In Latin America’s Reactionary Outpost, the Left is Vying for Power

Mass movements have taken hold in Colombia.

by Aaron Tauss

14 December 2021

A woman takes part in a protest against gendered violence in Bogotá, Colombia, November 2021. Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters

In November 2016, the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) – the country’s oldest and largest guerrilla group – signed a historic peace treaty. The agreement marked a turning point in Colombia’s decades-old armed conflict. Since the mid-1960s, 262,000 people have died, 80,000 have disappeared and close to five million have been displaced.

Despite the peace agreement, violence continues unabated in many parts of the country. According to monitoring group Indepaz, 1,278 social and environmental activists, trade union organisers, human rights defenders and leaders of peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have been murdered since the peace deal was inked. Colombia has witnessed 88 massacres this year alone. An additional 296 former Farc fighters have violently lost their lives since laying down their arms. The executionists are usually rightwing paramilitaries, drug gangs, state security forces or dissident Farc groups. In most cases, these killings are never solved.

No justice, no peace.

The ongoing violence against social leaders is, however, not the only obstacle in the way of a more peaceful Colombia – government intransigence manifests elsewhere.

Since Santos’s rightwing successor Iván Duque took office in 2018, the government has deliberately boycotted and delayed the implementation of the peace agreement. Little to no progress has been made on the issues of rural development and in the programme of coca crop substitution. In 2020, Colombia had 143,000 hectares of illegal coca plantations – 7% of its entire land surface. According to the UN, the country remains the world’s largest producer of cocaine, derived from the coca leaf.

Political power remains strongly tied to land ownership. This is why judges, investigators and prosecutors, who are commissioned to resolve land claims brought forth by violently displaced peasants, are still threatened and murdered. Large landowners and cattle ranchers, with close ties to organised crime and paramilitary groups, have regained stronger positions in the state under the Duque presidency.

The Duque government has slashed the budgets for the newly founded Truth Commission, the Search Unit for Missing Persons, and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Duque’s rightwing anti-peace agenda is also reflected in the controversial appointment of a new director of the National Centre for Historical Memory, who even denies the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia. The institution had previously conducted critical scientific research and provided important educational work about the civil war.

The 2019 uprising.

Despite the setbacks, the peace process and the signing of the final agreement have opened up new opportunities for progressive and leftist forces. The peace deal foresees broader political participation by civil society and includes security guarantees, aimed at ensuring the safety of political parties, trade unions, social movements and human rights groups. Over recent years Colombia has seen an unprecedented wave of social protest and the emergence of new forms of popular resistance to the status quo.

Gustavo Petro, leftist presidential candidate, in 2015. (Gustavo Petro Urrego/Flickr)

The first sign of political change was undoubtedly the 2018 presidential campaign of the former guerilla fighter Gustavo Petro. Despite his defeat in the run-off vote against Duque, Petro’s political achievement was remarkable. Colombia is one of the most conservative countries in the hemisphere; never before had a left-leaning candidate won so many votes in a presidential election.

For all those longing for a more humane Colombia, Petro’s progressive campaign was a hopeful beginning. In November 2019, 1.5 million Colombians took to the streets to protest against neoliberal policies, environmental destruction and ongoing violence against social leaders. The national strike was called by the opposition, trade unions, social movements and student organisations and had a predominantly urban character. The mobilisation lasted for several months and made clear that Colombia’s younger generation in particular, who had not lived through the worst moments of the armed conflict, is prepared to fight for a more democratic, egalitarian, feminist and peaceful country.

Covid-19 deepens the crisis.

A man washes tear gas out of his eyes during the protests in Medellín, Colombia, April 2021. Humano Salvaje/Wikimedia Commons

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic put an abrupt end to the protests, forcing organisers to call off another national strike scheduled for March 2020. The pandemic hit Colombia’s countryside hard – to date, more than 100,000 people have died. It rapidly exacerbated the already precarious socio-economic situation of many Colombians. Poverty increased by 6.8% compared to previous year; 42.5% of the population now lives below the poverty line.

The deepening crisis and the government’s inept handling of the pandemic further fanned the flames of discontent. In May this year, Colombia saw one of the largest mass mobilisations in the country’s history. More than five million people – 10% of the population – flooded the streets in all major cities and, crucially, the countryside. The movement demanded the withdrawal of a regressive tax reform and the immediate resignation of President Duque. The government’s brutal response left 44 people dead and over 3,000 wounded; close to 1,500 were arbitrarily detained. As in the past, Colombia’s far right in power criminalised the protests and the most radical sectors called for an even more repressive approach.

The crossroads ahead.

The mass mobilisations will certainly have an impact on the presidential elections scheduled for May next year. Petro will run for a second time and is currently leading in the polls. Given his real chance of winning, his political opponents are closing ranks. The eternal spectre of communism – raised by the Catholic Church and the Colombian oligarchy since the October Revolution of 1917 – is once again omnipresent. This fear is underpinned by the high number of Venezuelans who have fled to Colombia in recent years, escaping the ongoing crisis in their home country.

Even with Petro’s electoral victory, the road ahead for Colombia’s left will be anything but easy. One thing is beyond dispute: a Petro government will face the bitter resistance of Colombia’s oligarchy and its political allies. The history of the armed conflict has showed what they are capable of. The continuation and radicalisation of the political struggles of students, workers, trade unionists, social movements, feminist collectives, environmental activists and indigenous communities will be absolutely key to move towards a more peaceful Colombia and bring about lasting social change.

Aaron Tauss is Associate Professor of International Politics at the National University of Colombia.

Find more of Novara Media’s recent Latin American coverage here.

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