The Left Is Finally Rising in Colombia

Last week’s election in Colombia saw the best result for the Left in decades and confirmed Gustavo Petro as favorite to become the country’s first socialist president. It’s a major shift in a country that has long been dominated by US-backed right-wing leaders.

Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate for Colombia’s left-wing and progressive coalition, Pacto Historico. It has become the country’s most popular political movement following the congressional elections on Sunday, March 13, 2022. (Guillermo Legaria Schweizer / Getty Images)

Colombia’s left-wing and progressive coalition, Pacto Historico, has become the country’s most popular political movement following the congressional elections on Sunday, March 13. This historical victory threatens two hundred years of ruling-class hegemony, with most of the coalition’s representatives coming from campesino and working-class backgrounds. Depending on what happens in May’s presidential election, this win could have global reverberations. Crucially, the West stands to lose the unconditional loyalty of its most stable ally in the region.

Gustavo Petro, the coalition’s presidential candidate, comes from a family of rural workers who, like many in the country, were forced to migrate toward the capital to escape poverty and violence. As expected, Petro won the coalition’s primaries with more than four million votes. Francia Marquez, a rural black activist within the alliance, also made history with close to a million votes — more than all the mainstream candidates received in their respective primaries, and despite having never held a political post.

Although the progressive coalition is the most dominant political force in the country, the center and right-wing parties are now forming their alliance to impede their progress toward the presidency in May. What happens next depends on Pacto Historico’s ability to mobilize first-time and swing voters and persuade the more popular center parties and leaders to join the coalition, a feat Petro failed at in the 2018 elections.

The centrists who purport to represent an alternative to the country’s polarized political camps are, in all but name, part of the country’s traditional conservative right-wing elites. Petro’s moderate policy proposals, closer to the center than the centrists are, have alarmed these elites and their Western allies. Petro and his coalition demand a cautious redistribution of the country’s vast wealth and insist his brand of leftism is different from the processes in Cuba and Venezuela. He recently quipped that the rich need not fear him as no one was “expropriated” during his time as Bogota’s mayor.

However, it is not Petro’s moderate economic policies that the country’s Western-backed elites fear, so much as the possibility of the opening of the democratic political space. And they are right to be wary. For more than two centuries, Colombia has boasted of being the longest-serving consecutive democracy in Latin America, having never experienced the region’s all too common coup d’états and dictatorships. What has existed, nonetheless, is two centuries of oligarchic dictatorship. The ruling classes have been able to monopolize the country’s political system with a democratic façade in which the nation’s wealthy families share power via the liberal or democratic parties, or in recent history, their offshoots.

The Pacto Historico, despite being moderate, would be a definitive break with two centuries of elite rule, with consequences for both the country and the region. Crucially, its insistence on properly implementing the 2016 peace accords and demilitarization could allow more radical political movements to develop and contest political power — something that, until now, has been suppressed using Western-backed military and paramilitary force and state misinformation.

Colombia and the West

The West has a historical interest in Colombia, both for trade and for its regional geopolitical importance. Indebted due to financial backing during the independence struggle, Colombia’s sprouting elites were pushed into unequal trading and political relations with the UK and the United States. The situation was so dire that the independence leader Simón Bolívar complained once that this relationship had engendered a “chaos of horrors, calamities, and crimes . . . and Colombia is a victim whose entrails these vultures are tearing to shreds.”

Two hundred years on, his words still hold. Much of the country’s yearly GDP continues to be siphoned off to pay historical debts to the West, and the economy continues to serve the interests of a few, but particularly Western capitalists. And although Colombia is widely understood to be economically exploited and politically subdued by US government and business interests, Europe also has its fingers in the pie: the UK has more than one hundred multinational corporations in the country, among them none other than BP, which signed a multimillion-pound deal with Colombia’s ministry of defence to help protect its business interests.

The UK government itself has spent tens of millions in support of the country’s military and police forces, despite decades of human rights violations. When Colombia’s police and right-wing assassins worked together to kill and repress young protesters, it was exposed that the UK’s military and police forces had offered them training and support. Moreover, although the EU has long purported to support a peaceful solution to the violent conflict, its member states continue to provide funding and training to the violent Colombian state. Spain, like the UK, has ignored the nation’s dire human rights record and continues to fuel the nation’s internal war on the side of the state by providing them with modern military equipment, particularly aircraft.

In 2017, the conflict-ridden nation became NATO’s first Latin American partner. This move was justified on the basis of security cooperation. More recently, to ward off supposed Chinese and Russian influence, right-wing US congressmen Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez proposed further consolidated military cooperation with Latin America. Weeks later, Colombia signed the US-Colombia Strategic Alliance Act, one of the main aims of which was the provision of “additional benefits in the areas of defense trade and security cooperation.”

Colombia’s elites and their Western allies are rightly wary of the Pacto Historico in this sense. Its pro-peace, anti-militarism stance threatens their interests, and not just in Colombia but throughout the region.

A New Colombia?

For many decades, Colombia’s left has envisioned a Nueva Colombia, a Colombia that has finally overcome the surviving colonial legacies and the violent capitalist exploitation of the masses. Pacto Historico, with all its historical importance, cannot yet birth this ideal. What it can do is ready the ground. It is the only hope Colombians have for a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict. And the coalition itself — made up of communists, socialists, social democrats, liberals, and black and indigenous activists—is a breathing example of the new Colombia.

The liberal democratic ideal on which many pinned their hopes in earlier decades, culminating in the 1991 constitution, has proven fruitless in practice. As this becomes clearer to the population, the state responds with open repression. With the support of powerful foreign allies, Colombia’s ruling class will do all in their power to frustrate a transition. For the Pacto Historico to achieve power in May, they must gain more ground in the electorate and be ready to contend with the state’s machinery: information war, election fraud, and violent military and paramilitary aggression.

Colombia has a historic chance to end decades of war and oppression peacefully and democratically. It is up to us to mobilize the people — and for the ruling class to accept the inevitability, eventually, of a new Colombia.