Colombia’s high-stakes election

June 15, 2018

Zack Frailey analyzes the runoff round of Colombia's presidential election, which pits a progressive candidate against the favorite, a reactionary looking to undo the peace agreement that ended a 50-year civil war.

ON JUNE 17, Colombians will vote in the runoff round of the most significant presidential election the country has seen in decades.

At stake is the fate of the 2016 peace agreement that brought a fragile halt to 50 years of intermittent civil war between the government and the leftist guerrilla army of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

The peace agreement was ratified by the Colombian parliament despite a referendum that narrowly rejected the deal by a vote of 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent.

One reason the referendum lost was that voter turnout was skewed sharply toward the core provinces where the peace agreement was less popular. Many Colombians in rural regions, who are most affected by the violence and most likely to support the peace deal, were unable to vote.

Left to right: Gustavo Petro and Iván Duque
Left to right: Gustavo Petro and Iván Duque

By any measure, the agreement is tremendously fragile, and a victory for the right wing in the presidential election would likely mean the evaporation of any commitment to peace on the part of the state.

VOTERS WILL face a choice on June 17 between Iván Duque, a far-right candidate of the misleadingly named Centro Democratico (Democratic Center) Party, and Gustavo Petro, a left populist running on the Colombia Humano (Humane Colombia) ticket.

Duque received the highest vote total of the preliminary round with 39 percent, thanks almost entirely to the endorsement of former President Álvaro Uribe, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 2002 to 2010.

As president, Uribe’s response to the country’s epidemics of political violence and drug trafficking was Plan Colombia — known locally as “Plan Washington,” since it was largely dictated and funded by the U.S. Paramilitary death squads that escalated the barbarity of the conflict and led to countless human rights violations.

Uribe was able for the most part to isolate this vicious onslaught in the country’s rural regions. The apparent “peace” in the urban centers (enforced through terror) combined with an economic boom cycle to create a base of support for “uribismo” outside the provinces targeted by the military and paramilitary assaults.

When Uribe’s one-time ally, current president Juan Manuel Santos, went against his wishes by agreeing to peace talks with the FARC, Uribe used his base of support to spearhead opposition to the accord, arguing that it was too lenient on former guerrillas who are guilty of war crimes — despite the fact that paramilitaries linked to his government are responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties in the civil war, and continue to murder union leaders with impunity.

Uribe and his hardline allies have been on a relentless campaign of scaremongering, warning that if former FARC militants are allowed into parliamentary politics, Colombia “go the way of Venezuela.”

In this context, Duque, who is pretty much a political nonentity without Uribe’s support, represents a clear continuation of Uribe’s authoritarian regime. His victory would likely lead to a collapse of the peace.

DUQUE’S OPPONENT, Gustavo Petro, has radical roots. At 17, Petro joined the 19th of April Movement (better known as M-19), a leftist guerrilla group formed in opposition to the far-right National Front coalition government that came to power as the result of a fraudulent election in 1970.

Petro never saw combat, but became a leader in M-19. After years on the run, he was captured by the Colombian army when he was 25. He was tortured, then locked up for 18 months.

In 1990, Petro used his influence within M-19 to promote peace talks with the government, which brought about the eventual dismantling of M-19 and subsequent amnesty for its members. After M-19 disbanded, Petro became a politician, serving as the mayor of the capital city of Bogota and as a senator. During his time in office, Petro has been a consistent opponent of uribismo.

In parliament, he exposed the “Parapolitics” scandal regarding collusion between Uribe government officials with both paramilitary groups and narco-traffickers in order to suppress political opposition. As mayor of Bogota, he overcame authoritarian attempts by the federal government to remove him from office by court order.

During Petro’s tenure, the Women’s Secretariat was created, and the LGBTI Citizenship Center was inaugurated. Some 49 centers for birth control and abortion care were established. He also expanded public transportation and created the Mobile Attention Centers for Drug Addicts (CAMAD) to provide medical and mental health care to the destitute and the addicted.

Despite his accomplishments and anti-Uribe bona fides, Petro’s candidacy is not without contradictions for the Colombian left. Though he is critical of the hard-line military approach to the “war on drugs,” Petro’s stint as mayor of Bogota saw several major police raids in the working class El Bronx sector of the city.

The former militant has moved steadily to the right in an effort to win over the more liberal sections of the ruling and middle classes. He is explicit that he does not mean to propose any overtly revolutionary policies. Petro plans to raise taxes on unused land held by large owners — to encourage them to sell to the state — but stops short of redistributing land to the poor and oppressed peasant farmers.

Despite its limitations, Petro’s candidacy is by far the most important formation of the broad left in Colombia. The FARC’s new electoral party is alienated from the majority of the population after decades of bloody guerrilla warfare, and received less than 5 percent of the vote in the first round.

PETRO FACES steep odds in the runoff — a recent poll has him trailing by 5.5 percent — but the movement behind him represents perhaps the most significant challenge to the hegemony of the right since the beginning of Colombia’s civil war.

The civil war has claimed at least 220,000 lives, forcibly displaced another 5.7 million people and provided political cover for a clique of authoritarian, reactionary elites to run roughshod over the country.

The 2016 peace agreement opened the door to the possibility of an alternative. The accord and Petro’s presidential run represent a rare ray of hope for Colombia’s social movements.

A Duque victory would mean a new wave of violence and repression against unions, rural collectives, Indigenous communities and the left, and the disappearance of much the political space in which progressive formations like Petro’s coalition can operate.

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But even if Petro secures an upset victory, there is no guarantee he will be sworn in. The right has already used judicial maneuvers to remove him from office and attempt to ban him from politics, and he has faced numerous death threats throughout his political career. The last left-populist figure to come close to the presidency in Colombia was Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, whose assassination in 1948 set off a long period of political violence.

No matter what happens, it’s essential in this volatile period for the Colombian left to continue building mass movements and organization, whether to oppose the revanchism of Duque and the Democratic Center or to hold Petro accountable to his progressive rhetoric.

Socialists in the U.S. need to build opposition to our own government’s imperialist meddling in Colombia and the rest of Latin America, which has led to so much death and suffering.

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