Colombians say enough is enough

It’s perhaps premature to talk of a ‘new dawn’ for socialism in Latin America – the continent has seen them before, but in Colombia the people have spoken, electing a left-wing government for the first time in the country’s history.

On 20th June, Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, and mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2015, was declared president-elect after his ‘Historic Pact’ coalition – a progressive alliance of  groupings ranging from the social democratic ‘Polo Democrático’ to the Communist Party – scored a narrow but decisive victory in the election run-off over a brash right-wing businessman branded as ‘the Colombian Trump’, Rodolfo Hernández.

Petro’s vice-presidential running-mate, social and environmental activist Francia Márquez, is the first African-Colombian to attain such high office, and the ‘Historic Pact’, put together last year with the backing of trade unions and grassroots social organisations, evidently attracted wide support from those marginalised by Colombia’s traditional, sclerotic two-party system – young people, women, ethnic minorities and the working class.

The ‘Historic Pact’ campaigned on a programme of strengthening human rights and environmental protection – in a country where there is a marked shortfall of both – as well as increased social investment and implementation of the 2016 peace accord negotiated between the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of then president Juan Manuel Santos. Petro promised a new future for the country, which has been racked by economic hardship and resulting social turmoil under his predecessor, hard-line right-wing president Ivan Duque. But, perhaps conscious of the more than 10 million Colombians who voted for his rival Hernández, Petro struck a conciliatory note in his victory speech:

From this new government there will never be political persecution or legal persecution – there will only be respect and dialogue.”

Such a comment is also a pointed reflection on his inheritance from Duque, and still more pointedly, Petro invited the mother of Dylan Cruz, an 18-year-old peaceful demonstrator who was killed by the Colombian riot police, ESMAD, in 2019, to speak, representing thousands of mothers who have lost their sons and daughters to state violence. For her part, Márquez said “Today all women win“, and paid homage to the many Colombians killed for defending social justice.

A new dawn may be beckoning, but it can’t be ignored that Petro had to give many of his campaign speeches from behind a bullet-proof shield, and that both he and Márquez were subjected to repeated death threats. Colombia may be able to breathe more easily under its new government (which, however, does not command a majority in congress), but the first steps are bound to be tentative in a country where more than 1,300 social and political activists – including 315 former FARC guerrillas – have been murdered since the signing of the peace accord in November, 2016.

An inauspicious legacy

The threat of right-wing paramilitary violence – which in the 1980s and 90s decimated the leadership of the Unión Patriótica, the country’s last attempt to instal a left-wing government by peaceful means, killing some 5,700 of its militants – still hangs over Colombia. Dismantling paramilitary groups was a prime aim of the peace agreement, but was disregarded by the Duque government. It proceeded to militarise troublesome regions in the north of the country, and on 28 March the army carried out a massacre of civilians in the town of Putumayo. Right-wing paramilitaries of the ‘Clan del Golfo’ cartel organised a five-day ‘armed strike’ in May, which effectively shut down economic activity and imposed a curfew in more than 170 Colombian municipalities, under threat of violent reprisals.

According to human rights groups, paramilitaries killed 14 people during the strike, and committed such abuses as torture and forced confinement. On 31 May an indigenous teacher, Edison Gómez Ortiz, was killed by paramilitaries in the town of Caquetá after reportedly defying orders to refrain from participating in electoral activities. Such cases are all too familiar in a land described by the British campaigning group Justice for Colombia as ‘the world’s deadliest country for human rights defenders, environmental activists and trade unionists’.

Behind the continuing activity of right-wing paramilitaries lurks the shadowy figure of former president Álvaro Uribe, a sworn enemy of Colombia’s peace process and champion of the liberal status quo. Duque inherited his mantle, and had no compunction about using the army as a time-honoured tool of intimidation. As the Morning Star observed in an editorial welcoming the recent election of Petro:

A radical rupture is needed with a regime closely linked to far-right paramilitaries and an army that murdered an estimated 10,000 civilians in the ‘false positives’ scandal, in which people were lured to remote areas, killed and then dressed as guerrillas so that soldiers could claim promotions and cash rewards based on bodycounts” (Morning Star, 21 June 2022).

Duque’s aggressive use of force against his own people sparked a major confrontation in 2019, with Colombians taking to the streets to protest against a harsh austerity budget, unemployment running at 12 per cent or more, and the government’s failure to honour the peace accord or put a stop to the assassination of social movement leaders. Matters were exacerbated by its inept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and by its brutal crackdown on dissent. Last year 44 unarmed civilians were killed as peaceful protests were suppressed – notably by the notorious riot police, ESMAD – and many seriously injured. The result was a collapse in the legitimacy of the Duque government.

The challenge facing Petro

A snapshot of the task confronting Colombia’s left-wing president-elect is provided by Nick MacWilliam of Justice for Colombia:

Ensuring justice for victims of state abuses will be as important as tending to those impacted by other forms of violence.

“Social investment is another component of Petro’s agenda. He has pledged to make decent education and healthcare more accessible to lower-income Colombians, who are too often marginalised under the highly privatised system in place.

“Developing basic services and infrastructure will seek to reduce poverty, which now encompasses over 40 per cent of the population. Basic sanitary conditions and clean water remain out of reach in under-developed regions, with rural, indigenous and African-Colombian communities particularly affected.

“Dire social conditions have been exacerbated by Colombia’s extractive development model.

“In northern Colombia’s La Guajira region, for example, thousands of Wayuu indigenous children have died since 2008 from preventable diseases, malnutrition and unclean water. Communities in mineral-rich territories have suffered the contamination of lands and rivers, the destruction of eco-systems and forced eviction from their homes.

“The new government proposes strengthening environmental protection and shifting towards renewable energies. It seeks to work with other regional governments to achieve this, recognising multilateral co-operation as necessary to address climate change.” (Nick MacWilliam, ‘The Historic Pact’s historic victory opens a new era for Colombia after endless violence’, Morning Star, 21 June 2022).

Petro’s undertaking to implement the peace accord will also be key to his strategy, involving not only the curbing of paramilitary groups, but other conditions contained in the agreement such as rural development and land distribution, of which Colombians have yet to see any benefit.

He has also said that he will pursue negotiations with Colombia’s remaining left-wing guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), with a view to overcoming its reluctance to participate in the peace process. This is likely to be a delicate operation, given the experience of other Colombian guerrillas who have surrendered their arms. There is the added complication of former FARC guerrillas disillusioned by the peace process and shocked by the murder of some of their ex-comrades in arms, who have chosen to return to the jungle.

The wider view

The peace accord of 2016 was painstakingly negotiated in Havana, facilitated by the Cuban government and with the implicit blessing of Cuba’s president at the time, Raúl Castro. Perhaps it was naïve, given Colombia’s recent history, to expect it to be respected. But for all the sickening assassinations, some would argue that the agreement opened up a political space in which Colombia’s neo-liberal status quo could be challenged, and the ‘Historic Pact’ could make its play.

Certainly the election result is a snub to the power of the United States, accustomed to using Colombia as effectively an aircraft-carrier for its interventions in South America – most recently to try to destabilise Venezuela. President Nicolás Maduro welcomed the election result with cautious optimism:

The will of the Colombian people who came out to defend the path of democracy and peace was heard. New times are in view for this sister country.”

The defusing of US influence – or control – over Colombia will be welcomed by many other South American nations. With left of centre governments in place in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Peru, there is renewed talk of a ‘pink tide’ sweeping the continent. Ecuador’s right-wing president recently imposed a state of emergency in response to widespread angry protests over soaring fuel prices. And it’s widely hoped that Brazil’s presidential elections in October will see the execrable sociopath and forest destroyer Jair Bolsonaro supplanted by the social-democratic Luis Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva.

But will it be enough to set Latin America on the road to socialism which, as Cuba has shown, is surely its birthright? The historic FARC guerrilla leader, Manuel Marulanda, who died in 2008, negotiated with the Colombian government but never ceded ground – still less would he have countenanced the handing over of arms. FARC, under his leadership, was close to bringing down Colombia’s bourgeois regime. ‘Marxist-Leninist principles are more and more relevant in Colombia,’ he said.

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