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The new left in Colombia: A hard promise to keep

Colombia has a new president. Gustavo Petro, a 62-year-old ex-guerrilla combatant, ex-mayor of Bogotá, ex-senator and now, even to his great surprise, ex-opposition. This is a historic election. He is the country’s first leftist president, and his vice-president, Francia Márquez, is the first black woman to hold the second-highest position in the executive branch. Petro competed against Rodolfo Hernández, a populist candidate that has been labelled as a political conundrum. Petro is the first president not born in Medellín or Bogotá, the two biggest cities, in over 30 years. He seeks to bring together marginalized communities into his “Historic Pact” and to work towards what he calls a real and profound change in an unfair society.


In his inaugural speech, as well as his speech in front of the United Nations General Assembly, he made deep allusions to the different colours that cover the skin of the Colombian people and the green of the jungles of the country. He has promised, to the criticism of many, to move Colombia’s economy away from fossil fuel extraction and to include marginalized communities in his new cabinet. It is a radical change in the highest echelon of power for the 5th biggest economy in Latin America and many doubt Petro’s capacity to exert the promises of change in a country that has for the first time in history ventured into the left.

Gustavo Petro, President and Francia Márquez, Vice President at the Presidential Inauguration. Source: CSA-CSI.

The election of Gustavo Petro has been a story years in the making. It was not only Petro’s success but significantly the opposition’s mistakes –both his direct opponent to the right-wing parties– that got him into the Palacio de Nariño. In the early 2000s, Colombia was a very different country than it is today. In 2002, the two most prominent guerrilla groups, the FARC and ELN, reached their most dominant point in the country and counted around 22,000 members. These camouflaged, terrorist and narcotrafficking groups took territorial control of rural Colombia from the government. They trapped cities within city limits and kidnapped thousands. In 2002 alone, they kidnapped over 3000 people and held them for ransom. That same year they even kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate for the upcoming elections, and held her captive for six years. These guerrilla groups, captivated by the rise of Marxism in Cuba, came to be in the 1960s in opposition to an impermeably traditional government that claimed to be a liberal democracy with the condition that the same parties held power. Their inability to participate in politics was their excuse to take up arms and seize power themselves. Yet, by the 2000s, the groups had abandoned their political rhetoric to favour the profitability of illegal activities. They enraged the country with their continued and relentless damage to the country. Rural Colombia felt so impotent that paramilitary groups took arms for themselves to fight the guerrillas, which resulted in even less territorial control by the state and created a whole new problem.


The scene was set for Álvaro Uribe, a conservative politician from Medellín, to run for president with a key campaign element: security. He called it democratic security, referencing that to be a real democracy, the democratic entity (the state) must be in control of the territory. And, without traditional political parties backing him, he made history by becoming the first-ever president to win the elections without a run-off with 53% of the vote in the 2002 elections—a landslide. Uribe delivered his promises, waging war for security in the forgotten parts of Colombia and reclaiming thousands of hectares previously occupied by the militant groups. His successful campaign in the field brought economic prosperity to the urban centres, and under his government, Colombia’s economy grew an average of just above 4% per year. Not an economic miracle, but not bad for a country whose economy had been suffering from stagflation years before. He was an extremely popular president, as Colombians could feel the positive consequences of his hard-hand policies: returning to the field, marginalized towns without fear, and being able to travel by car without consequences. He finished his second term with 80% favourability.


His popularity allowed him to hand-pick the person that would replace him after the constitutional court blocked his bid to change the constitution to allow him to stay in the Casa de Nariño for yet another term. He chose Juan Manuel Santos, his defence minister, who had been the mastermind behind many significant operations, to eliminate heads of militant groups in the country. Santos continued Uribe’s “Democratic Safety” rhetoric during his campaign, which earned him almost 70% of the votes in the run-off of the 2010 election. Yet, despite being a cornerstone of his path to being elected, Uribe would soon become Santos’ most considerable opposition. After taking the oath to office, Santos proved that he would execute the role under his criteria and expand Colombia’s plan on what was needed to bring peace to the country. This included reparations for the war, which laid the first groundwork for what eventually would become the Peace Treaty with the FARC, the most prominent rebel group in the country.


Álvaro Uribe (as President) and Juan Manuel Santos (as Defense Minister) in 2008. Source: El Espectador

Their relationship deteriorated, and by the second year of Santos’ government, Uribe proved to be a constant and radical opposition. The continuous quarrel between the two presidents started to split a once-united Colombia. This reached its peak in the 2016 referendum invoked by President Santos to end the discussion of if Colombians wanted a peace treaty with the FARC. Santos was confident that he would win and that the democratic victory would give the negotiations the necessary breathing space to finalize the treaty. Yet, vigorous campaigning from Uribe’s party challenged him and, in a huge surprise, led the “no” to win the referendum. Despite this, Santos merely invoked brief negotiations with the opposition about the current state of the treaty. And after minor revisions with the FARC, the accord was signed shortly after. A move that infuriated and divided the country even more as now the pact was seen as a manifestation of Santos’ blind eye to democracy and the wish of the Colombian people.


While Santos left office with a wish to retire from politics, Uribe still pursued to influence the ballots of Colombians in the upcoming 2018 elections. Uribe chose a young, charismatic senator, Ivan Duque, to run. A bifurcated Colombia then faced a new round of elections with growing opposition to both Santos’ government and the dwindling discourse presented by Uribe. It came from Petro, who led a leftist movement that wanted to take Colombia towards new horizons. It was the second time that Petro had run for president. But it seemed that his speech had started connecting with more Colombian hearts, as they had grown frustrated with an elitist, self-perpetuating, and traditional political sphere. To achieve office, Petro would not only have to combat the conventional politics of the two previous presidents and institutional parties; he would also have to best a growing movement in the centre of the political spectrum led by Sergio Fajardo, another popular ex-mayor of Medellín who purveyed a widely appealing and moderate discourse that challenged traditional politics. In the results, Petro’s strong rhetoric barely beat Fajardo, and, for the first time, a leftist candidate went to the run-off to compete with the right’s candidate. Yet, Uribe’s blessing again proved enough, and Duque was elected with a substantial majority.


Duque’s government was, despite his best intentions, trumped by a frustrated society. The biggest organized social protests in the country’s history exploded in 2019 due to a proposed tax reform that would benefit the elites and would place new taxes on basic food items. The consequent demonstrations would not cease until Duque left office. The assassination of young protesters by the ESMAD, the Colombian riot police, further riled the crowd which found a voice in government behind Petro. As the elections neared, Duque’s government was seen as an irrelevant force that had merely guided Colombia semi-successfully through the pandemic but that failed to address widespread frustration. During this term, Uribe faced legal troubles and had lost potency as a political force and proved to be more of a burden than a blessing for the candidates he endorsed. Those on the right tried to capture his electoral base without mentioning him by name. Petro, on the other hand, had become the most likely candidate thanks to both his continuous presence in the opposition, and because of what now seemed a disorganized and outdated political elite that could not even capture ballots.


Protests in Bogotá 2019. Source AFP (found in Wikipedia)

So come the 7th of August 2022 and it was Mr Petro who was standing in Plaza Bolivar. He delivered a speech that focused on social injustice, environmental protection, and a radical change in the form Colombia will combat the drug trade. But the road merely starts here. Colombia had survived a previous surge of leftist governments in Latin America and has proven resistant to radical promises of structural change. Now, where the seven most populous countries in the region have elected leftist governments, Colombia has finally budged. Yet, this does not mean that the country is assured to implement the changes that Mr Petro ran on. In his campaign, many previous important and traditional people played a key role in moving the electoral bases in rural Colombian towns. Towns that are barely accessible and that traditional parties have gained control of through intense campaigning where others were unwilling to. So to say that Petro was elected only through his “enlightened” ideas and kind of ominous charisma would be to ignore the amount of machinery that is needed to move masses in an unreachable country.


He has integrated his vision of renovation with his campaigning with traditional politics in his cabinet, including political figures that Colombians have known since the 1980s, like his Minister of Finance and Minister of External Relations. Strikingly, he has included a past member of the Colombian communist party for the first time as Minister of Work. It is also a cabinet that combines races and sexes like none other in the country’s history. But the clashing of so many different sectors to make a single government might also prove a challenge to balance.


Thousands of Colombians are hopeful for change. For many, Gustavo Petro’s election is a paradigm shift in a conservative country that has kept traditional politics in power. Yet, the road is not as simple as it may seem, and Petro’s election and the promise of long-term change might relate to the temporary weakness of the right. But still, these right-wing, traditional parties are those that hold the deepest pockets and alliances with the most vital economic groups in the country. It is an uphill climb for Mr Petro, and that, if it fails, may well be the first and only leftist government in the history of Colombia.

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