The historic victory of a center-left coalition ticket in Colombia, the closest U.S. ally in Latin America, poses a crucial test for U.S. policy across the region. At the same time, it is difficult to overstate the hopes and expectations that the election of former rebel Gustavo Petro and his running mate, black feminist human rights activist Francia Márquez, has evoked in a country where state terror has been the norm for decades and where the number of persecuted and murdered human rights defenders has set a current global record.
Petro and Márquez’s narrow win comes at an especially complex moment in the region. Recent elections have elevated center-left leaders with similar profiles in Chile (Gabriel Boric) and Honduras (Xiomara Castro). Their victories highlight the challenges of governance confronting left forces throughout Latin America — and globally — amid convergent global economic and environmental crises. These include the intensification of longstanding inequities in Colombia’s economy due to the pandemic, the increasing impact of climate change on the country’s agriculture, and the regional ripple effects of Russia’s war against Ukraine in terms of increasing poverty and dependence on fossil fuels.
The Petro campaign’s platform emphasizes the need to pivot away from the militarization of the drug war and from the aerial spraying of coca plantations, as well as for long-delayed land reform as an integral component of Colombia’s peace process. He also called for a structural transition away from the environmentally destructive, extractivist character of the country’s overall political economy, which has become increasingly dependent on foreign exchange based on oil production.
Petro’s triumph in these elections foregrounds the implications for U.S. regional leadership of the contentious and inconclusive Summit of the Americas hosted by President Joe Biden in Los Angeles earlier this month. The summit’s divisions over the U.S. insistence on excluding Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua over their regimes’ anti-democratic actions while including others with questionable democratic or human rights records highlighted the extent to which U.S. policy in the region is still trapped in outdated views of the region as a playground of rivalries, now with China and Russia, hearkening to the eras of the Monroe Doctrine and the Cold War.
The same militarized view played out again this spring, as the Biden administration, with enthusiastic backing from key congressional voices such as Senators Robert Menéndez, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, further embraced outgoing Colombian President Iván Duque and his predecessor and mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe by designating Colombia a major non-NATO ally. This militarization includes an increasing emphasis at the top levels of Pentagon leadership on the U.S. rivalry with China and Russia for hemispheric dominance, as a regional echo of the globally destabilizing impact of the war in Ukraine.
At the same time, the summit underlined the U.S.’s inability to effectively address the root causes of mass forced migration. While people are fleeing violence, corruption, and economic deprivation, those drivers are exacerbated by U.S. policies that encourage and support graft, namely neoliberal economic measures, free trade, and environmentally unsustainable mega-development projects.
Exhaustion with Pan-Americanism?
The summit’s results – or lack thereof – may reflect the exhaustion of the regional model of U.S.-Latin American (or “Pan-American”) partnership promoted through the Organization of American States (OAS). This model was, in fact, born in Colombia in April 1948, at the Ninth Pan-American conference, led by then-U.S. Secretary of State (and former Army General) George Marshall. This coincided with the bloody, U.S.-backed suppression that same month of a national popular uprising in response to the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a fiery populist who embodied much of what Petro seeks to represent today and was widely assumed at the time to be in line to become Colombia’s next president. The repression that followed his murder made Colombia the first example in Latin America of the human costs of the regional imposition of the “national security doctrine.” This was the paradigm that came to dominate U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War era, and, in turn, the governance of traditional élites in Latin America that wielded their U.S.-backed militaries to preserve their own power above all else. This evolved into the models of state terror, with U.S. complicity, that later ravaged Southern Cone countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Perú beginning in the 1960’s, as well as Central America. Much of this was piloted in Colombia in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Petro’s election night speech emphasized that Colombia will reposition itself as a regional leader seeking unity in the wake of the fragmentation exhibited in Los Angeles, in a distinct shift from the country’s longstanding prioritization of alignment with the United States, as in the era of the drug war that the United States supported with its Plan Colombia aid package. So, Petro’s election marks a potentially momentous shift from Colombia being the closest U.S. ally in Latin America to instead seeking to lead in developing regional alternatives to U.S. hegemony.
On the domestic front in Colombia, Petro’s win marks the end – at least for now — of 74 years of political hegemony of the country’s ruling élite that began with Gaitán’s assassination. Colombia is one of Latin America’s — and the world’s — most unequal societies, and both Gaitán and Petro first became prominent as reformist mayors of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city, which has long epitomized the country’s deep social divisions. It is these inequities and the political polarization they produced that drove Colombia into the world’s longest internal armed conflict, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and disappearances, and millions of people displaced.
Colombia’s series of intertwined civil wars finally concluded their most violent phase in November 2016, in a complex peace agreement. The peace process includes promising but thus far incompletely implemented mechanisms of transitional justice, which Petro has pledged to fully fund and support. Getting that process back on track, after years of efforts by Uribe and Duque to undermine the peace agreement, will be a central task of the new administration.
Long-Delayed Social Transformation in Colombia
Petro’s leadership of a revitalized agenda in favor of peace and social reform is grounded in his role as a former M-19 insurgent who participated in the earlier 1990-91 peace process. That led to the drafting of Colombia’s current constitution by a popularly elected constituent assembly, along similar lines to the process currently underway in Chile. Petro’s campaign emphasized the need to fully implement the constitution as a framework for the long-delayed completion of the country’s needed social transformations, including its recognition in Article 22 of peace as a “right and duty whose compliance is mandatory.”
The Petro administration will have to fashion a governing coalition in a deeply divided Congress that is broader than the center-left political movements that were the basis of his campaign’s electoral strength. He will have to navigate countervailing pressures from, on the one hand, a relentless, corrupt militarist bloc led by Uribe, who virulently opposed the peace agreement and will likely try to consolidate opposition to Petro from the right, and, on the other hand, from grassroots social movements based in Colombia’s most marginalized sectors (Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, women, youth, elderly pensioners). They will be pushing for radical social transformations to the maximum extent possible.
Both Petro and Chile’s Boric face similar calls originating in Colombia and Chile’s mass popular rebellions between 2019 and 2021 over longstanding exclusion by the same state structures that the institutional left in both countries now seek to co-opt and manage. Ultimately, both will have to take actions that fundamentally transform the neo-colonial structures and character of the states they are seeking to administer or be swallowed up or neutralized by the very machinery that prompted their activism at its origins.
Ultimately, the inauguration of Petro and Márquez on Aug. 7 will be only the first step in a long and difficult path that will have deep implications for the prospects of left and popular movements throughout the region and globally, as well as for a potentially seismic shift in U.S. relations with Colombia and with Latin America.