If current trends hold, Colombia’s presidential election on May 29 will mark a seismic shift, with a potential first-place finish for the first time in the country’s political history of a center-left coalition, with a ticket led by Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá and past member of the M-19 insurgent group. Petro is running for the third time (he was the runner-up in 2018) with Black feminist activist Francia Márquez as his running mate. Amid increasing fears that fraud, vote-tampering and other irregularities might mar the result, the Petro coalition is betting on a high turnout, especially among youth, women, and others who are traditionally marginalized.
The likeliest result will be a narrowing of the race to a runoff election between Petro and one of his principal center-right contenders, either former Medellín mayor Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, who is backed by former authoritarian President Alvaro Uribe, or a Trumpian multi-millionaire businessman from Bucaramanga, Rodolfo Hernández. The second, final round of voting is scheduled for June 19.
The center-left coalition‘s anticipated victory will be understood by many in Colombia and beyond as a victory from below. It will be, in essence, a triumph of those who Márquez, a former domestic worker, has described as the country’s “nobodies” (“nadies”), using the words of Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer best known internationally for his now-classic book The Open Veins of Latin America.
Márquez’ candidacy is also a historic achievement, as a Black woman renowned for her outspoken grassroots activism as a feminist human rights defender. Márquez was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize, the highest international honor for environmental rights advocates, in 2018, for her role in leading the resistance to illegal gold mining on the ancestral lands of her native Afro-Colombian community of La Toma in the Cauca region.
Colombia is the site of the world’s longest internal armed conflict of its kind, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and forced disappearances and millions who’ve been forcibly displaced. The war was finally brought to a formal, negotiated end through a landmark internationally brokered peace agreement in 2016, and a still-unfolding transitional justice process — the most comprehensive in the world thus far.
The peace pact has been undermined by the current repressive government led by President Iván Duque, representing a faction led by Uribe that favored a continuation of the fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rather than implementation of the peace agreement. A failure to fully implement the political and social reintegration process of former insurgents with adequate security guarantees, and a proliferation of narco-paramilitary groups have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of human rights defenders and demobilized insurgents. All of this, together with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, helped lay the foundation of a national civic uprising that brought millions into the streets in 2019 and again even more massively in 2021. Gabriel Boric’s presidency in Chile grew out of analogous circumstances there, as did Pedro Castillo’s in Perú and Xiomara Castro’s in Honduras.
The Petro campaign has sought to draw on the reservoir of youth-led popular mobilization and consciousness stirred by the 2019 and 2021 movements, with a message focused on a struggle against the ruling oligarchy’s reliance on corruption, greed, militarism, and environmental destruction through over-reliance on fossil fuels. These themes have been increasingly woven together with Márquez’ resistance against a triad of neoliberal capitalism, neo-colonial racism, and patriarchy.
The Petro coalition’s approach does not, however, represent a “hard left” option. It is not likely to seek to fundamentally undo the structural economic premises of Colombia’s dominant neoliberal model. Their emphasis instead is on “humanizing” this model’s most extreme inequities. This mirrors the “impasse” that resulted from a failure to consolidate what were considered even more radical recent efforts at left-led reform in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia (or according to some, certain dimensions of change in Mexico under its current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador). It also is significantly different from experiences such as that of Cuba.
Meanwhile, a Petro government in Colombia, like that of incumbent leaders Gabriel Boric in Chile, Xiomara Castro in Honduras, or López Obrador in Mexico, may face significant pressures from grassroots movements to take more radical measures amid an unraveling economy. These demands will come with particular insistence from those in the most excluded parts of society such as indigenous peoples, and among the constituencies that make up Márquez’s base, such as women and communities of African descent.
Regardless of his relative moderation, Petro’s candidacy in particular has drawn a series of sharp, unusually public rebukes from Colombia’s top Army commander, General Eduardo Zapateiro, and renewed death threats. The reaction appears aimed at Petro’s insistence on highlighting and criticizing corruption among the highest levels of the military, conducted in collusion with narco-paramilitaries responsible for the most serious human rights abuses.
Petro has repeatedly denounced widespread complicity of this kind, including the involvement of dozens of current and former members of the Colombian Congress and other public officials allied with Uribe, which led to many prosecutions and resignations. Petro also regularly reminds potential voters of an ongoing prosecution of Uribe for bribery and suborning perjury in related cases. The roots of these murderous complicities go all the way back to the 1990’s, at minimum.
An ultimate victory by the Petro coalition could lay the foundation for breaking the longstanding political and military — if not economic — monopolies of power controlled by Colombia’s ruling élite throughout the country’s modern history, and arguably since it won independence from Spain in 1819 after a bloody 10-year struggle. Petro and Márquez alluded to this in framing the significance of a potential victory at their massive closing campaign rally in Bogotá, evoking a collective faith in the prospects of a peaceful “second independence” for Colombia.
Petro’s speech drew heavily on the resonance of important Colombian symbols of martyred popular resistance, such as Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and Camilo Torres, and more broadly on Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical calling for universal fraternity as the basis for a ”politics of love,” in the spirit of liberation theology. Márquez also explicitly evoked a stirring re-grounding in the Colombian context of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Márquez concluded by leading the crowd in chanting United Farm Workers’ leader César Chávez’ “Yes, We Can!” (in Spanish, “Si se puede”), which is now best known as former U.S. President Barack’s Obama’s successful campaign slogan in 2008.
Potential Impact of a Petro Victory on US-Colombia Relations
A victory for the left coalition led by Petro and Márquez would likely loosen the hold of Colombia’s equally entrenched role as the closest U.S. ally in the region, including its designation as NATO’s first Latin American “global partner” and largest single recipient of U.S. military, police, and economic aid as part of the so-called “drug war.” A Petro victory will also have important regional implications as the United States prepares to host the “Summit of the Americas” in June for the first time since 1994, at the same time as a renewed, increasingly diverse Latin American left builds on previous victories in Chile, Honduras, and Perú, as well as potentially later this year in Brazil.
A diminished U.S. role in Colombia is especially notable, as well, because every Colombian is taught in school about President Theodore Roosevelt’s reputed boast (“I took Panama”) that summed up the U.S. role in the seizure of Colombian territory in the isthmus in 1904 that led to the creation of the neo-colonial “Panama Canal Zone.” The impact of this classic expression of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” approach to U.S.-Latin American relations was not addressed until Panamanian sovereignty over the area was finally recognized in the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty.
Summit of the Americas: Pan-Americanism vs. Bolivarian Option
A strong showing, as anticipated, by Petro in the first round, will cast a shadow on the forthcoming summit in Los Angeles, which already has encountered resistance from Mexico and beyond, in response to the Biden administration’s attempt to exclude participation by leaders from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, as targets of U.S. sanctions. López Obrador in Mexico has led a significant pushback against this, and has been joined to varying degrees by his closest Central American allies (Honduras and El Salvador, plus Guatemala and Brazil for their own reasons), as well as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and at least an activist core of the 20 states aligned with CARICOM (the Caribbean Community).
The controversy over who should control the invitees to the summit must be understood within the context of deeper, longer-range conflicts between contending visions of hemispheric unity, which a Petro administration will have to navigate. These are grounded respectively in the Monroe Doctrine and “Pan-Americanism,” which lie at the origins of the Organization of American States (OAS), in contention with the project of Latin American solidarity in resistance to U.S. hegemony associated with the “Bolivarian” vision.
From the latter perspective, spaces such as the OAS and the Summit of the Americas will always be susceptible to U.S. control. The preference instead is for initiatives such as the Conference of Latin American and Caribbean States (known by its Spanish initials as CELAC). In settings such as this, the issue is not who the United States wants to exclude or not, but whether the United States itself should be invited, and on what terms.
Evolving landscape of US-China and Global Relations
Current tensions regarding the configuration of the summit underline the increasing trend in Latin America toward less dependence on the United States and greater diversity of the region’s partners. This is also reflected in, and in part shaped by, intensified investment and engagement by China (and at least until recently, Russia).
Influential centrist diplomats and scholars in the region are beginning to frame the shift away from dependence on the United States in terms of the region’s need to adopt “active non-alignment.” This reflects an increasing tendency to understand intensified competition between the United States, China, and Russia for Latin American markets and partners as an ultimately inter-imperialist rivalry. This approach draws in part on parallels between Russian hegemony in contexts such as Ukraine, or Chinese hegemony directed at Taiwan, with traditional forms of U.S. hegemony and interventionism in Latin America.
Like Boric in Chile, a Petro administration will have to navigate complexities of this kind regarding the regional impact of U.S.-China relations and the region’s increasing ties with the European Union and the Pacific region as factors of diversification. If elected, Petro will likely seek to reposition Colombia regionally and internationally, as his administration opts internally for a new, inclusive, and participatory model of Colombian democratic development within these evolving regional and global landscapes.