ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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From Resistance to Power

The Left Victory in Colombia

Against the backdrop of a long history of armed confl ict between the left guerrillas on the one hand and the state and right-wing paramilitary forces on the other, the repressive machinery of the Colombian state, the oligarchy and the fact of Colombia being the staunchest ally of the United States in the region, the electoral victory of the left represents a great shift in the Colombian political land scape and the political common sense of the Colombian people.

On 20 June 2022, a rainbow app­eared in the skies of the Colombian capital city of Bogota. Images of the rainbow towering over the Plaza de Bolívar, an important landmark in the city went viral among the supporters of the Colombian left. For them, it was symbolic of a major turning point in the history of the country and the hopes for the possibility of a new Colombia. The night before, left leader Gustavo Petro was elected as the first leftist president in the history of the country. The Colombian election result is a continuation of the tendency of the return of the pink tide in Latin America.

The first decade of the 21st century witnessed the rise of centre-left governments in different countries in Latin America posing a challenge to the United States (US) hegemony in the region. However, they lost power in many countries during the second decade of the century leading political pundits to assume that the pink tide had come to an end and that Latin American politics is turning to the right end of the political spectrum.

The left is making a comeback in the region and despite differences in their political orientations, governments that can be broadly classified as left are in power in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. With the victory of Petro in Colombia and the expected return of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to power in Brazil in elections scheduled for October 2022, the region is changing political colours once again.

Nevertheless, the victory of progressive forces in Colombia stands out as a great triumph for the Latin American left for multiple reasons. Colombia is a country that never had a left government. The country has a long history of armed conflict between left guerrillas on the one hand, and the state and right-wing paramilitary forces on the other. Though all the parties to the conflict have been responsible for violence and human rights abuses, the political establishment and the media selectively magnified the excesses committed by the guerrillas due to which the left has been highly stigmatised in Colombia. Moreover, though other Latin American countries elected right-wing presidents in the past, in no other country did right-wing populism (represented in Colombia by the ideological current of Uribismo named after the ex-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez) enjoy durable popular support. Colombia has also been the staunchest ally of the US in the region.

The Colombian state and the oligarchy that controls it also have a very effective repressive machinery rooted in counterinsurgency operations against the guerrillas. The national and regional elites regularly utilise paramilitary forces to displace rural indigenous, Afrodescendant, and peasant communities to take over their lands through massacres and spectacular displays of violence to create what geographer Ulrich Oslender (2008) called geographies of terror. This led to a process of reverse agrarian reform in Colombia where 1% of big landowners own 80% of the agricultural land in the country. Colombia has the second highest rate of inequality in the continent. The previous years also witnessed the targeted assassinations of social movement organisers and human rights activists. During Iván Duque’s presidency, 930 of them were assassinated (El País 2022). The Amnesty International declared Colombia to be the most dangerous country for human rights activists. While the government attributed these killings to drug cartels and criminal organisations, studies reveal specific patterns and correlations that underlie their political implications. For instance, there is a high degree of positive correlation between the vote share of the left in a municipality and the assassination of social leaders there who generally tend to support the left and challenge the power of local and regional elites (Albarracin et al 2020). It is this repressive machinery that made the rise of the left extremely difficult.

The newly elected President Petro is an ex-guerrilla combatant, which makes this victory symptomatic of a great shift in the Colombian political landscape and the political common sense of the Colombian people. In what follows, I trace the roots of this political moment and then go on to discuss the political programme of the new government and the challenges that lie ahead.

Mobilisations against Neo-liberalism

The victory of Petro is the culmination of a series of political mobilisations against the outgoing right-wing government of Duque that challenged business as usual and deeply ingrained political common sense. It bears similarities to the experiences of other countries in the region where left governments came to power riding on the wave of popular mobilisations by multiple social sectors against neo-liberalism.

Duque’s presidency witnessed multiple civic strikes. In 2019 and 2021, trade unions called for a national strike protesting against proposed labour refor­ms, the privatisation of public sector enterprises, and the implementation of tax reforms that gave concessions to corporates and increased the value added tax (VAT) on commodities of everyday consumption to offset the loss of revenue. The government justified the tax reforms by reiterating the neo-liberal doctrine that tax cuts for corporates are necessary to increase investment and employment. However, the strategy did not bear fruit as higher VAT reduced consumer demand in the economy, thereby providing no incentive to increase investment. University students and professors went on strike demanding an increase in fundings for higher education. Indigenous organisations also joined the protests by blocking the pan-American highway multiple times.

Though there was no central coordinating organisation or network, the multiple sectors that mobilised united in opposition to the government, expressed mutual solidarity and, on many occasions, supported each other. For instance, indigenous organisations mobilised in solidarity with university students and the latter opened the doors of the university to indigenous people whenever the latter arrived in the city from their rural communities to join the mobilisations. The protests also witnessed the participation of youth in large numbers, many of whom were not linked to any organisation. Small activist collectives sprouted that participated in protest marches, made murals, and also enga­ged in popular education initiatives by conducting campaigns in public spaces.

The government responded to the pro­tests by employing the same formula used by previous right-wing governments in Colombia: a mix of delegitimising the protesters by linking them with guerrillas and generating fear through repression. However, after the demobilisation of the biggest guerrilla group FARC–EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army) following the peace accords signed in 2016, associating the protests with the guerrillas did not convince the public. Generating fear through violent repression also failed to prevent further mobilisations from taking place.

Protests against the Duque government began just months after it assumed office. It continued throughout his presidency only to be interrupted by the lockdown imposed due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the situation came to a head in April 2021, when a massive insurrection broke out against the proposal of the government to implement a new tax reform that would further increase the burden on the working and middle classes by extending the 19% VAT on public services like gas, water and electricity, and household staples like rice and eggs. When Duque’s then finance minister Alberto Carrasquilla Barrera, in an interview to a media outlet, was asked if he knows how much a dozen eggs cost in Colombia, he replied 1,800 Colombian pesos. The actual price in the market was four time higher. For many people, this was a striking evidence of the disconnect between the ruling establishment and the everyday realities of the majority of Colombians who were struggling to make ends meet in the midst of the pandemic and the inflation caused by the devaluation of the Colombian peso. In digital social networks, Carasquilla’s statement was compared to Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” remark. Colombia was on the verge of exploding!

The first few days of spectacular protests eventually forced the government to withdraw the tax reform, but mobilisations continued, with some sectors calling for the resignation of the President. The government responded to the mobilisations by letting loose a reign of terror. International organisations like the Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights denounced serious violations of human rights and the disproportionate use of force by the police. Reports by independent human rights organisations reveal 83 deaths and 2,053 arbitrary arrests. There were also 35 reported cases of sexual violence by the police. Hundreds were reported to be disappeared and some of their bodies were found later floating in rivers.

On multiple occasions, police officers dressed as civilians fired on protesters. Images and videos that circulated on digital social networks showed police officers accompanying civilians who fired on protesters and the police entering residential neighbourhoods and indiscriminately firing on unarmed civilians, many of whom were not even participating in mobilisations. The idea was to instil fear in the population and prevent them from participating in demonstrations. However, the strategy backfired as the severity and brutality of repressive measures only ended up adding fuel to fire. State terrorism and the generation of fear could no longer hold back the people from occupying the streets. One of the placards held by a young couple participating in a march in Cali summed up a feeling shared by thousands: “On the other side of fear is the country we dream of!”

Cali, where I live, became the epicentre of the mobilisations. I saw neighbours who had never participated in protests going to marches with their families. Multiple points of concentration were established in the city where the protesters gathered to block roads, set up communal kitchens and paint murals. In a major point of blockade which was renamed Puerto Resistencia (port of resistance), the police station was occupied and converted into a library. The city also bore the brunt of state terror and some of my students became direct victims. One of them was arrested and tortured by the police, and another forced to go underground after receiving death threats.

The days of the national strike witnessed the coming together of different social sectors in struggle, like students, youth, urban popular sectors, indigenous people, and Afro-Colombians. The guardia indígena who constitute a force of civil (and unarmed) indigenous guards formed to defend indigenous rural communities went to the important points of blockade in the city to safeguard the protesters. Some of the small youth groups that emerged during these protests played an active role in the election campaigns for the left a year later.

The Formation of the Pacto Historico

Before the presidential elections, various left leaders got together to form the Pacto Historico (The Historic Pact). They agreed to participate in presidential primaries and it was decided that the precandidates in the first and second positions would become candidates for the presidency and vice presidency, respectively.

Petro who won the primaries was the most well-known left politician in the country. At the age of 17, he joined the M-19, an urban guerrilla group. His role in the guerrilla was more ideological than military. He was arrested in 1985, interrogated, tortured and sentenced to two years in prison. After being released from prison, he participated in the peace negotiations between the M-19 and the government. After giving up arms, members of the M-19 formed a political party and Petro worked closely with the constituent assembly that drafted a new Constitution for Colombia that was pro­mulgated in 1991. Petro then got elected to Parliament, where he came to be seen as a star parliamentarian as he forcefully denounced links between the Colombian political establishment and paramilitarism. In 2011, he was elected as the mayor of Bogota. Petro had also made two unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 2010 and 2018.

The newly elected Vice President Márquez comes from the background of social movement activism. She was born in a rural Afro-Colombian community in the Department of Cauca in south-western Colombia. She worked as a domestic worker in the city for some time and later returned to her rural community. She was associated with the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Process of Black Communities–PCN), one of the biggest social movement organisations in the country. She began her activism in her rural community against illegal gold mining. Illegal miners, in collusion with the world’s largest multinational corporations, brought backhoe loader excavators that contaminated rivers with mercury and cyanide, poisoning the earth, livestock, crops, and people. Any attempt to protest was met with death threats from paramilitary groups associated with the gold miners.

Márquez, accompanied by the women in her community led a march to Bogota to denounce these abuses to the government. As negotiations with the government did not yield results, the women occupied the office of the Ministry of the Interior overnight and refused to leave until their demands were met. Women from one of the most remote and underprivileged rural regions of the country occupying the ministry was unprecedented. There, Márquez delivered a landmark speech denouncing structural racism in Colombian society, referring to the ongoing forced displacement of Black communities, the exploitation of Black women who are disproportionately represented among the working class and in domestic service, and the dehumanisation of the impoverished and displaced Black population. Her activism against illegal mining won her the Goldman Prize, which is considered the Green Nobel Prize for environmental activism. This also made her one of the priority targets for paramilitary forces and their death squads. She survived an assassination attempt in 2019.

After that incident, I visited Márquez at her residence with a friend from a neighbouring country who offered to make arrangements for political asylum abroad. She refused the offer saying, “I cannot leave my people behind to struggle on their own.” Once we left the house, my friend told me, “This looks like the chronicle of a death foretold.” Little did we know that three years down the line, Márquez would be elected Colombia’s vice president.

Social movements in Colombia were historically averse to electoral politics. The decision taken by Márquez to announce her pre-candidacy surprised many. A few weeks after she decided to parti­cipate in the presidential primaries, I visited Márquez once again with a group of academics and community activists. She explained her decision in these terms: “I am tired of protesting, blocking the Pan-American highway for years and continue to see the same people in power practicing their politics of death.” She came up with the slogan “From resistance to power!” and formed a new political movement called Soy Porque Somos
(I am because we are), which is based on the traditional African concept of Ubuntu that upholds communitarian values and social practices. This concept was central to political discourses in South Africa and Zimbabwe during the transition from apartheid to majority rule in the former, and independence from British colonialism in the latter. By referring to Ubuntu, Márquez emphasises the link to Africa, the legacy of slavery and resistance to the same. By deploying the discourse of Soy Porque Somos, she politically positions herself within the African diaspora as well as the communitarian traditions of Afro-Colombian people.

In the speech she delivered after her victory in the election, Márquez honoured the youth killed and disappeared during the national strike and the social leaders who were assassinated in the previous years. She thanked them for “sowing the seeds of resistance and hope.” When she and Petro gave their speeches, besides leaders of political parties that formed part of or supported their coalition, they were accompanied on stage by representatives of Afro-Colombian and indigenous organisations. The mother of Dilan Cruz, a high school student killed by the riot police in a mobilisation demanding the right to free public education in 2019, also appeared on stage with a photo of her son to welcome the new President.

Policy Proposals of the Left

Petro proposes fiscal reforms that include a tax on liquid assets of the rich, ending tax exemptions, and controlling tax evasion. An emergency plan would be formulated to combat hunger. The government would take the initiative in launching credit programmes to support small- and medium-sized enterprises. In a bold reversal of neo-liberal policies, the government would renegotiate the free trade agreement with the US and foment domestic agricultural production. Labour reforms would be made to ensure the stability of employment. Free public education would be provided from the preschool to the university level. The public health system would be expanded and the role of private insurance companies in the sector would be progressively reduced. Pensions equivalent to 50% of the minimum wage would be provided to senior citizens who do not receive any other pension.

Of all the policy proposals made by Petro, the most challenging is that of agrarian reform. Big landholdings that are currently unproductive would be targeted. They would be given three options: begin agricultural production, pay more taxes, or sell the land to the government to be redistributed to peasants. Besides finding more land for the impoverished peasantry, the plan is to increase domestic food production and reduce the dependence on imports. The latter is crucial to combat inflation in the long term as the devaluation of the Colombian peso makes imported food costlier.

Gender equality would also be an important priority for the new government and women would occupy 50% of the key positions in the government. Single mothers would be guaranteed a subsidy equivalent to 50% of the national minimum wage. A system of early alerts would be established to prevent feminicides. Agrarian reform policies would also ensure gender parity in the distribution of land titles.

The focus on environmental protection differentiates the Colombian left from its counterparts in the region. Transition to cleaner forms of energy is given great emphasis in the policy proposals. Besides prohibiting fracking, projects of wind, solar, and green hydrogen-based energy would be given priority. In the speech he delivered after his victory, Petro strongly called for decarbonisation of the economy and reducing the dependence on the extraction of non-renewable resources. He also urged Latin American progressive forces to stop believing in the possibility of redistributing wealth and achieving social justice by taking advantage of the boom in commodity prices of petroleum, carbon, and gas. For him, the experience of left governments in Venezuela and Ecuador is an eye-opener as the fall in the prices of these commodities made the implementation of progressive policies difficult. As an alternative, he proposes a diversification of the economy and an emphasis on generating growth in the sectors of agriculture, agro-industry, and tourism.

The left governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador relied principally on extractive economy to achieve their goals. By renegotiating deals with the transnational corporations involved in extraction, increasing the share of the state in the revenues generated through these projects, they were able to considerably increase public investment and significantly reduce poverty and inequality. However, the same strategy, besides causing some conflicts with local communities at the site of extraction, environmentalists and social movement organisations, also made the economy vulnerable to the volatile prices of raw materials, and the boom and bust cycles of global commodity markets. This led to economic crises in Venezuela and Ecuador, generating a crisis for the left. Thea Riofrancos (2020) affirms that among the various dilemmas faced by the left governments in the region, the most significant was: how to achieve economic equality without deepening economic dependency. For her, the experience of left governments in dealing with this dilemma offers lessons for projects of radical transformation at the global level. By trying to deal with this central dilemma with a different strategy, Petro and Márquez seem to be taking the Latin American left one step further ahead.

The road ahead is not going to be easy by any means. The oligarchy with its economic power and a strong and efficient paramilitary apparatus would go to any lengths to frustrate political projects that would challenge their privileges. How far the new government would be able to fulfil its goals and keep its promises remain to be seen. However, this is the moment to pay homage to thousands of Colombians who took to the streets in the previous years, with many of them risking and losing their lives in their struggle for a better society. As large sectors of the country look forward to a more hopeful future, a slogan that resounded through the streets during the mobilisations and the election campaign still reverberates in the air: Vamos pueblo carajo! El pueblo no se rinde carajo! (People, Forward! Damn it! The people do not accept defeat, damn it!)

References

Albarracín, Juan, Juan Pablo Milanese, Inge Helena Valencia and Jonas Wolff (2020): “The Political Logic of Violence: The Assassination of Social Leaders in the Context of Authoritarian Local Orders in Colombia,” PRIF Spotlight, 15/2020, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

El País (2022): “Indepaz Señaló que más de 900 Líderes Sociales Han Sido Asesinados Durante el gobierno Duque,” 6 June, https://www.elpais.com.co/judicial/indepaz-senalo-que-mas-de-900-lideres-sociales-han-sido-asesinados-durante-el-gobierno-duque.html.

Oslender, Ulrich (2008): “Another History of Violence: The Production of “Geographies of Terror” in Colombia’s Pacific Coast Region, Latin American Perspectives, Vol 35, No 5, pp 77–102.

Riofrancos, Thea (2020): Resource Radicals: From Petro-nationalism to Post-extractivism in Ecuador, Duke University Press.

 

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Updated On : 8th Aug, 2022
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