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Colombia’s Left on the Rise

Gustavo Petro is leading the polls for Colombia’s presidential run-off this month, defying the country’s vicious right-wing establishment. If he wins, it won’t just change Colombia – it will be a landmark for all of Latin America.

Colombian Presidential Candidate for 'Pacto Historico' Gustavo Petro gives thumbs up during a campaign rally on 11 May 2022 in Fusagasugá, Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images)

Colombia’s left-wing coalition, Pacto Historico, headed by economist and ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro, has passed to the second round of the presidential elections and will face right-winger Rodolfo Hernandez on June 19. Although the left coalition leads the polls, all the traditional parties and their leaders have now joined Hernandez’s campaign to try to stop Petro from coming to power.

The coming second round will be tightly contested, as the left coalition’s victory could end over two hundred years of elitist rule. Petro’s popularity among ordinary Colombians and the country’s ever-growing dissatisfaction with its traditional rulers could just usher in a historic win for Colombia and Latin America’s left. Hernandez’s campaign, meanwhile, has portrayed him as an alternative and independent candidate who will tackle the country’s rife political corruption—a promise he has been undeterred from making the centre of his electoral push, despite presently battling a corruption case himself.

Notwithstanding that Petro and his movement are hardly the wild radicals their rivals paint them as, national and international capitalist interests will undoubtedly fare better with Hernandez, and they know it. The latter has held his cards close regarding foreign relations in an effort to distance himself from the past pro-Western governments that have now fallen out of favour, but he likely won’t alter the unequal historical relations vis-à-vis the powerful nations to the North.

In fact, political commentators have struggled to solve the puzzle that is Hernandez’s political ideology, and this apparent ambiguity has become his most effective weapon. It allows him to make popular policy promises among voters without committing to a serious plan with which to follow through. Behind the anti-establishment façade and the apparent political ‘vagueness’ on which pundits have become fixated, though, is a business tycoon whose loyalty lies with the country’s bourgeois class and their powerful international partners.

Petro’s leftist coalition will struggle to drastically alter the disparate class dynamics that plague Colombian society today, but what their government plan does offer, at the very least, is a meaningful and clear path toward restricting the ruling class’s unhinged capitalist economy and, above all, an opening-up of democratic participation in politics. This is where the seeds for a radical transformation of the country lie.

Why the West Needs a Right-Wing Government in Colombia

All South American countries have elected left-wing or left-leaning governments at one point or another, but Colombia has been the bastion for the region’s conservative elites since its founding in 1810. Among the many factors that could explain this phenomenon is that powerful Western nations have seen the country as critical to their geopolitical and economic interests in the region. The country’s location boasts the Pacific Ocean to one side and the Atlantic Ocean to the other, and shares borders with Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Panama, making it strategically advantageous. It’s no coincidence, then, that Western powers have historically ardently pursued the loyalty of the country’s government.

The more obvious example of Colombia’s importance to the West is that the US boasts of around forty military bases and eighty thousand US troops, which now operate unofficially to quell criticisms. These bases and troops are concentrated on the border with Venezuela, which is considered a political enemy, and in areas where North American and European commercial interests lie. US military personnel guarding gold and copper mines, oil refineries, and other locations of economic interest have become part of Colombia’s national landscape.

Less prominent but equally influential is the secretive role of military and police funding and training offered by European countries like the United Kingdom to subdue the local population. After last year’s three-month national strike in which dozens were killed, it was revealed that the UK military had been advising Colombia’s police. Though the details are classified, it is not far-fetched to deduce that they were there to help protect UK business interests.

Western nations have played a central role in helping to sustain the power of the country’s elites over the centuries and are therefore right to be wary of the change on the horizon. A left-leaning government could finally question their overbearing political influence on the country and their highly profitable business interests that have rarely come under official scrutiny by previous governments.

The UK, for one, has over one hundred multinational companies operating in Colombia, many of them freely engaging in decades of inhumane business practices. In a UK-Colombia trade treaty signed in 2014, it was stipulated that the South American country could be taken to private international courts if investors ever felt they ‘have been treated unfairly’, particularly around any possible land reform—making it difficult, if not impossible, for any future progressive government to attempt to reform their economies in the local population’s interest, and against international capital.

Petro for Change, Hernandez for Continuity

One does not have to be a political analyst to see that Petro and his coalition represent an opportunity for a much-needed change in Colombia. This is manifest today in the impoverished street vendors who have temporarily paused their work to volunteer in the leftist campaign effort, or in the millions of women defying Hernandez’s call for them to stay at home so men can ‘govern in peace’, or in the masses of racialised Colombians who finally feel represented and seen by a political movement. With all his limitations, the former guerrilla fighter’s proposed policies will no doubt better the material conditions of Colombians.

Petro and his coalition do not call for an overthrow of the old political order inherited from the colonial era or the highly exploitative capitalist economy that the country was integrated into shortly after independence. Yet even the relatively soft reforms proposed by the leftist candidate could be enough to sow a profound transformation of the country’s political landscape in the long term. It’s this opening-up of the democratic space, which Petro could deliver, that the country’s violent ruling class and their international allies fear most.

On the other hand, Rodolfo Hernandez, with his Western advisors and his embroidered discourse against corruption, would detain (at least temporarily) the advance towards democratic change in the country. As with the US, Brazil, and El Salvador, the Colombian ruling class has been forced to turn to their Trojan Horse, an ‘anti-establishment’ figure who rails against them in public but promises his class allies stable continuity behind closed doors.

The mainstream liberal commentariat who today feign bewilderment at what or who Hernandez represents will undoubtedly scorn him for his demagoguery tomorrow, only once they have helped defeat the only viable option of change the country has seen for decades. But Colombia’s ruling class will continue their two centuries of reign through Hernandez only if they can overcome, by hook or by crook, the spirited efforts of Colombia’s masses that have found in Petro and his movement a possible avenue for vital, peaceful, democratic change.

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.