By 8 am, the residents of Suarez, a township in the northern Cauca department in Colombia, are lined up from the sports arena filled with polling booths to the police roadblock, where security forces are controlling entry. Local authorities tell me they’re seeing many more people than in past elections and they expect an historic turnout. No wonder. This is the hometown of Francia Marquez, the environmental activist and now—with the support of millions of impoverished Colombians like her townspeople—the first Black woman vice president in the nation’s history.
Suarez reflects the conditions that carried Gustavo Petro, a leftist former mayor and senator, and Francia Marquez, an Afro-Colombian organizer and rights defender, to power on June 19. Its inhabitants are a mix of Black and Indigenous communities and peasant farmers. Despite having collective property rights by law, their lands are invaded by warring armed groups and corporate mining interests. Francia is their candidate, and for the first time many viewed the elections as a way out of violence and poverty.
Olga Lucia Pechené, a member of the association of 43 community councils that administer Afro-Colombian collective property in northern Cauca, watches the voting and greets people as they stand in line. “Having Francia Marquez in the vice presidency, we can change things in favor of our communities, especially the most vulnerable in Colombia,” she says. She ticks off a list of local problems: The already “terrible health system” collapsed under the pandemic; young people don’t have access to higher education; and structural racism, lack of security and the economic model all work against their communities.
Many of the people waiting to vote traveled up to four hours from the surrounding hillsides on foot and in rickety buses. Transportation isn’t their only obstacle. The hills surrounding the town are home to coffee and subsistence farmers, but also drug trafficking armed groups and illegal miners. Just two days before the elections, a motorcycle bomb parked outside the police station left an officer severely wounded.
Hundreds of people who were forced out of Suárez by the violence and lack of economic opportunities rented buses to come home to vote from the cities, especially nearby Cali. After more than 60 years of armed conflict, Colombia has the second-highest rate of internal displacement in the world, some 5.6 million people.
Just before noon, a noticeable buzz arises. Olga Lucia makes a phone call. “She’s arriving,” she announces. Minutes later, Francia Marquez steps out of a white van and is immediately surrounded by her people. Members of the Afrodescendent Community Council of La Toma, her village, keep closest guard rather than armed soldiers or police. She has received death threats for years, but she moves casually between the polling places. She smiles broadly, hugs old friends, receives greetings, and shakes hands with every one of the citizens at the voting tables. After marking her ballot for Petro-Marquez, she holds it up to photographers and urges people to vote. Then she heads off to the nation’s capital to await the results.
When the news breaks just over an hour after poll closure that Petro won, people run into the streets and cry out, “A new Colombia!,” “Change is here!,” and chants of “Francia, vicepresidente!” Back in Bogotá alongside the president-elect, Marquez—a single mother, former domestic worker, and community organizer—tells a charged crowd, “After 214 years we have a government of the people…a government of the callused hands, a government of the people on foot, a government of the nobodies of Colombia.” She thanks her townspeople and the Afro-Colombian population in particular “for having built this path, for having sown the seed of resistance and hope.” She adds a special greeting to women, saying, “Let’s go, women, to eradicate patriarchy in our country.”
A New Politics?
Francia Marquez’s place on the ticket is likely what pushed Petro to victory. Petro garnered 40 percent of the vote in the first round, to 28 percent for second-place right-wing candidate Rodolfo Hernandez. But the candidate supported by former president Alvaro Uribe, Federico Gutiérrez, immediately endorsed Hernandez, creating a potentially winning right-wing block. Signs point to a moment when the country’s political elite—and the US government—made a conscious decision to no longer back the depleted political forces of former president Uribe, which would have been easier for Petro to beat in a run-off, and instead endorse—formally or behind the scenes—the independent Hernandez, developing a change and anti-corruption platform to rival Petro’s promises. It was the high turnout and overwhelming vote from Afro-Colombian and Indigenous areas of the Pacific Coast, which voted on average 80 percent for Petro, and the Caribbean with an average above 60 percent, that made the difference. Petro also took the capital, Bogotá, with 59 percent of the vote.
Women, who comprise the majority of voters in the country, voted for Petro in high numbers. Add to that young people, who led the mass protests of 2021, and you have not only an electoral triumph, but a newly activated and motivated political base. Petro recognized their role in his speech Sunday night: “It isn’t strange that of these 11 million votes that gave us this triumph, the majority are youth and women. A youthful tide, a feminine tide, decided today to take over the polls.” Hernandez, a conservative multimillionaire and former mayor of Bucaramanga, who has stated that women’s place is in the home and not in politics and expressed his admiration for Hitler, drew most of his 10.5 million votes from the central departments. New voters made the difference.
Petro, who takes office on August 7, named among the first actions of his government an emergency campaign against hunger. As the pandemic global crisis threatens starvation throughout the region, the campaign would include aid and link to an agrarian reform that encourages food production. He also will request the Attorney General’s office to free political prisoners.
Petro has announced his intention to ban fracking and promote an energy transition, halting all oil and gas exploration in the country. This has drawn the ire of powerful oil and gas interests and the sympathy of the climate justice movement globally.
In his speech, he called for a dialogue with the US government on an energy transition, pointing out the US role in emitting the greenhouse gasses that Colombia’s Amazon jungle absorbs. He urged other progressive governments not to rely on the high price of oil and gas to fund social justice and redistribution programs and committed his government to employing new technologies and ancestral Indigenous and Afro knowledge to bring Colombia in balance with nature. He has claimed he will reduce dependence on the extractivist industries that are at the heart of bloody conflicts over land and territory.
Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with 3.6 million more pushed into poverty during the pandemic. Petro has consistently criticized neoliberalism, but on election night he called for a need to “develop capitalism” to increase production and growth. The line seemed to be aimed at assuaging critics who, as is now the norm in any election in Latin America where a progressive candidate runs, accuse him of being the new Chávez. Who he names as his economic team will help decipher where he’ll come down on economic reform.
Petro has a delicate line to walk. He has made a point of welcoming opposition voters and rejecting a path of persecution or vengeance. Despite warnings from the right, economic indicators have remained stable so far, but powerful economic interests will not lightly surrender the privileges granted them by past governments.
Political and economic polarization in Colombia isn’t just expressed in ideological debates. It takes lives. Indepaz reported that at least 80 people were killed in the 2021 youth-led national strike demanding a basic needs and services, nearly all by security forces or right-wing snipers. Rights group Somos Defensores registered 199 rights defenders murdered in 2020 and 139 in 2021. Global Witness named Colombia the most dangerous place on earth to be a land and environment defender the past two years running.
Homicide rates increased last year under the administration of Iván Duque, undermining the 2016 peace agreements. Smaller armed groups have emerged, causing turf wars. As one source, who asked not to be named, noted, “It’s more complicated now, the groups have multiplied, and we have nowhere to turn.” Widespread militarization under right-wing governments with decades of support from the US has inflamed the situation, while much of the population has lost faith in political institutions that have long been beholden to private and criminal interests.
An initial challenge is managing expectations. “We know that a country can’t be fixed from one day to another,” said Pechené of the Association of Community Councils, but elation could turn into disappointment without early accomplishments. Although Petro has a solid block of support in Congress, he does not control a majority. He’ll need to build alliances to face down the conservative opposition.
Petro called for a “grand national agreement.” Before the election, he met with figures from center and liberal factions to demonstrate support and to try to reach consensus on raising taxes on the wealthy, pension reform, and implementation of the peace accords. As with any dialogue that brings together diverse and opposing interests, this process will be fraught with political hazards. On election night, he announced the inclusion of “not just those who have risen up in arms, but also this silent majority of peasant farmers, Indigenous, women, and youth.”
This last point is crucial. While the political scenario at the top is complicated, much will rest on whether he can strengthen and build upon the social movements that elected him. He has called for regional dialogues to define agendas and mechanisms to include them in the new government. Unlike other progressive governments that assumed that the movements they represented would no longer be necessary after taking power, Petro seems to be counting on continued active participation and cooperation as he moves to make the reforms announced in his campaign.
A new map of the Americas
Colombia under Petro represents a huge shift in the changing geopolitical map of Latin America. Not only is it the fourth-largest economy; it has also been a stronghold for US military and political interests. Petro called for “a dialogue in the Americas without exclusion of any peoples or nations”—a jab at Joe Biden’s Summit of the Americas, which fell apart with the decision to not invite Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.
Petro proposed that Latin America “integrate more decisively,” alluding to south-south cooperation. Colombia’s election with certainly strengthen the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a regional integration forum. Region-wide efforts to buck the neoliberal market model and US hegemony and develop models for broader fulfillment of human needs will get a boost from the country for decades considered the least likely to play that role.
The State Department congratulated Petro, and the day after his election Petro talked to President Biden in a call that Petro said was “friendly” and during which he proposed a “more equal relationship.” A big question will be what the Pentagon has to say about that. The GOP position is predictable. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis tweeted that the Colombian election results were “disastrous” and called Petro a “former narcoterrorist.”
With leftist Lula da Silva leading in the polls ahead of Brazil’s presidential vote in October, expect more cold-war rhetoric from the international right that sees Latin America as an increasingly bad example for the rest of the world.
For now, though, millions of Colombians who have suffered the brunt of the country’s violence and inequality are welcoming a new future. Just days before the election in the small Afro-Colombian town of Timbiquí on the Pacific coast, only accessible by motorized canoe and a prop plane, Eblin Dionicio Rodríguez summed up why people were voting this time. “With the candidacy of Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez, we have hope that we’ve never had before. For the first time, we feel represented.”
That’s a major accomplishment for any democracy.