Brace for Impact: Change Seems to Be Coming to Colombia

On May 29th, the country most deeply linked to Venezuela will have a truly historical election, where the Left could get to power for the first time. What to expect?

It would be impossible to summarize in a few paragraphs the history of attempts by revolutionaries or reformists to rise to power in Colombia. Let’s say that many people demanding change (not all of them, though) have recurred to violence, alleging an impossibility of achieving anything via the institutions. This has left a trace of horrors since the second half of the 19th century, with a practically permanent conflict between Liberals and Conservatives up to the 1950s, and from the 1960s to recent years, the war between several guerrilla groups of different ideologies, the State and the paramilitaries. Millions of Colombians have died in that constant fighting, fueled by the drug trafficking since the 1980s, and conflict has not only contributed to limiting Colombia’s immense potentialities: it has affected Venezuela in many ways, to the current point of deep presence of the criminal economies that found sanctuary with Chávez and Maduro.

The shadow of such a violent past (and present) is behind the presidential election taking place on Sunday, May 29th, which would most likely lead to ballotage on June 19th. Tough most of the paramilitary armies were dissolved at the end of the governments of Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos, and the main guerrillas, FARC, demobilized after signing the 2016 peace accord, the ELN guerrillas, the so-called FARC dissidents, and a myriad of irregular groups involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activities are quite active. Recently, the Clan del Golfo cartel paralyzed an entire region in reprisal for the extradition to the U.S. of its imprisoned boss. Hundreds of community leaders and social or environmental activists have been murdered in rural Colombia after the peace accords. 

And the reasons why so much violence has been unleashed through the ages are still there: Colombia is riddled with inequality, poverty, discrimination against entire communities, and almost insurmountable constraints on means for social mobility.

The drug industry and the associated violence are still the most attractive way of life in many rural and poor urban communities, after years of the U.S.-assisted “war on drugs” or the devastating defoliation of coca crops with airborne glyphosate. Since 2019, a series of protest waves exposed the intensity of social discontent and demolished the already low popularity of conservative President Iván Duque after the brutal response of the security forces and unidentified armed actors in repressing the demonstrations.

Economic troubles and extended rage: this is the context where a former member of the M19 guerrillas, former senator and mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro, is leading the polls for the presidential election with a leftitst coalition named Pacto Histórico. Petro came in second in the previous election; now, polls show him in clear advantage, followed by the candidate of the conservative alliance, former mayor of Medellín Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez. The most probable scenario, at this point, is that both candidates would face off in the second round in June, and that for the first time an economist coming from the far left, who went to jail and belonged to a guerrilla until 1990, could become the President of Colombia.

How Chavista Would Petro Be? 

The first thing we are forced to address is that this scenario, unthinkable a few years ago, is good news for Nicolás Maduro, the reason why his regime has been trying to contribute to Petro’s victory in different ways, as we have been saying in our Political Risk Report. Petro is definitely close to many people who support or have supported chavismo, and he will no doubt change the openly hostile stance towards the Venezuelan dictatorship that characterizes the Duque administration. 

However, it is not clear how far Petro would go in backing Maduro, even if he recognizes Chávez’s heir as a legitimate president. Venezuelan scholar Victor M. Mijares, assistant professor of political science at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, an expert on Colombia-Venezuela relations, says that everything points to Petro winning the election and that Colombia’s relationship with Maduro’s Venezuela will improve, “but it’s hard to know whether Petro will follow a foreign policy in the style of Nicaragua or Bolivia, or if it would be rather like Mexico with AMLO: tolerance without compromise.” 

At this point, says Mijares, we can’t but speculate, given that both Petro and his vice presidential candidate Francia Márquez have managed to hide their previous links and sympathies for chavismo.

“They prefer not to talk about Maduro, except when they have no choice. Foreign policy hasn’t been a big subject in this campaign and the more relevant opinion leaders help in keeping the Venezuelan issue off the table, because it’s considered a subject more related to the narrative from the Uribe field.”

In fact, Uribe is the fearmonger-in-chief when it comes to warning Colombians about the dangers of a chavista contagion or chavista meddling (part fiction, part reality) in their country’s affairs.

More questions come to mind in terms of what could really happen, to what extent a victory of Petro could bring change to Colombia. Colombian-Venezuelan journalist Sinar Alvarado explains that Pacto Histórico is truly a leftist coalition, but above all an aircraft carrier built around Petro’s leadership: “It’s formed by the parties Colombia Humana (founded by Petro), Unión Patriótica (of former guerrilla fighters), the Communist Party, the Indigenous movement MAIS and Polo Democrático Alternativo, among others. Some criticize the excessive weight of Petro within Pacto, that he organized a primary just to legitimize himself, that he refuses to give a proper space for feminists, and that he makes the main decisions on his own without listening to the others. Truth is that his individual political capital and his stubborn personality have made his individualism inevitable, which is a weakness for the coalition.” 

Alvarado thinks that Francia Márquez could open some space for minorities who deserve more participation, and that the minority of former guerrilla leaders and the Marxists won’t have much power in a government. 

What’s Really at Stake

According to writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, it is quite feasible that Petro wins. “A big part of the nation is tired of the excesses of uribismo and the way this conservative movement more or less openly sabotaged the peace process. However, Petro has never proved capable of implementing his agenda; he failed as mayor of Bogotá and he launches every day a new unfeasible or absurd policy that forces him to give explanations for days. It’s also true that part of his agenda is just common sense, which he shares with candidate Sergio Fajardo (currently in fourth place in the polls). I’m actually voting for Fajardo, who also has a progressive platform, but more grounded and economically responsible.”

Ken Frankel, president of the Canadian Council for the Americas, feels that the attitude in the region is to wait and see, and has learned from his conversations with Colombian political actors and scholars, and his own time in that country, that for many years the Right in Colombia has held onto the certainty that the Left will never win an election. A luxury the Right can’t no longer afford. 

That’s what happened in the previous presidential election. Four years ago, says Frankel, the Right focused on attacking centrist candidate Sergio Fajardo to undermine his chances of making it to the ballotage: they knew that polarization would help them defeat Gustavo Petro in the second round and preferred to compete against him, rather to do it with Fajardo, who could win in a second round against Duque. 

“This is still the Right’s bet,” the Canadian scholar says, “but the circumstances have changed. Today, even people from the Right say that Duque has been an inefficient president, to put it nicely. Duque’s is not a successful presidency, for several reasons. Colombia has been in social turmoil even before the pandemic, the open hunting season against social leaders is horrific, and now the country is a pressure cooker about to explode.” 

The main difference here, according to Frankel, is that the Left had a hard time winning before the peace accord, when there was always ease to accuse a candidate of being linked to guerrillas or chavismo. “Now the political spectrum is quite wider, and the strength Petro has today as a presidential candidate is the result, to a certain point, of some maturity in Colombia’s political system, which has been leaving behind the war mentality controlled by the Right’s narrative. Accusing someone of castrochavismo doesn’t have the impact it had before, and at the end of the day, what matters is the stress of the nation.” 

And to that nation that seems convinced that it’s time to change, Fajardo is offering a gradual change from the center, Petro has promised deeper transformation at the structural level, and Gutiérrez only offers continuity, while the Right can’t convince Colombians that they are a guarantee of order, given the violence that is still taking place. “Everyone knows that many things have to change, such as the pension regime, the distribution of land ownership, and the lack of opportunities, in a country with huge inequality.”

The Perils Ahead

For Ken Frankel, both Petro and Gutiérrez have some very dark forces within their coalitions. “None of them represents, opposing Fajardo, a new way of doing politics in Colombia. I refuse to make a prediction; four years ago, Fajardo almost defeated Petro in the first round. And mind the fact that no one really controls the Congress.”

Elizabeth Dickinson, Colombia analyst for the Crisis Group, concurs with the risk for governance and conflict derived from the fragmented Congress, as well as many other factors: “It would be easy to form a parliamentary coalition against a Petro administration, and he would face a very complex situation in the countryside with so many unattended issues. We are very worried about how Petro would deal with the security forces. He would need them to control the country’s situation, but at the same time he would have to implement reforms about compliance with human rights, the national police’s behavior, or the missing persons. Petro would have a very limited political capacity, and would have to choose his priorities very carefully to avoid burning all his political capital at once.”   

Petro’s victory means also the risk of capital fleeing the economy and of increased paramilitary activity against community leaders and leftist activists, while a Gutiérrez presidency would likely mean a chronic state of social unrest: “We can see protests erupting if Gutiérrez wins, or for many other reasons. The national strike of 2021 ended because the demonstrators were exhausted, not because their demands were solved. That and many other pending matters of a structural nature will resurface as protests.”