The Left Poised to Govern Colombia


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July 6, 2022

The Left Poised to Govern Colombia

  • Colombia
  • Elections
  • Márquez
  • Petro
  • progressive politics
  • the Left
Photo: Manifestación de apoyo a Gustavo Perro y Francia Márquez en la contienda presidencial de 2022, primera vuelta – 26 May 2022. Source: WikiCommons.

The triumph of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez has initiated a new political configuration. Their call for a Great Nacional Accord seeks not only governability but also advancement of peace in a broad sense. In addition, they will have to respond to the expectations that their triumph has generated in a large part of the Colombian population.


On June 21, two days after Election Day, Francia Márquez Mina, Colombia’s new vice-president, was interviewed for the first time by a national news program. The journalist asked her if “vivir sabroso” (“living tasty”), one of her communitarian convictions and campaign slogans, was going to become a reality for her now that she could live in an official house. “If you believe that because I am an impoverished woman and they have given me a presidential house, I am already living ‘sabroso,’ you are very wrong. That is part of this country’s classism (…). ‘Vivir sabroso’ for the black people, in the core of our ethnic and cultural identity, refers to living without fear, living in dignity, it refers to living with guaranteed rights,” Márquez responded

Márquez was not only speaking to the journalist, but to the bulk of Colombian society that believes that “vivir sabroso” consists of leading an opulent lifestyle, in which the objective is to accumulate money and flaunt the lifestyle of the upper classes. This mistaken interpretation of “vivir sabroso,” reproduced and legitimized by the privileged sections of Colombian society, stems from the fact that Colombia is the second most unequal country in the Americas. It is assumed that the poor only seek to imitate the rich.

After demonstrating against extractivism, resisting locally, and confronting the national government on multiple occasions, Márquez decided to move, in her words, “from resistance to power.” For the second time, she aspired to contest in a popular election, running in March of this year in the primaries of the left, as part of the movement Soy Porque Somos (I Am Because We Are) and with the endorsement of the left-wing party Polo Democrático Alternativo. Márquez achieved more votes than the winner of the center coalition’s consultation, and was second in the consultation of Pacto Histórico (Historic Pact) behind Gustavo Petro. Her popularity made Petro choose her as his vice-presidential candidate. 

Petro and Márquez were elected to govern Colombia; a first for a leftist, progressive and pluralistic alliance. The Historic Pact brought together left-wing and alternative party leaders, some liberals and former politicians from the conservative party, social leaders and collectives, environmentalists, and some churches. This election represents a moment of democratic vindication of the popular camp because the participation of these groups was organic and was not reducible to electoral or clientelist calculations. 

The election of Petro and Márquez represents a possible “turning point,” a brief opening in which ossified society-state relationships dissolve and a new and stable framework of interaction patterns is built. More broadly, it is also an opportunity to reinvent the progressive forces in the Americas

Therefore, it is worth exploring the political landscape and the challenges that their government will face, at least during the first stage. A fundamental challenge is a tension between building agreements, implementing reforms, and achieving fundamental social change, seeking to fulfill the promises of “vivir sabroso.”

Political Reconfiguration 

Petro and Márquez obtained 11,281,013 votes in the June 19 presidential runoff. They got the highest ever number of votes in a Presidential election because of a historic turnout. The Historic Pact formula defeated businessman and right-wing “outsider” Rodolfo Hernández, who ran a campaign based on an anti-corruption discourse without much content, driven mainly by social media. Rodolfo’s refusal to participate in presidential debates during the second round campaign—in fact, he was in Miami during most of this period—and lawsuits against him for alleged acts of corruption while he was mayor of Bucaramanga led to him getting 700,061 votes less than Petro. In the second round, the vote of the “primivotantes” or first time voters, mosty the youth, weighed heavily. To this was added the votes that Francia was able to mobilize in impoverished areas of the Pacific region, and especially popular votes in the Caribbean area, where members of the Historic Pact helped to increase the electoral participation. 

This “pluri-plebeian” coalition, which also had the support of some traditional politicians –primarily social-democrats, but also liberals and former conservatives– defeated the right-wing political arc that for decades has been hegemonic in the country. While in government, the right, led by the powerful figure of Álvaro Uribe, promoted policies of land dispossession, extrajudicial executions, the concentration of wealth, co-optation of the media, and persecution of the opposition and sexual and ethnic diversities. In addition, Uribe and his “moderate” successor, Iván Duque, shattered the peace agreement with the guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). 

For some, the victory of Petro and Márquez represents the definitive decline of the Uribista hegemony. However, some of the regressive values and practices of this hegemonic formation, such as racism, classim, hierarchical visions of society, and the role of a patriarchal hero or father-savior either continue to persist or have transformed; for example, Rodolfo Hernández, who wasn’t an Uribista, tried to present himself in the figure of the “father-savior” historically embodied by Uribe. The political landscape is therefore post-Uribe, in terms of electoral politics, but not necessarily post-uribista on the whole. 

The Uribista paradigm will surely take on a new guise, seeking to represent those values that have shaped the right-wing projects and have sedimented in some sections of society. This panorama poses to the new government the need to consolidate a broad progressive alliance to fundamentally change the exclusionary bias of the national project, built both by traditional politicians and by technocrats who, presenting themselves as apolitical, have directed state policies. 

In this context, it is important to recognize, as Camila Osorio does, that the victory of the left was catapulted by a long history of struggle, in which exclusion, persecution and even extermination were present. Part of the challenge to Uribista political practices and its values have come from recent popular demonstrations such as the national student strike in 2011, the national agrarian strike in 2013, the demobilization of the FARC and the mobilizations for peace after the plebiscite in 2016. To this were added the civic strike in the city of Buenaventura in 2017, the national strike of 2019, which achieved an urban-rural alliance, the protests in 2020 against the police in Bogota, and the national strike of 2021 against historical inequality, deepened by the economic crisis induced by the pandemic.

These demonstrations collectively revealed the exhaustion of the authoritarian logic of the Colombian state and the way in which its elites operate. They also exposed the fact that the rich and powerful experience a very different social and political reality from that of the poor and marginalized, many of whom were excluded from the benefits of economic growth and on occasion persecuted as they were considered potential insurgents. 

Indeed, the exclusion of dissensus—by dismissing protests and disagreements as “communist terrorism” —should invite us to reflect on the nature of the democracy in Colombia, often presented as the most “stable” of Latin America. 

The erosion of this logic of exclusion has paved the way for Petro who conceives of opponents as political adversaries and not enemies. For example, on June 25, Petro, who was constantly labeled a “guerilla” by Uribista opponents, actually invited Uribe to a conversation, which occurred four days later. Petro has frequently insisted that the peace agreement should not only be made between the state and the illegal organized groups, but between Colombians, with their disagreements and despite the violences of the past. 

The victory of the Historic Pact has therefore reconfigured national politics, with Petro calling for a “Great National Agreement.” This agreement is thought of as a great national conversation, which will have variants at the territorial level. Based on citizen participation and with a methodology that will have to be discussed, the conversations are envisaged to contribute to the national development plan. This plan, it has been said, will express the agreement reached and will then be processed in Congress. The Historic Pact seeks to establish something unprecedented in Colombia: a dialogue, not elimination, of the different. According to Petro, this will result in a new climate of dialogue. It could be the way to achieve, as the Colombian philosopher Estanislao Zuleta states, a society in which conflict is neither finished nor suppressed, but in which we learn to have better ones. 

Reformist Challenges 

Both Petro and Márquez know that they have made a commitment to their electorate. This commitment is based, in the first instance, on improving the quality of life of citizens. To this end, they have adopted an agenda based on three general lines: the guarantee of a transition to a peaceful country, an ambitious commitment to social justice and an environmental justice program. 

One of their main bets is the implementation of the peace agreements with the FARC, with unavoidable commitments on agrarian reform, a change in drug policy and the implementation of a real justice and reparation system. The agenda of this new government, however, is not limited to what has been previously agreed, but also seeks on achieving peace with the guerrilla of the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as mediating with groups associated with drug cartels such as the Gulf Clan, which operate throughout the Americas. 

Social justice, one of the main concerns of the new government, will aim, at least initially, to improve the living conditions of a very impoverished majority. The possibility of providing a “vital income” to the poorest sectors of Colombian society, was a strong theme during the campaign. Likewise, they have proposed to subsidize inputs for agriculture from the money that will be collected with a tax reform that is part of a new progressive “fiscal pact.” This is a crucial issue because Petro and Márquez enter office with the highest fiscal deficit in the history of the country

Finally, the new government has strongly emphasized its ambition to be an example of progressive environmentalism. They have declared their intention of abandoning oil and coal explorations. This promise was influenced by the social and environmental struggles carried out by communities in territories, such as the Amazon, where the environmental impact of these activities has been most destructive. Undoubtedly, making progress in this regard will not be easy. Petro and Márquez will have to negotiate with the big capital and will without a doubt have to arm wrestle with multiple interests in what will also be a transnational debate. 

A New Political Puzzle

The triumph of Petro and Márquez has provoked changes in the Colombian political landscape. Naturally, it is to be expected that the right-wing will seek to block some of the reformist initiatives in Congress. However, politicians with more experience, who once supported Uribe and then Santos, such as Roy Barreras, know how to work in conflictual scenarios. Negotiator of the peace accords and former right-hand man of president Juan Manuel Santos, Barreras is today an asset for Petro, who has nominated him to be president of the Senate. Brokers like Barreras, now part of the Historic Pact, are old acquaintances of the establishment and may hold the keys to guarantee consensus. For some of Petro and Márquez’s constituents, however, these actors represent “more of the same,” even though they have so far bent to the rules of the coalition. 

The traditional politicians who have expressed their interest in participating in the accord convened by Petro could co-opt the reformist agenda of change, due to their well-known abilities in the world of realpolitik. Petro and Márquez, aware of that possibility, nonetheless aim to obtain a majority in Congress in their first stage. The members of the Liberal Party and of the “U” Party have already announced that they will support Petro, while other groups declared that they were going to be independent and not be part of the opposition. The new cabinet is expected to be varied and moderate due to the inclusion of figures from centrist parties who have served previously in other governments, such as the economist and Columbia University professor Jose Antonio Ocampo, incoming Minister of Finance

Another challenge might arise within the ruling coalition among the different organizations and tendencies that participate in it. What is as yet unknown is the type of structural transformation that will take place within the Historical Pact, a platform that worked at the time of campaigning but now faces the challenge of governing Colombia. It is not yet clear how much Petro and Márquez are willing to negotiate within the coalition; Petro has clarified that although the reform agenda will not be subject to negotiations, there will be debates on the content of the reforms. 

The electorate of Petro and Márquez, and of the Left in general, will pose another challenge for the ruling coalition. The expectations of change are high, but Petro has already shown signs of a high level of political pragmatism. Even prior to taking office (scheduled for August 7), he has already suggested that the search for agreements will lead him to reduce some of his campaign promises, especially those made to what I’ve called the pluri-plebeian base. The way to circumvent these challenges could be by defining a clear agenda of minimums and maximums. The articulation of a minimum program that includes practically achievable objectives from the ambitious maximum plan of peace, social justice and environmental progressivism could aid in avoiding disappointments. 

The new government will need to define the content of their public policies and highlight what they aspire to and what they are willing to settle on through negotiations. In the background, there is the question of whether they are willing to carry out radical reforms and, in particular, what would be “radical” in this context. It will also be important to see what comes out of the interaction between Petro and Márquez. While Petro is loyal to a traditional leftist agenda, Márquez, coming from grass-root movements, represents part of a new popular sensibility. Their alliance will have to navigate the tensions that might arise between the popular camp and that of the state bureaucracy. 

It is likely that by achieving the minimum program of reforms, Petro and Márquez will fulfill the expectations of at least part of the electoral base that supported them, at the same time achieving governability and social legitimacy. This could allow them to consolidate a new progressive hegemony towards the future. However, it should be recognized that merely raising relevant issues long neglected in the public sphere is already an advancement of the democratic horizon. 

This moment for the reinvention of progressive politics must be taken seriously, not only because of the domestic reconfigurations and challenges I’ve highlighted but also because it might have consequences for the new “progressive turn” in Latin America, after the first experience of the “pink tide.” The language of reform is always elusive, but at the end of the day this is the moment to reinvent a progressive politics that combines radical reformism with governability. Ultimately, the overall project is to achieve a new political imaginary. What matters is that the citizens of Colombia can, as Francia Márquez puts it, “vivir sabroso.” 

The original essay was published in Spanish by Nueva Sociedad as “La izquierda se prepara para gobernar Colombia“. Many thanks to my friends Udeepta Chakravarty –who invited me to underline the importance of the “pluri-plebeian” audience– and Julián Barajas for their suggestions, and to Mariano Schuster and Pablo Stefanoni from Nueva Sociedad for their edits on the original version. 

Julián Gómez-Delgado is a Sociology and Historical Studies Phd. student at The New School for Social Research.


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