The presidential candidate Gustavo Petro who was victorious on June 19, 2022 is noted for his prior membership in the M-19 guerrilla organization for which he was jailed as a young man. This may obscure the fact that Petro is a skilled career politician of the Left who has been mayor of Bogotá, a senator, and three time candidate for the presidency of Colombia. To be successful politically in Colombia it is necessary to understand the limitations of a rigid system where for the past century, political power is traded back and forth between the hard-Right and the center-Right. Indeed Colombian commentator Mariela Kohon notes the ‘center’ is the Right in Colombia. Under the prevailing national-security mindset a Left presence has never been allowed on the national stage, according to Kohon. Petro’s Left coalition made gains during the March parliamentary elections yet it remains a minority in the Colombian Senate and Chamber of Representatives.
Gustavo Petro’s major achievement in the presidential election was to assemble a broad political coalition under the name of the Historic Pact (Pacto Histórico) which brought together 22 parties of the Left and center-Left to contest the 2022 election. In the first round of voting on May 29 the Historic Pact emerged as leader with 40% of the vote, followed by populist maverick Rodolfo Hernández and his Anti-Corruption League at 28%. The center-Right coalition under Federico Gutiérrez, favored by the Colombian establishment and the U.S. business community, was eliminated from the second round gaining only 24% of the vote. This was the first time in 70 years that a Left candidate led first round voting. Or indeed, survived to run in the second round. Since 1980 four left-leaning presidential candidates have been murdered in Colombia. In fact an attempt to assassinate Petro was foiled in Manizales prior to the May election.
The second round was the Right’s to lose yet it escaped from their hands. Far-Right Hernández and center-Right Gutiérrez together had 52% of first round votes with the possibility of additional votes from the 6% share of the Centro Esperanza coalition. Nevertheless, on June 19 the Pacto Histórico of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez emerged victorious with 50.4% of the vote to Hernández’s 47.3%. Commentary by Colombian analysts shows that Hernández’ calculated image as an anti-elite outsider came unraveled between the first and second rounds. Hernández, the provincial political boss and self-financed ‘TikTok king’ who refused to participate in candidate debates while running on an anti-corruption platform, was revealed to be under investigation for corruption himself and was seen to make a hurried trip to Miami to confer with oligarchic political figures residing there. To Colombians desperate for change, Hernández was revealed to be a continuation of the old system in populist guise, while the Petro-Márquez ticket was consistent in proposing the changes needed by the country. (Alborada Online, webinar, June 21/22, Jacobin América Latina, webinar, June 19/22)
Francia Márquez, Black Feminist and Environmental Activist Survives Death Threats and Attempted Assassination: Is Now Vice-President of Colombia
Francia Márquez is 40 years old, a law student, and single mother of two. She has been an activist since the age of 13 when the construction of a dam threatened her community. Francia’s active opposition to the toxic devastation of illegal gold-miners resulted in an attempted assassination which she narrowly escaped. Both Francia and Gustavo Petro continue to receive credible death threats.
Francia has proven to be an effective politician in her own right. In the Historic Pact’s internal elections she placed second after Gustavo Petro garnering 785,200 votes to become the coalition’s vice-presidential candidate. This was 3.5 times the votes of the next contender.
When asked by reporters if she would be a figurehead vice-president (vicepresidenta de adorno) Francia replied, “I am not a woman given to ornamentation. You know me. I am a woman of struggle, of dignity, of justice. I am a woman who is betting on peace for this country. I have risked my life. My life has been put at risk for our social struggle. Therefore the vice-president for us is not just a woman who happens to be sitting there on a stage.” (Interview with W Radio Colombia, March 23/22)
Francia’s leadership and presence is impacting the country, helping to bridge the rural-urban divide and elevating the role of working class women in Colombia, especially women of color. The selection of Francia Márquez as running mate for Gustavo Petro changes the narrative in Colombia where for over two hundred years politics has been dominated by wealthy white men.
“I’m so proud that Francia is here, representing us, because I’m proud to be a Black woman,” said Beatriz Cocino. “Today it’s Francia, but tomorrow it could be any of us.” “I hope that one day I can be like her,” said Gabriela Castillo, a teenage student, “Everything she has achieved has been through effort, tears and truth.” Mariela Carabali, 62, was similarly effusive. “Francia came from below and she will keep climbing.” (The Guardian, May 25/22)
Moreover, Colombia’s election of a Black working class woman to be vice-president of the third largest country in Latin America is shaking the continent. It is a blow to racism and misogyny from South to North America. (AlJazeera, June 20/22 & June 21/22)
The following sections provide background to the electoral victory of Petro and Márquez on June 19. The victory did not take place in a vacuum. It was preceded by mounting popular mobilizations in response to a series of national crises.
For the 52% of the population who are women, my candidacy is a demonstration that if there is to be politics in this country, it will be with women. Politics will be with the youth of Colombia or it will not happen. Politics will be with racialized communities, Afro-Colombians, our Indigenous peoples, with campesinos or it will not be politics. In our candidacy we are betting on peace, on social justice, on dignity. We are betting that the nobodies of this country will come to have rights. -- Francia Marquez, first Black woman to be elected Vice President of Colombia
Death by Design: The Systemic Use of Necropolitics* in Colombia
In 2016 the government of Colombia signed a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ending five decades of armed conflict in which 260,000 people were killed and 7 million people were driven from their homes. The Colombian army along with right-wing paramilitary groups were major contributors to this shocking loss of life. In fact the country was rocked by a “false positives” scandal which revealed that thousands of non-combatant civilians had been murdered by the army to boost statistics in their war with rebels. (The Guardian, Nov 19/20 & Feb 19/21)
The 2016 peace accord did not end murderous violence directed at Colombian activists, journalists, or former rebels. In 2021 the organization Front Line Defenders reported that 358 human rights and environmental activists had been murdered worldwide. 138 of these deaths came from Colombia alone. Journalist Andrea Aldana notes the murder of more than 200 Colombian journalists due to their reporting on sensitive topics. Candidate Gustavo Petro is a strong supporter of the 2016 peace accord but the current Right-wing president Iván Duque ran as a declared “skeptic” of the peace accord. This widely shared and normalized ‘scepticism’ among the Right means that in their eyes the conflict continues. In such an environment hundreds of former guerrillas re-entering society under the terms of the 2016 peace accord have been murdered by unacknowledged assailants. (The Guardian, Aug 2/21 & March 2/22, Jacobin América Latina, webinar, June 19/22)
*For reference the Colombian analysts Luciana Cadahia and Andrea Aldana each employ the term ‘necropolitics’ when referring to the Uribe-Duque regime. Moreover, Cadahia uses the word ‘extermination’ (exterminio) when talking of cultural, socio-economic, physical, and symbolic repression in Colombia. (Jacobin América Latina, webinar, June 19/22)
Living With The Constant Threat of Violence and Death: People Struggle to Breathe
The onset of the COVID pandemic brought a number of issues to a crisis in Colombia. Public lockdowns were brutally enforced by a militarized police force. Working people, the majority of whom work in the informal sector, were cut off from employment and from food supplies. In the face of declining access to health care, food, and shelter, the poverty level in Colombia rose to 42.5%. With a national population of 50.3 million this represents more than 21 million people. (Wikipedia- Protestas en Colombia de 2021)
Under such conditions the social reproduction of the working poor comes under existential threat. Regarding the forced lockdowns, “We’re sick of them killing us with impunity, of demanding bribes when we walk down the street, of acting like they own us.” A 66 year old whose home was destroyed by police clearing ‘illegal settlements’ said, “We were cast aside, waiting for a solution that won’t come.” Another comment, “People are sick of the fact that if COVID-19 doesn’t kill them, the government will.” (The Guardian, June 2/20 & Sept 11/20)
Mass Protests and National Strike (Paro Nacional) 2019-2021: The Will to Fight For Your Life
In the face of severe COVID hardships, the neoliberal government of Iván Duque thoughtlessly introduced a regressive tax aimed at collecting an additional $6.3 billion USD from middle and working class Colombians by taxing basic necessities such as water, electricity, natural gas, telephones…even funeral services.
This led to national street protests of 80,000 to 200,000 in the provincial cities and 1,500,000 in the capital. The brutal reaction of the militarized police inflamed the protests.
Given the Colombian Right’s national-security mindset, the police view any public protest as a subversive attack and use lethal counterinsurgency tactics to suppress it. Civilian casualties are high.
The toll for 2020 was 86 dead, 548 disappeared, 7,992 cases of assault, 30 cases of sexual violence, numerous arrests and injuries, including loss of sight due to rubber bullets. Formal complaints were made to the human rights agencies of the UN, the OAS, and Amnesty International. (Wikipedia- Protestas en Colombia de 2019-2020 y de 2021, The Guardian Feb 25/21)
For its part the Right-wing Duque government smeared protesters as “vandals” and “terrorists”, claims which are echoed by Right-wing US politicians such as Senator Marco Rubio. (The Guardian, May 10/21)
Nevertheless, the will to fight back is high and unwavering, particularly among Colombia’s youth.
Every time we protest, the police draw their weapons,” said Alejandro, a student protester in Bogotá. “We won’t be cowed by their violence.” “They may have guns but they can’t kill us all,” said Gabriela, one of a group of students who set up a roadblock in downtown Bogotá. “Colombia needs change and we’ll be on the streets until we get it. (The Guardian May 3/21)
Journalist Andrea Aldana emotionally described the action of youthful resisters in Cali which was a site of fierce confrontation. As the death toll passed a dozen, youth aged 16 to 20 kept throwing themselves into the breach. “We are children of war,” said Carlos, a frontline protester, as he picked up a shield cut out of an oil drum. “We’re ready to fight.” ”The police or their hitmen will attack and we’ll push them back,” said Andrés, between updates on his walkie-talkie “We’re ready.” (The Guardian, May 10/21, Jacobin América Latina, webinar, June 19/22)
In closing see this reflection by Yina Reyes a 39 year old nurse from Cali after a night of skirmishes outside her home. “The working classes are the engine of Colombia…If they kill us all they won’t have anything for themselves.” (The Guardian, May 7/21)
Response to June 19 Election and Next Steps: Inside Colombia
It is remarkable that on election night June 19, 2022 when Petro & Márquez emerged victorious, three key Right-wing figures each publicly endorsed the election results without question or hesitation. They were Right-wing populist contender Rodolfo Hernández, current Right-wing president Iván Duque, and former Right-wing president and political boss Álvaro Uribe.
Colombian commentator Andrei Gómez-Suarez feels this is a credit to Petro’s carefully managed moderation in not provoking the Right. However, the Colombian journalist Andrea Aldana and academic Sebastian Ronderos feel this is the calm before the storm. Petro and Marquéz won the executive branch but have a minority in both houses of Congress. It will be difficult for Petro to advance his progressive program. The popular forces supporting Petro & Márquez will have to remain mobilized to press their demands. For this reason, the Right may have decided an aggressive rejection of the results on election night could have provoked a full scale insurrection at a time when the popular forces were in a state of mobilization. From the Right’s point of view it may be better to take the medium term to undercut Petro & Márquez. This means waiting for the popular forces to disperse so the Right can move to destabilize the Petro regime in stages.
Aldana and Ronderos feel the Left must get ready for outbursts of the Right-wing violence endemic and uninterrupted in Colombia for over sixty years. It has not gone away. In fact the Right is now fighting for its life as it sees its future being eclipsed.
On the other hand, the Left in Colombia is advancing strongly through the social movements. In discussion, webinar participants Andrea Aldana, Luciana Cadahia, and Sebastian Ronderos, repeatedly used the words unstoppable (imparable), unprecedented (inédito), and irresistible (irresistible) to describe the social advances even though the webinar was recorded four days before the final election took place. Similar perspectives from other Colombian commentators are seen in recent articles. See Santiago Pulido, “Colombia at a Fork in the Road”, Leonardo Frieiro, “There Is No Going Back in Colombia”, and Luciana Cadahia & Tamara Ospina Posse, “Colombia Is Not A Right-Wing Country”. These articles are listed in detail at the end of this paper.
In discussion Andrea Aldana spoke forcefully about how the Colombian people continue in their resistance, persevering in the face of violence, hunger, even death. She noted it is the militarist, oligarchic and traditionally reactionary Colombian Right that, in fact, continues to generate this resistance. For me this was an interesting observation. When Andrea spoke she brought to mind Raya Dunayevskaya’s dialectical description of the “new beginning” which holds that the positive is contained in the negative and there are no “new beginnings” without going through “the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative.” This means the future (the new beginning) is being built directly out of the ruins of sixty years of genocidal destruction. Given current events this is an encouraging perspective. (Alborada Online, webinar, June 21/22, Jacobin América Latina, webinar, June 19/22)
Response to June 19 Election and Next Steps: Regionally and Internationally
Hearty congratulations for Petro & Márquez arrived from Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, and Honduras as might be expected from the growing list of Left and progressive governments in the hemisphere. (AlJazeera, June 20/22)
It is noteworthy that U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols immediately sent congratulations to Petro & Marquéz without question or condition. Colombian commentator Andrei Gómez-Suarez feels that Petro & Marquéz’ focus on climate change may have given Joe Biden’s Democratic State Department an avenue for soft agreement with the new regime. (Alborada Online, webinar, June 21/22)
Given the strategic geopolitical importance of Colombia to the United States as the continental crossroads between North and South, Atlantic and Pacific, and given the close alliance between United States interests and the unshakable Colombian Right-wing oligarchy, can we not expect increasing tension between the U.S. government and the Petro-Márquez government? Perhaps the expected U.S. hostility will develop in parallel with the Colombian Right’s hostility as outlined above?
Petro’s commitment to normalize relations with Venezuela is a major step toward changing the geopolitics of the region. To bring neighboring Venezuela out of the isolation imposed by the region’s retreating Right-wing regimes could have major consequences for the area. Moreover, people are openly discussing Lula’s return to power in Brazil. The co-operation of a progressive Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia would have a major impact on the regional economy and on regional politics. It would bring a new day of hope to the region’s excluded countries, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
Reportedly the one country unhappy about Colombian developments is Brazil where president Jair Bolsonaro (already trailing Lula by 20 points) is reported to be “in despair” at the prospect of a socialist president and a Black woman vice-president in neighboring Colombia just four months ahead of his own presidential race. (Brasilwire, June 20/22)
Albuquerque, Hugo and Martin Mosquera, Andrea Aldana, Luciana Cadahia, Sebastian Ronderos. Todo lo que hay que saber de las elecciones en Colombia (Everything You Need To Know About the Colombian Elections), Jacobin América Latina & Jacobin Brasil, webinar, June 19, 2022 (recorded June 15, 2022).
Boothroyd, Rachael and Pablo Navarrete, Andrei Gómez-Suarez, Mariela Kohon. Colombia’s First Left-Wing Government, Alborada Online webinar, June 21, 2022.
Cadahia, Luciana and Tamara Ospina Posse. “Colombia no es un país de derecha” (“Colombia Is Not a Right-Wing Country”). Jacobin América Latina (May 28, 2022)
Cadahia, Luciana and Tamara Ospina Posse. “El movimiento feminista con el Pacto Histórico” (“The Feminist Movement Is With the Historic Pact”). Jacobin América Latina (June 6, 2022)
Frieiro, Leonardo. “Sin vuelta atrás en Colombia” (“There Is No Going Back in Colombia”). Jacobin América Latina (June 16, 2022)
Pulido, Santiago. “Colombia ante un punto de bifurcación” (“Colombia at a Fork in the Road”). Jacobin América Latina (June 19, 2022)
W Radio. “Cómo no llorar si represento a las mujeres negras”: Conmovedor discurso de Francia Márquez, fórmula vicepresidencial de Petro. (“Representing Black Women How Can I Not Cry”: Moving Speech by Francia Márquez, Petro’s vice-presidential running mate), interview by W Radio Colombia, wradio.com.co, March 23, 2022.
The Guardian, AlJazeera, Brasilwire, Wikipedia, CBS News, Washington Post.