The Colombian Left has seen its greatest electoral successes ever in 2022. In March, during the combined congressional general election and presidential primary (yes, they do both on the same day), for the first time ever, the Left party alliance won the most congressional seats of any party, and the two Left presidential candidates came in first and third, respectively, in votes received across all parties. The governing right-wing party has almost totally collapsed, winning only 12% of the vote. Those elected to Congress in March included a few leaders of an historic general strike last May, including a college student who went viral conducting an outdoor protest orchestra.
Most U.S. news coverage of Colombia references gang violence and drug cartels, masking the vibrant web of Afro-Colombian, indigenous, feminist, student, campesino and worker movements that have shaken the country with mobilizations and now electoral wins over the last year. Colombians successfully stopped President Iván Duque’s attempt to pass regressive consumer taxes and roll back taxes on corporations, following massive general strikes in 2019 and 2021.
Oil and natural gas account for half of Colombia’s export value, making the Left candidate Gustavo Petro’s promise to ban new well drilling all the more remarkable. Most insurgent forces have demobilized following peace accords signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but new armed groups and Mexican cartels continue to dominate coca-growing regions, and 10% of all government spending still goes to the military (it’s 8% in the U.S.). Colombia remains by far the most dangerous country in which to be an activist, with more than 200 human rights defenders murdered in the last year alone. And despite struggling to shore up its public finances (with a national government that refuses to raise taxes on the wealthy), the country of 50 million people has taken in over two million Venezuelan refugees over the last five years.
In last year’s popular uprising, more than five million people participated in 15 days of general strike protests against neoliberal policies, which ultimately forced the president to roll back many proposed labor and social security “reforms.” The government’s repression, backed by the current president, left 44 people dead and more than 3,000 wounded. Close to 1,500 protesters were arbitrarily detained. And now, a year later, there is a historic election underway.
Colombia seems poised to elect its first-ever Left president during a likely runoff vote on June 19. (The first round of voting takes place May 29, but no candidate is likely to get over 50%.) But the same Left candidate, Gustavo Petro, lost decisively on the runoff ballot four years ago when centrist and right-wing parties threw their weight to the current president, Iván Duque, an acolyte of disgraced former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is currently facing prosecution for witness-tampering. Uribe traditionally played a Trump-like role in elevating lesser-known right-wing candidates to prominence, but his popularity has collapsed, and unlike last time, the right and center-right have been slow to consolidate behind former Medellín mayor Federico Gutiérrez.
Petro’s running mate, Francia Márquez, a Black land defender and lawyer who formerly worked as a miner and a domestic worker, largely unknown outside activist circles until late last year, ran on a separate presidential primary ticket. The first Black woman to ever run for president, Márquez received the third-most votes, ahead of many leading candidates who also competed four years ago. She has activated a coalition of Black, young and LGBTQ voters who normally sit out national elections. This is also the first national election since the implementation of the 2017 peace accords, which allowed the FARC guerrilla group to become a political party, and led to a dozen Left parties dissolving their individual national party tickets into the broad front Pacto Histórico.
For an in-depth view of the presidential elections and the unprecedented opportunities the Colombian Left now has to advance its political agenda, Andrew Willis Garcés sat down with Andrea Parra, a Bogotá-based activist who works with disability justice, LGBTQ and feminist formations, and Nikki Marín Baena, a Colombian-American activist who works on electoral campaigns with Mijente and Siembra NC, and has traveled with Vice Presidential candidate Francia Márquez.
Mobilizations, uprisings and electoral infrastructure
Andrew Willis Garcés: The primary Left party alliance, Pacto Historico, just won the largest share of congressional seats the Left has ever had, and both Left presidential candidates combined received more votes than the next three together in an intra-party primary round, and are now running on the same ticket for the May 29 general election.
What has been the interplay between popular mobilizations and grassroots uprisings, and the actual grassroots infrastructure propelling Gustavo Petro, Francia Márquez and the newly-elected congressional bloc forward?
Andrea Parra: It’s important to remember, before the peace accords, the Left was severely weakened by the ability of the center-right and right-wing parties to stigmatize the entire Left as being connected to the insurgency. That isn’t to say there isn’t armed conflict now, but the FARC became a political party. When the paro (general strike) happened a year ago, and the Pacto Histórico alliance came together, it was harder to delegitimize.
There was also a new dynamic in terms of grassroots activation. As normally happens with a giant national mobilization involving paralyzing highway blockades, the national government negotiated with a coordinating Left formation led by labor unions, who were focused on economic concessions. But students had essentially led the protests, and because the repression was so heavy—many were injured, killed and disappeared—they said, “Those demands don’t represent us, you’re not dealing with police violence and militarization.”
Having a broader platform joins a lot of sectors across the Left: domestic workers, people with disabilities, union members, women, LGBTQ, students, environmental activists, etc. The platform includes rolling back the government’s recent crackdown on labor protections, as well as addressing police violence and militarization with a demand to disband the notorious national riot police agency. It is staunchly pro-abortion and pro-LGBTQ adoption. It also calls for guaranteed employment for all Colombians. It proposes to levy taxes on churches, decriminalize drug possession, ban fracking, increase taxes on shareholders, and end new oil and gas exploration.
This broader platform has helped propel more Left alliance-building, which has been essential for electoral mobilization. And it’s important to note the role of Indigenous movements in pushing anti-colonial thinking during that time, as they simultaneously literally pulled down statues of conquistadores, and in some places forced city administrations to take down the statues themselves preemptively. In some places, the students and Indigenous activists turned those plazas into encampments for popular consultas that outlasted the strike.
Nikki Marín Baena: Last year, during and after the paro, even Colombian anarchists I spoke with who traditionally avoid electoral strategies were saying, “Well, definitely we’ve got to start thinking about how to influence the presidential race.” In the U.S. we often think about the super-local races as being the point of intervention, but in Colombia, since the paro, it’s been the presidency. And adding to what Andrea said about the armed conflict, ex-combatants were involved in the paro and in the popular consultas, and normally you would see a lot of the mainstream Left trying to distance themselves from them, but you didn’t see that this time.
Andrew: In 2021, dozens of parties decided to essentially have four different intra-party-alliance presidential primary elections—one for the center-right coalition, one for the Left, one for a right-wing alliance and one for the current ruling party. All of the Left parties picked a candidate together from a slate of four in the first round of voting this past March, which they hadn’t ever done in that way before.
What do you think we can learn from how this process played out?
Andrea: You have to understand that in Colombia, parties dissolve and pop up again all the time, and they’re much less ideological in nature—they are less about ideological litmus tests and more about collections of the same political personalities whose positions may shift. National politicians will jump into new party bandwagons every cycle. The Green Party, the Polo, all the traditionally Left parties renegotiate their policy positions each cycle. Estamos Listas, the feminist electoral coalition, is the only one with a clear ideological commitment to supporting specific policies.
Petro’s party, Colombia Humana, is most clearly oriented around support for him, not for a specific ideology, although most of the people he’s appointed and elevated come from nonprofits and social movements.
Colombia Humana has been consistently electing candidates since 2018. Petro has gained in popularity over that time, but in the last year there has been a much larger shift with Uribe and Duque’s collapse in popularity. Everyone has sensed a historic opening, which is why at the same time as the Left parties decided to consolidate into Pacto Historico, a few center-left national figures also jumped onboard with center-right political leaders into two other centrist formations.
What difference can Leftist legislators make?
Andrew: Colombia’s Left Pacto Histórico alliance received nearly half of all votes—5.8 million—cast in the March 2022 first round, and with about 20% of the seats in both chambers of Congress, will for the first time be the largest party, although they’ll have to govern with a largely center-right majority.
What do you think it will mean for the Left to be for the first time the largest bloc in Congress, whether or not Petro and Francia take office?
Andrea: We’ve turned a corner, for sure. The Colombian Congress has never been a venue for progressive change, it’s been more like a necessary evil. No one trusts what happens there. They aren’t accountable to anyone. That’s why the protections we’ve won have mostly been through litigation at the Constitutional Court, ever since the constitution was passed in 1991.
Now, we have the opportunity to contest for a gender identity law, special jurisdiction courts for military abuses, ending mandatory military service, land reform, tax reform, police reform—all issues Duque had been trying to push his own right-wing legislative agenda around, and all we could do was try to slow it down from the sides. Also, Biden just approved the largest military aid package to Colombia in ten years, and we have to figure out whether it’s possible for the new Left legislative coalition to do anything to keep that aid from undoing the demilitarizing we’ve already been engaged in since the accords were signed.
We’ll be learning a lot about what’s possible legislatively for the first time. Usually there are some ripples here from countries like Argentina where the Left has traditionally held legislative power, and where there are just two congressional debates and you can pass a law. Here, for example, it’s taken 30 years to win abortion rights and it didn’t happen legislatively, it happened through the courts, unlike in Argentina.
But what happened to the peace accords left so many of us sore, and there’s a lot more cautiousness about what’s possible. After the accords were approved by the last president and Congress, there was a national referendum to ratify them that was voted down, and then the subsequent accords that were implemented were gutted by the Duque administration. So no one thinks, “Now we’re going to get what we want from Congress.”
Nikki: It’s also just an example of steadily gaining ground over time, which is impressive. Petro got a ton of support in 2018, then the first big general strike was in 2019, then there was an even bigger one in 2021 that forced Duque to withdraw, now we have this election, people keep getting a little further than last time, something about that feels hopeful.
Andrew: Petro/Márquez will have to do a lot better than Petro’s party did in 2018 if they’re going to take office. To broaden his reach, in recent months Petro has openly courted support from other party alliances, including Christian nationalists, although without disavowing his policies. Petro has been criticized by feminists for years, and those criticisms have only gotten louder in recent months.
What have the debates been on the Left about needing to win more votes in order to govern, as his outreach to new political constituencies has intensified?
Andrea: Traditionally, the Left parties have mobilized the same people to the polls, year after year. There hasn’t been much experimenting with moving out beyond the base. And so, traditionally, you mobilize your base, and then you cut deals with regional party and business leaders who are part of the existing political machine in your region, who sign up to support more or less the same candidates running under different party banners every election.
But Francia has opened up a whole new way to win elections outside of the machine. Students, women, youth, Black voters, LGBTQ…The fact that she’s doing multiple events a day specifically led by and geared towards these voters who don’t usually participate, besides the obvious reality that 780,000 already cast ballots for her, is significant.
And I’m voting for Francia. If Petro were running on his own I wouldn’t expect much, it would just be a vote to counter the Right, which is why we always vote–to elect the less-terrible candidate. He’s smart enough to know she won’t be an instrument of his policies, but as Petro has mainstreamed over the years, he thinks of himself as more of a negotiator, and is willing to dialogue not just with people on the far right but those with links to right-wing paramilitaries, which is a red line for a lot of people here.
Nikki: Like Andrea, most progressives I’ve talked to have said, “I’m voting for Francia, not for him,” which may be partly specific to the experience of him as mayor of Bogotá. A lot of people in the capital didn’t like the way he governed.
Andrew: After the March vote there was much speculation about whether Petro would formally invite Francia to be his VP candidate. At the same time, Petro was publicly seeking the endorsement of uncommitted Liberal Party leaders. At his press conference announcing that she was joining the ticket, Francia criticized Liberal Party leader Cesar Gaviria.
Petro stood by her in the days that followed, even after Gaviria and other party leaders denounced Petro and Márquez. It was clear to all: Francia and Petro aren’t the same person, aren’t trying to disguise their differences, but are also standing up for a broad front unity candidacy that emphasizes their shared interests.
What can you tell us about how this strategy plays out across the Left that is engaged in electoral mobilization?
Andrea: Petro picked Márquez knowing that he really had no influence with her, and also, she had already kicked his ass in a debate. During the consultation rounds before the primary, there was a public debate on abortion and Petro said, “I don’t think anyone is pro-abortion, I think the goal is always zero abortions…” And Francia essentially said, “No, the goal is autonomy, which includes abortion.” When she was selected, it came in the context of, he needs her more than the other way around, and they’ve also been visibly at odds on a number of issues. So, it felt like more of an honest alliance, not cynical, not one person using another.
Nikki: Petro picked someone who is clearly to his left, who isn’t looking for proximity to power, and isn’t willing to change her message to fit the candidate.
Andrew: Petro lost in 2018 partly because the Center and Right candidates, business lobbies and Christian denominational leaders all consolidated behind Duque and developed a unified, fear-based message to delegitimize him. Now, Petro and Márquez are bearing the brunt of similar attacks, plus openly anti-Black rhetoric. The president and his allies are accusing Petro & Márquez of seeking to turn Colombia into “another Venezuela.” Petro & Márquez have responded by cinematically signing promises “under penalty of jail time,” that they will “not expropriate” any private property.
Andrea: During the referendum for the peace accords, the main opposition message was “if you vote for the peace accords, you’ll lose your job and pension, they’ll give it to the former guerrilla, and the country will be run by the LGBT and gender agenda…” That disinformation campaign around jobs was effective. According to the opposition campaign director, they segmented audiences and delivered slightly different fear-inducing messages to each, down to the different cars that blasted messages in neighborhoods in the days before the referendum.
Nikki: Márquez is a recognized activist in a country where that’s always dangerous, or where “activist” is often equated to “armed insurgent”––and comparatively, how many Black U.S. candidates who came from social movements, whose only previous professional experience was as grassroots organizers, have ever received this kind of notoriety and this level of political support nationwide?
She chooses to campaign in really conservative, racist areas with a populist message. Francia is doubling down, not backing down from the attacks. She’s going to Antioquia, to Uribe’s hometown, which has been so hostile to Left parties historically, and agitating voters about the textile jobs that have left. It’s like going to Kentucky to successfully rile up working class Kentuckians about the loss of coal jobs (something the Democratic Party in the U.S. doesn’t do). Her populist message seems to be waking people up who are coming out to these rallies.
Andrew: Black people and their descendants are at least 22% of Colombia’s population, and have far less representation at all levels of government than Black Americans. Years ago, Francia had to leave her hometown after an assassination attempt––but continued organizing with her community remotely––and continues to receive death threats to this day.
Francia continues to campaign on much of the same messaging as before she became Petro’s VP candidate, referring to the people she represents as “los nadies,” “the nobodies;” using the Zulu-derived expression “Soy porque somos,” “I am because we are,” and using the aspirational slogan Vivir Sabroso, Live Deliciously.
What lessons can we learn, especially here in the U.S., about Francia’s candidacy?
Andrea: She’s received so many death threats, like many human rights defenders, but her message is about life, what kind of life we want, and it’s a statement about that, and about Black and working-class Colombians deserving a better quality of life and how none of our systems are enabling that; it’s not yet dignified, much less joyful. No one else is speaking to Colombian voters about that.
Nikki: In the U.S., most Democratic messaging is “we’re the nice ones.” What if “making things better and, not only that, making life delicious” were the message?
Francia often is called a “climate activist,” but that doesn’t capture her at all. Her background is as someone who said, “Who’s going to stop these mines? Probably those who are usually responsible for caring for life: women.” Not just our children but caring for the life of this earth we have. And for years she’s been organizing large groups of women in a way that has an economic context, a racial context, all these other elements in it. Traveling with her in Alabama and in Cauca, where she’s from, those threads are all woven together in her organizing, in how she relates to other women and the vision and purpose that ground them. That’s where “vivir sabroso” comes from. It’s no wonder it speaks to so many.