Colombia’s first leftwing president-elect, Gustavo Petro, is riding a wave of hope but will face intense challenges in trying to advance a progressive agenda that the country sorely needs.
In front of thousands of jubilant supporters packed into Bogota’s Movistar Arena, it was Francia Márquez, the newly elected vice-president, who gave the first victory speech.
‘Thank you for believing it possible to change the history of Colombia,’ she said to deafening cheers. Just a couple of hours earlier, on the evening of Sunday 19 June 2022 – a date that looks set to resonate in Colombian history – the election win of Márquez and the country’s next president, Gustavo Petro, had been confirmed. Their Historic Pact coalition crossed the 50 per cent share of votes needed to defeat entrepreneur Rodolfo Hernández and consign his bizarrely erratic candidacy to memory.
‘Greetings to the women of Colombia, to all my sisters,’ Márquez announced. ‘I want to send greetings to the Colombian youth who wore the t-shirts. To the children who were joyfully present in this dream. To the teachers and workers. To the disabled community, who were also with us. To the Indigenous people, who stood firm. To the peasant community. To my people, the Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquero community!’
As Colombia’s first black woman vice-president paid tribute to the diverse social groups long excluded – often violently – from political and economic participation, the excitement rose. With celebrations underway in streets and plazas across the country, Márquez encapsulated in just a few words the government-elect’s representational character. Her message was clear: this is a government of and for the people. As the daughter of miners from one of Colombia’s many marginalised zones now addressed the country from the second-highest office in the land, few could disagree.
Márquez’s electoral slogan ‘vivir sabroso’ – loosely translated as ‘to live the fun times’ – was a masterstroke, far removed from the negative miseria-type discourse often used to describe life on the peripheries. Her campaign celebrated Colombians’ love of a good time, aligned with a political programme that confronted material hardship. The offer appeared to resonate with working people – the Historic Pact took around 80 per cent of the vote in underdeveloped and conflict-ravaged departments such as Chocó, Nariño and Márquez’s homeland of Cauca, statistically the most violent region in the country.
Márquez was followed onstage by the president-elect. ‘We are a demonstration that peace is possible in Colombia,’ Petro told the crowd, ‘that dreams can come true, dreams of justice, dreams of freedom.’ He pledged to fight inequality and climate change, to strengthen peace and to listen to all Colombians, including political opponents, to whom his door would always be open.
A third speaker, the only other person to take the microphone, emphasised the new direction that Petro and Márquez offer. Jenny Medina, a working-class woman from Bogota, held aloft a photo of her son, Dilan Cruz, who was killed, aged 18, by riot police during protests in November 2019. Although speaking to Petro directly, her words were addressed to all:
‘In the name of my son Dilan, who is one more victim of this country, in the name of all the victims of False Positives [extrajudicial killings of civilians]… and all the victims of this and previous governments … I welcome you, President, because in you there is hope for all of us.’
Dilan’s death came amid broad social discontent with the hard-right administration of Iván Duque when it came to inequality, the human rights crisis and government disregard for the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Security forces treated civilian protesters as enemy insurgents, with Dilan an early victim. A new wave of popular mobilisations in April and May last year was met with even more extreme state repression, as police killed 44 people and committed appalling abuses – including sexual assaults, intentional eye injuries and disappearances.
As Jenny Medina eulogised her murdered son and Petro called for the liberation of young protesters still imprisoned, the contrast with the outgoing government could not have been starker. Whereas Duque’s political allies have stigmatised trade unionists, rural activists and social movements – feeding the climate of aggression that makes violence a constant presence for many – the new government lauds the existence of Colombia’s working class, peasant farmers and ethnic minorities.
Aggression had also permeated this electoral cycle. Francia Márquez was subjected to several threats and a constant barrage of racism. Petro suspended campaigning in central Colombia over a paramilitary plot to assassinate him. Historic Pact politicians and supporters were routinely threatened. Then on election day, two Historic Pact activists, Ersaín Ramírez Ospina and Roberto Rivas Hernández, were murdered in Cauca. Their names join the tally of more than 85 activists murdered already in 2022.
Duque’s election in 2018, in which he defeated Petro, sparked consternation among progressive sectors over his open hostility towards the peace agreement and his closeness to far-right former president Álvaro Uribe, whose two terms in office from 2002 to 2010 were marked by state atrocities and a major military escalation of the counterinsurgency conflict. These concerns proved well-founded. In addition to meddling in the peace process, Duque’s four-year term has overseen a spiralling human rights crisis that has taken the lives of over 1,300 social activists since the peace agreement’s signing, as well as a hard-right neoliberal agenda that has resulted in declining living standards for working Colombians.
The security crisis, which has also killed 320 former FARC guerrillas, will be an urgent priority for Petro’s government. Short-term measures include activating security mechanisms which were created in the peace agreement – neglected under Duque – to dismantle paramilitary groups, as well as providing state protection for at-risk individuals and organisations. In the longer term, the development of an institutional state presence, services and infrastructure in historically-abandoned regions – where violence is concentrated and where Historic Pact votes were high – will generate conditions and opportunities to counter the dominance of armed groups. These immense challenges require time and support, both internationally and within domestic politics.
There are questions over how Petro’s victory will be received in the military, which under Duque has been embroiled in multiple scandals including civilian massacres and illegal surveillance of citizens. In April, during Petro’s election campaign, the head of the army, General Eduardo Zapateiro, brazenly accused him of criminal activity after Petro alleged army links to paramilitary and drugs-trafficking groups. The general’s intervention violated constitutional law on the armed forces’ involvement in politics, yet was defended by Duque (another violation). The election result has provoked media speculation over Zapateiro’s future, but Petro – a former M19 guerrilla who ultimately abandoned armed struggle for electoral politics – will tread cautiously in dealing with military top brass, particularly if he meets his pledge to address human rights abuses. The election result also raises hopes of a negotiated settlement with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s last guerrilla movement, after Duque’s steadfast rejection of dialogue.
Another core challenge for the new government will be addressing poverty, which has worsened during Duque’s time in office to impact 42 per cent of the population. Colombian GDP is about the Latin American median and roughly the same as Brazil’s. Yet inequality levels are among the region’s very worst, with over five million people mired in extreme poverty – more in absolute terms than Brazil, whose population is four times larger. Violence, land concentration and vast income disparities are major factors. Petro hopes to fund free healthcare, investment in public education and land reform through progressive taxation – asking companies and higher-earning citizens to contribute a larger share.
Petro has also prioritised ending Colombia’s dependency on extractive industries to tackle climate change. He proposes to halt new fracking and offshore drilling projects, while no new licenses will be granted for fossil fuel exploration. Resource extraction has devastated many communities, particularly Indigenous and African-Colombian: indeed, Francia Márquez rose to prominence for leading grassroots resistance to illegal mining that caused deforestation and river contamination in Cauca, earning her the Goldman Prize in 2018. But ecological degradation continues, and Colombia is the world’s deadliest country for environmental activists – with 65 murdered in 2020 alone.
To achieve his goals, Petro will need to build alliances in a divided congress. Although the Historic Pact gained more seats than any other grouping in the March elections, this amounted to only 17 per cent of the senate and a similar quantity in the lower house, thereby lacking the necessary majority to pass progressive legislation.
Conservative sectors hold a similar number of seats to the Historic Pact, a potentially serious obstacle to reform. Petro has reached out to the Green Party (12 per cent of seats), which tends to back centrist candidates but has some outlying pro-Petro politicians. The potential kingmakers are the Liberal Party, as their sizable congressional influence would go a long way to securing a majority. Following the election, Liberal leader, César Gaviria, who had coveted the Historic Pact’s vice-presidential nomination that went to Márquez, confirmed the party would back the governing coalition, an important step in Petro’s attempts to push through a progressive agenda.
APetro’s election brings relief to the peace process, which has survived four years of rightwing interference but remains fragile. The Duque government’s failure to meet its obligations has raised concerns over core areas of the 2016 agreement, as many rural development programmes designed to tackle the roots of conflict have barely been initiated.
The stipulated state support has not been fully forthcoming for almost 100,000 families enrolled on community-led programmes to transition away from cultivating illicit coca crops to legal alternatives. Elsewhere, many of the 13,500 former FARC guerrillas still lack funding and resources to develop sustainable livelihoods and projects. But despite insufficient government support and the high violence, the vast majority of former guerrillas have complied with the agreement, as the United Nations has repeatedly verified.
The peace process soon reaches two important milestones: the publication of the Truth Commission’s report into the armed conflict and the first sentences issued by the transitional justice court, the JEP, for major human rights violations. Many Colombians hope that the Commission’s documentation of what occurred during decades of armed conflict can help victims and perpetrators advance towards national reconciliation.
The JEP, meanwhile, has been the target for vociferous rightwing attacks. Its investigations have seen FARC leaders accept responsibility for hostage-taking, while military officials have testified over their involvement in ‘False Positives’, the murders of more than 6,400 civilians who were falsely presented as guerrillas from 2002 to 2008. Another investigation focuses on the state-led killings of over 5,700 members of the leftwing Patriotic Union (UP) party in the 1980s and 1990s. After it was virtually extinguished by violence, the UP today sits in congress as a member of the new governing coalition.
With immense challenges ahead – some of which may prove difficult to surmount even with the requisite political will – expectations must be managed. But, for now at least, many Colombians sense the country is finally moving towards a brighter future. On a day the people made history, and as street parties continued long into the night, Petro addressed the nation he will shortly lead.
‘We are writing a new history for Colombia, for Latin America, for the world,’ he declared. ‘Real change is coming. We will not betray the electorate who today shouted for change. From today, Colombia changes.’
This article was originally published in New Internationalist and has been edited for style.