Latin America

Elections in Colombia

From Anthony Boynton in Bogotá

Gustavo Petro on the campaign trail.

Colombia just had the first round of this year’s presidential elections, and some of the results were surprising. The fact that Gustavo Petro, the candidate of the left electoral coalition Pacto Historico, got about 8.5 million votes (40%) was no surprise, although the possibility of Petro becoming president is a source of worry, fear, and even panic within this country’s political rightwing.

 The surprise was that Federico Gutierrez, the candidate of  the right-wing Uribista Equipo por Colombia did not come in second. Instead, Rodolfo Hernandez, the leader of the one man Liga de Gobernantes Anticorrupción, came in second with a little less than 6 million votes (28%). Gutierrez came in third with a little more than 5 million votes (24%). Sergio Fajardo, leader of the self-described centrist  Coalición Centro Esperanza, came in a distant fourth with less than 900,000 votes (4%).

 The second and final vote will be between Petro and Hernandez on June 19.

 A few things can be said for certain. The old political parties of Colombia’s political elite, the Liberals and the Conservatives, are dead or dying zombies still walking among the living, but increasingly irrelevant to 21st century politics. Uribismo, the collection of parties and political fragments put together to fight against the FARC under the umbrella of Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia, is also fading into the past.

 Also, the project of the US embassy, many multinational companies, and an important sector of the Colombian bourgeoisie to create a centrist political movement to crowd out both the left and right in Colombia, has been a total, miserable, and disastrous failure. Fajardo was the candidate of that project. 

Rodolfo Hernandez: “Colombia’s Donald Trump”

Colombia’s Donald Trump”
Hernandez has been called Colombia’s Donald Trump.

 He ran a clever campaign. Except for the very first debate, he refused to participate in the television and radio debates among the candidates. The reason was obvious. Petro was slicing and dicing his opponents in those debates. He was clearly the best prepared and most articulate person on stage, and the only one who had concrete proposals to meet the needs of the country. Hernandez wisely allowed Gutierrez and Fajardo to lose the debates, while he stood outside untarnished.

 Hernandez wisely did not make any proposals for education, unemployment, agriculture, food security, or the environment because he apparently plans to continue on the current course of doing nothing. Instead he offered a “throw the bums out” campaign of the sort Donald Trump ran in 2016.

 Colombia is riddled with corruption, and has been historically, so the common people of Colombia would really and truly like to throw the bums out.

 Hernandez is definitely not the person for the job since he himself faces charges for corruption during his tenure as Mayor of the medium sized city of Bucaramanga, and the supporters of his campaign reads like a who’s who of the most corrupt politicians and business people of his home department, Santander.

 Hernandez also wisely concentrated his campaign online on Tic-Toc, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

 Now he will need a new play book, but it is doubtful whether it will be good enough to win. Now the spotlight will be on him rather than Gutierrez and Fajardo. He has already said that he will not debate Petro. How will he handle his own shady past? How will he handle the misogynistic things he has said? How will he handle the videos of his assault on a reporter? How will he handle the videos of his praise for Adolph Hitler?

 He has issued a new 20 point political program that looks like it was cut and pasted from the programs of the Uribistas, Fajardo and Petro, and he says he will not enter into any political alliances. This is disingenuous, since the Uribistas will all be campaigning for him. Gutierrez immediately endorsed Hernandez as soon as the election results were in. Uribismo is trying on a new face.

Capitalist Support for Hernandez
Along with the Uribistas, the other four bourgeois parties, the Conservative Party, the official leaders of the Liberal Party, the Partido de la U, and Cambio Radical will all be campaigning for Hernandez. Moreover, Hernandez’ list of congressional candidates won only two seats while his list of Senatorial candidates did not win even one. In other words, his only chance of governing will depend on the support of those parties in the legislature.

 On paper, it looks like Hernandez can win, if you assume that everyone who voted for him the first time around will vote for him again, if you assume that all of the people who voted for Gutierrez will vote for him in the second round, if you assume that people who did not vote will not vote in the second round, and if you assume that the majority of those who voted for Fajardo will vote for him in the second round. A lot of these assumptions are pretty iffy.

 Fajardo’s VP candidate has endorsed Petro. Many other politicians, especially from the Liberal Party and from the Centro Esperanza have jumped onto the Petro bandwagon.

 Petro’s Election Strategy
Petro’s election strategy has been to broaden the left coalition to both the left and to the right. He wisely chose Francia Marquez, an Afro-Colombian woman who is known as a forthright, straightforward feminist and environmentalist. The survivor of a right wing assassination attempt, she is universally respected and an icon for Colombia’s oppressed and working class.

 At the same time Petro tried, but failed, to make alliances with right wing evangelicals.

 He tried, and succeeded, to make alliances with big name but disaffected mainstream politicians. Most importantly he recruited Senators Armando Benedetti and Roy Barrera to his campaign. Benedetti began his career in the right as an Uribista, shifted to the center when Juan Manuel Santos was president, and after Ivan Duque became President sidled to the left to join Petro.

 Barrera was a strong supporter of Santos and of the peace process that Santos led to success through a combination of war and negotiations with the FARC. Importantly, Benedetti is from Barranquilla, and Barrera is from Cali, the third and fourth largest cities in the country.

Petro’s program
Petro’s program promises a path of reforms to gradually reduce production of fossil fuels until production stops in 12 years (and Colombia exports more oil than Venezuela), to gradually shift pensions from disastrous private pension funds into the government pension program, to do something similar with the health care system, to improve and expand public education (including offering free public university education), and to dramatically improve the country’s transportation system including rebuilding the national railroad system and enlarging and improving urban mass transit. He says he will finance his program while reducing the country’s foreign debt by a 50 trillion peso (USD 12.5 billion) tax reform centered on major tax increases for the wealthy.

 Petro insists that he will carry out the peace agreement with the FARC in good faith, essentially restoring the process that began under the Santos administration but which has been evaded, violated and damaged by the Duque administration. He is willing to negotiate with the ELN, and he plans to restore diplomatic relations with next door neighbor Venezuela.

 This is hardly the “confiscations and expropriations” that the Uribistas have been screaming about, but it will pinch the profits of the fossil fuel industry, the banks, and the insurance companies. To the taunt that he “will turn Colombia into another disaster like Venezuela”, he replies that he will do the opposite. Venezuela is addicted to oil, Colombia has rapidly increased oil production under every government in the last 20 years, Colombia is becoming addicted to oil. Petro will reverse that process to completely eliminate fossil fuel production within 12 years. Venezuela shoots student protestors, so does the Duque government. Petro will end that practice and reform the police to eliminate the riot squads and infiltrators.

 Paramilitary & Lumpen Bourgeoisie

A terrorist attack by the Clan del Golfo

Several other groups fear a Petro presidency for good reasons. They include the drug dealers of the Clan del Golfo, a new name for the old paramilitary groups that have long been aligned with Uribismo and the military. They include the corrupt Uribista politicians aligned with the drug dealers, some of whom are already facing criminal charges, starting with Uribe himself. And, they include the corrupt leaders of the military itself, as well as the career officers now moving upward. Besides jail time, this slice of society faces political extinction.

This lumpen-bourgeoisie is intimately connected to the bourgeoisie proper made up of big landowning clans who also own trucking firms, factories, banks, and chains of retail stores. Each family clan may or may not have its share of members connected to the cocaine trade: sales of precursor chemicals, provision of banking and money laundering services, transportation services, and providing political and military protection. All of this remains mostly behind closed doors.

 United States and Possible Coup
The United States and the European Union, now joined by China, are the main markets for illegal drugs, but they are also the primary sources of direct foreign investment and of lending to Colombia. They compete with each other in a multiplicity of ways, and the Colombian bourgeoisie long ago learned both how to play them off against each other, and how to form temporary or long term alliances with one or the other of them. The United States has been in the strongest position since the Second World War, but now it is being challenged by China.

Fears of a preemptory coup d’état to prevent a Petro presidency remain. The

Phillip Goldberg. Evidently he was involved in the coup in Bolivia, but here he is in the Philippines. The man gets around.

United States moved Phillip Goldberg, the man who had been chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Bolivia prior to and during the coup against Evo Morales, to Colombia where he has been the ambassador. The move stoked fears of a preemptive coup against the election of Petro, since Goldberg is widely seen as the behind the scenes mastermind of the Bolivian coup. However, Goldberg is now being moved to South Korea.

Other reasons for fears of a preemptive coup continue. Former President Andres Pastrana, perhaps the most corrupt politician in Colombia due to his family’s control of privatized municipal services from garbage collection to mass public transportation, has gone to court to remove the registrar of voters for being insufficiently dishonest. Shades of Donald trump and Georgia! The government of Ivan Duque has deported several international election observers, and the top general of the Colombian military has brazenly violated the Colombian constitution to campaign against Petro.

 On top of this, the Procuradora has removed elected officials who have given the slightest indication that they support the election of Petro from office creating a municipal crisis in Medellin. The office of the procurator is perhaps the single most undemocratic institution in the Colombian constitution of 1991. The procurator is appointed by the President, but has the power to remove elected officials from office for real or imagined offenses. The institutions is almost as undemocratic as the Supreme Court of the United States!

 Nevertheless, I believe a coup is unlikely. There were no coup attempts in Peru when Castillo was elected, and none in Chile when Boric was elected. US and Colombian businesses do not like Petro, but they fear social upheaval more. Petro is offering them stability and promises to to respect private property rights including intellectual property rights. 

Still, dangers remain because of the particular sectors of the bourgeoisie and especially the lumpen bourgeoisie that will lose out in a Petro presidency. Already, it is clear that Hernandez was the beneficiary of electoral fraud in marginal regions of Colombia.

The Pacto Historico is now a mass movement, and it mobilized close to 100,000 poll watchers to guard against the electoral fraud of the traditional political machines. Despite its impressive successes, fraud has already been uncovered in the small towns and rural areas where Hernandez racked up his most important victories.

 Possible Assassination
More ominously, Colombia has a tradition of assassinating left wing political candidates that came anywhere close to gaining political power. The tradition

Carlos Pizarro, one of several Colombian presidential candidates who were assassinated.

began with the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitain in 1948 and continued in the 1980’s and 1990s with the assassinations of presidential candidates Jaime Pardo Leal, Luis Carlos Galan, Bernardo Jaramillo and Carlos Pizarro.

 Petro has more than 60 of his own bodyguards who protect him, sometimes speaks behind bullet proof barriers, and has cancelled mass rallies when there has been evidence of assignation attempts underway. Both Petro and his vice presidential candidate, Francia Marquez have survived assassination attempts.

 Next Government Unstable
Whether Petro or Hernandez is elected, the next government is not likely to be stable. In either case, the turmoil of the world economy is going to roil the Colombian economy. In either case, the increasingly more damaging floods and droughts ravaging the country due to global warming are going to get worse, and in either case, the new president will not control any of the other institutions of the Colombian state: not the congress, not the Senate, not the military, not the courts, and not the central bank.

 In the case of an Hernandez victory, it is clear that the new government will fall into line behind the traditional political machines. Ruinous business as usual will lead to a renewal of the mass movements that shook the country prior to the electoral season. In the case of a Petro victory, there will be sharp conflict between the new president and the other institutions of government. This might delay the reemergence of the mass movement, but likely not for long.

Oaklandsocialist adds: History has seen similar waves of leftists elected in Latin America before. It was known as the “Pink Tide”, and it demonstrated a reaction against neoliberal policies, policies of driving down wages and cutting government social services, all in the interest of attracting foreign investment. The problem was that under capitalism, there really isn’t much of an alternative, but those elected failed to go all the way and move to end capitalism itself. As a result, those representing half steps were rejected and a wave of conservative administrations followed them. So, while an election of these new left governments should be welcomed, in and of themselves they will not be able to solve the real problems.

Gustavo Petro on the campaign trail.

Categories: Latin America, politics

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