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

Colombia’s First Leftist President

Yesterday saw Colombia elect its first leftist president, Pacto Historico's Gustavo Petro, after decades of violence and injustice. It is a historic turning point for the country – and for Latin America's Left as a whole.

Newly elected President of Colombia Gustavo Petro and Vice-President Francia Marquez of Pacto Historico coalition celebrate after winning the presidential runoff on 19 June 2022 in Bogota, Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images)

Colombia’s left-wing coalition, Pacto Historico, has this weekend ended more than two centuries of elitist rule, led to its victory by president-elect Gustavo Petro. With a team of progressives, Petro will begin his term in August, and proposes a governmental plan that includes a more even redistribution of the country’s wealth and an ambitious climate change strategy. Perhaps most notably, the newly elected government has promised to properly implement the 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrillas that the preceding government had more or less abandoned.

Pacto Historico has its work cut out, with a hostile West-backed congressional opposition. Nonetheless, its own strong performance in the historic congressional elections in March means the coalition only needs to sway a handful of progressives from the traditional parties to pass its ambitious policies.

At the height of the country’s civil war in the early 1960s, revolutionaries began to promote the idea of a Nueva Colombia—a second attempt at a republic, as the first bore no fruit for the country’s majorities. Today, after decades of a war that has left an approximate three hundred thousand dead (itself a conservative estimate), the seed of the Nueva Colombia has finally been firmly planted. Whether it takes deep roots depends on the next four years. Above all, the longevity of Pacto Historico’s project depends on a thorough implementation of the policies that have been proposed, alongside the country’s rich grassroots revolutionary movement continuing its struggle for much-needed long-term structural change.

Climate Change

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil. Around thirty-five percent of the country’s territory is comprised of the Amazon rainforest.

Reassuringly, then, the first proposal that appears on Petro and his coalition’s government programme is a strategy to help combat the global climate crisis. With much controversy in the mainstream media considering the power that extractivist industries have in the country, the leftist coalition has promised a ‘transition towards a productive economy based on the respect for nature, leaving behind a model based exclusively on extractivism’.

Unlike the right-wing candidate, who made similar vague promises, the Pacto Historico provided a detailed action plan. Among them is a programme to reorganise the country’s territory around water systems to ‘harmonise ecological function and the provision of public services’—access to safe drinking water is one of the significant issues in the conflict-ridden nation. Extractivist industries have come to monopolise the country’s vast river systems, not just with their destructive hydroelectric dams but also by using rivers as a dumping ground for their many tons of toxic waste.

Furthermore, the new progressive government promises a fifteen-year transition strategy away from non-renewables through several programmes that include creating a ‘National Institute for Clean Energies’ and substantial government funds that will subsidise clean energy projects. Crucially, in an attempt to wrestle the power of the private sector on the energy industry’s future, they promise more democratic participation at all stages of such projects. For instance, they plan to recruit the Wayú indigenous community of the Guajira department to oversee the local transition to solar energy, and away from the dominant carbon mining industry.

More broadly, the progressive government programme also suggests working towards ‘a great American front to combat climate change’, a project that seeks to unite the region against extractivism and widespread monocultural production. They also promise to restructure the current Free Trade Agreements with the West so that the trade reflects their environmental goals.

While ambitious, it is realistic only if the country’s population and their international allies are willing to back its full implementation—against the foreseeable attacks from the weakened but still powerful capitalist class.

Economy and Inequality

Despite its natural abundance and the potential that Colombia clearly possesses in terms of resources, it has consistently, over decades, ranked as the most unequal country in Latin America, and one of the most unequal in the world. As the country’s ruling class and its international allies boast of a supposed ‘Colombian miracle’—an astonishing pace of economic growth for an underdeveloped nation—the country’s majority have not seen any of the benefits. Ordinary working Colombians have long languished on poverty wages in fields where they produce cheap agricultural products for export, in grim sweatshops producing cheap garments for Western consumption, or as coal miners for one of the many multinationals. In short, what has been a ‘miracle’ for the national and international bourgeoisie is but a curse for the country’s masses.

The Pacto Historico’s plan to overcome the dire economic situation that the country actually lives in can only be considered radical when put up against the present reality. Broadly, it hones in on the fact that the country’s economy has been historically integrated into the international capitalist market as an exporter of raw materials, without any protection for national industry. Pacto Historico’s programme proposes a national alliance between the private sector, informal industry, civil society, and the state to combat this. Their hope is that the coordination of a national initiative in this alliance will allow the country to develop a more dynamic economy that serves the interests of all Colombians, rather than just the private sector, as it currently stands.

A more specific example of this restructuring of the economy is the proposed renegotiation of the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with the US and Europe. The progressive government has promised to guide the FTAs away from the current extractivist-export model (carbon, petrol, and monocultures), and to replace it with a deal that allows the country to strengthen its agricultural and industrial production based on the development of added value chains.

Another way the new government plans to tackle inequality is an urgent land reform, which promises to bring vast, unproductive rural land (latifundios) into use by raising taxes on wealthy landowners, among other measures. These currently unproductive swathes of land, as well as land that is presently being used wastefully for extensive livestock production, will, according to the programme, be made available for farmers to produce food for local consumption and for agrosilvopastoral systems (a model of agricultural production and conservation with roots in silvi-culture, the practice of growing trees, complementary to pre-existing agricultural activities). The plan to restructure the FTAs with the West, coupled with this plan to restructure the country’s agricultural production, seems like a plausible way to combat, at least partly, the rife food insecurity that the country’s majorities currently suffer.

Gender Oppression, Racism, and Social Inequality

As is the case across the world, capitalist and imperialist exploitation in Colombia is intrinsically linked to the ordering of society’s hierarchy along racist and patriarchal lines. Structurally violent white supremacy and machismo in Colombia can be traced to the colonial era, subsequently reinforced after independence, when the country was integrated into the capitalist world system. Colombia’s generalised inequality of power in social relations normalises rife exploitation and violence against particular social groups, allowing those with power to act with impunity.

The Pacto Historico’s strategies to combat social inequality in the country are poignantly embodied by Francia Marquez, its vice-president, who has been a social activist since her early teens. From Colombia’s historically oppressed black community, Marquez has forged her political experience in the streets among those most neglected by the state.

In concrete terms, the Pacto Historico seeks to level the playing field for historically oppressed groups through projects like one that guarantees them access to land both for economic production and residence. This is essential, as much of the violent conflict the country has experienced in recent years has centered on access to land.

Among other plans are well-funded governmental offices led by indigenous, black, and rural (campesino) communities themselves, so that they can share in the country’s political power and decision-making. Remarkably, the programme states that ‘government structures will have proportionate representation based on population, territory and culture’, assuring that indigenous, black, and campesino communities share in ‘driving the destiny of the nation’. In short, what the country may well begin to experience, if these policies are followed through, is not just the band-aid and symbolic ‘diversity’ campaigns which have become a staple under neoliberalism, but a tangible sharing of power and resources that actually speak to the structural roots of the problem. Notably, the programme frames these efforts as reparations, acknowledging the structural violence experienced by racialised communities.

On top of the racial oppression that millions face is the rampant institutionalised discrimination and violence against women, with black and indigenous women bearing the brunt. A recent study conducted by Sheila Gruner and Charo Mina Rojas, for instance, demonstrated that black and indigenous women had been disproportionately affected by Colombia’s decades-long violent conflict. The Pacto Historico’s programme states that ‘women will occupy at least fifty percent of all public offices at all levels and branches of power; this will allow the strengthening of making decisions towards change.’ Among other projects, the leftist coalition proposes a ‘National System of Care’ that assures proper financial compensation for women not in formal employment. Part of its purpose will be the guarantee of a basic living wage for single mothers without formal work or low wages. And these plans are not far-fetched: the coalition won more than twenty congressional seats, and most of them were women.

The Nueva Colombia?

The Pacto Historico’s government plan is ambitious and will undoubtedly take more than the four years Gustavo Petro has in office (Colombia has a one-term presidential limit). What is critical, then, is the coalition’s ability to implement at least some of the key proposals and inspire the population to make it their own long-term national strategy, regardless of who comes to power. The break with two hundred years of bourgeois dictatorship at the highest seat of power is a significant victory, but it remains one that must by complemented by a revolutionary grassroots mobilisation for the coming decades. Similar experiments in the region have come and gone, leaving us with blueprints from which we must learn.

More concretely, there needs to be cautious movement forward. The mistake of believing this a final victory, rather than a starting point, is one populations in Latin America have often made. This has led to slowing-down or even complete halt in the essential traditions of grassroots social and political movements and mobilisations—the most effective vehicle the masses have against the ruling class and their capitalist violence.

Colombia’s traditional economic and political elites have been dealt their first major blow, but their power will, undeniably, continue to be enforced in all areas of life. The difference is that now the exploited classes have the opportunity to contest that power with sure arms of the state at their disposal. The next four years are the opportunity to sow the seeds of the much-yearned-for Nueva Colombia, one that allows the country’s majorities to live more peacefully, democratically, and with more material dignity.

If we are to nourish this wish for change and bring it to its ultimate conclusion, we must not let our guard down. Ultimately, the oppressed masses inspired the creation of the Pacto Historico as a vessel to begin to build the country anew. Now ordinary Colombians and their international allies must continue to mobilise to demand that its policies are implemented. In the end, the success of this project will not only allow Colombians to prosper peacefully and with dignity, but play a role in securing a better future for humanity as a whole.

About the Author

Carlos Cruz Mosquera is a PhD candidate and Teaching Associate at Queen Mary, University of London. He specialises in analysing the European Union’s 'civilian power' in Latin America and its role in maintaining the neoliberal status quo in the region.