífico, a group that promotes electoral participation, in Timbiquí, a beautiful river village an hour away from Guapi by fast boat.

Voting abstention in Pacífico often reaches 70%. This is largely the result of displacement (over the years, thousands of people have been expelled by violence but remain registered to vote here), rural dispersion (people living in hamlets 4 to 6 hours away), a lack of education, and the need to work every day or starve, said Eblin Dionisio Rodríguez, a Timbiquí coordinator of Francia’s “Soy porque somos” (I am because we are) movement, which vows “to eradicate policies of death, hunger, and commodification of rights.”

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These activists aim to mobilize their community. And for this, they count with the help of identity, with Márquez’s strong pull: “There is self-recognition with Francia. We don’t feel that we are going to attach ourselves to a solution, we feel that we are going to be part of our own solution,” said Wesner Alegría, a #VotoPacífico lawyer.

Or as Lali, a 20-year-old “ethnic influencer” (IG @Soy_Lalif), put it that evening in Guapi: “I see Francia and I see my mom. I see someone like us. It never happened to me with another politician, even if he was Black.”

If the young activists keep a sharp sense of Afro identity, it is because their elders worked tirelessly for that to happen.

Elder’s like Teófila Betancourt.

Francia’s “victory will be our victory,” says Betancourt, a pillar of Guapi women’s struggles. “For the very first time, we, the ‘nadies’ (Márquez hails who she calls nadies, the nobodys who have always been abused by the powerful) will be the winners”.

FINAL ROUND

So much confidence is obscured by the spectrum of cheating and violence. Each of the many leftist and liberal groups that took up arms in Colombia since the 1940s did so to protest electoral fraud or crime. Rightist organizations have waged war against peasants, students, and other activists. More human rights leaders have been killed in Colombia than anywhere else on the continent. Successive peace agreements have been undermined by the murders en masse of former fighters who had dropped their weapons.

Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) leads the opposition to any peace talks with leftist groups and current president Iván Duque — a Uribe protegé — tried to derail the active peace process with FARC and stopped negotiations with the only guerrilla left, ELN (which in turn helped Duque’s goal by setting off a bloody explosion in a police academy). Uribe is accused of complicity with the paramilitaries, illegal rightist armies responsible for hundreds of massacres and other crimes against civilians, and despite having reached their own demobilization agreement, in time became narco-trafficking organizations like Clan del Golfo. Before, FARC’s military activities — including many other massacres and systematic kidnapping — helped Uribe to portray any social discontent as terrorism, and leftist politicians as covers for violence. Some hoped that a stalling peace process and the killing of its demobilized members would push FARC back to war, but this didn’t happen. In 2019 and again in 2021, massive protests were met with brutal repression and Duque and Uribe called the protesters a threat to Colombia.

Women from Yolombó, Francia Márquez’s home community, celebrate her triumph. June 19, 2022. Photo by Ivan Castaneira for palabra

Women from Yolombó, Francia Márquez’s home community, celebrate her triumph. June 19, 2022. Photo by Ivan Castaneira for palabra

In the second round of presidential elections on June 19, those who couldn’t stand the idea of a leftist in power choose to rally instead around the unlikely surviving candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, a controversial businessman without any proposed government initiatives or political substance, who refuses to risk exposure to criticism in public meetings or debates but has successfully campaigned with Tik Tok videos on a single issue: anti-corruption — even though he is facing corruption charges.

Related story: Conflict Without End

Gustavo Petro was a political member of the M-19 guerrilla in the 1980s and assisted with its demobilization in 1990. He became mayor of the Colombian capital of Bogotá in 2012 but was ousted from that position in a controversial move that unwittingly catapulted him to the leader of the country’s progressives.

Now, in 2022, he warns of possible election fraud for the failure of the Registraduría (the institution in charge of elections) to audit the vote-counting software. Also, arrests and killings of activists and preparations to violently confront protests, create an atmosphere of concern and fear.

PACÍFICO VOTES

It’s election day. We’re in Suárez, a municipality in the north of Cauca known for its extensive coca plant cultivations (from which cocaine is made) and frequent bloody gang feuds. Two days earlier, a bomb in a motorcycle exploded right across from our hotel, wounding a police officer. This is where Francia Márquez is expected to vote.

Born and raised in Yolombó, a village 15 minutes away from Suárez by motorcycle, Márquez was a 16-year-old mother who worked as a house cleaner. She later got involved in the struggle against extractivism (an economy primarily based on the extraction of natural resources, with major human and natural consequences). She paid for her law studies at Universidad Santiago de Cali, won cases against multinational mining companies, and led the “marcha de los turbantes” (a 373-mile march from Suárez to Bogotá against illegal mining). Marquéz received death threats in connection to that activism and had to leave her hometown. She was accused of being a guerrilla member and survived an assassination attempt with grenades. She received awards like the Goldman Environmental Prize and decided to run for presidenta.

Why? She explained it on Twitter, in August 2020:

“I want to become Presidenta of this country.

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I want our people to feel free and dignified.

I want our peoples to be able to be from their cultural diversities.

That our territories be spaces of life.

That our children can go around without the fear to be murdered.”

During this campaign, the “racistómetro” (RacistMeter) of the Universidad de Los Andes recorded 791 racist attacks against Márquez in three categories: those who accused her of social resentment; those who diminish her intellectual capacity; and those who denied her humanhood. Her slogan “vivir sabroso,” calling for a “rich life” for everyone, has been misportrayed as demanding government money for Black people characterized as lazy. But it’s a philosophy of Pacífico: “For the Black people, in its guts, in our ethnic and cultural identity, it regards living without fear, with dignity, with guaranteed rights,” she explained.

Her supporters go far beyond the people of her region. They include Afro Colombians from the country’s Caribbean coast, big cities, and other regions; groups of different indigenous peoples; communities threatened by megaprojects; environmental and social leaders; part of the traditional left, grouped in the Polo Democrático Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Pole) and even former FARC guerrillas who demobilized in 2016 to create the Partido Comunes (Commons Party).

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The voting begins nationwide at 8 a.m. Outside a public sports arena turned into a voting center, Olga Lucía Pechemé, a member of the local community council, rejoices at the sight of long queues. “We did a careful house-to-house political pedagogy,” she explains. In this district, “only 8,000 people came out to vote” in the first round of the presidential elections, she adds. “Now we need at least 10,000”.

In Mexico, where we come from, polling stations are small but many, reaching the farthest towns. In Colombia, voting centers like this one have about 21 voting tables. Poor people who live far away must walk many hours to vote. “We’ve undertaken a massive effort to help them come,” insists Pechemé.

Just past 11 a.m., Francia Márquez appears, protected by a few police officers and civilian colleagues. In a country where many presidential candidates have been murdered, you would expect tight security. There’s little of that. The sides of the arena don’t even have walls and anyone can bring in anything. People surround their smiling leader — her Afro-style hair tied up, golden earrings, an African-inspired orange and blue overshirt — and stop her for selfies and hugs. Olga Lucía approaches her as an old friend. The candidate seems happy but overwhelmed.

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Hours after Márquez leaves, Pechemé and her colleagues’ efforts pay off handsomely. At 4 p.m., polls close and the first figure emerges: 12,000 people voted in Suárez. It’s an impressive 50% increase from the first round. At 4:25 p.m., it’s announced that Francia and Petro have defeated their rivals 3 to 1 in this center. The results in Guapi are stunning: a 96% vote for the leftist candidates. In Timbiquí, it’s 99%.

The Registraduría is already announcing early national figures. Trends favor Gustavo and Márquez. By 5 p.m., 90% of the votes cast in the country have been counted and they’ve won by more than three points.

FRANCIA’S STRENGTH

Minutes after their triumph was announced, Márquez tweeted: “This goes for our grandmothers and grandfathers, the women, the youth, the LGTBIQ+ persons, the indigenous people, the peasants, the workers, the victims, my Black people, those who resisted and those who are no longer there… For the whole of Colombia. Today we start writing a new history!”

Yet, what influence can she actually have in the new government? Historically, Colombian vice presidents owe their positions to the president and wield little power. And Petro’s party won’t have a congressional majority of its own and needs support from the center and moderate right. And Márquez is to his left.

Yet Francistas, as Márquez’s followers are informally called by some, are optimistic. Luis Alberto Albán, a former FARC diplomat and negotiator, and now a Commons Party’s vice president of the House of Representatives, explains that from a Ministerio de la Igualdad (ministry of equality), which will be created for Márquez and her projects for women and minorities, and other cabinet positions her followers would occupy, they will intervene in policy.

León Valencia, a political scientist who runs the nonprofit Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (Peace and Reconciliation Foundation), calculates that out of 64 senators (including 37 center-right allies) supporting the new government in a 108-member chamber, 15 belong to Francia’s original base.

More importantly, numbers show that Francia’s pull was key for victory. Statisticians found that from the first and the second round of presidential elections, Petro’s votes grew mainly in Caribe (+698k), Pacífico (+586k) and Bogotá (+484k), regions where she has strong support.

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If you take into account only Pacífico, the winning pair defeated their rivals by a difference of 1,700,000 votes. At the national level, the margin was only 700,000 votes.

Valencia predicts that Francia Márquez “won’t be inconsequential” in Petro’s government. “First, because of her character,” he says. “Second, because of the way she reached her position. She will play an important role and surely will generate controversy, (though) this won’t be a harmonic, idyllic relationship because the lady has a strong personality.”

SOMOS PACÍFICO

In a lookout in the hills just a couple hundred meters above Francia’s Yolombó village, her younger relatives and neighbors celebrate their victory. “How can this be if us Black people never win in politics?” says 17-year-old Asunción, grasping reality as if it was magic. “Much less Black women!”

For the first time in this 200-year-old republic, people in Pacífico matter in national elections. Even more, they are sure they made the difference. “Petro knows that, without Francia, he wouldn’t have won,” says Olga Lucía Pechemé.

A song by the tropical hip hop band ChocQuibTown can be heard loudly now:

“Somos Pacífico, estamos unidos (We are Pacífico, we are united),

nos une la región (what unites us is the region),

la pinta, la raza y el don del sabor (the looks, the race and the gift of flavor).”

Black people dancing in campaign t-shirts and holding banners are blocking the mountain road that leads to the lookout. At other times, they would be pushed away by the military patrol, part of an Army that recently admitted responsibility for terrible crimes. The soldiers are white and Brown mestizos, just as every police officer we have seen. Colombian security doesn’t seem to welcome Black people. Behind them, half a hundred bikers approach to join the celebration. Massive honking drowns out the music. People known and unknown to each other share intense hugs. The Cauca river basin’s green hills form an awesome background for this joy. Many are girls in their early teens. What do they know of the worst years of violence?

It’s a centuries-old story that goes back to the days when white men attended elegant parties and pretended to be religious and respectable and at the same time kidnapped, transported and enslaved the ancestors of those who now celebrate.

These young women are not thinking about centuries-old exclusion today, though. Their word of the day is inclusion. All they know now is hope. And in a display of true magic realism, with lungs of panthers they cry out with the forbidden aspiration of a Black woman ruling Colombia: “Francia presidenta! Francia presidenta!”