Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

How the Left Is Building Peace in Colombia

For years, Colombia's right-wing regime put the 2016 peace deal at risk. But now the country's first leftist president has committed to full implementation – including the economic justice, political dialogue, and social equality peace demands.

Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro and his vice-presidential candidate Francia Marquez of Pacto Historico celebrate after the presidential election day on 29 May 2022 in Bogota, Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images)

This month saw Pacto Historico’s (PH) Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez elected to the presidency and vice presidency of Colombia. Their victory is a victory for progressive politics throughout the Americas, and its significance in the region cannot be overstated.

Colombia is sometimes referred to as the ‘oldest democracy’ in Latin America, usually by those who either don’t understand its complex and violent history, or those who have an active interest in obscuring it. This is the first time Colombia has elected a left wing government, and it comes after a long, difficult struggle to create progressive political space in the face of decades of systematic and brutal repression.

A Legacy of Violence

The difficult journey to this point is best evidenced by the fact that numerous presidential candidates have been assassinated throughout Colombian history, from Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948 to Jaime Pardo Leal in 1987. An entire political party, the Union Patriotica (UP)—founded in 1985 during a long-running armed insurgency, to give left voices a democratic avenue for change—was the victim of ‘political genocide’ between its inception and 2018. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (known by its Spanish acronym JEP)—the transitional peace court set up by the 2016 peace agreement—found that 5,733 UP members were murdered in that time.

The scale of repression inflicted on the political left and organised civil society cannot be underestimated. Around 3,000 trade unionists have been murdered. Even since the signing of the peace agreement, over 1,300 political and social activists have been killed—eighty of those just this year.

Francia Marquez comes from Colombia’s southwestern Cauca Department, one of the regions most affected by conflict, with staggering numbers of leaders murdered. In her post-election speech, she—herself a survivor of an assassination attempt in 2019—paid tribute to murdered activists, thanking them for ‘paving the way forward, for sowing the seeds of resistance and hope.’

This election came just days before another historic moment for Colombia, in which the Truth Commission, a mechanism set up by the peace agreement, will release its report. For all these reasons, this victory must be seen in its historical context. And that historical context makes the election Petro—a former guerrilla—and Marquez—an Afro-Colombian community leader, environmental activist, and feminist—moving, especially for those of us involved in supporting the struggle for peace and social justice in the country.

The 2019-2020 Unrest

In more immediate history, this victory was only made possible by further determined struggle. Protests took place nationwide on an unprecedented scale in 2019 and 2020. Young people, the protagonists of those protests, helped break historic levels of abstention in this election: turnout was fifty-eight percent, well above the recent average of forty-eight percent, reflecting the renewed hope that the PH has created. The mother of Dilan Cruz, a youth murdered by riot police during those protests, spoke at Petro and Marquez’ victory rally.

While it was this wave of popular action that brought Petro and Marquez to victory, the ability to build alliances with the centre and parts of the centre-right also proved an important factor, and will be key to the survival of the administration.

For example, Petro gained the support of high-profile figures from the era of Juan Manuel Santos, the former president whose administration negotiated the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC-EP. These politicians have become important backers of his platform. As a result, in the days following his victory, Petro has renewed efforts to create a ‘national agreement’ by building dialogue across the political spectrum, even inviting far right former President Alvaro Uribe to talk.

Marquez also played a crucial role in mobilising support for Pacto Historico among mass social movements as the first ever black vice president in a country where black and indigenous communities have been historically marginalised and disproportionately affected by inequality and political exclusion. Upon receiving her credentials as vice president-elect Marquez said this itself was an act of racial justice and gender justice. She has committed to making tackling structural racial and gender inequality a central part of PH’s programme for government, and will lead a new Ministry of Equality.

The Peace Agreement

The election map shows a strong overlap between those who voted for Petro and those who voted in favour of Colombia’s peace agreement in 2016, making that agreement one of the crucial factors in this historic win. At the core of the agreement is the goal of creating democratic space, opening up political participation, and giving hope to the belief that Colombia can be changed through democratic means. It was also this peace agreement which paved the way for the mass mobilisation seen on Colombia’s streets in 2019 and 2020.

At its heart, the conflict between the FARC and Colombian state—which the agreement sought to end—was driven by Colombia’s terrible inequality and lack of political space for opposition. The agreement therefore outlines important structural reforms to deal with those root causes. But many are yet to materialise, hampered by the last four years of a far-right regime opposed to the process.

As a result, PH’s economic programme prioritises the development of domestic productivity at the expense of purely extractive industries, tackling social inequality through progressive tax reform, and protecting the environment through green transition. It includes the extension of social services like access to healthcare and education. Peace also depends on implementing the rural reform and crop substitution envisaged in the agreement in order to redress the historic injustice in access to land ownership, investing in the countryside, and giving peasant farmers options beyond growing coca.

Petro has committed to achieving a ‘complete’ peace, both by implementing the 2016 agreement and by opening negotiations with the remaining guerrilla organisations. The ELN, with whom President Duque broke talks off in January 2018, have already stated their willingness to enter talks. Another group led by some former FARC members who left the current process disillusioned with its progress have also made a statement expressing hope.

Challenges Ahead

Nonetheless, Petro and his broad coalition face huge challenges. Despite the willingness of the remaining left-wing insurgencies to enter into dialogue, a key test for the new government will be confronting the right-wing paramilitary groups and violent drug trafficking organisations which still terrorise parts of Colombia.

Recent months saw vast areas of the north of the country shut down by the Clan de Golfo paramilitary groups, with the state lacking the capacity and perhaps even the will to confront them. The peace agreement includes measures to dismantle these paramilitary groups—which have been responsible for the murders of so many social leaders—but election day itself was a grim reminder of the brutality activists face. Two PH election witnesses and activists, Roberto Rivas and Ersain Ramírez, were killed.

Former FARC combatants also face murder, with more than 315 assassinated since they laid down their weapons and complied with their obligations in the 2016 agreement. Other guerrilla organisations will need to see results and be assured that they will not risk the same fate.

There will also need to be reforms to the security forces, given that the army and police are responsible for some of Colombia’s worst atrocities. During a recent Justice for Colombia delegation made up of British, Irish, and Spanish trade unionists and parliamentarians, human rights defenders told us of the urgent need to put an end to the military’s doctrine of combatting the ‘internal enemy’, which has consistently led organised civil society to be met with state violence. The strikes and demonstrations of 2019-20 saw forty-four protesters murdered by police.

When our delegation travelled to Putumayo in southern Colombia, we heard harrowing testimony from survivors and relatives of victims of an army massacre. Soldiers had recently shot dead eleven civilians at a community party, and then presented them as dissident guerrillas killed in combat.

This event was reminiscent of the so-called ‘false positives’ case, which saw soldiers kill 6,400 civilians between 2002 and 2008, and then present them as guerrillas killed in combat in order to inflate numbers and receive promotions and bonuses. Proper reform of the security forces was something the previous government was unable to include in the final peace agreement, so this is a huge task facing the new administration.

Those justifiably filled with hope by this great victory will also have to manage their expectations. Before 2016, the peace process split the establishment, and not all of Petro’s supporters are left-wing. As former Uruguayan president Pepe Mujica said in his congratulatory message to the Colombian people, Petro ‘can’t do magic’.

Without a majority in Congress, making the proposed legislative changes requires Petro to continue to build alliances, something he already appears to be doing. In his victory speech, he set a realistic tone: ‘We are going to develop capitalism,’ Petro told supporters, ‘not because we love it, but because first we have to overcome the premodernity, the feudalism… we have to create a democracy.’ And with presidential terms only lasting four years, making lasting change, including long-term organising and planning for the next administration, will be crucial.

A Progressive Shift

Cognisant of the challenges ahead, Petro and Marquez will play an important role consolidating a new wave of progressive administrations in Latin America. Change is in motion across the continent: we have seen the socialist victory in Bolivia overturning a far-right coup, and the election of Gabriel Boric in Chile; hope is building for a Lula victory in the upcoming election in Brazil, and a host of other left administrations are leading the way forward for the region.

The implications of this shift cannot be overstated. Colombia has long been the United States’ major foothold in Latin America, a faithful US ally in its hostile dealings with Venezuela and Cuba. When Duque’s regime refused to implement protocol agreements signed in the event of the breakdown of the peace talks with the ELN, generously hosted by the Cuban government, it set a dangerous precedent for peace processes worldwide.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, given the US’ history of bloody interference and lack of respect for democratically-elected left governments in Latin America, the Biden administration was quick to recognise Petro, with the two speaking just days after the result. Petro has also announced he spoke with Venezuelan President Maduro, and will reopen the shared border.

More broadly, the international community has been too quiet for too long on the abuses that have taken place in Colombia. The British government’s hypocritical and inconsistent rhetoric on human rights abroad is best exposed by its attitude to Colombia, and British and Colombian trade unions have been vocal in our opposition to the UK-Colombia free trade deal. For those committed to peace and social justice in Colombia, then, this is an exciting and emotional moment, and one set to increase support for organisations such as Justice for Colombia.

Perhaps most crucially, though, now is the moment to pay homage to all of those who have lost their lives during this struggle, who are no longer with us, and who were brutally silenced on the way. There are so many with whom we would like to share this wonderful moment. Instead, it’s in their honour that we celebrate the present—and look forward to a better and brighter Colombian future.