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Colombia’s Historic Pact

On the victory of Gustavo Petro Urrego and Francia Márquez Mina

“Today is the day for the streets and the plazas,” said the president. And the night would belong to them, too. To the streets and the plazas, the rivers and winding mule trails, from the western mangrove marshes and indomitable Guajira desert to the high-mountain slums of Bogotá, wherever el pueblo, The People, congregated—dancing, parading, weeping, drinking, answering over preposterous balcony speakers the call to “celebrate the first popular victory” in Colombia. Add whichever caveats you’d like about movement cooptation and the limits of bourgeois politics. But for a country where the Left has never been allowed within a “potato bomb’s” strike radius of the Casa de Nariño, there was something revolutionary about the election of Gustavo Petro Urrego and Francia Márquez Mina as president and vice-president earlier this month.

In institutional terms, you could say that the 1991 Constitution won. An urban guerrillero in his youth, Petro demobilized with the M-19 rebel group to participate in the Constituent Assembly. From there, he went on to a lengthy, eminently respectable civilian career as a legislator, economist, and mayor of Bogotá. Experienced—to some, unsavory—political hands guided this, his third and most measured campaign for president. The quick adhesion of chastened establishment parties to his Historic Pact bloc in Congress ensures that any change will come with a good deal of continuity. Márquez, for her part, has received the 2018 Goldman “Environmental Nobel” for her revindication of collective land rights afforded by Colombia’s new Constitution. A Black single mother who paid her way through a human rights law degree, she embodies the spirit of personal uplift, multiculturalism, and procedural redress that document sought to enshrine. 

But even among those who usually have embarrassing things to say about Latin America’s Oldest and Most Stable Democracy, the sense is that June 19 represented a kind of break. The Colombian ruling classes can forgive a teenage Petro for having revolted against them (although certain formations of the military parastate never will). Given the appropriate incentives, white patricians might even consent to be cogoverned by an avowed prison abolitionist who, as Márquez herself has noted, they’d sooner see cleaning their toilets. But any accommodations beyond that can only ever be provisional. It’s not just that a terrorista and a domestic worker have ascended to executive office. It’s how and where they won, and who claimed the night when they did. “Many candidates seek the middle and upper classes,” Petro observed in September. “But whoever wants to win the presidency has to find passion in the popular world.”

Colombian political geography is defined by an increasingly untenable color line dividing the central highlands and their war-torn periphery.

Polling data offers only hints at the multitudinous struggles that preceded Sunday’s victory, at the enormous “summation of resistances,” as Petro would call it, some predating the nation-state. Colombia is a conservative country, has been, and will always be. So frequently repeated is this catechism, so thoroughly drilled—and with such zeal—by boss, badge, and counterinsurgent death squad, that a mass constituency for radical politics appeared as if out of nowhere, as if the Western Hemisphere’s longest armed conflict were, in the end, about nothing. The “no ones and nobodies” of Colombia, to use Márquez’s term of endearment, made themselves counted Sunday, and not only at the ballot box. “How many people are not with us today?” Petro asked his stadium audience. “How many people who disappeared on the roads of Colombia and can’t be found? How many people who died? How many people who are imprisoned?” The credit for Sunday is theirs, no less than the record (for any candidate) 11.2 million people who voted for Petro and Márquez. 

Colombian political geography has been defined, in recent years, by an increasingly untenable color line dividing the central highlands and their war-torn periphery. Petro and Márquez’s achievement—that is, the popular world’s—is to have flipped the balance in the latter’s favor. Such a coup was made thinkable by the National Strike of 2021, a series of localized protests and coordinated shutdowns which ousted ministers, occupied infrastructure, paralyzed economic activity, and reduced police outposts to smoldering rubble. Emboldened by the experience of the uprising—and by its brutal repression—the Afro, Indigenous, and peasant countryside, together with the urban youth underclasses, informal sectors, working poor, and emergent LGBTQ and feminist movements, assumed the moral vanguard of a broad-based coalition that also includes Christian progressives, the progressive elite, centrist environmentalists, downwardly mobile professionals, and breakaway factions of the establishment party apparatus. First in March’s congressional race, then in first-round presidential elections last month, and finally, June 19’s high-turnout runoff, this Historic Pact was able to expand and deepen support in the interior cities while consolidating a ring of lowland radicalism around the Orinoquía and Amazon basins and Caribbean and Pacific littorals.

Orienting this otherwise unwieldy alliance is a transformational vision of peace and social democracy. To the death-dealing military agroindustrial complex that has dominated modern Colombia, Petro has responded with a “politics of life” and—sometimes less convincingly—love. Colombia, he argues, should be, by virtue of its megadiversity and strategic location, a “world power” in eco-agrarian, cultural, and knowledge production, not a fiefdom of the cocaine-rentier mafia or mercenary exporter of U.S. security know-how. What this requires is a new national consensus—hence Historic Pact—around comprehensive modernization. Petro has vowed to, among other things, universalize free public education; provide universal free public childcare; create a jobs guarantee that recognizes environmental and reproductive labor; shore up universal public pension financing and improve benefits; protect water and water protectors; bring high-speed internet connectivity and digital literacy programming to rural areas and poor neighborhoods; tax speculative and latifundista landholding; employ state purchasing power, price-setting, and import tariffs to stimulate food sovereignty and value-added industry; improve credit access through public banking; and incorporate co-ops of garbage and waste pickers into a technified waste management system. Márquez, who has been ridiculed by triggered media personalities and a racist C-list pop star for her use of gender-inclusive Spanish, is slated to head a “transversal” Ministry of Equality, tasked with ending discriminatory violence and applying differential attention to age, capacity, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity across this entire suite of reforms.

Faced with the usual red-baiting, Petro has emphasized this divergence with Latin America’s previous Pink Tide experiments.

Concerted efforts have been made to reassure national business associations and foreign creditors that the future being imagined here is closer to old-fashioned capitalist takeoff than a leap into the void of Twenty-First Century Socialism. Which may very well be the case. Regardless, the Colombian right is not necessarily wrong to understand Petro’s commitment to fully implementing the 2016 peace agreement with the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a straightforward declaration of class war; if agrarian reform were acceptable to the landed interest, the FARC wouldn’t have taken up arms in the first place. There is similarly no way to frame the core component of the Petro-Márquez project—a moratorium on fossil fuel exploration and transition away from dependence on their extraction—that doesn’t imply a total overhaul of Colombia’s political economy.

Faced with the usual red-baiting, Petro has emphasized this divergence with Latin America’s previous Pink Tide experiments. But that’s arguably an admission that he intends to go even further. “The social pact,” Petro theorized in 2020, “is a historic process in which the oligarchy is defeated or agrees to the pact.” Despite the reconciliatory tone of his victory speech, and the notarized non-expropriation pledges and obsequious gestures of goodwill toward markets, that ultimatum stands.

The Historic Pact’s electoral victory, while sufficient neither to vanquish nor pacify the Colombian oligarchy, has indeed come at the direct expense of its most reactionary elements. Uribismo, named for Álvaro Uribe, the former president and senator, is exhausted, the man himself too mired in criminal prosecutions and paramilitary intrigue to reprise his once indispensable national leadership. His puppet president, Iván Duque, ends his four-year term detested by pretty much everyone but loyal David Frum readers. The Democratic Center party was unable to even field its own candidate for the presidential first round. Paranoid and dysfunctional, its dwindling congressional bloc is alone in declared opposition to the incoming Petro administration.

The last time around, in 2018, the ghosts of Castro and Chávez had performed most of the ideological work; staving off a Petro presidency seemed as simple as speaking the word “Venezuela” often and loudly. But although short by a margin three times as wide as his triumphant victory this weekend, Petro’s unprecedented second-round showing still demonstrated that hyperpolarization, whatever its short-term advantages for the right, also carried significant political costs. The fight over the FARC peace process, drawn out to ugly extremes by a revanchist lumpen-rancher elite, had fragmented the bourgeoisie along regional, party, and sectoral lines. That and the collapse of commodity prices left the great wall of anti-communist contention on shakier ground than at any point since the decisive, U.S.-backed Plan Colombia mobilization of the early Uribe presidency.

Rather than restore order and investor confidence, these last four years of the right back in power instead served to usher in the crisis. The FARC peace process was largely “torn to shreds,” as promised, with no alternative growth strategy to replace it. Already disgraced by systemic atrocities, the “post-conflict” armed forces embraced a renewed sense, as one general heralded, that “the Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is gone.” Duque’s Venezuelan regime-change cosplay may have helped Donald Trump with Florida, but in Colombia, the right reaped only turmoil and defeatism. The pandemic erased the precarious consumerist gains of the long neoliberal “Opening.” And another, ill-timed round of proposed structural adjustment accomplished what sixty years of militant -isms couldn’t, unifying city and countryside in a protracted general strike.

It was in this panicked context that Rodolfo Hernández, grotesque mediocrity that he is, was asked to play the hero’s part. Few had expected the ultra-rich, septuagenarian TikToker and former mayor of a middling city to reach the second round. He had no team, no ground game, no party backing, and no program, aside from a shtick about purging from government the “thugs,” “swindlers,” “robbers,” “charlatans,” “gangsters,” and assorted “sellouts.” (Hernández faces contract racketeering charges, which would have transferred, had he become president, from ordinary criminal proceedings to a veritable “den of thieves” in Congress.)

A willingness to embrace internationalism is perhaps the Historic Pact’s boldest feature.

But when their initial choice burned out, stranded party operators identified in the Rodolfoneta a big new empty vehicle. Rote endorsement arithmetic actually favored Hernández to overcome a 2.5 million vote deficit, as long as he could avoid interviews, debates, town halls, and public appearances. Facile “change election” narratives gave liberals permission to engage in self-involved neither/nor posturing. Conservatives had no problem signing on for precisely the kind of vulgar, authoritarian “populism” they claim to abhor in Petro.

Now that we’ve been spared the barrage of “Colombian Trump” follow-up coverage, it’s worth asking whether trite coincidence is the extent of it. Forget Hernández’s orange hair and megalomania. Forget the geo-specific misinformation campaign. Forget that the Engineer, which admittedly has a better ring to it than “Predatory Housing Developer,” also does petty crime with his failsons. Forget even, for a moment, the misogyny, xenophobia, and professed admiration for that “great German thinker, Adolf Hitler.” There is a tendency within the right, chastened by these results, that hopes to regain voter trust through  “intelligent opposition” to Petro. And there is a tendency that sees through the George Soros-BLM conspiracy and will not sit meekly by while terrorists from the Afro-Pacific take over the Coffee Belt. Both tendencies boarded the Rodolfoneta, but the second did so having already rode the Trump Train. The trauma of majoritarian rule—compounded by recent judicial decisions legalizing abortion and recognizing non-binary gender identity—will only propel Colombian reaction further down the path of racial jingoism and wounded masculinity. And when paramilitarism returns to the capitol, it won’t be in viking helmets.

The moment for right realignment seems to have passed in the Americas, but the conditions for being able to “live deliciously,” vivir sabroso, with joy and dignity, as Márquez conceives it, don’t yet exist either. They will depend as much on Chile’s upcoming constitutional referendum as on who gets which cabinet post in exchange for what votes in the Colombian Senate; the festival of horrors at CPAC Brasil may have more to say about the coming backlash than the pronouncements following the next Democratic Center conclave. Will the Biden administration accept an open invitation to recover ground in the hemisphere? Or will the “special” bilateral security relationship undermine another Colombian peace process? Petro and Márquez appreciate the urgency of these questions, and their willingness to embrace internationalism is perhaps the Historic Pact’s boldest feature. They dare to affirm that the murder of an Indigenous Guard in the Cauca Valley is a loss of planetary dimensions, that a victory by the Colombian people can make history for the whole world.