Change and Continuity in Colombian Politics

June 29, 2018

Right-wing Uribe protégé Iván Duque is the next president of Colombia. But not all is lost: The Colombian Left had its most impressive turn-out in history.

Iván Duque speaks to the press during a campaign interview in January 2018. (flickr/Casa América)

As economist Guillermo Maya noted in his column in El Tiempo, although the Right won handily in Colombia’s recent presidential elections, representing continuity, on June 17, 2018, Colombian politics nevertheless changed as well. Iván Duque—until recently, a little-known protégé of former right-wing President Álvaro Uribe whose working life has been spent at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington—and Gustavo Petro, the left candidate and former mayor of Bogotá, made it past the first round on May 27 into the run-off vote, with Duque taking 54% and Petro 42% in the second round.  

The election results were remarkable in several ways. For one, it was the first presidential election since the ratification of the peace accords between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the country’s largest and oldest guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), signed in November 2016. The agreement marked a historic milestone, promising to end the decades-long civil war in which 250,000 people died and close to eight million were displaced. Yet few of its provisions have been implemented in the last year and a half, and under Duque, the accords will now be subject to dramatic revision. In some respects, the election marked a continuation of opposition to the peace accord, led by Uribe, which narrowly defeated the Yes campaign, led by Santos and supporters on the center-left, in the October 2016 referendum.

In the second round, Uribismo advanced, while Santos’ candidate Germán Vargas Lleras, who picked up 7% of votes in the first round before rallying behind Duque in the second, didn’t make a dent.

But Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla leader who demobilized in order to participate in the Constitutional Assembly that led to the drafting of the 1991 Constitution, is the first left-wing candidate in Colombian history to make it to the second round of a presidential election. Until the rise of Uribe, elections were disputed among the Liberal and Conservative parties and the factions within them, who governed the country for 150 years beginning in the late 1840s.

Colombia is one of Latin America’s most conservative countries, and Duque’s triumph also marks a resurgence of Colombia’s 21st century far Right, led by Uribe, with proven ties to organized crime. The winning coalition seeks to undo the progressive elements of the peace accords, including guaranteed congressional and senate seats for the ex-FARC leaders, and subject those same FARC leaders to punitive judicial measures while exempting the military, politicians, and businessmen from scrutiny. Petro, for his part, always supported the accords and saw them as not only a prerequisite for the social and economic development of Colombia’s impoverished regions in the countryside, but a path forward for alternative projects and emancipatory politics.

But with Uribismo back in the saddle, Duque will likely try to implement a new, unilateral accord imposed by the victors—a broad right-wing coalition composed of military, religious, political, bureaucratic, financial and commercial as well as agro-industrial elites that handed Duque the presidency—gutting the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), eliminating national political representation for the FARC, and casting UN opposition to its actions as a violation of Colombian sovereignty.

It was thus not surprising that Colombia's religious hierarchy, both Catholic and evangelical Protestant, oligarchic media, and right-wing social media tirelessly warned that the country would be transformed into a second Venezuela under the “radical” candidate Petro, accused of being “Castro-chavista.” To understand fully the virulent fury of this rhetoric and the revanchist politics it supports, we have to go back to the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War years, when Colombian Conservatives, led by Laureano Gómez, accused Liberal President Alfonso López Pumarejo of opening the door to godless Communism—a grave accusation in a fanatically Catholic country—with his moderate reformist projects.

Santos, who comes from a distinguished line of Liberal media oligarchs in the reformist wing of the party, has been accused of turning the country over to the FARC and preparing the way for a makeover of Colombia along Venezuelan lines, despite there being no discernable difference between Uribe and Santos in terms of their ultra-neoliberal economic development policies. With over a million Venezuelans migrating to Colombia during the past 18 months, however, the Colombian Right reaped the electoral rewards of the collapse of the Bolivarian project.

Prospects and Promise

The provisions in Colombia’s 1991 constitution now mandate that Petro will become the leader of the opposition from the Senate, where he got his start investigating the roots of narco-paramilitarism in Antioquia in the 1990s, and led opposition to Uribe during Uribe’s first and second presidential terms from 2002 to 2010. In this period, however, Petro’s former party, Polo Democrático Alternativo, did not make it to the second round with its candidate jurist Carlos Gaviria. But on June 17, Petro’s Colombia Humana coalition captured nearly 8,000,000 votes.

Also at play this time around is the Colombian Supreme Court’s ongoing investigation of Uribe for a wiretapping and surveillance scandal that has led to the murder of all but one of the main witnesses. His brother, Santiago, is currently detained on charges of organizing paramilitary death squads when Uribe was governor of Antioquia in the mid-1990s. Petro has long denounced Uribe’s historic and family ties to the innermost nexus of narco-paramilitarism in the region. Hopefully the Supreme Court investigations continue—and the lone remaining witness lives to testify.

Despite the outcome, the events leading up to the elections and thereafter could show promising signs for a revival of the Left. Electrifying mass electoral events in the public square (la plaza pública) in cities across the countries 32 departments and especially in Bogotá, have not been seen since the days of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán of the Liberal Party in the 1940s. Gaitán was murdered on April 9, 1948, and the urban uprising that followed, known as the Bogotazo, led to a period of civil war known as La Violencia that left some 200,000 people dead.

Much has changed since that time. When Gaitán campaigned, the majority of Colombians lived in the countryside, while today, Colombia, like most Latin American countries, is predominantly urban. Because Colombia’s insurgency and to a lesser extent, counter-insurgency, has been concentrated in the countryside, first on coffee, then on mining, oil and gas, agro-industrial, and coca frontiers, throughout the country’s long Cold War, outside of Barrancabermeja, no broad Left urban coalition has ever emerged. Nor, in the 1960s, did modernizing leaders of the Liberal Party achieve moderate agrarian reform designed to stem the flood of migrants from the countryside to the urban peripheries of cities. Since the 1970s, “the urban question” has remained, along with “the agrarian question,” subject to the blood and fire of neoliberal market forces and the creation of absolute private property rights. This has been achieved through violent dispossession, displacement, and territorial control exercised through demanding tribute from residents. Generalized extortion for protection services, as in Naples or Brindisi, characterizes urban, suburban, peri-urban, and rural landscapes. Business, politics, and organized crime are perhaps analytically separable, but overlap at nearly all strategic nodes.

With the exception of Uribe’s stronghold, Medellín, where Petro picked up over 20% on June 17, Petro won in all other major cities—Bogotá, Cali, Barranquilla, Cartagena—which are marked by structural unemployment and underemployment, gang violence, organized crime, a lack of public services, and widespread poverty and corruption. Additionally, Petro narrowly lost a number of departments on the Caribbean coast, and was the strongest candidate along the Pacific Coast (Chocó, Cauca, Nariño), and in two Amazonian departments (Putumayo, Vaupés). Given that he nearly won the Guajira, where the Wayúu, Colombia’s largest Indigenous group live, it is clear that Afro-Colombian and Indigenous groups overwhelmingly supported Petro.

Petro’s progressive and reformist campaign called for free access to public education and health care, the partial de-privatization of Colombia’s pension system, the strengthening of the judiciary, higher taxes on large landholdings, and reorientation of the country’s rentier economy towards productive activities. In progressive Colombian circles, there is no visible conflict or contradiction between ethnic or racially-based demands, which are collective rather than individual, and connected to property rights, and broad social democratic measures. This progressivism puts it ahead of the U.S.

Despite his defeat, Petro’s success was remarkable. It cannot be explained merely by his charisma or the vibrant campaign he ran. It was the cumulative expression of past mobilizations and social struggles by students, trade union, peasant, Afro-Colombian, feminist, youth, LGBTQ, and Indigenous movements, all of which have long kept alive the hope of a more democratic, peaceful, and equitable Colombia throughout the Uribe-Santos period, but have hitherto lacked independent political expression and representation.

During the first round of voting in May, in which Petro took 25% of the vote, compared to 39% for Duque and 24% for center-right candidate Segio Fajardo, Petro was the only candidate who called for a gradual departure from Colombia's extractivist and rentier model of accumulation—based on the exploitation and export of oil, natural gas, coal and, precious metals, on terms extremely favorable to multinationals—and the transition towards renewable energy sources. At the same time, many of Petro’s demands are reminiscent of moderate social democratic programs in Western Europe in the 1970s. Indeed, Petro claims to represent the failed promises of 20th-century modernizing reformers in the Liberal Party, like López Pumarejo and Carlos Lleras Restrepo, with proposals that threaten the interests of the financial sector, import-export merchants both licit and illicit, large landowners, and transnational corporations, all of whom are over-represented in Colombia’s current political system, which explains why Colombia is Latin America’s second most unequal country after Honduras, and one of the region’s more corrupt.

Uribismo Reloaded

Aside from preventing Colombia from becoming the next Venezuela, President-elect Duque has merely promised more of the same: tax breaks for businesses and large landowners, the expansion of monoculture agro-industry, and the continuation of extractivist projects under the aegis of transnational mining companies. His proposals also included the extension of offshore drilling and the introduction of fracking. In particular, a government push for fracking will likely result in the intensification of social-ecological conflicts in the countryside.

With regard to the peace agreement with the FARC, even though Duque promised not to tear it into pieces—as some of some member of his party did—he intends to make significant adjustments. One particularly thorny issue has to do with the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which could become a serious problem for politicians (including Uribe), military generals, business people, and landlords involved in war crimes. It is unlikely to remain standing.

Under the new Uribismo, repression of social protest and mobilization is likely to rise in response to any future uptick in direct action from below. As historian Mauricio Archila has shown, it did not diminish under Santos (2010-2018) as compared to Uribe (2002-2010). Further, neo-paramilitary forces that have taken over former FARC territories may become increasingly emboldened to persecute and stigmatize urban social protest. At the same time, the possibilities of U.S. intervention in Venezuela is not out of the question, as the chorus of voices calling for a military path to regime change grows.

The Colombian military may also be emboldened in the Duque era. With the ELN and remnants of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (Popular Liberation Army, EPL) using Venezuelan border territory as a refuge and transit corridor for arms and cocaine, presumably in collusion with local elements of the Venezuelan National Guard, and with the FARC defeated politically and militarily, the Colombian military may be encouraged to engage in cross-border military campaigns in defense of national sovereignty. Duque won all but one of the departments along Colombia’s extensive frontiers with Venezuela, where popular support for military action is high. As millions of dollars in U.S. aid continue to flow to Colombian security forces, the eventual emergence of a Colombian-trained, U.S.-financed and -equipped Venezuelan paramilitary “army of national liberation,” perhaps launched from the rightwing strongholds of the Santanders in the Northeast, is not implausible.

What’s Next for the Left

At 54%, voter turnout was significantly higher than in the past, where it rarely surpasses 50%, attesting to the intensity of Petro’s campaign. Nevertheless, it remains apparent that large numbers of Colombians remain indifferent or opposed to electoral politics. They too will decide the future of Colombian politics. Can Petro lead his party, Colombia Humana, from the campaign trail and senate into the urban neighborhoods composed of people displaced from the countryside and affected by local gangs and paramilitaries? If he can, his prospects for getting elected in 2022—already quite good—will improve significantly.

To consolidate and extend its transformative momentum it will be essential, over the coming months and years, to bolster the mobilizations and strikes of previous years and to continue the counter-hegemonic struggles in different spaces of civil society like workplaces, schools and universities, health clinics, and the media. There is also a need for an emancipatory transformation of state institutions, still predominantly in the hands of revanchist neoliberals supportive of Uribe.

For the left-wing, the path for Colombia against neoliberalism, extractivism, war, and violent patriarchy will undoubtedly be difficult. But progressive Colombians are used to that. What offers hope after the election is the fact that it was the younger generation that identified most clearly with Petro’s campaign. As in the U.S., younger Colombians grasp something of the nature and depth of the country’s multiple and overlapping systemic crises, and what it means for their future and the future of the next generation. They will vote accordingly.


Forrest Hylton and Aaron Tauss teach in the political science department at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Medellín, and have written about the political economy of peace for NACLA and Jacobin. Hylton is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006).

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