Colombia’s Left Is on the Brink of a Historic Breakthrough

Left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro is still leading the polls ahead of this month’s Colombian presidential election. If he succeeds, Petro will have to overcome the dark legacy of Colombia’s hard-right oligarchy and a shameful history of US intervention.

Left-wing Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro gives a thumbs up during a campaign rally on May 11, 2022, in Fusagasugá, Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images)

For the first time in its modern history, Colombia may well elect a left-wing president in the presidential elections this May 29. Polls have consistently placed the former M-19 guerrilla member, senator, and mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, well ahead of his right-wing opponent, Federico Gutiérrez.

While Petro’s best polling scores would still not be high enough for him to avoid a second-round runoff on June 19, the fact that he is the clear front-runner is remarkable enough in itself. Twenty years ago, when the hard-right politician and steadfast US ally Álvaro Uribe won the presidency, it was unthinkable that the Colombian left might gain power through elections.

What has changed in the meantime, and what implications might a left-wing victory in the upcoming election have for US policy toward Colombia and Latin America more broadly?

Colombia’s Long War

The answer lies in a combination of internal and external factors, from the waning influence of the United States to Petro’s rising popularity during the current president Iván Duque’s term in office since 2018. These developments have transformed a national political landscape long dominated by Álvaro Uribe, both in and out of office.

In 2016, Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, and the largest leftist rebel army, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), signed a historic peace agreement to end a decades-long civil war. The combination of civil conflict and the illicit drug economy had long dominated political and electoral debate in Colombia. It was extremely difficult for the Left to participate peacefully in national politics due to the constant threat of mass violence and murder at the hands of state forces and right-wing paramilitaries.

From the late 1990s, a succession of presidents who ranged from center-right to hard-right in their politics held office: Andrés Pastrana (1998–2002), Uribe (2002–10), Santos (2010–18), and most recently Duque (2018–22). They focused to varying but significant degrees on the threat of the FARC and Colombia’s drug cartels, often depicting the two as interchangeable forces, while generally neglecting the widespread poverty and inequality that helped to sustain both guerrilla insurgency and the drug trade.

These administrations also routinely denied or downplayed the far greater human rights threat that the military and paramilitaries posed under their watch to large segments of the population who the national security state deemed to be subversive. Those at greatest risk of such violence included the rural and urban poor, trade unionists, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians, and those associated with the Left.

Pastrana, Clinton, and Plan Colombia

In 1998, Andrés Pastrana’s campaign centered on three main points: fighting drug cartels, improving Colombian-US relations after tensions under the previous government of Ernesto Samper (1994–98), and negotiating with the FARC. Upon election, Pastrana sought international financial support for his ambitious agenda, although the United States remained his principal ally.

According to then senator Joseph Biden’s report on illegal drugs, published in May 2000, Colombia was “the source of up to 75 percent of the world’s processed cocaine.” Biden’s report also warned that coca production was growing dramatically: “In the last four years, net coca cultivation has more than doubled in terms of area, from 51,000 hectares in 1995 to 122,500 hectares in 1999,” far more than in Peru and Bolivia.

Despite Biden’s characterization of Colombia as a drug-infested nation, Pastrana did not initially propose a militarized solution to the drug issue or the armed conflict. Instead, he pursued negotiations with the FARC and proposed an economic plan for peasants to substitute other types of crops for coca leaves. Pastrana’s original plan, published in May 1999, did not even mention drug trafficking, military aid, or fumigation. Its primary focus was on achieving peace and reducing the perpetual crime and violence that had made Colombia one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

However, the Bill Clinton administration would only support Pastrana’s request for aid in return for a complete transformation of his plan. In 2000, when both governments unveiled Plan Colombia, it had little in common with Pastrana’s previous blueprint. The US-mandated changes were so extensive that the first draft of Plan Colombia was released only in English, with the Spanish version materializing months later. The new program eliminated any reference to rural poverty as a cause of illegal crop cultivation for drug production.

The primary purpose of Clinton’s Plan Colombia was to militarize drug policy. Biden’s report to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations requested billions in funding for the project:

Helping Colombia is squarely in America’s national interest. It is the source of many of the drugs poisoning our people. It is not some far-off land with which the United States shares little in common. It is an established democracy in America’s backyard — just a few hours by air from Miami.

The reference to “our people” implicitly alluded to middle- and upper-class whites in the United States — the demographic most responsible for driving demand for drugs.

In the more than fifty pages of Biden’s report, there were only two that acknowledged the existence of “a dire human rights situation in Colombia,” without specifying clear accountability measures that would link US aid to minimum human rights standards.

The Rise of Uribe

Several years of tense negotiations between the Pastrana administration and the FARC unfolded in this context of US-led militarization and ultimately ended in failure. A deep economic crisis triggered by a domestic mortgage crisis and an external currency-exchange crisis originating in Asia aggravated Colombia’s already volatile sociopolitical situation. The economic crisis in 1999 caused Colombian GDP to fall by 4.2 percent — one of the worst declines of the twentieth century.

Álvaro Uribe ran for the presidency soon after the breakdown of the peace process with the FARC. He blamed the guerrillas for the failure of negotiations — and for the economic crisis — campaigning on the slogan “Firm Hand, Big Heart” (Mano firme, corazón grande). Popular frustration over the country’s deteriorating economic and security conditions helped Uribe project an image of national patriarch and savior. Once in office, he rejected the idea of further negotiations, seeking to defeat the FARC militarily.

Uribe’s hard-right turn and branding of the FARC as terrorists dovetailed with the second Bush administration’s “war on terror” after 9/11. Colombia bucked the continental “Pink Tide” trend of left-of-center presidents winning elections in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia, all of which resisted US hegemony and neoliberal economic policies in various ways during the 2000s. Congress approved an additional multibillion-dollar infusion at the request of the George W. Bush administration. US military aid upgraded the Colombian army’s weapon and intelligence capabilities so that it could take the offensive in vast FARC-controlled areas.

A high guerrilla body count was the principal metric of “success” for the Colombian army and the right-wing paramilitaries, who frequently worked together. They presented every combat death of a guerrillero as proof that the army was wresting control of territory away from the FARC. In their eager pursuit of high body counts, many Colombian soldiers assassinated innocent civilians from poor rural and urban areas and then disguised them as guerrilleros killed in combat. As former army major Gustavo Soto recently confessed, “Arrests did not matter, only deaths.”

This strategy of producing “false positives” fostered the macabre notion that anyone sympathizing with the FARC — or more likely, accused of sympathizing — deserved to die. Uribe’s government either enabled or actively aided and abetted such egregious human rights violations, while consistently associating left-of-center politicians, activists, and trade unionists with the FARC. This put their lives at grave risk.

Gustavo Petro, then a senator in the Colombian Congress, was one of those targeted in this manner. Uribe referred to Petro as a “terrorist wearing civilian clothes” because he fearlessly denounced the military escalation, fueled by Plan Colombia, that had turned Colombia into a human rights disaster zone.

Santos and the Peace Process

It is important to acknowledge that Uribe’s reelection as president in 2006 did not rest upon fear and violence alone. Nor can we explain the survival of Uribismo as a potent political force after he left office in such terms. Substantial segments of the Colombian population in both rural and urban areas felt safer because of Uribe’s hard-line policies. At the same time, they benefited from a continentwide economic boom fueled by high commodity prices that were driven in part by high Chinese demand.

As a result, Juan Manuel Santos, who had served in Uribe’s government, promised continuity when he ran for president in the 2010 election. However, Santos broke with Uribe after taking office and begin to seek a negotiated solution to the civil war. He conducted secret talks with the FARC that were hosted by Venezuela and Cuba and brokered at the end by the Barack Obama administration.

The divergence between Santos and Uribe partly stemmed from their very different social backgrounds. Santos belonged to a traditional family of politicians representing a more socially progressive and educated urban upper-class layer. In contrast, Uribe cast himself as an outsider to this class: he was aligned with the rural upper class of landowners who represented more conservative social values.

Once in power, Santos managed to garner significant political support without Uribe’s backing, since his long experience in politics helped him to forge alliances with opposing political parties. He successfully stood for reelection in 2014 against the Uribe-backed right-wing candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga.

Santos also differed from Uribe by decreasing dependence on US aid and diversifying Colombia’s sources of foreign aid, focusing less on the military and more on socioeconomic development. Unlike George W. Bush, Obama supported this more moderate approach. However, this change in US policy was mostly tactical and limited to Colombia during Obama’s first term.

Elsewhere in the region, Obama largely continued US bipartisan imperialist business as usual, condoning the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted its elected left-wing president, Manuel Zelaya. He also continued Bush’s sanctions on Venezuela under the democratically elected leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, supposedly imposed because of human rights violations that were, at the time, much less severe than those in US ally Colombia.

Duque’s Double Game

Uribe’s protégé Iván Duque was elected president in 2018 at a time of acute social discontent and rising opposition to Santos. Despite the achievements of Santos in negotiating the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC and improving national economic and social indicators, his lack of charisma limited his ability to expand his political base.

Indeed, when Santos called a popular referendum on the peace agreement in October 2016, it was narrowly defeated on a low turnout of just over 37 percent after a “No” campaign that channeled the international discourse of right-wing populism. Santos made some minor alterations to the agreement and pressed ahead without calling a second referendum.

Santos’s approval rating also suffered from his tax reforms targeting the upper-middle classes. With Uribe’s support, Duque devised the slogan “lower taxes and higher wages.” Ironically, his administration would later provoke massive demonstrations in spring 2021 after Duque proposed to increase taxes amid the severe economic crisis triggered by COVID-19.

As a candidate, Duque tried to reconcile the interests of the upper rural and urban classes by presenting himself as an educated, well-mannered, and pragmatic politician. He also benefited electorally when Sergio Fajardo, the centrist candidate who placed third in the first round of the 2018 election, urged his supporters to cast blank votes in the second-round runoff between Gustavo Petro and Duque. This call hurt Petro far more than it did Duque.

Nevertheless, Duque’s victory was electorally underwhelming. Once in power, he found himself between a rock and a hard place when it came to the peace process and other international commitments. On the one hand, Duque’s most fervent supporters actively opposed the agreement with the FARC, and he could not antagonize them. On the other hand, the peace agreement was both a national and international one to which subsequent Colombian presidents, regardless of their ideology, were legally bound.

Foreign aid greatly depended on Colombia meeting its international commitments. Trying to thread the delicate needle between the domestic and international spheres, Duque championed the peace process abroad, claiming to lead a progressive government that was also committed to mitigating climate change in accordance with the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 and subsequent global climate negotiations. On the home front, however, Duque changed his tune for his hard-right supporters, criticizing the peace agreement and promoting fracking and mining.

A Waning Force

Duque was constitutionally barred from seeking reelection this time around. The main candidate of the right, Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, is unlikely to defeat a left-wing challenge once again spearheaded by Petro. In the past few years, despite the defeat of the referendum and Duque’s undermining of the peace agreement, the conflict with the FARC and the criminalization of the unarmed left have receded. These specters no longer scare the Colombian middle and upper classes as they did in decades past.

There have also been further revelations about the scale and scope of the “false positives” scandal. Last year, the special tribunal for peace estimated that the Colombian security forces had killed at least 6,402 civilians in this manner, primarily between 2002 and 2008. Last month, in exchange for lighter sentences, an army general and several officers publicly admitted to the families of 120 victims that they had committed crimes against humanity. “We assassinated innocent people: campesinos,” said Nestor Guillermo Gutiérrez, a former member of the Colombian army.

In addition to this scandal that has sullied the legacy of his mentor Uribe, Duque stoked up popular frustration through his unwillingness to alleviate high levels of unemployment and informality (particularly among young people), inequality, and poverty, all of which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. This contributed to the massive protests of 2021. Using the time-honored smear of conflating the protesters with the FARC and its sympathizers, Duque’s government cracked down harshly, and the national police killed dozens of protesters.

In spite of this, Joe Biden did not condemn Duque for weeks, let alone suspend any portion of the $450 million in aid earmarked for Colombia that year. There was a striking contrast with Biden’s immediate condemnation of a much less violent crackdown on similar protests that erupted in Cuba two months later, and which also received saturation coverage from US corporate media, unlike the events in Colombia. It was another example of the blatant double standards applied by Washington to right-wing and left-wing governments in Latin America.

Petro’s Challenge

Petro’s campaign is promising to address the social demands that Duque refused to deal with. It is also highlighting other issues that are important to a younger generation of Colombians, such as environmental protection and support for refugees from Venezuela and elsewhere. For the first time in decades, the obsessive focus of the Colombian right on the FARC and the drug war is no longer a winning political and electoral approach.

However, there are many reasons to be wary about whether Petro, in the likely event he is elected, can carry out his ambitious agenda, even with a Democrat in the White House. While Biden may not seek to actively undermine the first elected left-wing president in one of Latin America’s largest countries, that does not mean he will be willing to fundamentally change the militarized framework of US-Colombian relations. Indeed, Biden has a long history of supporting that framework.

Moreover, polls suggest that the Republican Party will sweep the midterm congressional elections this fall. The Republicans have wide connections with extreme-right forces in Latin America and have sought to emulate their authoritarian tactics in challenging Biden’s election with groundless claims of electoral fraud.

Confronted with this political context, Biden will probably be less willing to move US foreign policy in a more progressive direction lest he be criticized as “soft on Communism.” After all, even after the Democratic victory of 2020 in both Congress and the White House, Biden broke his campaign pledge to change Donald Trump’s hard-line policies towards Cuba and even strengthened the sanctions, despite the humanitarian crisis sparked by COVID-19. (An even more dire situation exists in Venezuela, although in the latter case, Biden did not promise during his campaign to change Trump’s policy.)

No matter how Biden is going to respond to Petro’s likely victory, the latter’s campaign promises to implement progressive social reforms — reducing inequality, expanding access to education and health care, combating climate change — that would help address the long-neglected needs of the majority of Colombians. Yet however weakened Colombia’s hard right may now be in comparison to earlier periods, it still casts a long, dark shadow over the current political landscape. A large part of Colombia’s population fears the kind of progressive changes that the country’s first left-wing government would strive to bring about and will vehemently resist those reforms if Petro becomes president.