A former leftwing guerrilla – Gustavo Petro – has been elected to Colombia’s highest office.
What is clear is that Petro has left his revolutionary past behind him. The group of which he was part – M-19 – negotiated pardons from the Colombian government for its members before becoming a political party in the late 1980’s. Since then, Petro himself became firmly committed to electoral politics, serving as mayor of Bogotá twice, and running for President of Colombia three times before winning in his last attempt.
What is not so certain is Colombia’s political future.
More to the point – the historical absence of the left in governing the country, a complicated party system, as well as years of mass demonstrations, present distinct challenges for the incoming administration. Still, there is reason to be hopeful, as well as excited, concerning Colombia’s prospects.
One reason for uncertainty involves the somewhat unique political path that Colombia has taken.
Specifically, there was Chávez in Venezuela, along with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who were considered part of what in the 2000’s became known as Latin America’s “Pink Tide.” Leftist in orientation, while varying from the more radical approach seen in Venezuela, to the reformist direction taken in Brazil, these governments defied US influence and turned away from neoliberal policies that had characterized the region’s politics for most of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Colombia swam against the “Pink Tide.”
To illustrate, compare some of the initiatives that were led by Colombia’s former rightwing President, Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), with what Rafael Correa (2007-2017) did in neighboring Ecuador.
Uribe, for instance, accepted billions of dollars in US military aid – part of Plan Colombia – to fight his country’s decades long civil war against leftist insurgents. Additionally, Uribe granted the US access to multiple military bases and promoted free trade deals between the two countries.
Quite simply, what leftwing rule will look like in Colombia is unclear.
Far from an aberration, Uribe’s time in power was part of the country’s experience of decades under rightwing leadership.
One reason for this dynamic is found in how Colombia’s party system developed over time.
Beginning in the 1950’s, two parties – the Colombian Conservative Party and the Colombian Liberal Party – alternated in power for the rest of the twentieth century. Controlling elections, as well as political appointments throughout government, Colombia’s party duopoly was elitist and exclusionary. In part, the political alienation that this system caused contributed to the rise of leftist guerrilla movements in the 1960’s. Central among these groups was FARC – (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia/The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
Uribe, while rightwing in terms of his politics, did not belong to either of the two dominant parties. This was part of his allure – as an outsider, it was thought that he could pacify the leftwing guerrillas, rightwing paramilitary groups, and drug cartels that were violently destroying the country. The results of his efforts are mixed, as while Colombia is more secure than before coming to power, Uribe’s government was racked by corruption scandals and connected to human rights abuses.
Regardless, with Uribe, Colombia’s party duopoly collapsed. Evidence is seen in the most recent 2022 elections to Colombia’s House of Representatives and Senate, where sixteen different parties gained seats.
The point is that governing in such a system can be tricky. Known as Coalitional Presidentialism, leaders who become President must negotiate with multiple competing parties to forward a common policy agenda. Not only is it difficult to bridge differences, but a President must negotiate with rivals who themselves may want to take charge someday.
What adds still more uncertainty to the present Colombian political moment are the string of protests that have unfolded over the past few years.
Demands for an increase in spending on education and healthcare, as well as general discontent over the slow implementation of the peace accords with FARC, were catalysts to the widespread demonstrations that began in 2019 before simmering down early in 2020. Student groups, labor unions, and Indigenous-led organizations were among those protesting. Queer and trans youth, as well, emerged as leaders in the actions. With the COVID-19 pandemic slowing the protests, a proposed tax reform triggered a renewal of demonstrations in 2021.
From how to navigate a complex party system, to responding to the demands of protestors, this is the complicated political context where Petro finds himself.
However daunting, this moment is also exciting, with the incoming President making various commitments, including transitioning the state-run oil company into the production of renewable energy and reexamining Colombia’s trade deals with the United States. He also has pledged to address inequality by raising taxes on unproductive, large-scale landholdings and providing free education.
The boldness of Petro’s proposals, as well as the tenacity that he has shown in vying for the Presidency on three separate occasions, shows a leader seriously committed to change. Popular support appears in his favor, from the streets, to the ballot box. For far too long, rightwing rule has unjustly subjected too many Colombians to violence, political exclusion, and poverty.
For these reasons, there’s hope.