A duo that will cause a landslide, the Colombians hope. The inauguration this weekend of Colombia’s first left-wing president – also ex-guerrilla fighter – Gustavo Petro (62) and his vice president Francia Márquez (40) – the first black woman in this position – breaks radically with a tradition of two hundred years, since independence, the power lay mainly with a small group of the elite.
It will not be easy for the new leaders with their party Pacto Histórico (the historic pact). In order to realize government plans, compromises must be made in Congress. Also with the old right-wing elite.
But the change is being followed with anticipation, also from the rest of the region. In conservative Colombia, a left-wing president never stood a chance before — let alone a black vice president. If Colombia is going through this radical change, what does that mean for the rest of South America – a continent where the colonial past is still on the surface with a strong color and class society and, above all, extreme inequality as a visible legacy.
“Today we are making history for Colombia, for Latin America and for the world,” Petro said after he won the election in mid-June. Francia Márquez, aware of her position in a country where politics, media and financial power are dominated by a small homogeneous group, and of which black and indigenous Colombians are barely or not part, made it more personal: “I am here to show that hegemony is no longer only in the hands of a group of white rich men. I am the voice of the hitherto unheard population. From the great and silent majority of Colombians.” Who are these two new leaders?
When Gustavo Petro joined the guerrilla group ‘April 19th Movement’, abbreviated M-19, as a seventeen-year-old student, he used the pseudonym ‘Aureliano’, after Colonel Aureliano Buendía, the main character of the famous novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by his compatriot and Nobel laureate in literature Gabriel García Márquez.
Petro was a big fan of Márquez from a young age, who, like him, hails from the Caribbean coast. They even went to the same school, Petro tweeted recently. A public school in the town of Zipaquirá, near Bogotá, run by priests. Not at the same time, they are from different generations.
Petro grew up as a child of poor Catholic Italian migrants who sought a new future in South America and rose to the lower middle class. He came into contact with the guerrilla group while attending union meetings as a curious teenager. M-19 was not active in the jungle, like the FARC and the ELN, but mainly in cities. As a student, Petro moved to the capital, Bogotá, where he studied economics and later political science on a scholarship. In 1985 he was arrested for illegal possession of weapons. Not much later, the M-19 attempted to occupy the Palace of Justice, one of the organization’s largest actions, killing about a hundred. Petro was serving a two-year sentence at the time and was tortured in prison, he writes in his memoirs.
The M-19 was the first guerrilla group with which a negotiated peace agreement was concluded by the Colombian government. After demobilization in 1990, the movement became a political party: the Democratic Alliance, which eventually entered Congress.
After the demobilization Petro followed an administrative and political career, eventually becoming mayor of Bogotá and then rising to congressman and senator. As president, Petro wants to introduce a social agenda and tackle deep-seated inequality in Colombia.
Outside the established order
Never before has a leftist candidate managed to become president in Colombia. Those who tried were killed, such as Carlos Pizarro, the founder of M-19, who ran for president in 1990. Petro’s two previous attempts, in 2014 and 2018, ended in defeat. The fact that he succeeded this time shows how much Colombians long for radical renewal. Petro is completely outside the established political order and has benefited from the discontent and distrust in politics that erupted during the covid crisis.
Petro wants to do everything in his power to properly implement the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC. Something that his predecessor Iván Duque and his teacher, the still very powerful right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), tried to torpedo. Colombia continues to be plagued by various armed groups, from narcos to paramilitaries and criminal organizations. And there is still the ELN, the only guerrilla movement that has not yet made peace with it. Petro recently announced that it would sit down with the ELN to revive the stalled peace talks.
Under Petro, multinationals such as oil companies will have a harder time. The environment will be given priority, he has already announced.
“Petro is progressive and sociable, but can also come across as stiff and distant. He knows what he wants, and making concessions is hard for him,” says political scientist Óscar Parra Gaitan of the Catholic University in Bucaramanga. “The fact that he has chosen Francia Márquez next to him is significant and smart: she is bursting with energy and has a natural charisma. Crowds of working-class Colombians identify with her. Together, with the right approach, they can form a balance.”
Working in gold mine
Though inexperienced in politics, Francia Márquez was from an early age a leader in the Afro-Colombian community in the Cauca region of the Southwest, where she grew up. A region that has not been looked after by the government for centuries and where armed groups fight for control of drug trafficking and illegal gold mining.
Márquez grew up in poverty and as a child, like her parents, worked in a local gold mine. When she was 16 she became pregnant and had to drop out of school. As a teenager, she became an environmental activist and vehemently protested the arrival of a multinational company that wanted to build a dam on her community’s main river. A long battle ensued over the dam that the Afro-Colombian community eventually won. As an environmental activist, Márquez received death threats for years.
“I come from a nation of survivors and fighters,” Márquez told a Brazilian newspaper last week. “My ancestors were kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved. They have resisted slavery for centuries. In their footsteps I have also taken up the fight against injustice and oppression. There was no running water. The water in the river we had to live on was contaminated with mercury from gold mining.”
She managed to study law in the city of Cali. She paid for her studies with money she earned as a cleaning lady and tried to survive as a single mother. She eventually became a lawyer. In 2018 she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. The following year, she was named one of the 100 most influential women in the world by the BBC.
Hope for Brazilians
Last week Márquez visited Brazil. She met former president Luiz ‘Lula’ da Silva, among others, with whom she came on the Brazilian front pages in close embrace. “Francia Márquez also gives Brazilians hope,” said black writer and philosopher Djamila Ribeiro on an online feminist forum. In Brazil, more than 50 percent of the population is black or mixed, but just like in Colombia, this is not reflected in politics and media.
The new left-wing duo in Colombia join a line of left-wing leaders who have come to power in Latin America since 2019. It’s a ‘pink’ wave – left and more social, but not communist. Today, five of Latin America’s six largest economies are led by left-wing leaders. In Chile, former student leader Gabriel Boric became president after leading protests against the neoliberal government of Sebastián Piñera. In early September, Chile will vote in a referendum on a new constitution that should make the country, one of the richest in South America, more inclusive and social.
Also in countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Honduras and Bolivia, left-wing governments have come to power after a period of right-wing leaders. When former president Luiz ‘Lula’ da Silva wins the Brazilian election against far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in the autumn, according to polls, the largest country in Latin America will also have a left-wing leader again. Lula already led Brazil between 2003 and 2010. Even then there was a pink wave in Latin America, and an explosive economic growth, partly due to the demand for raw materials for the Chinese market in particular. With Covid-19 behind us and the war in Ukraine, which is also leading to higher fuel prices in Latin America, that stretch is now over.
Will Petro and Márquez be able to deliver on promises such as further relaxation of abortion laws? And how will they shape the relationship with the United States? Colombia has always been America’s staunch ally in the region, both economically and in the War on Drugs. Petro is in favor of legalizing marijuana.
As for Venezuela, a sensitive subject for the US, Petro is taking an opposite course than his predecessor Duque. While Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who still leads an authoritarian regime, is a nemesis for Duque and the US, Petro wants to immediately restore ties with its socialist neighbor. Especially from a humanitarian and economic point of view: Colombia has many Venezuelan refugees. If it is up to him, the border between the two countries will open again, ambassadors will be exchanged again. But Petro did not invite Maduro to his inauguration.
“Ultimately, Petro can’t do everything on his own,” says political scientist Parra. He does not have a majority in either house of Congress, the Senate or the House of Representatives. Whether he likes it or not, he has to compromise with the right.”
More than that, Petro and Márquez will have to continue to care about the needs of the population. It is the Colombians who have given them the confidence to write a new chapter in Colombian history.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of August 6, 2022