Colombia Is Finally in the Midst of a Long-Awaited Opening for Left Politics

With ​​Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez’s win in its presidential election, Colombia finally has a chance to roll back its decades of violence and inequality stoked by the country’s status as one of the US’s principal allies in the western hemisphere.

Gustavo Petro, Colombia's president-elect, and Francia Márquez, Colombia's vice president–elect, receive presidential credentials at the National Civil Registry in Bogotá, Colombia, on June 23, 2022. (Nathalia Angarita / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On June 19, Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez sealed victory in the Colombian presidential race to achieve what once seemed unthinkable: a left-wing governing alliance in the country better known for paramilitarism, the US-led Drug War, and a seemingly endless succession of right-wing political elites in government.

Just as remarkable, the Historic Pact party can count a handful of achievements in its favor before having even taken office: the ELN guerrilla army (the National Liberation Army), which has remained active during the country’s peace process, has agreed to sit down to negotiate demobilization with the incoming government; talks have also begun with Venezuela to reopen the countries’ enormous shared border, to this day a hot spot for armed conflict and symbol of political tensions between the two nations; even former president Álvaro Uribe, the far-right caudillo of Colombian paramilitarism, has met with ex-guerrilla leader Petro to send a message of dialogue and tolerance during this new, uncertain stage of Colombian politics.

The emphasis, of course, is on uncertainty. Petro and Márquez look to chart a course toward lasting peace and demilitarization, redistribution and environmental justice in a Colombia where almost half of the country did not vote for the Historic Pact candidates, where an opportunistic “populist” candidate gave them stiff competition in the runoff elections, and where right-wing Uribismo — currently in the form of sitting right-wing president, Iván Duque — remains deeply embedded in state structures and civil society.

And yet, despite those challenges, Petro and Márquez already united progressive forces to defeat Colombia’s right-wing machine at the ballot box. In fact, if Colombia’s recent elections indicate anything, it is that there will be plenty of reason for optimism when the country’s first left-wing president enters the Casa de Nariño presidential office in August.

A Historic Night

Going into the race, Petro and Márquez were the natural candidates to channel the momentum of the country’s 2021 social uprising against President Duque’s austerity measures. Taking aim at Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, Duque’s successor and the Uribe continuity candidate, many thought the strategy would deliver victory in the general election. But they hadn’t counted on the unexpected emergence of “outsider” candidate Rodolfo Hernández.

Gustavo Petro during a feminist debate in Bogota, on June 2, 2022. (Daniel Munoz / AFP via Getty Images)

Also drawing on rising antiestablishment sentiment, Hernández forced the progressive campaign to retool its strategy for the runoff election. The Historic Pact called on Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, the Catalan campaign strategist who worked with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party, in an effort to overcome lingering anti-leftist sentiment and fashion an image of Petro as a more laid back candidate, playing soccer on Sundays and engaging in relatable everyday activities.

In another decisive move, Petro appeared in public events alongside prominent feminist leaders in the days leading up to the second-round vote. This was especially significant considering the former Bogotá mayor, who had long been a standard bearer for feminists and the LGBT agenda in Colombia, had recently formed electoral alliances with groups including evangelicals and conservatives. Wearing the iconic green handkerchief in support of reproductive rights, Petro showed awareness of the strategic importance of women among his base and the key mobilizing role that the feminist movement has played throughout his political career.

Even as poll numbers gave Petro and Márquez the edge on the eve of the runoff election, it was still hard to completely conjure the ghosts of Colombia’s 2018 election, when Petro lost to the Uribe-backed Iván Duque under highly suspicious circumstances. Many feared a repeat of ballot fraud, since the source code for the vote-counting software had never been subject to an outside audit. Adding to the threat of vote tampering were rumors of a transport strike — recalling similar sabotage attempts in Chile’s 2021 election — and even the outright refusal of the sitting Uribista government to recognize the results.

Moreover, a long history of persecution and assassination of leftists in Colombia made the threats distinctly credible.

Una Vida, Muchas Vidas

In his autobiography Una vida, muchas vida, Petro recalls a key turning point for both himself and Colombia. In 1990, the then-guerilla member Petro convinced his comrade Carlos Pizarro, leader of the April 19 Movement (M-19), to sign a peace agreement with the Colombian government that would allow the organization to surrender arms and compete in electoral politics.

That popular decision catapulted Pizarro’s 1990 presidential candidacy, but it was followed by tragedy: Pizarro was assassinated and a new cycle of violence known as the “offensive against the Patriotic Union” began, claiming the lives of thousands of former guerrillas and left-wing militants.

In a press briefing for the Historic Pact held the day before the second-round election, Senator María José Pizarro, Carlos Pizarro’s daughter, underscored how far Colombia has advanced since the 1990s, and how much that progress is because of the democratic commitments of the Colombian left:

First and foremost, we have conducted our campaign amid democratic rule. We are the heirs of the struggle for peace, the defense of democracy and the fight for equality. We face many adverse circumstances and we knew, as progressives and leftists, that taking power in Colombia was never going to be easy. But we put our trust in the work we have done over the last decades — and the last four years in particular — and in the wisdom of the Colombian people. We are tremendously optimistic because we know that everything we have created up to this point has been preparing us to be the best government the country has ever had.

Judging by the Historic Pact’s platform, there is good reason to believe María José Pizarro. Known as “Colombia, potencia mundial de la vida” (roughly, “Colombia, a global power of life”), the government program states that the new administration will pursue social change beginning with Colombian women, redressing their lack of political representation, economic autonomy, and equality in relation to men, and by guaranteeing all women in Colombia the right to a life free of violence and with the decision to do what they please with their bodies (reasserting the recently passed law legalizing abortion).

Also prominent in their platform is a raft of policies to make urgent progress around climate change and to offset the loss of biodiversity in Colombia. Central among them are measures and incentives to wean the country off its dependence on resource extraction while socializing the use of clean energies, as part of a larger national economic vision that would pivot away from environmentally destructive industries.

Other key policy proposals include a comprehensive redistribution plan to address widespread inequality, in a country routinely ranked as one of the most unequal in the world. Underscoring the critical importance of a social equality program, the Afro-Colombian social activist and vice president, Márquez, will herself head up the newly created Ministry of Equality. The Historic Pact is also readying a far-reaching technology plan to provide all Colombians with access to the Internet and to keep the country abreast of new developments in industrial policy.

The Peace Process

During the same press meeting, Pizarro insisted that “the true legacy of the M-19 was that it called for a national dialogue [for peace]. Still, the situation today is different from then, since the peace process is backed by much broader political representation and the country itself has been through countless peace processes. The time has come to leave our sons and daughters with the legacy of true peace.”

the Historic Pact Election Headquarters, moments after victory was announced. (Courtesy of Julián Reingold)

In order to fulfill that legacy, Petro has accepted the recommendations of Colombia’s Truth Commission, an independent entity established following the Peace Accords between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the government of Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 to oversee the implementation of the peace process.

When voters refer to the need for change in Colombia — the site of a sixty-year war and home to the single longest internal conflict in the Western Hemisphere, which has left hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, and thousands unaccounted for — they are referring centrally to peace legacy of which Pizarro spoke and for which Petro was elected.

The president-elect has been emphatic in his commitment to the Peace Accords, accepting all the stipulations of the Commission despite some personal reservations. Petro has criticized the deal for its framing as an agreement between armed combatants, foreclosing the possibility of a broader social pact which would require addressing issues like inequality, land distribution, and the larger social context that gives rise to armed conflict.

Mainstream opinion in Colombia went into overdrive when Sofia Petro, daughter of the presidential candidate, issued a statement in that same vein during the campaign: if the neoliberal impresario Rodolfo Hernández were to win, she threatened, it would only be a matter of time before widening inequality and growing poverty led to other, even more violent episodes and social unrest like that of 2021.

Hernández was not on hand to respond to Sofia Petro’s claim as he had already decamped to Miami under the pretext of fleeing an (unconfirmed) death threat. A fairly transparent ploy to avoid a televised debate with Petro, the political opportunist’s move drew uncanny parallels with the tactics employed by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018 and with Chile in 2021, which saw another impresario outsider, Franco Parisi, come within a hair of the runoff while running his campaign remotely from the United States.

More sinister, it was a reminder that the Colombian right is a transnational entity whose networks, overlapping with paramilitaries and hired mercenaries, will not be dismantled overnight.

“My Name Is Gustavo Petro and I Am Your President”

“One, two, three … testing. The time for change has come!” cried one of the hosts on election night as microphones were tested in the Historic Pact’s election HQ. Soon, other slogans rang out over the loudspeaker, many telling a more difficult story about the human toll of political struggle in Colombia: “Not even a minute of silence for our dead. They live on through our struggle.”

After an initial exit poll gave Hernández a slight lead, the Historic Pact eventually pulled ahead, and the election was called that same night without major incident in favor of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez.

As the jingle “Petro, My President, Change is Coming” reverberated throughout the election headquarters at Movistar Arena, Gustavo Petro emerged to greet his supporters and set down his first plan for government:

We must lay out a plan to pursue an energy transition across the Americas. We are prepared to engage in a Latin American–wide dialogue about how to accomplish that transition in a way that won’t create social exclusion. Environmental justice means producing while respecting nature, and we need to move away from the old extractivist economy that has destroyed our water, and move towards a collaborative economy that can exist in harmony with the natural environment.

Petro concluded his speech by inviting Antanas Mockus, historic leader of the Colombian Green Party and the mother of Dilan Cruz, to join him on stage. Cruz, a young man, was killed by an agent of Colombia’s widely repudiated Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) during street protests that rocked the country in 2019: “The way forward is not killing each other, but loving one another.” He spoke while embracing Cruz’s mother: “A government of life means just that: peace, social justice, and environmental justice. Our goal is to make Colombia a world power of life.”

Indigenous Protectors

Closing the election-night rally, Colombia’s organized indigenous collective, the Guardia Indígena, entered the stage as an eerily familiar tune was sung: “Compañeros have fallen, but we will not be defeated.”

As University of Antioquia law professor Nicolás Ceballos Bedoya explained, the Guardia Indígena represents the indigenous movements of Colombia’s Cauca region. During the colonial era and beyond, the indigenous inhabitants of Cauca carefully guarded their territories and identity, and the Colombian Constitution of 1991 further reinforced their right to political autonomy and representation.

Members of the Guardia Indígena at Gustavo Petro’s victory rally. (Courtesy of Julián Reingold)

In Bedoya’s words, the Guardia Indígena are part of the larger social fabric that Petro will need to mobilize to achieve his ambitious vision of peace: ”The Guardia Indígena have been the spearhead of the indigenous movement in Colombia since the 1930s, providing protection and safeguarding indigenous land according to their own conception of jurisdiction and with their own traditional authority. The Guardia Indígena represents an alternative way of defending territories: with words and collective organization, and not with arms.”

The same applies for Petro’s environmental vision: in the Cauca region, the Guardia Indígena have played a leading role in opposing land-extensive cattle ranching, community-displacing hydroelectric dams, and water-contaminating mining industries.

During street mobilizations of 2020 and 2021, the Guardia Indígena served as the security escorts for protesters, protecting against the violent attacks of the police (which claimed the lives of more than two hundred protesters by some estimates). In sum, it was only fitting that the Guardia Indígena played a key role as a security detail during the Historic Pact campaign, touring several municipalities of the Cauca region and mobilizing voters for Petro and Márquez.

Echoes of 2021

Mafe Carrascal, a young militant and elected representative to the House of Representatives for the Historic Pact, was also present at the election rally on the day of victory. Wearing a T-shirt with a slogan reading “No bread? No peace!” she stated: “It is an absolute joy what has happened. Colombia has awoken and as a result we now have a democratic, popular government that represents the downtrodden and excluded, the diverse regions and ethnicities that make up this country. This is the result of Colombia’s social uprising, because without it we never would have seen so many different sectors mobilized in the streets to get people to the polls.”

The social uprising of 2021 was a massive, months-long protest against a regressive tax reform bill proposed by President Duque that, if passed, would have shifted the cost of the pandemic overwhelmingly onto the shoulders of Colombia’s working class and poor. As Carrascal put it, the impetus driving that “victory of the youth, women, indigenous, Afro-descendants, and the poor” needs to carry over into Petro’s first term in government, adding, “As an activist of twelve years in Colombia, I know what it means to seek change in an extremely violent country, where there is not only a lack of opportunities but also harsh political persecution.”

That same night, the establishment publication Semana published a special edition with Petro and Márquez on the cover, confidently announcing the administration’s term from “2022–26.” A simple formality in any other country, but in Colombia, where five progressive presidential candidates have been assassinated throughout the twentieth century, the term dates betray a distinctly optimistic turn in popular opinion. The cover of Semana, which had just a week earlier billed the race as between an “ex-guerrilla and an engineer,” seemed to announce a new political era in Colombia.

Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific

Nearly the entire Caribbean coast (Petro’s home base) and the Pacific coast (where Márquez hails from) voted overwhelmingly for the Historical Pact: a democratic exercise in historical reckoning from two of the most neglected and segregated regions in Colombia.

Márquez, with the slogan “I am because we are,” is the first to insist that her candidacy is not about checking off any diversity quotas, although she adds that her campaign was indeed about taking struggles for “feminism, race, and gender” into the halls of power.

Márquez won more than seven hundred thousand votes in the primaries of her own party, the Alternative Democratic Pole, surpassing far more experienced career politicians. Márquez’s political trajectory, by contrast, has been that of an activist, far removed from established channels of power and instead situated in the territories where the fight against mining and the defense of rivers can mean life or death. Like the Guardia Indígena, she hails from the Cauca department, a region ravaged by violence, poverty, and a major narco-corridor that also serves as a hub for illegal mining activities — and where the state is largely or entirely absent.

Gustavo Petro, too, has a strong background in environmental struggles, although as mayor of the countries largest city, Bogotá, he also knows the trials and tribulations of pursuing progressive change from a position of power (having learned from experience, after being impeached under highly dubious corruption charges in 2013). So it is, when Petro announces that “Latin America must pursue a new economic path based on ecological diversity and knowledge, and move away from being simple extractors of raw materials,” he has every intent to do so.

For the president-elect, the fight against climate change is about, in his words, ”human survival, essentially based in a critique of capitalism and the accumulation of capital in all its forms.”

A New Green Pact

Petro and Márquez have something more than just “environmental conscience”: both are militants with a long history of ecological struggles. As some experts are already announcing, their victory not only consolidates the emergence of a second “Pink Tide” or progressive wave, but marks a decisive shift in the movement’s political-economic orientation: away from what some have called “neo-developmentalism,” where resource extraction is justified as a transitional phase on the path to “higher stages” of development, and toward a vision that places a premium on environmental balance and knowledge-based, less heavy forms of industry.

In that same sense, former Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica remarks that “Petro is situated within a new tendency of the Left, not unlike what is emerging in Chile. He recognizes that there is a new social agenda — toward a more sustainable management of natural resources. Where the Left is concerned, that which does not change, ceases to exist.”

In his first interview as president-elect, Petro explained that Colombian oil will be a key lever in the projected economic transition: while safeguarding the environment, one must know also when to import or export oil and be attentive to the issues of foreign currency shortage in peripheral countries like Colombia.

Invoking a new global policy where the more prosperous North would literally subsidize environmental measures in the South, Petro stated, “The entire world should pay us a compensation fund so that Colombia and Venezuela leave their oil and coal in the ground. That duty lies with the developed world — the US, China, and Europe — and it could literally save humanity: the devaluation of oil assets is a rising trend. The recent drop in the price of a barrel heralds a depression, which means less demand for oil.”

The Fight for Colombia’s Future

The day after the election, the air is fresh and the mood is calm in Ciudad Bolívar, Bogotá’s largest barrio pobre. Reaching its peaks, you are greeted by Bogotá’s unique sunlight and a riot of colors as one looks out on a sea of improvised housing, the site where thousands of refugees fleeing rural violence in Colombia’s interior have made a home. Close to 75 percent of the voters in this dense, impoverished locality voted for the Historic Pact on the hope of one day seeing some form of historical reparation after years of violence and displacement, and the implementation of necessary urban reform.

The view from atop Ciudad Bolívar. (Courtesy of Julián Reingold)

Ciudad Bolívar, with its cable cars crawling up the foot of the mountain, has long been a space of dissidence against established powers, and today it is a perfect synthesis of the challenges facing the new administration: access to housing and education; environmental justice; food security and sovereignty; guaranteed leisure time and access to recreational activities; and the empowerment of organized groups — particularly women — to build up social networks and weaken clientelism and organized crime.

The view from atop Ciudad Bolívar brings to mind the words of Mafe Carrascal, who, amid the joyous victory celebrations took pause to reflect:

Other South American countries have had formal dictatorships and suffered the experience of thousands of disappeared persons. Colombia has for half a century lived under democratic rule with the same human toll. We need a truly awakened citizenry that is ready to actively exercise its rights and fight for democratic guarantees for all. Colombia, as you know, is the country where more social and environmental leaders are murdered in the world. We have been persecuted, tortured, and threatened to a degree that is unique even by Latin American standards, and the only way to prevent this from going on is if the whole of society takes it upon itself to change things.

Among the fallen that Carrascal has in mind are the people classified by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) as victims of crimes committed by state agents: more than sixty-four hundred Colombian citizens, many of them peaceful activists and the poor, labeled as enemy combatants and summarily executed by the Armed Forces. Known in the media as “false positives,” a true reckoning with this national episode would mean situating Colombia’s recent history in the same column as the more famous cases of state-sponsored terrorism, as was seen in the Southern Cone region in the 1970s.

Freddy Alpalá, member of the NGO Rodeemos el Diálogo, puts in perspective the importance of the Truth Commission’s final report, presented on June 28 in Colombia: “The recommendations that emerged from the final report are institutional measures that the Colombian state needs to carry out at all levels of administration and all regions in order to guarantee the provision of truth, justice, reparation, and non-repetition. Our hope is that with this government the commission’s recommendations will be carried out, at the national level, all the way down to the provincial level, and across the different layers of civil society.”

Former Uruguayan president Pepe Mujica recognizes that one of Petro’s most visionary commitments to the peace process has been the president-elect’s insistence on agrarian reform. In a resource-rich country where violent dispossession is a hugely lucrative industry, Mujica remarked that “if Petro manages to get the country to start walking on the path of peace, part of which involved addressing access and distribution of natural resources, then he will be able to turn enemies into adversaries, and Petro will have triumphed.”

As one of the banners in the crowd at the Movistar Arena read: “The people are above their leaders.” So it is that the success or failure of Petro and Márquez’s administration rests in the hands of the Colombian people.