The Battle for Colombia

In Cali, memory lines the walls. Colombia’s third-largest city is adorned with murals depicting the estallido social: the immense protests that shook Colombia from April to June 2021, sparked by crushing social conditions and met with fierce state repression. Five-metre paintings of young people killed by police overlook congested highways, signalling residents’ refusal to forget the crimes committed under the authoritarian regime of Iván Duque. This year, on the second anniversary of the uprising, the city’s puntos de resistencia (or ‘resistance points’) were reimagined. New works of street art went up, while communal meals and musical performances brought together those affected by the events: the parents of activists killed in the crackdown, protesters left with life-changing injuries. ‘The police didn’t like us meeting like this before’, said one graffiti artist, spray can in hand. ‘But since the election, they tend to leave us alone.’

In June 2022, the revolt against Duque culminated in the election of Colombia’s first progressive government, headed by President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez. The last time a leftist made a serious bid for the presidency was in 1948, when Jorge Eliécer Gaitán’s likely victory was thwarted by his assassination. Since then, the country’s peasant and indigenous populations have been excluded from its political institutions – dominated by the interests of agribusiness and extractivism, propped up by Washington with the aid of right-wing paramilitary groups.

Colombian GDP is around the Latin American average, yet inequality levels are among the highest in the region. For decades, peasant, Indigenous and African-Colombian populations have been forcibly displaced to facilitate increased land concentration. As the extractive economy spread from the 1980s onward – along with ranching, intensive agriculture and cocaine production – paramilitaries cleared swathes of the countryside of their inhabitants. Under the right-wing presidency of Álvaro Uribe (2002-10), the landowning oligarchy, accounting for only a tiny fraction of total landowners, increased its holdings from 47% of agricultural land to 68%, while 80% of peasant farmers lived in poverty. The urban working class suffered low wages and job instability, its capacity to organize for improved conditions fatally weakened by systematic violence against trade union leaders and community activists. During Duque’s tenure, 42% of the population were impoverished, thanks to a combination of hyper-neoliberal policies and mismanagement of the pandemic.

Such asymmetries are partly a result of Colombia’s rigged political system. In 1958, the two parties of the ruling elite, the Liberals and Conservatives, agreed that power would rotate between them as part of a National Front arrangement. This antidemocratic duopoly was contested by the guerrilla movements that emerged in the wake of the Cuban Revolution: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), which aimed to defend peasants against state violence and establish a new national settlement based on popular participation and anti-imperialism. The FARC, in particular, found support among the rural poor, as the guerrillas provided infrastructure, services and security in territories abandoned by the state. After half a century of fighting, in 2016 the group eventually signed a peace agreement with the government of Juan Manuel Santos. Yet a series of state failures meant that conflict persisted in regions formerly under FARC control. When Duque came to power two years later, he vowed to rip up the accords and take a hard line against guerrilla forces. His administration starved the agreement of funding and resources, refusing to implement its security mechanisms or rural development programmes. Killings of social activists and former guerrillas skyrocketed. Protesters calling for peace were massacred by the state.

Petro’s ‘government of change’ – comprising a broad spectrum of parties from the centre to the left, united in the so-called Historic Pact – was elected on a pledge to tackle these endemic social and political crises. Petro won 50% of the vote in 2022, securing unusually high turnout rates in the neglected Pacific, Caribbean and Amazonic regions, while his right-populist opponent Rodolfo Hernández came away with 47%. The new President vowed to meet the needs of those pushed to the margins: rural communities, ethnic minorities, young people, low-income workers. This would be achieved by reviving the peace process and stimulating economic development: implementing the 2016 agreement while simultaneously enacting a green transition. Legislatively, the government has so far targeted three key areas – the labour market, healthcare and pensions – while initiating dialogue with the country’s various armed groups.

There are clear limits to what Petro can achieve, given he is constitutionally limited to a single four-year term and facing bitter opposition from the establishment. Lack of a congressional majority has compromised his ability to pass meaningful reforms. An initial alliance between the government and the parties of the traditional elite – Liberals, Conservatives and Party of the U – has fractured, while the uribista Democratic Centre (CD) and Hernández’s Anti-Corruption League have tried their best to obstruct social policies. The administration is under constant attack from the corporate media, led by the neoconservative Semana magazine, owned by the Gilinski banking conglomerate. And Eduardo Zapateiro, formerly the top general of the Colombian army, has vigorously denounced Petro, going so far as to brand him a ‘criminal’ during the election campaign. Although Zapateiro resigned shortly after the 2022 election, and Petro swiftly removed fifteen generals linked to human rights violations, there is still uncertainty about the relationship between the army and the executive. Given such constraints, how should we assess Petro’s attempts to reshape Colombia, one year after his swearing in?

Colombian workers’ rights are among the weakest in the world, following years of anti-union legislation and the murders of thousands of labour organizers by state forces and their paramilitary proxies since the 1970s. Petro’s appointment of an experienced trade unionist, Gloria Ramírez, as Labour Minister was an important step in redressing this blood-stained record. The government’s flagship labour legislation, presented to Congress earlier this year, would increase wages for overtime and night work, clamp down on outsourcing and strengthen employment contracts. It would also impose a regulatory framework on the vast informal sector, which accounts for at least half the workforce and is uniquely vulnerable in times of crisis. On 20 June, these reforms were shelved on the basis that they lacked a quorum – a result celebrated by the CD and centre-right Radical Change party. While opponents have proclaimed the legislation dead in the water, the Labour Ministry insists it can be revived, although it has not yet managed to assemble the necessary votes.

Petro’s healthcare reform has fared slightly better. Restructuring of public health provision was urgently needed in the wake of the pandemic, as hospital staff died or resigned in droves over dangerous conditions. Chronic underinvestment means that children in peripheral regions such as La Guajira and Chocó still die of malnutrition and preventable diseases, while many poor Colombians, particularly in rural areas, struggle to access even rudimentary care. The government’s new bill enshrines healthcare as a universal right, asserting that class position should not determine chances of survival. As well as improving staff pay, it aims to reduce disparities in health access between urban and rural populations and increase pre-emptive testing for diseases. The establishment parties in Petro’s congressional alliance were unanimous in opposing this reform. In response, Petro broke up the compact and removed key ministers who objected to plans to eliminate the role of private providers. He thereby managed to push the legislation through phase one, where it now awaits further debate. But the breakdown of the congressional agreement has undermined his attempts to project an image of unity, and may make it harder to pass other laws further down the line.

Petro’s pension law passed its first congressional debate on 14 June, with two further ones scheduled amid unflinching opposition from the CD and Conservatives. Under the current system, informal employment and low incomes mean that only a quarter of Colombian workers qualify for pensions, with many forced into economic hardship or family dependence. The new proposals would guarantee a minimum pension to all retirees, reduce the gap between low and high earners, and see private pension funds transferred to the state-run Colpensiones system. Opponents claim that this would penalize higher-earning workers, while the administration projects that it will lift three million older people out of poverty.

So far, Petro’s attempt to end armed conflict and revive the agreement with the FARC – known as the strategy of ‘Total Peace’ – has returned mixed results. Conscious that the 2016 accords were previously undermined by right-wing hostility, he has tried to frame the peace process as a national project rather than a bilateral truce – appointing political opponents such as José Félix Lafaurie, president of the ultra-conservative FEDEGAN rancher association, to his negotiating teams. Yet because previous administrations failed to implement the peace deal, areas once controlled by guerillas have seen the proliferation of smaller armed groups competing to occupy the power vacuum. As a result, conflict remains rife in Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo in the southwest; Antioquia, Córdoba and Chocó in the northwest; and along the Venezuelan border in Arauca and Norte de Santander. Duque exacerbated such problems by ramping up militarization, launching bombing raids that killed civilians and giving soldiers a free pass to commit abuses, without seriously denting the capacities of the targeted groups. Petro, by contrast, has tried to roll out development programmes in these areas, but this long-term solution has not yet brought relief to their communities. A total of 82 social activists and 19 former FARC guerrillas have been killed in the first half of 2023 alone.

Negotiations with the ELN, Colombia’s largest remaining guerrilla organization, have picked up where they left off under Santos. But while Santos categorically refused to discuss macroeconomic issues, Petro has tried to stake out common ground. On 27 April, the government and ELN signed off on a negotiating agenda, christened the ‘Mexico Agreement’, which promised to examine ‘the economic model, political system and doctrines that hinder unity and national reconciliation’, and asserted that peacebuilding requires the ‘elimination of the current system of exploitation and depredation, and creation of the conditions for social and economic equity.’ The talks have not been plain sailing, but a resolution now appears to be achievable. The third round ended with a bilateral ceasefire announcement, due to begin in August and run for an initial period of six months. Discussions have also been held with two ‘dissident’ armed groups: the Segunda Marquetalia, which dropped out of the earlier peace process, and the Estado Mayor Central, which never subscribed to it in the first place. Here, a ceasefire has proved more elusive, and Petro has had to face down opposition from politicians urging him to abandon the effort.

Having campaigned on the need to phase out Colombia’s economic dependence on fossil fuels, which has driven deforestation and the contamination of natural resources, the government has pushed anti-fracking legislation while banning new oil and gas exploratory licenses. In March, it announced plans to transition towards a green economy by investing in renewable energy and modernizing its infrastructure. Vice President Márquez, a lifelong environmental campaigner, has been a powerful spokesperson for this programme. But as Colombia’s mineral wealth continues to flow out of the ground and into foreign coffers, it will not be easy to secure the level of international cooperation required for a major energy transition. And if revenues from fossil fuel exports start to shrink, the government will need alternative funding sources for redistributive and peacebuilding projects – which may be in short supply.

Petro’s project has been bolstered by the resurgence of progressive governments in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and elsewhere. Despite its internal divisions, this regional power bloc has caused American and European influence to wane. The rise of China has contributed to this rebalancing, as states increasingly look east for trade and investment. This contrasts with the 2015-19 period, when conservative governments in Latin America acted as willing relays for US foreign policy. Whereas Duque joined the US-backed coup attempt against the Maduro government, Petro swiftly reopened diplomatic relations with Venezuela, coordinating a joint response to mass migration and rising violence in border zones. The regional consensus has also turned sharply against the US-led ‘war on drugs’, which has devastated the continent for more than fifty years. Even if the anti-imperialism of the first Pink Tide has not manifested as strongly in the new wave, an increasingly multipolar world gives Petro and his allies greater room for manoeuvre. Concerns that the global hegemon would destabilize his administration have not yet come to pass.

Yet the government remains vulnerable on other fronts. Margarita Cabello, the right-wing Inspector General tasked with overseeing the conduct of elected officials, has targeted Historic Pact Congress members for removal, citing their opposition to police during the 2021 protests. And Francisco Barbosa, the Duque-appointed Attorney General, has impeded the peace processes by refusing to lift arrest warrants for leaders of armed groups and preventing their participation in talks. In early June, Petro’s Chief of Staff was accused of subjecting her household nanny to illegal surveillance. Shortly after, Petro himself was accused of benefitting from illegal campaign financing based on a leaked audio recording of his adviser Armando Benedetti. The president described these confected scandals as an attempted soft coup, or golpe blando, linking them to the long history of lawfare against social-democratic leaders in Latin America.  

The Historic Pact thus ends its first year in office attempting to balance the demands of the social movements that propelled it to power with those of a political class that retains legislative sway. Compromise will be essential, which could mean sacrificing some core elements of Petro’s agenda so that others can progress. A succession plan is also crucial for the ‘government of change’, as its gains could otherwise be rolled back by the next president. The 2022 election was won by a slim margin that could be wiped out by poor planning for the 2026 campaign. Perhaps inevitably, amid the constant stream of negative publicity and the seemingly intractable legislative quagmire, Petro’s approval ratings have recently begun to sag. Local elections scheduled for October will act as a referendum on his time in office. Can the opposition exploit them to further undermine his reformist ambitions, or will the spirit of the estallido social sustain the Colombian left?

Read on: Forrest Hylton & Aaron Tauss, ‘Colombia at the Crossroads’, NLR 137.