What will happen in Colombia on election day is anybody’s guess. Polling appears certain that Left-leaning Gustavo Petro will be the next president of Colombia on May 29th or if a runoff is needed, June 19th. The big unknowns are whether the Colombian oligarchy will respect the elections, and whether they’ll have help from the United States in overturning them.
Colombia has never had a Leftist president. For over 200 years since independence Colombia has been ruled with an iron fist by a small oligarchy, whose interests are necessarily expressed through far-right politics: security (for property), religion, anti-socialism, ultra-individualism and dependence on the United States to stay in power.
The US-funded Colombian military/police protects the couple dozen wealthy families that have dominated the country, who have been referred to as the “narco-oligarchy.” For decades Colombia has received far more foreign aid than any other country in the hemisphere. Because of this “special relationship” and the regional role it plays for the US, Colombia has often been referred to as “the Israel of Latin America.”
But this relationship faces destruction when Gustavo Petro becomes president on May 29th (or June 19th).
Biden Clarifies that Colombia is a “Major, Major Ally”
Joe Biden recently went above and beyond to emphasize how important Colombia is to the US during the middle of Colombian election season, i.e. he is intentionally intervening in the Colombian elections, on the side of the far-right rulers of Colombian society.
Far-right Colombian President Ivan Duque recently came to the White House, where Biden announced that Colombia would be granted the status of “Major Non-NATO Ally.” Biden’s fumbling speech included the following tidbits:
“[Colombia is] a major, major non-NATO ally. This is a recognition of the unique and close relationship between our countries…we’re going to continue to stand together…we’re celebrating 200 years of diplomatic relations… I’m pleased that our nations have agreed to a new bicentennial partnership that’s going to be the basis for a comprehensive cooperation going forward. The US-Colombian relationship is the foundation, in my view, of regional security and prosperity.”
It’s unclear what exactly the new designation will add to the already intimate relationship, especially since Colombia has been designated a NATO “security partner” since 2017 (the first in Latin America). The extra designation is likely meant, in part, to signal to the Colombian oligarchs and US politicians that the upcoming election is critical and Biden means business.
Biden is serious because Colombia is where the US has its largest military footprint in South America, not necessarily in formal military bases, but agreements that allow the US military to use Colombian bases as they please.
The interests of the US military are always important when it comes to how the US establishment views Latin America politics, but the motive has become especially potent now that other South American countries have kicked out the US military to varying degrees, making the existing agreements in Colombia vital. Petro has implied that the US military could be evicted at a time when Latin America is experiencing a Pink Tide revival.
The History of the Special Relationship
The modern basis of US-Colombian relations was the cold war, where the US saw Colombia as a bulwark against communism, a dynamic that began shortly after World War II.
Many Colombians blame the USA, for good reason, for the 1948 assassination of Left presidential candidate Jorge Gaitan, which triggered the Bogotozo uprising that spread to the rest of the country in a bloody, ten-year civil war called “La Violencia.” It wasn’t long after the civil war ended that a new one began, after guerrilla groups modeled themselves after Cuba’s successful revolutionaries that won power in 1959.
Colombia was the only Latin American country to provide troops to the US for the Korean War, a tradition of Colombian cannon fodder that continues to this day.
The Cuban Revolution solidified US support for Colombia’s far-right, whose tradition of extra-paramilitary murder continues to this day, even after the 2016 peace agreement that was supposed to end the decades-long civil war.
The US-Colombia alliance tightened further with the rise of Chavismo in Venezuela, a revolutionary movement powerful enough to create a regional gravitational pull that altered the tides pink.
George Bush Jr and later Obama helped to ensure that Colombia would not be the domino to topple from socialism, with the comprehensive bi-lateral agreement called “Plan Colombia,” a security and market agreement that cemented Colombia’s important neo-colonial status within the US empire (Biden was also a major proponent of Plan Colombia).
When former President Juan Santos responded to comparisons of Colombia’s role to Israel’s, he said “if somebody called my country the Israel of Latin America, I would be very proud.”
Much of the US aid flowing into Colombia has been used to fight an endless war that the US seemed so pleased with that a rightwing Colombian president had to go to Cuba to get the 2016 peace treaty brokered
Colombia did benefit in some ways from the US-funded military/police to benefit in some ways from the billions of dollars they received from the US.
The over-policing has made business easier and the upper-middle class feel safer. Property is prioritized and protected. Tourist areas are heavily policed which helped revive tourism, as have capital flows from mostly western investors.
But many fear that the money plug could be pulled if Petro wins, i.e., the Biden administration may cease aid or begin sanctions, or choose a more confrontational and violent approach such as a US-backed coup, which millions of Colombians would not quietly accept.
Colombia is in a fragile and dangerous situation: the 2016 peace treaty was not respected by the 2018 presidential winner, Ivan Duque, so most sections of the peace accords have not been implemented, while social leaders have been systematically executed, about 1,300 dead since 2016 and many thousands of others killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes in a still-simmering civil war.
The New Pink Tide vs US Imperialism
After the death of Hugo Chavez and the waning Pink Tide, the US-Colombia Pact started to feel antiquated. But seemingly mid-eulogy the Pink Tide was resurrected, starting with the election of Lopez-Obrador in Mexico, followed by a succession of left-leaning presidents that continues to this day. The fact that Lula is expected to become Brazil’s next president makes Colombia all the more important for the US to keep a stranglehold over.
Colombia’s oligarchy is not expected to go down without a fight. The Colombian military, like all capitalist militaries, is led by a far-right officer class eager to reject “Petro’s socialism.” But the rank-and-file soldier is mainly from the working class, and will not be eager to suppress a working class defending itself against a possible coup.
The 2021 Uprising and General Strike
It’s noteworthy that Biden has suddenly become pals with Ivan Duque, who remains an international pariah for his bloody suppression of Colombia’s uprising last year. The mass movement was born in response to Duque’s tax increase (to please foreign investors) that poured fuel on a fire already lit by Covid.
Colombia’s uprising was a long time coming. Colombia has the 2nd highest rates of inequality among a very unequal hemisphere. The working class has been suffering for years. And the youth too, since quality education is accessible for only the wealthy while the educated find mostly low paying work. The corrupt and violent police were also a movement trigger. Meanwhile high unemployment, low wages, and rising inflation contribute to little hope for the future.
The women’s and climate movements have also been on the ascent, finding expression, in part, in Petro’s running mate Francia Marquez, an afro cuban woman and militant feminist and climate organizer.
The movement that caught fire in 2019 culminated in a general strike in 2021 that shut down portions of the country, in a movement called “National Strike.” Duque’s military killed dozens and injured hundreds, while some of the labor leaders at the top of “National Strike” seemingly got cold feet, opting to funnel the energy into this year’s election. Presumably, many of the youth who led the uprising of last year will actually vote for Petro, leading to the possibility that he could win outright in the first round.
Colombians Campaigning in the United States
Many Colombians are certainly aware that US imperialism wants Petro to lose, and there is certainly some fear about what the US may do when Petro is elected. Venezuela’s economy was shattered, in part, because of US sanctions against Venezuelan oil; a similar weapon could be directed at Colombia if a slow, parliamentary coup is preferred to a more risky election day coup.
The awareness of US dominance over Colombian politics is so sharp that the vice presidential candidates held a debate in…Washington DC, organized by the US-government connected Atlantic Council and the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Such a bizarre event occurs only when a nation has long been a US-client state. Many of the debate questions could have been boiled down to one: do you plan to keep Colombia within the US foreign policy orbit?
Francia Marquez used the debate as a table-flipping exercise, powerfully reenforcing her Left politics while condemning the “failure” of the US-Colombian relationship, i.e. the drug war. She even went so far as to ask why, after years of massive military investments against “narco trafficking,” that Colombia still dominates the global cocaine market, implying that the US and Colombian oligarchy is in cahoots to maintain the trade (as US journalist Gary Webb helped expose in his book Dark Alliance).
Marquez’s word, while powerful, could have only reenforced the arguments of Biden’s Generals, insisting that he help Colombia’s oligarchs execute a coup.
While Marquez was firing shots against imperialism, Petro’s main opponent, Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, was pandering to the US establishment harder than ever, saying during a recent interview: “I defend business freedom, I defend the free market, and I defend private property…my message to investors, both local and foreigners, is that with me they’ll have legal guarantees that we’re going to take care of their investment…”
The biggest foreign investor of Colombia is the United States, though to avoid taxes many American investors launder their investments through tax havens like Panama and the Cayman Islands. Fico is speaking directly to them.
It’s no accident that the American energy company S&P Global and US financial institution JP Morgan spoke out against Petro’s candidacy and his proposed economic reforms.
History on a Knife’s Edge
As the election nears the Colombian ruling class has become increasingly hysterical, with much of the wealthy-owned media accusing Petro of being a “communist” who plans to turn Colombia into Venezuela, a punch that partially lands because around 3 million economic refugees from Venezuela are living in Colombia
How will Colombia’s oligarchs react to a Petro Presidency, assuming he is allowed to govern? Will there be a capital-strike in response to Petro’s progressive policies? In reality the strike started a month ago, as investors began to accept that Petro was bound to win: the Colombia peso has been dropping precipitously, which should be considered a warning shot: “go left and we (the oligarchy/US banks) destroy the economy.”
Is the Colombian oligarchy overreacting to a Petro Presidency? Not at all. They will have lost their grip on political power after 200 years, and his policies are too Left for Colombia’s wealthy and the US establishment to bear.
He wants to raise taxes heavily on the richest 4000 Colombians; he wants to end new oil exploration; he wants to end the very basis of the US-Colombian relationship by stopping the drug war, via phased legalization.
He has spoken to Colombia’s youth and the working class very convincingly, and the many public debates have sharpened ideas and agitated existing issues for millions of people, i.e. there has been a dangerous level of democracy in this election in the minds of the oligarchy. Ultimately they fear how the Colombian working class will respond to a Petro Presidency, since under a capitalist oligarchy the system only “runs smoothly” when the working class is quiet and obedient.
Aware that his progressive policies may get him killed, or overthrown, Petro’s campaign has been tilted towards convincing a skeptical middle class, with much discussion about developing the Colombian economy. Thus, there remains much uncertainty about how he’ll wield power when elected. The uncertainty is real, which is among the far-right’s most powerful attack ads: stick with the devil you know.
If a US-backed coup does occur it will be executed by the Colombian ruling class. For example, a serious warning shot was issued by the head of the Colombian military, who recently denounced Petro publicly.
Many assumed this brazen act was a coup threat, given that it’s unlawful for Colombian military personnel to engage publicly in elections. Francia Marquez loudly questioned the silence from the Biden administration after this coup-threat was issued, since Biden’s Secretary of State has repeatedly expressed much interest and concerns about the Colombian elections.
But the concerns Biden’s administration are focusing on are…Russia. The ever-present bogeyman of American politics has been transplanted to Colombia, which the Colombian oligarchy has accepted without question, since they think repeating the nonsense will further ingratiate them to Biden. But these Russian fairy tales could have real life consequences.
For example, Biden’s Under-Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, flew to Colombia earlier in the year (the same Nuland who helped organize the 2014 coup in Ukraine) to supposedly plan for the safety and security of the Colombian elections. Some speculated her obsession with the Colombian elections was rooted in ensuring the Colombian oligarchy remained in power, by any means necessary.
The US, we are told, is very concerned with the Colombian elections (when it comes to Russia), while being unconcerned about the actual threats to Colombian democracy within: the US-dependent oligarchy.
A source of additional instability is that both Petro and Marquez successfully avoided assassination plots during their campaign; again with barely a peep from Biden. The increasing violence leading up to the election across the country (with more expected on election day in rural areas) hasn’t bothered Biden either. And when sections of the far-right insisted the election be delayed two weeks before the vote (in an obvious attempt to destabilize the elections), Biden didn’t comment.
But Petro has been ringing the alarm bells about a possible electoral coup, asking his fellow candidates to meet with him to discuss and denounce the plots. None accepted. They’re from the establishment and know a coup could be forthcoming, which they would happily accept.
Petro warned that an “election coup” could occur by having the elections “suspended” indefinitely because of violence that the oligarchy initiates, saying that “they” (without explicitly naming names) plan to “strike a blow at the elections…they plan to suspend the bodies that govern the electoral process in Colombia…”
The coup scenario Petro is discussing is very similar to the 2019 US-backed coup in Bolivia, where many voting irregularities and accusations of voter fraud combined with violence led to the desired instability that the far-right used to overturn the election and drive the rightful president, Evo Morales, out of the country.
The Bolivian coup was aided and abetted by the US-dominated Organization of American States, which will also be in Colombia to help “facilitate” the elections.
Already the electoral process has been recently altered in ways that could allow fraud, for example there will be no international audit, while new strict rules were placed on election observers. At the time of this writing four prominent election observers were denied entry to the country.
But Can the Oligarchy Succeed?
Coup-making is a risky business. The 1948 coup (the assassination of Gaitan) led to 10 years of mass death across Colombia. The Colombian working class may rise again to protect a Petro Presidency, having gained much experience from last year’s mass mobilizations.
A clash is inevitable. The simmering civil-war could explode suddenly into an open conflict. There is too much at stake for both the oligarchy and the working class for the open tensions to be quietly resolved, since the existing balance of power is too shaky for one to imagine a stable status-quo.
The US Left has a duty to stay vigilant and educate the public about the importance of these elections and to pressure US politicians to protect Colombian democracy. The May 29th election will either push Colombia (and the hemisphere) in a more progressive direction or pull it back into the Dark Ages.