Today, Colombia Votes on a Shift to the Left

Colombia heads to the polls today to reject the far-right politics of Iván Duque and Álvaro Uribe and assert that the average Colombian is much more progressive than the traditional politicians who represent them.

Gustavo Petro, Colombian presidential candidate for the left-wing Historic Pact coalition, leaves a polling station in Bogotá after casting his vote, May 29, 2022. (YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Ask anyone in Latin America and they’ll tell you: Colombian politics skew hard toward the right. Indeed, after nearly twenty years of conservative administrations and with a long track record as a willing outpost for American imperialism, Colombia has a reputation as a right-wing country — and it seems well earned.

Driving home the point, Colombia’s “strategic non-NATO ally” status was recently fast-tracked by the Biden administration, making it the only country in the region considered worthy to play a role in the US global security apparatus. A steadfast commitment to the Washington Consensus and US militarism has for years defined the country’s international agenda, even as it has compromised Colombia’s territorial integrity and that of Latin America in general.

Colombia’s hard-right turn is associated with one name in particular: former president Álvaro Uribe and his political movement, uribismo. More than just a domestic tendency, the far-right ideology that bears his name has aggressively pursued the spread of neoliberal economics and paramilitarism throughout the region. Implicated in the recent assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse and accused of conspiring against popularly elected governments, the Colombian paramilitary complex associated with Uribe spreads well beyond Colombia’s borders — and still enjoys a degree of popular support at home.

And yet Colombia’s corrupt and servile political oligarchy stands in stark contrast to the courage of the Colombian people themselves. The last year and a half, from the 2021 social uprising to the current campaign of Gustavo Petro, is proof Colombians are not the conservatives their right-wing government would suggest.

In fact, if Petro’s lead in the polls for today’s election is indicative of anything, it is that there is a groundswell from below pushing Colombian national politics in a decidedly progressive direction.

The Fog of War

Colombian and international media have played a leading role in portraying the Colombian people as politically conservative. That was the message delivered by news agencies when, in 2016, the peace accord between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government was shockingly voted down in a nationwide plebiscite. The subsequent victory of the pro-Uribe candidate Iván Duque Márquez in the 2018 presidential election was seen as confirmation of the narrative that Colombians tend to vote conservative.

That media account obscured several key facts. Then president Juan Manuel Santos disdained the average Colombian, and his government made little effort to explain to them what was at stake with the plebiscite, written in such a baroque style that many “no” voters later realized they had intended to choose “yes.” Uribe’s allies were also out in force, convincing people that peace was actually a vote to condone left-wing political violence and that former guerrilla fighters were being given preferential treatment.

The subsequent 2018 election bears many resemblances with the current contest. In both, the entire Colombian economic and political establishment banded together to demonize the progressive candidacies of Gustavo Petro and his then running mate, Ángela María Robledo (highlighting the guerrilla past of Petro, for example), while simultaneously downplaying obvious links between candidate Iván Duque and uribismo — by then widely recognized for its association with organized crime. Even the more moderate political sectors in Colombia were complicit in perpetuating the false idea that Duque was his own candidate — that is, not controlled by Uribe — and that he was a defender of the peace accords. The rapid escalation of paramilitary violence under his four-year term has proven how tragically wrong they were.

Worse still, as soon as it became clear that Duque’s administration would be a mere continuation of Uribe-style far-right politics, the political center washed its hands of any responsibility. The extreme poverty, forced displacement and dispossession of peasants and indigenous people, and soaring rates of violence against social movements and the Left were, it would seem, the fault of brutish, uneducated Colombian voters.

Social Upheaval

The elitist image of the Colombian people as politically unreliable dates back to the nineteenth century. The contemporary stigma, however, is a by-product of a confluence of two factors: the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and the doctrine of the “internal enemy” promoted by Álvaro Uribe.

The interlocking doctrines have served the Colombian right to brand any expression of political activism or dissent as an act of terrorism. And even as both doctrines have waned, their lingering effects continue to damage the exercise of left-wing politics, freedom of thought, and social movements in Colombia.

Building steam in 2019 and exploding in 2021, it took a monthslong, nationwide social upheaval to break through the media smokescreen and make the world aware of the Colombian people’s daily plight and discontent. The government repression that ensued — including Dantesque scenes of violence from the May 3 national strike — also revealed to a global audience two Colombias locked in battle.

On the one hand, there is a political class linked to organized crime and backed by paramilitaries and the police, willing to fire at point-blank range on demonstrators, maintain clandestine torture centers, and commit arbitrary arrests and outright violence against youth, black, peasant, and indigenous movements. As always, behind them were the desperate attempts by the media to paint democratic demands as acts of vandalism and expressions of irrational violence.

On the other hand, there was a mass movement numbering in the millions willing to stand up to paramilitary violence, forced food shortages, and government hostility tactics, just to hold the streets for more than two months and send a clear message to the whole world: the economy of war and forced dispossession in Colombia must come to an end.

Petro and Márqeuz

For too long, Colombian elites have been able to rely on a manufactured image: that of the Colombian people as violent, conservative, and uneducated, thus legitimizing the systematic use of violence against any attempt to “disturb the peace” — especially if it comes from political, social, and territorial movements.

That being the case, Colombia’s popular sectors and working class have fashioned their own response to that stereotype: a mobilized, collective political agent in the streets and, as confirmed by March legislative elections where the Left took a majority of seats, in the institutional halls of power.

This alliance between popular mobilization and political organization has given rise to the candidacies of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez and their Historic Pact alliance, which has revived the long-standing history of popular, left-wing struggle in Colombia. It also bears mentioning that the Colombian people have actively protected their candidates from assassination attempts, thus conjuring the ghost of past tragedies in which left-wing candidates were gunned down with impunity.

The candidacies of Petro and Márquez have given Colombia a historic opportunity to put an end to a regime of systemic violence while at the same time becoming a global leader in the transition from the fossil economy to a more environmentally sustainable economic model. Petro and Márquez also come from two of the regions most affected by the twin blights of armed conflict and racism — the Caribbean and Cauca regions, respectively. Their regional origin thus upsets the political centralism that has historically privileged elites in Bogotá and Medellín. Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez come from a background in popular resistance, human rights, and territorial defense, and both have been tireless advocates for an end to Colombia’s armed conflict.

Despite systematic fraud, the Historical Pact surprised all of Colombia in March by becoming the majority political force in the legislature. The international left will be holding their breath today for a repeat victory, in the hopes that, as Francia Máquez put it, left-wing politics in Colombia can move “from resistance into power, until dignity becomes an everyday habit.”