Normality has seemingly returned to Colombia. Streets are buzzing, restaurants and salsa clubs are open, masks are rarely seen — the pandemic appears to have receded into the past, becoming one topic among others. But the economic effects of COVID-19 linger on. The hardship experienced as people were forced into lockdown without means to sustain their income had a profound impact on the way Colombians experience and view their quality of life.
A lack of opportunities for the youth, rising inequality, and rampant corruption have come to characterize the Latin American nation that has been ruled by right-wing and conservative governments since independence. But the pandemic ignited a mass wake-up over the government’s lack of care for the poor. In response to Bogotá’s proposal to implement a regressive tax on public services that would further worsen people’s living conditions, more than five million Colombians united and took to the streets in May 2021 in unprecedented protests that were met with fierce police brutality.
Protests have subsided, but economic hardship remains prevalent. In 2021, 39.3% of Colombians were living in poverty — a reduction from 42.5% in 2020 but still up from the pre-pandemic figure of 35.7%. Inflation is nearing 9 percent, with food prices severely impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Before the pandemic, life was easier. The cash you had lasted longer. Now food prices keep rising uncontrollably, but our wages don’t keep up. Necessities are becoming unaffordable luxuries,” said Andrea Bermudez, a retail worker from the southern town of Buga.
As a result, most Colombians are determined to press for change in the upcoming elections. But the unity of last year’s protests has frayed.
According to the polls, 38 percent of Colombians favor left-wing presidential front-runner and former guerrilla member Gustavo Petro. But fear of becoming Venezuela, widespread skepticism of socialism, and even concerns that Colombia may go back to the days of intense guerrilla fighting are stumbling blocks in the country’s quest for change.
And yet Colombia’s primaries in March showed an astonishing lurch to the left as now senator Petro won with 4.49 million votes compared to 2.16 million votes for Petro’s main rival, former Medellín mayor Federico Gutiérrez.
In a remarkable victory for vastly underrepresented women in Colombian politics, Afro-Colombian feminist and human rights activist Francia Márquez rose to second place in Petro’s left-wing primary. She is now his running mate and will be vice president if Petro can win.
The duo has mobilized millions of Colombians, particularly the dismayed youth.
“My hope is that we will be able to change our country, make our country more inclusive and economically stable. We must invest in our people and improve education so that the changes will be carried further in the future by new generations,” said Daniela Bermudez, a young woman from Cali.
Diego Fernando Campo Valencia, founder of the NGO Fundación Proyectando Vidas, explained that the Colombian youth often weren’t political in the past. But “today,” he said,
they are what this country counts on. Many repressed emotions about injustices erupted during the pandemic. And although the entire establishment works against Petro, he is continuing to empower people every day. He signifies that change for our country is possible.
This year’s election is Petro’s third bid for president. In 2018, he lost the runoff to the right-wing candidate Iván Duque by twelve points. A former M-19 guerrilla, Petro later took part in peace talks that paved the way for the M-19 to disarm and form a left-wing political party in 1990. He would spend the latter part of his career focusing on electoral politics and served in Colombia’s congress for nearly two decades before becoming the mayor of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, in 2011 after a first failed bid for the presidency in 2010.
But while for many Petro represents change, others unite behind the more moderate Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, claiming that Petro — who has shown a willingness to work with conservatives himself — will build an authoritarian socialist state in Colombia. Backed by right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe, Fico and his team have effectively stoked fears of the “Venezuela scenario.”
Jorge Rodríguez and Luiz Ramírez, two postal office workers, agree that change is desperately needed in Colombia. “But we need to change the country to become a better version of itself; we do not want to be like Venezuela. Petro is too far left; he cannot unite. Fico truly represents the people,” both men told Jacobin.
Clara Inés, an unemployed nurse, agrees: “Socialism scares me. Just look at Venezuela. Our government is disappointing indeed, but anything is better than being like Venezuela.”
Petro is rebutting fears that he will create a second Venezuela, arguing that Colombia already is like Venezuela. “The economic system is the same,” he told Colombia’s Tropicana FM, comparing both countries’ heavy dependence on oil revenues and rising food prices. On a recent campaign trail stop in Cúcuta near the Venezuelan border, he even went as far as to compare Duque to Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro.
Foreign investors, however, frown at Petro’s commitment to finding new economic development models that do not rely on extractive industries like oil, arguing that it would “devastate” the oil-rich nation’s economy.
Taking advantage of Petro’s controversies, Fico positions himself as the only person who can unite Colombians from Right and Left. Most of his campaign, however, is based on discrediting his rival.
“Fico says he is pro-change but has nothing new to say — he is the continuation of Uribismo,” said Andrea. Diego Fernando, formerly involved member of Colombia’s Nuevo Liberalismo party, added that “most Colombians understand that Fico is the old ruling power in disguise.”
To counter fears by the business community, Petro insists that expropriations are off the table and that he instead envisages a cautious redistribution of Colombia’s wealth. Nonetheless, Petro’s vision for Colombia involves a profound reshuffling of the vast power held by the country’s elite. This has made Petro the top enemy of the right-wing establishment that has ruled Colombia for decades.
Although the ruling Duque and his Centro Democrático party have not put forward their candidacy, behind the scenes they are targeting Petro and his Pacto Histórico party with disinformation campaigns in mainstream and social media. More crucially, they allow security threats by closely affiliated paramilitary groups to proceed unhindered.
Political assassinations have a long history in Colombia. Petro and Márquez have faced multiple threats by far-right paramilitary groups and are taking significant risks to their lives challenging the establishment.
Most recently, Petro canceled his campaign trip to Colombia’s coffee region as his security team received first-hand information that the La Cordillera crime gang was planning to make an attempt on his life.
Petro has been quick to allege that “Uribe’s circle” is behind the threat. Colombia’s National Police, who are strong backers of the right-wing establishment, denied having any information about such a threat. And while President Duque affirmed that they were taking the threat seriously, Uribe publicly lashed out against Petro, calling for an investigation into his attempts to smear the ruling party.
Petro is the only candidate who fills squares full of people; his campaign is based on contact with real people. But unfortunately, when he is out there, he is in a very vulnerable position, which makes these threats to his life very powerful,
explained Diego Fernando. “Petro’s death would be devastating for Colombia. It would destabilize the country and unleash a civil war.”
Despite the threats against his life, Petro resumed his campaign a few days later — not without a notable security reinforcement, including an armored vest underneath his shirt.
The heavy security reinforcement is a symbol of Colombia’s fragile democracy. The right-wing establishment is the cause of Colombia’s contemporary instability. Bolstered by the United States over decades in its war against drugs, Colombia has received billions of US dollars in military assistance. The revelation of connections between right-wing paramilitary groups and Colombian leaders in 2004 did little to alter US-Colombia relations. It did not stop US money from flowing nor continued diplomatic support.
A government led by Petro will sever and permanently change relations with the United States. The US may indeed lose its closest ally in the region — perhaps as a result of decades of US support for paramilitary forces, political oppression, and economic exploitation.
Supposing the right-wing elite overcome their current collapse in popularity, it may well spell the end to Colombia’s quest for radical change and produce right-wing rule over the country. On May 29, Colombians will make that decision themselves.