The road to Colombia's latest presidential election looks a lot different from the ones we Westerners are used to. That's why it matters so much.
On June 19, Father’s Day took a back seat in Colombia to a second presidential run-off, the last part of a process that began with legislative elections in March. At that time, candidates were also chosen for the presidential race, which had its first run-off in May. Because no candidate passed the key threshold, the top two went on to this final vote. And that’s when something extraordinary happened: Colombia, for the first time in recent history, elected a leftist president, Gustavo Petro, along with the first Afro-descended Colombian vice president, Francia Márquez. The “Pacto Histórico”, a coalition of leftist and center-leftist parties from the legislative elections, had lived up to its “historic” name.
For North Americans, the switch from “right” to “left” is familiar enough that we can be cynical about how much change it really represents, but Colombia has a much more complex history in relation to these terms. The incoming president, for instance, was a member of the M-19 urban guerrilla group in his youth. After that group was demobilized and integrated into peacetime politics in 1990, he became one of its representatives in part of Colombia’s congress. That’s how Petro got his start in a long career in national politics. And that history has stayed with him, for better and for worse, as he faced opponents who had lost loved ones to guerrilla warfare.
Colombia is… different.
But difference makes us stronger, so it’s worth taking a look at what Colombia’s latest presidential election can teach us about the range of possibilities available to us all.
The unusual road to Petro’s win
It wasn’t an easy victory. There was a surprise upset in the first run-off, which had already taken the country down a new path, and which risked a completely different kind of upset if the opposition, Rodolfo Hernández, had won. But to explain that turn, we have to go back even further in Colombia’s presidential history.
For the last few decades, a strongman named Álvaro Uribe has had a guiding hand in Colombian politics, whether or not he was in office. He was notorious for having tackled cartel violence and the guerrilla war in Colombia with actions that saw thousands of civilians slaughtered, especially in rural areas and among the Indigenous populations. And yet, if you talk to economically comfortable people in the bigger cities, they will tell you that the strong-armed approach was necessary, and that Uribe also improved healthcare and economic opportunities.
(Here in Colombia, it’s not the rural regions that trend conservative; it’s the moneyed interests in cities, hoping to protect their property and levels of safety and comfort.)
When Juan Manuel Santos was elected in 2010, he was supposed to follow in Uribe’s footsteps. Instead, many in the cities felt betrayed by Santos’ interest in pursuing a peace deal with FARC. They wanted another strongman. What they got was a messy peace process that many felt disenfranchised victims (in large part, because victims’ families were not anywhere near as well represented in these talks as the business interests also keen to see an end to the fighting). Many felt that the government was just giving the guerrillas handouts, and a way to keep exploiting the rest of the country on the backs of hardworking citizens.
When the first peace treaty was put to a referendum, an extremely low voter turn-out voted “no”, but the process was already underway. As such, the relevant committees promised to take everyone’s concerns under advisement when drafting a much more robust list of steps toward longterm peace. These included the creation of a very serious tribunal, the JEP, to rule on war crimes and bring victims’ families a sense of closure for many unknown victims’ fates. They also included a significant number of promises of agrarian reinvestment and pushes for rural autonomy and protection, to help vulnerable regions transition out of wartime economies and protect themselves from future cartels and guerrilla groups forcing them into illicit labor.
None of this, as you can imagine, has been easy to pull off. FARC laid down arms and transitioned into a peacetime party, just as Petro’s guerrilla group had done in 1990. But many ex-FARC were nonetheless assassinated, and many others felt that the reintegration process was not moving fast enough to protect them. They became “dissident FARC”, and remain an active guerrilla threat in the country, along with the other major rebel group, the ELN, which operates especially in the fluid jungle terrain between Venezuela and Colombia. At the same time, the state’s failure to target new power-vacuums in remote regions has left many rural populations susceptible to all kinds of criminal violence. Social leaders, Indigenous and otherwise, are still assassinated at high levels in smaller communities simply trying to live in peace.
Iván Duque was elected next as a supposed return to classic “uribismo”, a strong-handed approach to violence and unrest instead of aiding and abetting a rural population that many in the cities held complicit for the ongoing existence of guerrilla groups. Duque’s party had been expressly against the peace deal, and in office he continued to undermine key components, either through further red-tape or by redirecting his political efforts elsewhere.
Mind you, the JEP continues to do its work, meticulously recording victim statements and developing strong restorative-justice cases against FARC and military alike. And some rural welfare initiatives have persisted, even during COVID-19. However, foreign-affair considerations (including a strong working relationship with the US, which routinely calls for Colombia to be more rigid and punitive on the home front) remain a more pressing priority for the current government.
Lead-up to this year’s election
In April 2021, Duque sparked youth protests when he tried to advance a tax reform bill that would up pricing for middle- and lower-class families during the pandemic. It was mostly meant to stabilize the country’s credit rating with international banks and lenders, which would in turn protect the value of pensions and related investment capital. But in a country where half the working population is part of the informal economy (i.e., not salaried), pensions are a pipe dream for very few, and the idea of raising taxes to appease foreign powers and further secure the relatively affluent met with fierce resistance from a youth base that already felt as though the government wasn’t providing enough in the way of economic opportunities.
Those protests were strongly associated with Petro, along with a whole, decades-long movement of leftist discourse calling for a more profound investment in the local economy and its peoples. Genuine social welfare. Real agrarian and related rural reforms. Programs that invested in children, the future, while also providing greater dignity to the elderly and dependent families.
At the time, local pundits weren’t sure if the ensuing uptick in COVID infections caused during these protests (especially as Duque sent ESMAD, the riot task force, into many situations that kettled the population and exacerbated violence to the point that the UN raised alarm) would diminish Petro’s standing. Duque certainly hadn’t come out of it well, either, though. And that’s where things started to get messy.
This year, a whirlwind of possible presidential candidates quickly winnowed itself down to a precious few. One of those was Federico Gutiérrez, “Fico”, and he was considered the “uribista” candidate because his antics while mayor of Medellín had certainly been in Uribe’s wheelhouse. (He was famous at one point for sending military helicopters through the city, booming the names of wanted criminals and the awards attached, to drive arrests.) But Colombia is also a strongly compartmentalized country, and often chooses its candidates based on regional fealty. As such, even though many conservatives around the country were terrified of Petro as president, claiming that giving the government to a leftist would turn Colombia into another “Venezuela”, each had their own regional rightwinger they stumped for instead.
And… that split the vote! To such an extreme, too, that the most unlikely possible candidate ended up making it to the second presidential run-off. A “businessman” with a buffoonish attitude, who’d struck a reporter in the past, and often made the most ridiculous (and sometimes sexist) statements off the cuff. He didn’t even know the name of one of the departments that he won in, but due to regional loyalty, he won in that state all the same. He is literally described as “el Donald Trump colombiano” or “Trump tropical colombiano” by various local media.
This surprise upset in the first run-off left the country in completely new territory. For the first time, there were two people on the final ballot with no ties to Uribe, no representatives of old uribismo. But would the country embrace a leftist with a strong history in senate, or any wacky outsider, just to avoid the leftist threat?
Lessons from Petro’s win
When I left Canada in 2018, it was in strong part because I wanted to learn from a completely different cultural conversation. When I first made my decision to move, in 2016, US politics were permeating Canada, too. Suddenly the US president’s rhetoric, along with the radical far-right movements underpinning his rise, was emboldening a level of white-supremacism among my fellow Canadians that deeply disheartened me, a Canadian who can trace their heritage to the first white child born in Canada.
There had to be other ways of moving through political discourse, and other conversations far more worth having when it came to societal reform. Surely the stark divisions between Republicans and Democrats, and their tedious echoes in Canadian rightwing politics, weren’t the be-all and end-all of government affairs?
But in 2016, while North America’s discourse narrowed, Colombia was doing something extraordinary. It was signing an historic peace deal between the government and FARC, to end a half-century’s war and reintegrate combatants into civil society while also creating pathways of healing and representation for the victims. Was it easy? Has it been easy? Absolutely not.
But the courage of trying something new is something that Colombia has had in its heart and its politics for quite some time.
Protests are a highly valued democratic tool here, after all, with national strike committees setting up talks with the government ahead of well-planned staging in co-operation with local transportation and media. The aim on the streets is to push for better reforms at the table. And youth movements in particular have been so successful, historically, that they even brought around reformation of the Colombian constitution in 1991, when students were fed up with the level of cartel violence corrupting government and decided to do something about it.
This latest election, of a man who rose from guerrilla to statesman, and a woman whose environmental rights advocacy precedes her, is yet another step toward that deeper healing. Will it work? Will everything magically transform overnight?
In Colombia, everything is taken one day at a time. Who knows what fresh upheaval tomorrow might bring? But from decades of strife, and the complexity of communal trauma, has also come a lesson that we would do well to remember in the West:
Change, whether it arrives by baby steps or in giant leaps, is always messy.
But if we can accept the existence of mess as part of the process? Not as something that immediately disqualifies the process from mattering at all?
Then we too might just be ready for our politics to take us somewhere new.