Colombia: The promise of democracy

Francia Márquez and Gustavo Petro
Francia Márquez (left) and Gustavo Petro. Photo: @PactoHistorico/twitter

A political earthquake struck Colombia on May 29: the left-leaning Historic Pact’s presidential candidate, Gustavo Petro, and vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, won the first round of the presidential elections after getting 40.3% of the vote.

The blocs representing the far-right and right-wing parties — which have dominated Colombian politics for most of its history — trailed far behind. The name for the bloc representing the left — Historic Pact — was chosen with the intention of reflecting the unique nature of this moment in the country’s history.

Petro and Márquez will now enter a second round of voting against the far-right ticket of Rodolfo Hernández and Marelen Castillo on June 19. Opinion polls suggest it will be a close race between the two tickets, although there are fears that the right wing will interfere, possibly with violence, to prevent a left-wing victory.

The last few times that the left came near the Palacio de Nariño, where the president works and lives, violent outbreaks during the election process put that possibility to rest.

A cycle of right-wing rule was initiated after the assassination of the left-wing politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who was killed in 1948 and whose death began a period of Colombia’s history hauntingly known as “La Violencia” (“the violence”).

The second opportunity for the emergence of the left came in 1990‒91, when the left-wing guerrillas put down their guns and entered the political contest in good faith, but right-wing forces assassinated three popular presidential candidates, which included the liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galán and two left candidates, Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa and Carlos Pizarro Leongómez.

Petro and Márquez’s Historic Pact offers the third opportunity for a left-wing wave, which will help set aside the violent agenda that has so far been supported by the country’s elite.

Can Colombia breathe?

María José Pizarro is the daughter of slain politician Leongómez, who was assassinated in 1990. She was only 12 years old when her father was shot to death on an airplane from Bogotá to Barranquilla. Pizarro’s parents — Leongómez and Myriam Rodríguez — were members of the guerrilla group M19.

In his youth, presidential candidate Petro was also a member of M19; he was arrested in 1985 (at the age of 25) and sentenced to 18 months in prison for possession of guns.

Pizarro went into exile in Spain when her father was killed, and then returned in 2002. She is now a member of the Chamber of Representatives, for which she ran on the Historic Pact platform.

When we asked Pizarro about Colombia’s liberal constitution of 1991, she said: “The first 19 articles of the Colombian Constitution establish the social rule of law and the democratic parameters and freedoms in our country.”

“What we require,” she continued, “is not only that the 1991 constitution be complied with, but also that those who have held power for the last 200 years be willing to allow other political sectors to govern Colombia. That is called plain and simple democracy.”

Before the first round of voting took place on May 29, the mayor of Medellín, Daniel Quintero — a popular independent mayor of Colombia’s second-largest city — tweeted on May 9, hinting at his support for the Petro-Márquez candidacy with the hashtag #ElCambioEnPrimera, which is associated with their campaign. He was suspended on May 10 by the Inspector General’s Office for alleged interference in the election. By law, elected officials are not permitted to participate in politics. Quintero responded on Twitter, saying, “The coup d’état has begun in Colombia.”

Pizzaro told us that the suspension of Quintero shows disregard for a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, under which this prohibition would be considered unjust. Colombia, she said, “is the only country where officials — who are politicians, elected by a popular vote — cannot express themselves politically.” Reflecting on the suspension of Quintero, Pizzaro said that the country needs “political reform that [involves] changing the rules of the game to allow or at least to avoid the whole series of situations that arise [as a result of] these obsolete outcomes.” Colombia, she said, “needs a new way of doing politics for the new generation.”

No more armed struggle

Pizzaro grew up with her parents in the armed struggle. She has watched her country be torn to bits by the elite, who were unwilling to adopt even the most basic liberal principles, and by a state quick to respond with violence if the elite felt threatened. “Colombia,” she told us, “deserves a path to peace.”

In 2016, after a difficult period of negotiations, sections of the armed left and the state agreed to a peace process. The agreement — ratified by the elected officials — led to the disarmament of the revolutionary group FARC (Common Alternative Revolutionary Force) and its conversion into a political party called Comunes (which is a coalition partner of the Historic Pact).

Fighters who abandoned the armed struggle have had a hard time reintegrating into social and political life. This is a worry for Pizzaro. “We have to reintegrate in a peaceful way all people who had [earlier] taken the decision of the armed road,” she said. “We have to generate social conditions so that no Colombian ever has to opt for the armed way to transform the political and social life of the country.” The path to this transformation must be through democratic possibilities, she said.

Petro comes to this race as the former mayor of the capital, Bogotá. His running mate — Francia Márquez — represents the transformations that Pizzaro described to us. An Afro-Colombian woman, Márquez worked as a domestic worker to pay for her studies and built her reputation as a defender of the poor against mining and electricity companies. Her bravery is legendary, as was demonstrated when, while she was on stage at an Afro-Colombian Day rally in May, her adversaries pointed a laser at her, and she continued to speak and remained undaunted by the fact that the laser could have represented the threat of a sniper weapon. Márquez’s candidacy represents evidence that the new hoped-for politics Pizarro spoke of has arrived.

Journalist and politician Mábel Lara wrote a public letter to support the Historic Pact — even though she has a different political ideology. In her letter, she wrote: “I was born and grew up in Cauca, a region like all the regions of Colombia: forgotten by the political leadership and the political class that has been elected for decades and has not listened to us. I have received a call from a Black woman from the region who, like me, has fought democratically at the polls and has invited me to accompany her. I accept the call of my friend Francia Márquez at this important moment in history.” Pizarro concurred.

[This article was produced by Globetrotter. Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Taroa Zúñiga Silva is a writing fellow and the Spanish media coordinator for Globetrotter. She is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020).]