March 20, 2022

Could Colombia Have a Left-Wing Government?

Vijay Prashad

ON March 13, 2022, Colombia’s Left-wing electoral coalition (Pacto Histórico por Colombia) held its primary election. The Pacto Histórico (or Historical Pact) is a coalition of twenty different political parties and formations from the far-Left, Comunes, to the centre-Left’s Todos Somos Colombia and the Communist Party of Colombia. It includes the Left formation Humane Colombia, led by Gustavo Petro, who won the primary with more than 80 per cent of the vote.

Petro, who began his political career as a guerrilla with the M-19 group in the 1980s, was the mayor of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá from 2012-2014 and has been a senator since 2018. Every inch of the Colombian Left has gathered around the Pacto Histórico, and most of those people have decided that Petro is the best candidate from the Left to go into the first round of the presidential election to be held on May 29, 2022. If Petro wins that election, he will form the first Left-wing government of South America’s northern most country.

Polls suggest that Petro and the Pacto Histórico would not have trouble in the at least five-person field to win more than 50 per cent in the very first round and avoid a run-off. The current president of Colombia – Ivan Duque – cannot contest the election, since a 2015 law restricts presidents to one four-year term. Duque’s party has put forward Óscar Zuluaga, a scion of a steel-making family who went into banking and then into politics; Zuluaga served in the presidential administration of Álvaro Uribe, one of the most notorious right-wing politicians. Scandals have plagued Zuluaga, including accusations that he is close to the right-wing paramilitary groups. He is far behind in the polls. Unless something dramatic happens, it is unlikely that Duque’s Democratic Centre party, with Zuluaga as the candidate, will be able to hold onto office. The other candidates in the race, most from the right (such as Federico Gutiérrez and Ingrid Betancourt), bounce around with less than 5 per cent of the vote each.

Alongside this presidential primary, the people of Colombia voted in a new parliament (both senate and chamber of representatives). In these elections, the Pacto Histórico made substantial gains, entering the senate and the chamber of representatives with as many seats as the Conservatives and the Liberals – the two parties that traditionally controlled Colombia; Duque’s Democratic Centre party faded away with losses in both chambers. The kind of people who entered the parliament on the Pacto Histórico ticket are emblematic of the politics of their bloc. There was Robert Daza Guevara of the peasant movement (Coordinador Nacional Agrario de Colombia) and Aida Quilcué of the indigenous movement (leader of the Movimiento Alternativo Indígena y Social). What policies they will be able to move is to be seen, since the parliament is fragmented, and they will not have the kind of majorities needed to advance a serious land reform and human dignity agenda.

If Petro wins the presidency, which seems likely as far as the polls are concerned, he has said that he would put forward some major changes for this country which has been afflicted by violence since 1948. The most important promises made by Petro have been that his government would push for agrarian reform, for the strengthening of labour rights, and for the advancement of equal rights for Colombia’s substantial black and indigenous populations. These three important moves would answer the questions raised by another former Bogotá mayor, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who was assassinated in 1948 during his run for the presidency.

The killing of Gaitán by Colombia’s rigid oligarchy set off a violent cycle, first the riots in the capital known as the Bogotazo, that lasted till the peace accords signed in Havana, Cuba in 2016 by the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC as the political formation Comunes is now a key part of Petro’s Pacto Histórico. Colombia’s elite, unwilling to yield any of its grip on land, labour, and dignity, killed Gaitán – a liberal – preferred to prosecute a nasty war in alliance with US imperialism and the narco-gangsters of Colombia. Petro’s agenda is not new, in other words, but has haunted Colombia for at least seven decades.

The protests of 1948 have repeated themselves in a cycle that seems to strike Colombia every once in a while. Last year, President Duque imposed policies that put the costs of the pandemic on the working-class and the peasantry and tried to suffocate any advancement of the Havana peace accords of 2016. Discontent led to street protests through April and May, which were repressed harshly by the government. The people on the streets demanded various things such as better schools and regular running water, the disbandment of the riot police (ESMAD), land reforms, the expansion of democratic possibilities, and equality for Colombia’s Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

Duque had to withdraw some of his policies, the street protests unrelenting and changing the dynamic of politics in the country. These 2021 protests followed a wave of struggle in 2019-2020 that started against Duque’s austerity politics and the refusal by the State to take the peace process seriously. In turn, the protests of 2019-2020 followed the major student uprising of 2018 that ran for months on end as the students and government remained deadlocked over austerity in the education sector and unemployment in society. And, going backwards, these protests have been linked to the great agrarian struggles in Colombia led by groups such as the Congreso de los pueblos in 2013, 2014, and 2016. Mass struggles brought together the working-class and peasantry as well as the Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups. They have produced the political constituency that has elected the Pacto Histórico delegates and they will go to the polls to vote for Petro. Thus far, Petro has not drifted away from this base, and it will be seen as the election campaign becomes more frenetic if he will be forced to make concessions against the radical agenda that is now on the table.


One of Petro’s more electric pledges is to shut down Colombia’s oil industry. Well over half of Colombia’s exports are from fossil fuels (57 per cent from petroleum alone); almost 92 per cent of Colombia’s coal – is exported, and since Colombia is the fifth largest producer of coal (31.5 million tonnes in 2021), this is a significant amount. Major Canadian and US companies dominate this sector. Whether Petro will be allowed to get away with this act, far more threatening to the energy multinationals than nationalisation alone, is to be seen.

Already, however, the United States has been making noises about the upcoming presidential election. In early February 2022, before the primary, the US state department sent undersecretary of state for political affairs Victoria Nuland to Bogotá for meetings of the US-Colombia High-Level Strategic Security Dialogue (the successor to Plan Colombia, the mechanism by which the US funded the Colombian government and paramilitary groups in its war against FARC and the Colombian Left). Nuland is famous for her role in the destabilisation of Ukraine in 2014, when she participated in the Euromaidan protests as a US government official and – by telephone – gave orders to the US ambassador in Kiev about who the next president of that country should be. In Bogotá, Nuland told the press, ‘We must safeguard (the elections) against outside actors interested in manipulating elections, as they have tried to do in other parts of the world’.

Nuland and the US government have weaponised the war in Ukraine to their benefit in Colombia, where they have joined the Colombian oligarchy in blaming the protests on Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. Diego Molano, the minister of defence, said that Venezuela’s army had received ‘support and technical assistance from Russia and Iran’. Nuland told BluRadio in Bogotá that the United States is ‘concerned that the Russians seem to be increasingly active in the border with Venezuela’. No need for any evidence for claims such as this, which are then inflamed in the Colombian media and used as a way to discredit the Colombian Left and Petro.

While in Colombia, Nuland provided $8 million to the national police for human rights training. In June 2021, Human Rights Watch noted the ‘egregious police abuses against protestors’. None of that was mentioned during her visit. Talk of the Venezuela-Colombian border allowed Nuland to amplify Colombian government talking-points about narco-trafficking inside Venezuela, when even US government reports show that more than 70 per cent of global cocaine comes from Colombia, with the high officials of the government deeply implicated in the trade and with the narco-trafficking paramilitary groups. These high officials and the Colombian oligarchy as well as the paramilitaries and the national police are treated by the US government as its bulwark in South America. These noises about ‘outside  actors’ threatening the Colombian presidential election is a smokescreen around the US government’s own attempt to ensure that either one of its preferred candidates win or that enough pressure is mounted on Petro to force him to break with his base and his promises.

On December 16, 2008, Edwin Legarda drove in a car assigned to his wife, Aida Quilcué. Gunmen opened fire as he drove along highway 26 between Páez and Popayán. Legarda died. Aida Quilcué had just returned from Geneva, Switzerland, where she had testified at the Universal Periodic Review of Colombia at the United Nations Human Rights Council about human rights violations against Colombia’s indigenous population. It turns out that Legarda was shot by members of the Colombian armed forces. The car had tinted windows. It has long been suggested that the actual target of the assassination was Aida Quilcué. On March 13, she won a seat to the Colombian senate. People like her define Colombia’s Left.