Although the political right is heading polls in Colombia’s upcoming election, the potential for a progressive president committed to peace, wealth redistribution and the environment is greater than any time in the last 70 years.

In the 1980s, Colombia’s bipartite parliamentary system appeared to contradict a Latin American subcontinent largely ruled by military dictatorships. This prompted Robert Dix to write that ‘Colombia is a paradox, difficult to classify and generally lacking in the kind of political innovations that tend to attract the foreign or comparative scholar, or the foreign press.’[1]

A year later, the concept of paradox was also advanced by the Commission of Studies of Violence in Colombia (1987) to explain the coexistence of violence and a tradition of democratic elections. As Ricardo Peñaranda put it, ‘[a] country that prides itself on having the most consistent civic and democratic tradition in Latin America is the very country that has the most persistent and prolonged guerrilla history in the hemisphere. In Colombia, democracy and violence have coexisted for a long time, until the two phenomena have become, paradoxically, two faces of the same coin.’[2]

The concept of paradox returned to the fore two years ago as various articles commented on the contrast between, on the one hand, international and Colombian civil society endorsement of the peace plebiscite and, on the other, internal indifference and rejection of it. Recently, it has been used again to discuss the possibility that presidential elections on 27 May could deliver a new president unlikely to follow through on the peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or continue similar talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Amid the atmosphere of polarisation that surrounded the peace referendum and now engulfs the presidential campaigns, three elements seem to determine a significant shift in popular opinion towards leading presidential candidates: namely, the future of the peace process, the socio-economic model of development and the question of security, transparency and justice. To what extent does the concept of paradox help understand the relationship between politics and violence in Colombia?

The candidates

Following the congressional elections of March 2018, opinion polls for the presidential election put former president Álvaro Uribe’s proxy candidate, Iván Duque, in the lead (45 per cent), followed by former congressman and Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro (27.3 per cent). Trailing them are former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo (10.7 per cent), ex-vice president Germán Vargas Lleras (6.3 per cent) and the lead government negotiator during the peace process with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle (5 per cent). Despite steadily gaining in latest polls, Fajardo’s and de la Calle’s failure to consolidate a centre-alternative alliance has anchored them to the bottom of the polls. Vargas Lleras’s attempts to underplay his past radical profile and promise to expand the country’s infrastructure, has seen the centre-right candidate displace an unconvincing Fajardo from third place.

The principal shift during the presidential campaign has been the reduction of the gap that initially separated Duque and Petro. The antagonism between Petro and Duque’s uribista camp goes back to 2006 when Petro, as a congressman, uncovered links between paramilitary forces and congressmen and other politicians. 44 congressmen were indicted for collusion or funding paramilitary groups, the biggest group responsible for violation of human rights and massive displacement of rural population.

Duque was relatively unknown in Colombia until receiving Uribe’s endorsement as the candidate of the Democratic Centre (Centro Democrático, CD), which, despite its name, coalesces around the Colombian far-right. The CD’s victory in the congressional elections secured Duque a comfortable position for the first round of voting. However, the television debates, interviews and public interventions have shown political novice Duque in a less favourable light. His learnt-by-heart discourse and unconvincing role as surrogate to Uribe’s agenda contrast starkly with Petro’s thoughtful analysis of Colombian society and plans for an alternative model of socio-economic development. Consequently, a significant increase in Petro’s popularity has reduced the gap between Duque and Petro to 9 per cent.

There are three principal issues of contention between Duque and Petro.

The future of the peace process

Echoing Mr Uribe’s vitriolic attacks on the peace process with the FARC, Duque started his campaign assuring his voters that he would dismantle the transitional justice system known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP). Seeking to fuel public indignation, opponents to the peace process have argued that giving the FARC five seats in the Senate and five more in the lower chamber for two legislative terms would mean surrendering the country to so-called Castro-Chavismo (along the lines of Cuba and Venezuela) and give impunity to the perpetrators of violence.

Duque’s apparent crusade against impunity comes 12 years after his patron and the main opponent to the peace process, Uribe, signed a demobilisation agreement with the paramilitary groups. Media reports at the time suggested that over 30,000 trained fighters would go free without trial, even though they were considered by both Amnesty International and the UN as responsible for 80 per cent of non-combative, politically-motivated killings, disappearances and torture in the preceding 25 years of Colombia’s conflict.[3] Some of these groups, under different names, still operate in strategic rural and urban areas of the country.

For his part, Petro has insisted that the peace accord with the FARC and the ongoing negotiations with the ELN represent the finalisation of the longest armed conflict in the hemisphere. Although social peace is more than the absence of war, he underlies, the peace process with these subversive groups lays the necessary foundations for a collective process of reconciliation and social justice.

The socio-economic model of development

From the outset of the peace talks, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos made clear that the economic model, against which the guerrilla groups had fought for more than 35 years, was not open to discussion. As Lara Montesinos states, ‘the very model of development forced upon people through massacres was recast as the key to a sustainable peace’.[4]

While this model emphasises the global political and economic potential of peace (as one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, Colombia offers massive opportunities for tourism and international business), it underplays a crucial aspect of the conflict: the long-term war has systematically targeted neither the infrastructure nor the urban centres, but the social tissue of rural areas: unions, indigenous organisations, social leaders, human rights advocates and women.

Duque and the uribista machinery, with their vested interests in agribusiness, mining, land concentration and international investment at any human and environmental costs, have totally subscribed to Santos’ economic model. Petro, on the other hand, has explained his plans for an alternative model of socio-economic development. Acknowledging the extractive economy’s failure to reach marginalised sectors, he proposes buying arable but unused land from big landowners to reinvigorate sustainable agricultural projects. In Colombia, a country where 0.4 per cent of the population still owns 46 per cent of fertile land and poverty affects 89 per cent of the rural population, it is difficult to see how a presidential candidate can honour his commitment to tackle the plight of rural areas without a drastic change in the agribusiness and extractive-based economic model.

Security, Transparency and Justice

Duque’s strategies for security and justice do not differ much from Uribe’s policy of militarisation, criminalisation of social protest and continuation of the ‘War on Drugs’.  However, Duque’s most controversial proposal – a leap to the past and a coup against justice, as it has been described by the other presidential candidates– is a plan to revoke the Supreme Court of Justice, the Constitutional Court, the Council of State, the Higher Council of the Judiciary, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the National Electoral Council in order to create a single judiciary body. This is a project that Mr Uribe, who faces criminal investigations over his alleged corruption and ties to far-right death squads, has insistently pursued. By the same token, support to Duque’s campaign from political leaders who are under investigation for corruption contrast with his promises of transparency and efficiency.

By creating a team free from investigations or scandals, Petro has sought to lead an anti-corruption programme, which has been one of the key elements for his increasing popularity. In touch with the crowds that demand repressive state measures be replaced by social investment, more education opportunities, better labour conditions and creation of employment, Petro talks of democratising the political and economic systems – fields traditionally dominated by elite pacts.

To conclude: Is there a paradox?

With a Gini coefficient of 56, Colombia has the third-highest level of inequality in the world.[5] According to Amnesty International, it has the second-highest rate of selective crimes against unionist, social and indigenous leaders. The concept of paradox seems to underplay the fact that war and social violence is often prompted by actual or perceived injustice. As Eric Hobsbawm asserts in his Interesting Times, Colombia’s failure to undergo a social revolution ‘had made violence the constant, universal, omnipresent core of public life.’

Finally, there is a way to approach Colombia’s history of sustained violence as a paradox. As Terry Eagleton suggests, the paradoxical nature of power and violence was effectively defined by the ancient Greek tragedians. In Euripides’s The Bacchae, Pentheus, the unbending ruler of Thebes, refuses to accept Dionysus, god of riotous living, into the city, and ‘by savagely repressing him not only triggers some atrocious bloodshed, but turns himself into an image of the very terror he abhors’. In contrast, in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, with greater wisdom than Pentheus, ‘Athens at the close of the play welcomes the marauding Furies into the city, transforming them into the Eumenides or Kindly Ones who will contribute to its defence.’[6]


[1] Dix, The Politics of Colombia (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1986), 2.

[2] Ricardo Peñaranda, ‘Conclusion: Surveying the Literature on the Violence,’ in Bergquist, Charles, et al., eds. Violence in Colombia. The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective (Wilmington, Delaware: SR Books, 1991), 294.

[3] Amnesty International, ‘Colombia: The Paramilitaries in Medellín: Demobilization or Legalization?’, August 31, (2005): 3-4; Constanza Vieira, ‘COLOMBIA: International Criminal Court Scrutinises Paramilitary Crimes,’ International Press Service: News Agency, 27 August (2008).

[4] Montesinos, Lara Coleman, ‘The violence of the Peace’. Accessed 20 Nov 2017.


[6] Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (London: New York: Verso, 2007), xii.