Latin America

Colombia Lurches Left

by Anthony Boynton in Bogotá, Colombia

Gustavo Petro (right): Colombia’s version of Bernie Sanders?

Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and Bernie Sanders has been elected President of the United States, AND his supporters have won a majority in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.


Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been elected President of France, AND his supporters have won a majority in the Sénat and the Assemblée nationale.

No, you rub your eyes, this is not real! It must be a dream!

But something like it has just happened in Colombia. Last Sunday, on Siete de Agosto (August 7), Gustavo Petro was sworn in as the 42nd president of Colombia. You could say that he is the second left wing president of Colombia, if you count Simon Bolivar, the liberator, as the first. In any case, his swearing in marks a tectonic shift in modern Colombian politics.

Although it is way too early to predict whether Petro’s government will be successful, he has already succeeded where others failed in the past. First of all he managed to get elected in a country known for assassinations of left wing candidates as well as thousands of left wing activists.

And, so far, he has not been killed.

 Second, no coups d’état have been attempted and none appear to be on the horizon.

 Petro has also managed to put together a broad coalition government that features cabinet ministers from almost every political party in the country. (The one major exception is the party of former President Alvaro Uribe known as the Centro Democratico.) That coalition has also given him a majority in the Chamber of Representatives and in the Senate, something that I personally believed was impossible before it happened.

Imagine again, the new Sanders government in the United States. Sanders has appointed AOC to be the Secretary of State, Paul Krugman is the new Secretary of the Treasury, Elizabeth Warren is the new Secretary of Commerce, Deb Haaland continues on as Secretary of the Interior, the new Attorney General is Chesa Boudin, Kirsten Sinema is the Secretary of Health, and the new Secretary of Homeland Security will be Liz Cheney.   

 At first glance you might think that old Bernie has gone off his rocker, but at second glance, you might think that wily and pragmatic old Bernie has put together a coalition to help him pass his legislative agenda through Congress and calm the fears of big business at the same time.

The imaginary analogy falls apart when you look more closely at the political regimes of the two countries. The United States has an antique crisis ridden tweedle-dee/tweedle-dum constitutional two party system. Colombia’s antique crisis ridden tweedle-dee/tweedle-dum constitutional two party system cracked up and failed in the 1980’s producing the 1991 Constitution and a new crisis ridden multiparty system.

 In the 15 years following the implementation of the new Constitution, the old Conservative and Liberal parties fell apart. They still exist, but alongside them there are now 19 other parties or groups represented in the Chamber of representatives.

The Pacto Historico
Within that new system, a series of big tent left electoral coalitions that included the Communist Party, MOIR (the largest Maoist organization), M-19, and various smaller organizations formed and began to win elections, especially in the capital city of Bogotá, but also in various other cities around the country. It named itself the Polo Democratico, and then the Polo Democratico Alternativo, and won three mayoral elections in a row in Bogotá until it blew up in the 2011 corruption scandal of the administration of Mayor Samuel Moreno.

 Moreno was the leader of the one party in the Polo, ANAPO, that was not part of the socialist left but was instead the descendant of the movement of former President and dictator Rojas Pinilla.

 After that scandal, the Polo split in two. Petro was in favor of expelling Moreno, but the supporters of the Communist Party and MOIR resisted. Colombia Humana was born out of that split, and in the next Mayoral Election it trounced all other parties, including the shell of the Polo that remained.  

 Petro’s term as mayor swirled with controversy. Without a majority in the city council, and facing a hostile national government and mass media, Petro failed to accomplish most of the major goals of his administration. Nevertheless, he expanded public education, neighborhood food kitchens, programs for women, programs for the LGBTQ community, shut down the bull ring, and forced the next city administration to begin construction of the city’s long delayed metro mass transit system.

 His biggest accomplishment was the establishment of Colombia Humana as the main left wing electoral party with mass support in the working class neighborhoods of Bogotá and other cities, and with growing support in the labor movement, indigenous communities, Afro-Colombian communities, and strong support among feminists, LGBTQ activists and in the environmental movement.

 On that basis, Petro and Colombia Humana organized the electoral coalitions that ran Petro as its presidential candidate in 2018 and 2022.

 The 2022 coalition, Pacto Historico included almost all of the labor movement, almost all of the elements of the old Polo Alternativo Democratico, plus the main indigenous organizations, and significant support among Afro-Colombian communities, feminists, LGBTQ activists and the environmental movement.

 By itself, the Pacto Historico has the potential to become a new type of mass social democratic party. At this point, it lacks an internal democratic structure of its own, and functions through negotiations of the leaders of its component parts with Gustavo Petro orchestrating the tensions and the negotiations.

Despite the hostility of all of the mass media, Petro and his vice Presidential running mate Francia Marquez were elected in the second and final round of voting on June 19th of this year with 11,277,407 votes (50.47 %). His right wing opponent,  Rodolfo Hernández, received 10,562,894 (47.27 %).  Out of 39,002,239 eligible voters, 22,637,351 (58%) voted, a better turnout than in all recent elections including the first round of this year’s election. In the earlier legislative elections, the Pacto Historico won election of 16 of its candidates for the 107 seats in the Senate, and 25 of the 171 seats in the Chamber of Representatives.

Following the legislative elections in March, Petro and the Pacto Historico began working on the formation of a broad coalition government in anticipation that Petro and Marquez would be elected. The keys to their strategy were negotiations with figures in the other parties and shaping the presidential campaign message to win over supporters from the other political parties.

During the presidential election campaign, the crisis in the main right wing party, the Uribista Centro Democratico deepened as they dumped one candidate after another. All of the other parties begin to debate whether they should support Petro, support Hernandez, or abstain. In the end, most of the parties supported Hernandez, but leaders from the Liberals, Conservatives, Partido de la U, Centro Esperanza, and smaller parties – together with many of their followers, switched to supporting Petro against the official party leaderships.

Petro’s campaign explicitly rejected the notion that socialism is on the agenda in Colombia.

Petro’s speeches emphasized that he is against expropriations, for capitalism, for peace in Colombia, and for democracy.

He proposed an ambitious programs of reforms based on the central idea of making a rapid transition from production and consumption of fossil fuels while simultaneously increasing domestic agricultural and industrial production with import substitution and industrial policy. He promised to reform the pension, medical, and education systems, to institute land and agricultural reform, to finally implement the peace agreement that was signed between the FARC and the Santos government, to initiate peace negotiations with the ELN and FARC dissidents, to reform the military and police, and to renew diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

The Inauguration

I watched most of the inauguration on TV last Sunday. It was definitely not the usual and traditional ceremony with marching soldiers and Very Important People speaking and politely applauding each other’s speeches. Instead, it was a series of events held in parks and public places all over the country. I watched one segment from a very small town in Santander. A lot of local farmers were celebrating Petro’s election, and also demanding that he do something about the high prices of fertilizers. I saw another segment from Popayan with lots of traditional music. Then, I saw a young woman rapper rapping away at one of the parks here in Bogotá.

 The main event was held in the Plaza Bolivar, and it featured a lot of the traditional pomp and ceremony. However, Petro insisted on a few key changes. First of all, everyone, common people and dignitaries alike, sat in the plaza at the same level. The only exceptions were the Very Important Foreign Guests including King Felipe VI of Spain, who was sitting right next to Gabriel Boric, the new young leftist President of Chile. Notably absent were representatives of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who had been prevented from coming by the outgoing Duque government.

 The second change was that Petro had requested that the ceremonial sword of Simon Bolivar, known as the liberator of Colombia and other Latin American countries, be present at the ceremony. Outgoing President Duque refused the request. In 1974, M-19, the guerrilla organization that Petro belonged to in his youth, had stolen the sword from a museum as a symbolic act announcing its intention to regain Colombian liberty from the anti-democratic government.

 The symbolism of having it present at Petro’s inauguration was lost on no one, least of all Duque.

 As soon as Petro was sworn in, and before he made his inaugural speech, he announced his first official action as President: bring the sword to the ceremony immediately. The crowd in the plaza, the dignitaries, and the millions watching on TV had to wait 15 minutes. The sword was delivered by the Presidential military guard plus gun wielding members of La Guardia Indígena.

 The symbolism was clear to all present and watching.

 On inauguration day Petro made two speeches: one to the crowd immediately after the sword arrived, and another later at the swearing-in ceremony for newly appointed ministers. In the first he reiterated and elaborated on the program he had campaigned on. In the second he talked about eliminating the political plums that have been built up within the government bureaucracy to provide jobs for the untalented children of the rich and powerful, and he made it clear to his new ministers that there will be zero tolerance of corruption in the Petro administration.

 The Cabinet and the Coalition

Petro has clearly matured as a political leader since the days when he was mayor of Bogotá. As mayor he faced a hostile city council which prevented him from implementing many of the reforms he wanted to make. At the same time, he paid too little attention to consolidating his own political movement, then known as the Movimiento Progresista, and fell out with most of the other leaders whom he had gathered around himself.

His new cabinet, and his appointments to other key government posts, reflect the lessons Petro has drawn from his experience.

You can divide his appointments into three groups: those drawn from the components of the Pacto Historico itself, individuals from other parties with excellent technocratic reputations, and politicians from other parties who will help gain votes in the legislature for Petro’s legislative agenda.

Eleven of the 34 key appointments have gone to people from the Pacto Historico: 5 from Colombia Humana, 2 from the Communist Party, 2 from MAIS, and one each from the Unión Patriótica and the Polo. They include Francia Marquez, the new Vice President, who will also be the Minister of a new Ministry of Equality, plus the minsters of the environment; mines and energy; health; culture; commerce, and sports. Two other key appointments, the heads of the government programs for victims of the armed conflict and for restitution of lands stolen during the armed conflict have gone to leaders of MAIS, one of the indigenous components of the Pacto.

The key members of other parties who have been appointed for their expertise in certain areas where they have broad agreement with the Pacto include José Antonio Ocampo as the new Minister of Finance, Iván Velásquez as the new Minister of Defense, and Alvaro Leyva as the new Foreign Minister.

Ocampo is a member of the Liberal Party who has served in previous governments, has been a director of the country’s central bank, and has served as Executive Director of CEPAL at the United Nations. He is currently on leave from his position as a professor at Colombia University in New York. He describes himself as a social democrat, but not a Petrista.

His most important roles are to calm the fears of international finance, and to help pass a major tax reform. During the campaign, Petro repeatedly talked about a reform that would bring in 50,000,000,000,000 pesos (approximately USD 12,500,000,000 at current exchange rates) in additional revenue to the Colombian government- mostly by taxing the rich. Ocampo’s version will only bring in half that amount, but he insists that figure is non-negotiable. The money is needed to pay off the country’s foreign debt, which grew enormously under the Uribista governments, and to finance Petro’s energy transition and major reforms.

Alvaro Leyva is a member of the Conservative Party who has played central roles in government peace agreements with M-19 and the FARC as well as being one of the most important authors of the current constitution. His job is to oversee the new peace negotiations with the ELN and FARC dissidents, and well as the process of reviving diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

Iván Velásquez is not affiliated with any political party. His entire career has been spent investigating, prosecuting, and convicting paramilitaries, drug dealers, members of Congress, and military officers for corruption and crimes against humanity. He sent more than 50 members of Congress to jail. He is hated by the Uribistas and has had his life threatened many times. Most recently, he worked for the United Nations prosecuting corruption in Guatemala. He is widely feared by the Uribistas and by many officers within the military which he will now oversee.

A key trio in the new government will be Francia Marquez, Vice President and Minister of Equality; Susana Muhamad, the highly qualified new Minister of the Environment and a long time Petro team member from his days as Mayr of Bogotá; and Irene Vélez Torres, the new Minister of Mines and Energy who is an environmentalist and human rights advocates rather than a mining or Petroleum engineer. She is a close political ally of Marquez. This trio will lead the implementation of the Pacto’s environmental and energy transition policies.

To date, they do not have a plan for the eight year transition away from fossil fuels, so the challenge they face is enormous. Currently, 70% of Colombia’s energy consumption is from fossil fuels while most of the other 30% is from hydroelectric dams.

Categories: Latin America

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