Petro’s Premonition

On Monday 27 June, Gustavo Petro gave his first interview to the international press as president-elect of Colombia. Reclining on the sofa of his home in the northern suburbs of Bogotá – sporting jeans, loafers and a fresh haircut, flanked by photographs of his wife and children – Petro exuded the confidence that came with a convincing victory over his opponent Rodolfo Hernández one week earlier. His answers, however, hung heavy in the room. Why has it taken Colombia so long to elect a leftist president? Do you worry that if you fail, you may be its last? ‘If I fail, darkness will come and sweep everything away’, Petro replied. ‘I cannot fail.’

Petro’s premonition reflects the friability of the political moment. Did the Colombian establishment – the party of outgoing President Iván Duque, the regulators in the National Electoral Council, the armed forces and paramilitary syndicates, the US State Department and Southern Command – really let him win? Over the past half-century, virtually every country in Latin America has seen a left victory, from revolutionary projects in Nicaragua and Venezuela to Pink Tide governments in Brazil and Argentina. Not so in Colombia. Left candidates that came close to power – Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, Luis Carlos Galán in 1989, Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa and Carlos Pizarro Leongómez in 1990 – were all gunned down. And Petro was a near-miss exception. During one of his earlier presidential bids back in 2018, gunmen opened fire on his car after a campaign event in the town of Cúcuta. It was only the bulletproof reinforcements on the windows that saved his life.  

‘The spectre of death accompanies us’, Petro told AFP in February. Three weeks before the first round of presidential voting, Petro was forced to suspend his campaign after receiving a tip-off about an assassination attempt by the right-wing paramilitary group La Cordillera. Thereafter, he appeared onstage surrounded by bodyguards wielding bulletproof shields. Threats from paramilitaries continued to pour in – not only directed at Petro, but at the broader coalition of the Pacto Histórico that stood behind him. In February 2021, the Pacto succeeded for the first time in bringing the country’s fragmented left-of-centre forces into a single electoral vehicle, spanning liberals and greens, social democrats and communists, Indigenous activists and social movements. Feeding on the energy of the 2021 National Strike – when millions of Colombians poured into the streets to protest President Duque’s austerity reforms and faced violent repression from the police – the Pacto surged in the legislative elections in March to become the single largest force in Congress. The paramilitaries were desperate for revenge. At the start of Petro’s presidential campaign, the narco-terrorist Black Eagles warned that ‘We will exterminate them like the rats they are.’

It is tempting to see such threats as an outside intervention in the democratic process. But violence has long been a structuring principle of Colombian politics. After the civil war of 1948-1958 – La Violencia, in which the Liberals and Conservatives fought each other to a stalemate – the two parties agreed to establish the National Front: an antidemocratic agreement in which power would rotate between them. This triggered a series of guerrilla wars, in which leftist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) fought to expand political participation and advance the interests of marginalized peasant communities. These forces, which controlled large sections of the countryside, clashed with the Colombian government and its paramilitary associates, who regularly targeted and assassinated trade unionists, land defenders and human-rights advocates. Only recently have we learned the true scale of such atrocities; last month, Colombia’s Truth Commission released a comprehensive report that documented 450,000 total deaths – more than twice the commonly cited figure.

In 2016, after years of negotiations in Havana, then President Juan Manuel Santos negotiated Peace Accords with the FARC that precipitated their transition to parliamentary politics under the new name Comunes (talks with the ELN meanwhile broke down, and the group vowed to keep fighting). Yet far from ending the conflict, this created a vacuum in former FARC territories that has since been filled by right-wing paramilitaries, intent on repudiating the peace deal and continuing their dirty war on the left. According to the Institute for the Study of Development and Peace, more than 1,300 social leaders have been assassinated since the peace accords were signed – including nearly 300 of the actual signatories. Over 85 such killings have taken place this year alone. This is due in no small part to President Duque, who campaigned on a promise to dismantle the accords. Although he could not officially repeal them, he refused to comply with their stipulations. A coalition of 275 Colombian NGOs accused him of ‘rejecting peace talks with the ELN, neglecting to fight against paramilitarism, and creating conditions for the increase in impunity and the presence of illegal armed actors throughout the country.’

This architecture of political violence is partly the result of collaboration between Bogotá and Washington. At the ceremony of the Truth Commission, declassified documents from the National Security Archive were released to the public which reveal the extent of the CIA’s complicity in the targeted killing of workers, peasants and guerrillas. One 1988 CIA report relays intelligence on a massacre of unionized farmworkers coordinated by Colombia’s military. Another from 1997 details paramilitary violence organized by private oil companies and sponsored by the Colombian armed forces. A secret 2003 Pentagon memo to Donald Rumsfeld, ‘Recent Successes against the Colombian FARC’, boasts of US-trained commando units ‘yielding dividends’ in the form of 543 targeted killings in the first seven months of that year alone.

Under President Bill Clinton, the US signed the so-called ‘Plan Colombia’ to dispatch arms to the Colombian military under the banner of the War on Drugs. Its $7.5 billion budget was to be spent training and equipping the Colombian armed forces to eradicate cocaine production. In fact, the opposite happened: cocaine production is now flourishing in rural areas – 1,228 metric tons in 2020 alone, a 10% increase from the year before. Rather than stamping out the drug trade, US weapons found a different purpose: protecting the interests of foreign investors. Colombia’s investor-state relationship is longstanding. Back in 1928, the Colombian Army killed several hundred striking United Fruit Company workers in the town of Ciénaga in what became known as the Banana Massacre. Fifty years later, the same company was found to have paid over $1.7 million to a far-right paramilitary group to terrorize communities and torture trade unionists in the country’s banana-growing regions. Today, such activities continue in Colombia’s mining, logging and drilling regions – all with the tacit endorsement of the US government. As members of the human rights organization CCEEU told me, ‘Nothing happens in Colombia without the gringo’s knowledge and consent’.

If Colombia’s political violence is fuelled by overseas actors, it is also exported abroad. In September 2019, two former members of US Army special forces teamed up with former Venezuelan soldiers training in Colombia to lead a failed coup attempt against Nicolás Maduro. Three months later, according to Trump’s Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the White House again considered attempting to oust Maduro with US-trained mercenaries from Colombia. The following year, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in Port-au-Prince by a group of former Colombian soldiers disguised as agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Biden’s Department of Defense later revealed that several of the mercenaries had received military training in the US.

It is the centrality of Colombia in the story of hemispheric reaction that makes Petro’s victory so improbable, and consequential. In the late aughts, Colombia played a critical role in obstructing the regional integration of progressive governments, using its veto power at the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to frustrate ambitions to build institutions that would decrease their dependence on the United States. A decade later, at the start of the next Pink Tide, Colombia remained a committed saboteur of the Latin American left. During the Ecuadorian presidential elections in 2021, Colombia’s right-wing administration participated in a false-flag operation against the leftist candidate Andrés Arauz after a video was posted online that appeared to show the ELN declaring its support for Arauz. The Duque government then claimed to have obtained laptops belonging to the ELN which contained evidence that the guerrilla group was illegally financing the Arauz campaign. The Attorney General of Colombia went so far as to fly to the Ecuadorian capital to turn over these laptops – only to have the entire story debunked by an ornithologist who recognized that the bird sounds in the ELN video were not native to Colombia. Yet the damage to Arauz was already done. Less than a month after the visit of the Colombian Attorney General, Arauz’s opponent – the banker and tax evader Guillermo Lasso – won by less than five percentage points.

The prospect of foreign intervention haunted Petro’s presidential campaign. For months, the US State Department had been voicing its ‘concerns’ that Russia may interfere in the election to aid the leftist frontrunner. Just nine days before the first round of presidential voting, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III welcomed the Colombian Defence Minister Diego Molano to the Pentagon to announce a new plan to ‘deepen’ military ties between the two countries. Three days later, Biden officially designated Colombia a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States.’ One could be forgiven for reading these executive gestures as a veiled threat. ‘Colombia is facing the most dangerous moment in its modern history,’ declared the Republican Congresswoman María Elvira Salazar the weekend of the election. ‘Petro is a thief, a terrorist, and Marxist…We on the Committee on Foreign Affairs say loudly…Communism is a threat, and the biggest threat right now exists in Colombia.’

Yet if fears of Putin’s intervention were overblown, so were those of Petro’s ‘Communism’. Born to a humble family in small town in the north of Colombia, at seventeen Petro joined other students and activists in the formation of the urban guerrilla movement M-19, where he stockpiled stolen weapons and helped coordinate its campaign for democratic rights. M-19 earned its infamy with the 1985 siege of the Palace of Justice, which saw the guerrillas take 300 hostages inside the Supreme Court. In 1990, M-19 signed a peace treaty and disarmed; one year later, its newly founded political party helped write the country’s constitution, and Petro began his parliamentary career in the Chamber of Representatives. In 2010, Petro launched his first presidential campaign. He won only 6% of the vote, but landed the prize of the Bogotá mayoralty. There, in the nation’s capital, Petro elicited the ire of the Colombian right for uncovering major corruption in the system of municipal contracts. President Santos attempted to remove him from office – citing ‘administrative errors in the trash collection scheme’ – only to reinstate him a month later on the order of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. ‘During my time as mayor we had the highest employment levels ever seen in Bogotá and high levels of foreign investment,’ Petro told the Financial Times. ‘Foreign investors weren’t scared away just because the mayor was called Gustavo Petro.’ Petro has confessed to having ‘studied Marx with some profundity’, but his presidential programme shed this radicalism to focus on basic social democratic reforms to the health, education and pension services. (In any case, when it comes to philosophy, Petro says, ‘I distance myself from dialectics and prefer Foucault.’)

For years, investors in Colombia had warned of a special ‘Petro clause’ in their contracts which stipulated their intention to renege on their obligations and flee the country were Petro to win the presidency. His 2022 campaign sought to calm their nerves. On 18 April, Petro called journalists to a notary’s office where he signed an oath pledging not to engage in ‘any kind of expropriation’. He later began tweeting out reports from Bank of America that legitimated his programme for government, alongside endorsements from Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. This was the ideological straddle that brought Petro to power. ‘I don’t divide politics between left and right, as we did in the 20th century’, Petro told an interviewer last year. ‘The politics of the 21st century is divided…between two great camps: the politics of life and the politics of death.’

There is no more powerful representative of the first camp than Francia Márquez. Raised in the impoverished tropical village of Yolombó, Márquez has been active in the struggle against extraction since the age of thirteen, when she joined the successful fight against the mining corporations which sought to divert the Ovejas river that sustained her community. In 2014, when miners backed by paramilitary muscle descended on her region in pursuit of gold, she organized a women’s march from the high mountains of Cauca to the capital of Bogotá. The federal government labelled her a ‘threat to national security,’ but the march continued, and its participants established an encampment in front of Congress until they secured a meeting with the Vice-Minister. ‘In the name of development they enslaved us and now in the name of development they expelled us from our lands’, Márquez told the protesters. That December, she reached an agreement with the government to dismantle the illegal mining in the region and create a special task force to combat its rise across the country.

In 2022, Márquez announced her run for president at the National Feminist Convention. In the presidential primaries for the Pacto that followed, Márquez claimed over 750,000 votes, securing her place on the Petro ticket. Together, the two covered considerable ground for the Pacto in its pitch to the country. I often heard the same word to describe her candidacy among activists: encarna – it embodied, literally as well as figuratively – the struggles against slavery, colonialism and exploitation. No wonder Márquez confronted so much racist and classist abuse throughout the campaign. What could be more offensive to the colonial sensibility of Colombia’s suburban class than a former domestic worker walking proudly into the Casa de Nariño? But on election night, the ‘nobodies’ – Márquez’s affectionate moniker for marginalized Colombians – outvoted its elites. Turnout rates shot up by 5%, 6%, 7% across the Pacific, Caribbean, and Amazonic regions of Colombia. In a country long dominated by its Andean heartland cities, this election signalled the rise of the peripheries. 

In the days leading up to the final round, Petro ditched large campaign events to focus on these neglected regions. He spent the night at a fisherman’s house, cut sugarcane in the morning, picked coffee in the afternoon and shared a drink with truckers and taxi drivers the next evening. This made for a stark contrast with his opponent Hernández. A septuagenarian with heavy Botox and implanted hair, Hernández pitched himself as a construction magnate so rich that he could never be corrupted by political office – a claim undercut by the ongoing investigation into his corruption as mayor of Bucaramanga, where he had constructed a political persona based on quick wit, a short temper and absolute allegiance to neoliberal reform. (‘He was the workers’ executioner’, one trade unionist remarked to the New York Times.)

A gaffe-prone self-publicist who once told an interviewer ‘I am a follower of a great German thinker, named Adolf Hitler’, Hernández had not been the establishment’s first choice. The former mayor of Medellín, Federico Gutiérrez, secured the endorsement of every traditional party; yet his reputation as Duque’s anointed successor, along with his lack of charisma and threadbare policy platform, sealed his defeat in the first round, where he gained only 23% of the vote. The responsibility to keep Petro out therefore fell to Hernández – who refused to give interviews, attend debates or hold rallies. Instead, he put his faith in a young social media manager and a piece of software called Wappid, which uses Ponzi marketing techniques to register supporters and activate their Whatsapp networks. Hernández ‘doesn’t fill public squares’, the CEO of Wappid proudly declared. ‘He goes and creates his network, and the network does the work for him.’ 

Ten days before the election, Hernández pushed this absenteeism to the extreme by leaving the country altogether. ‘For my safety…I have made the decision to cancel all my public appearances between now and the elections,’ he said en route to Miami, Florida. The timing of his departure, however, had less to do with security concerns than with the priorities of his conservative allies to clear the way for their last-ditch attempt to sabotage Petro. Just two days later, a massive cache of secret recordings of private meetings of the Petro campaign was leaked to the press. Quickly dubbed the ‘Petrovideos’, the leak supposedly exposed various crimes and misdemeanors of the Pacto. In the week leading up to the vote, the right-wing press carried a stream of stories that they hoped would scandalize the public. ‘Colombia has never experienced a scandal of the magnitude of the “Petrovideos” in its presidential campaigns,’ wrote the right-wing Semana of its own scoop.

But the content of the recordings was less sensational than its presentation. Much hay was made, for example, of a campaign meeting in which Petro’s wife described him as ‘stubborn’. This was a case of boy-who-cried-wolf: publications like Semana had slandered Petro so many times over the years – photoshopping his face onto criminals, cooking up accusations of terrorism – that the public were largely unmoved. (During Petro’s 2018 campaign, Semana went so far as to reproduce the rumour that the pornographic actor Mia Khalifa was, in fact, the candidate’s daughter.) Hernández returned to the country just in time for a High Court to issue a ruling that both candidates must attend a presidential debate to put forward their policy proposals. When he refused, his reputation did not recover. Petro became the candidate of transparency, while Hernández appeared slippery and evasive.

By 4:20pm on 19 June – just twenty minutes after the vote count began – Petro knew he had won. Record turnout in the poorer regions coincided with waning participation in the conservative heartlands. Hernández had been trapped in a fatal bind: to present himself as a populist insurgent, he needed to distance himself from the establishment and refuse their formal offers of coalition – contesting the election as an independent backed by a hastily established ‘anti-corruption’ alliance. Yet, to win, he also needed to rally the supporters of the major right-wing parties in large numbers, to offset the galvanized base of the Petro-Márquez campaign. This balancing act required a level of strategic nous that eluded Hernández. His ramshackle coalition could not contend with the Pacto, built carefully and strenuously during its years in opposition.

Petro now prepares to take the reins of government with three programmatic priorities: ‘peace, social justice, environmental justice’. He hopes to convene a new international process that can deliver on the promise of the 2016 accords, bringing guerrillas, paramilitaries, peasants and the armed forces back to the table to negotiate the terms of disarmament and land distribution. He also plans to raise taxes on Colombia’s elite – to support pensions for the elderly, family welfare schemes and free university education – while setting Colombia on a decade-long transition away from fossil fuels toward a portfolio of legal, sustainable and economically viable exports. ‘Our three main exports are poison’, Petro has said of coal, oil, and cocaine. His vow is to replace them with high-value industry and marijuana farms – and to do it fast: ‘Reforms are made in the first year or they are not made’.

It is an ambitious agenda for any president, but it will be particularly difficult to realize in a country with a minority coalition in Congress, a strong and recalcitrant right, a towering business elite and a well-armed paramilitary network. As the credit rating agency Fitch Ratings reported with a sigh of relief, ‘Colombia’s broad policy framework will remain intact because institutional checks and balances are likely to prevent policy radicalization. An independent central bank and autonomous judicial system will also provide checks and balances to the executive.’ Petro’s gamble is to bring all his opponents to the table. In the days following his election, Petro convened what he called a ‘Great National Accord’ to set a new direction for the country. He has welcomed rivals from the Conservative Party and U Party into this compact, shaking hands with figures like Hernández and former president Álvaro Uribe. He has also appointed a transition team with ministerial candidates from the left, the centre and the conservative right. If the coalition of the Pacto Histórico required an ideological straddle, then Petro’s plans for government will push this tactic further still.  

Allies of the president-elect present these cross-partisan gestures as shows of strength. Critics describe them as clientelism dressed up as diplomacy. The real question is whether they will work. Even if the National Accord does not disintegrate, it is unclear what kind of what kind of concessions Petro will be called upon to make in order to survive in such a hostile political environment. The most effective bulwark against capitulation is the popular movement that drove the Pacto to power, which will continue to fight back against extractivism and paramilitary violence across the periphery. Yet this struggle cannot succeed without international allies to oppose attempts by the US and its allies to neuter the Petro presidency and secure its resource rents. For centuries, the wreckage has piled up in Colombia – the dead and disappeared, the ‘nobodies’ discarded in the course of its uneven development. Now a storm is finally blowing in from Paradise. The task of the left – alongside Petro and the Pacto – is to guarantee that the storm does not bring darkness and sweep it all away.

Read on: Juan Carlos Monedero, ‘Snipers in the Kitchen’, NLR 120.