Can the Left Triumph in Colombia, Latin America’s Country with the Harshest Oligarchy?
Vijay Prashad and Taroa Zúñiga Silva
ON June 19, 2022, the people of Colombia will vote in a second round to elect their president and vice president. In the first round on May 29, the candidates of the Left – Gustavo Petro (president) and Francia Márquez (vice president) of the Pacto Histórico (Historical Pact) – led the way. Coming second was Rodolfo Hernández, a millionaire former mayor of Bucaramanga, and his running mate Marelen Castillo, both of the League of Anti-Corruption Governors. The parties that have thus far dominated Colombian elections since the 19th century were set aside, although Hernández-Castillo will carry the torch for the right into the second round. Petro-Márquez are holding a slim lead in the opinion polls, although it is impossible to forecast the result.
Everyone presumed that Petro would face Federico Gutiérrez – the former mayor of Medellín – in the second round. Gutiérrez, the candidate of the right, was the heir to the political project of the current president Ivan Duque and his leader, the previous president Álvaro Uribe. Gutiérrez won 23.94 per cent of the votes, while Hernández got 28.17 per cent and so earned the berth of the right. While Gutiérrez has the classic biography and political pedigree of Uribe’s traditional right-wing, the new figure of the right is Hernández who represents a clownish, crazy hard-right-wing (like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hernández is known as Latin America’s Trump). In 2016, Hernández said, ‘I’m an admirer of a great German thinker. His name is Adolf Hitler’. Even though Hernández leads an anti-corruption platform, he is himself being investigated in Bucaramanga for corrupt practices. Hernández is far from traditional Uribismo – the political platform of Duque and Uribe; nonetheless, the base of the traditional right will never vote for Petro and will – holding their noses – vote for Hernández.
For Petro-Márquez to win, they will have to mobilise voters who never vote, disenfranchised and downcast parts of Colombia’s public that has been excluded from property and power.
VIOLENCE OF THE COLOMBIAN ELITE
In 2021, the World Bank published an important study on Colombia’s economy (Building an Equitable Society in Colombia). The Bank noted that ‘the country has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, the second highest among 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the highest among all OECD countries’ (that is, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). The reason Colombia remains in the OECD and is feted by the United States is that the ruling class of the country has put itself at the disposal of the United States government since 1921 (when the United States paid Colombia for its 1903 loss of Panama to build the canal). In recent years, Colombia has been a major US ally in its hybrid war against Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and any other country that dares to exercise its sovereignty against US intervention. The Colombian elite has been forgiven for the high rates of inequality, for its intimate ties to the narcotics industry, and for the great crimes of violence that it has inflicted upon the Colombian people.
The viciousness of the elite has been on display since at least La Violencia (The Violence), which – from 1948 to 1958 – defined the suffocation of liberalism and the triumph of the violent oligarchy. It was this harsh reaction by the State that convulsed the country since 1964 into a long-running armed conflict between the forces of the Left and a coalition of the elite, the narco-traffickers with their paramilitaries, and the State apparatus. The death toll from this war is said to be well over 250,000, with moments of peace broken largely by paramilitary violence (as in 1990-91, when the Left came above ground but saw its presidential candidates assassinated). The Left, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), held significant terrain in the interior of the country during this civil war.
In 2016, the Colombian State accepted a peace accord with the Left in what appeared to be a historical denouement of the civil war. The accords – brokered in Havana (Cuba) – provided a way forward, although it did not fully provide an avenue for the crimes of the past to be completely revealed. Nonetheless, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) has opened the lid on many of the crimes, its revelations continuing to shock people. In April 2022, for instance, the JEP heard from Colombian military officers who told the tribunal about the ‘falsos positivos’ (false positives) scandal: between 2002 and 2008, the military recruited poor peasants, dressed them as Left-wing guerrillas (mostly of the FARC) and shot them – 6,402 of them – to inflate the numbers of the FARC. During this period, the US funded the government of Andrés Pastrana and then Uribe through Plan Colombia, to the tune of over $5 billion (and gave the Colombian government a clean chit on its human rights record). Carmenza Gómez, whose son Victor (age 23) disappeared through this project in 2008, told the JEP, ‘I am not here to speak only for my son. I am here to speak for thousands of victims who are not here today. But our voice is their voice because they cannot speak, because they are afraid, because they are threatened’. Such courage paves the path for those who voted for Petro-Márquez in the first round and will need to vote for them in the second.
THE HISTORIC PACT
In 2019, a cycle of protests broke out in Colombia around two main issues. First, a large section of the public was dismayed and angry by the government’s failure to properly honour the Peace Accords and by the punctual assassinations of social movement leaders. This continuation of the violence came alongside Duque’s use of Colombia as a base for the US policy of destabilisation of Venezuela, a policy that is not universally supported in Colombia. Second, the unions and the excluded population took to the streets to protest the austerity budget of Duque. They held a series of National Strikes, which convulsed the country and forced Duque to back off from some of his policies. Duque’s terrible response to the Covid-19 pandemic increased the number of people who are living in poverty (42.5 per cent of the population, up from 34.7 per cent in 2018).
Most of the forces that took to the streets from 2019 converged into the electoral instrument called the Historic Pact. These include Petro’s Humane Colombia, the forces of the social movements (Congreso de los Pueblos), the parties of the Left (the Communist Party and FARC’s new political instrument, Comunes), and the social democrats (Alternative Democratic Pole). Whereas these segments of the Historic Pact have their own assessment of the political situation and their own bases, for election purposes they come together to try and drag their country away from its wretched history of inequality and violence. There is a long-established tradition in Latin American politics for such electoral blocs, a tradition that emerges out of the structure of first-past-the-post/two-round system presidential elections. Even the forces of the centre-right and the hard-right coalesce into a bloc, although this time Hernández defeated that bloc to take their place in the second round. There is nothing similar between the Historic Pact and, for instance, the European election platforms of the centre-left (Syriza and Podemos). Firstly, the Historic Pact is an alliance of the centre-left and the left, and secondly, the Historic Pact is merely a pragmatic electoral alliance for the presidential election and not a programmatic unity in which the independent political trajectories of its constituents are dissolved.
Petro emerges from the tradition of guerrilla warfare (having been a part of the M-19 movement, for which he spent time in prison). However, he is now a much more moderate politician, although in the Colombian context he does not appear moderate. Petro promises to raise taxes to bridge the gaps of inequality as well as to cease oil exploration as well as cut coal production (oil and coal are Colombia’s two top exports besides the cocaine trade – the ‘three venoms’, Petro calls them). Petro, like Chile’s president Gabriel Boric, will not directly confront US imperialism, but his government will not be Washington’s doormat in South America. That itself will be an advance.
Petro and Márquez seek to galvanise millions of Colombians to come to the polls and elect the first Left-wing government for the country. If they win in June and if Lula wins in Brazil in October, a new period will open for Latin America.