Colombia, the hope of «the nobodies» and the turnaround after the historic triumph of Petro amid the challenges to dismantle the Uribismo

The new president of Colombia inherits a country marked by violence, drug trafficking and a complex economic situation.
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Colombia

Gustavo Petro finally won in Colombia, thus giving rise to hope, but it will have to face a series of adversities and above all a political caste entrenched in all the structures of Power in the country: the Uribismo, which although it has died politically, is still alive in other different facets.


“This is for our grandmothers and grandfathers, the women, the youth, the LGTBIQ+ people, the indigenous people, the peasants, the workers, the victims, my black people, those who resisted and those who are no longer… Throughout Colombia. Today we begin to write a new history!”, wrote Francia Márquez after the triumph of the Pacto Histórico (Historical Pact) was confirmed, which will make Gustavo Petro president and herself, vice president.

The message summed up the sectors  that have been ignored of the population, vilified for decades by a Colombian political class that wallowed in corruption and the strengthening of elites and that never solved the real, daily problems of the citizens. The “nobodies” that Petro and Márquez talked about so much during the campaign.

They were the ones who went out to vote ‘en masse’, some on mules, some in canoes, hoping that this victory would mark the beginning of the process of social justice that is still pending throughout Colombia. 

That is why the tears, the smiles, the hugs, the collective dances to the rhythm of cumbia, the fireworks, the guitar shows, the parades of taxi drivers and motorcyclists that populated all the cities of Colombia on Sunday night. In the streets, in the barrios (neighborhoods), they celebrated the results of a process that, beyond what Petro’s management achieves (or not), is already transcendental because it completely modifies the political map of the South American country.

It seemed that the right would forever rule Colombia, the US’s closest ally in the region. The country that had the longest internal war on the Continent. Where violence persists beyond the peace agreements with the guerrillas, with a record of assassinated social leaders, with drug trafficking consolidated for decades as the multimillion-dollar and illegal business that has permeated all layers of society.

But the power of the ruling caste, as Petro baptized it, began to crack in 2019, during a first social outburst that was recorded alongside the one that occurred in Chile and that showed that social weariness was reaching the limit. The demonstrations against President Iván Duque in particular, and against neoliberalism in general, were repeated in 2021. Never before had the popular mobilization in Colombia shown such massive calls to protest.

Changes for Colombia

The government’s response, as usually happens, was the repression of the social protest. The dozens of deaths, injuries and disappearances, ethnic-racial or gender-based violence and attacks on journalists were the norm. It was denounced by reports from national and international organizations. Even so, Duque could not extinguish the mobilizations. The resistance was on.

For this reason, for the first time in history, the conservative-liberal bipartisanship was completely displaced from an electoral contest led by two new coalitions: on the left, the Pacto Histórico (Historical Pact) headed by Petro, the persevering former mayor of Bogotá who, like the Mexican López Obrador, won in his third presidential nomination; and on the right, the League of Anti-Corruption Governors created by millionaire businessman Adolfo Hernández, for whom nobody bet anything when he registered as a candidate.

The Uribismo, the current of former president Álvaro Uribe that seemed omnipresent in Colombian politics, was blurred.

Before the social outbreak, the possibility that the left would entrench itself like never before and win the presidency was also distant; that two Afro-Colombian women would appear on the ballot as candidates for the vice presidency was unheard of; that racism, feminism and sexual diversity were campaign issues in one of the most conservative countries on the Continent was unbelievable.

And yet, all this happened to the surprise of the elites for whom it was useless to reuse the Venezuelan crisis to spread the campaign of fear based on the idea that «Colombia is going to become Venezuela», the catchphrase that they have already exploited without success in elections in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Honduras, Peru and Chile.

The fierce media campaign against Petro was of no use either, and one of its greatest expressions was on the cover of Semana magazine, which, in its edition prior to the second round, asked if an «engineer» had to be chosen for the presidency (Hernández) or «an ex-guerrilla» (Petro).

More than 50% of the population chose the latter.

Outlook

On August 7, Petro will receive the presidential sash at a time when the left and progressives accumulate victories that have led to dissimilar and even contradictory processes.

In Mexico, the popularity of López Obrador remains unbeatable after three and a half years of government and so far, everything anticipates that his party will win the presidential elections again in 2024.

The opposite occurs in Peru, where Pedro Castillo has been walking on the ledge since he took office less than a year ago, due to a combination of constant pressure from the opposition to remove him or force him to resign and the constant scandals of his administration.

Further south, Gabriel Boric has passed the first three months of government in Chile in full recovery from the rapid and unprecedented drop in support recorded in the polls, and with a view to the plebiscite on September 4 in which the Chilean people will vote whether to approve or reject a new Constitution that is vital for the president.

In Bolivia, Luis Arce has been president for a year and a half without major shocks, after the country regained its democracy and the electoral force of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) was consolidated. In Honduras, Xiomara Castro is about to serve just five months in office and still has a vote of confidence from a large part of the population.

One of the most complicated scenarios is registered in Argentina, where there is a growing poverty and economic crisis seasoned by the strong fight and dispute for power in the Peronist coalition made up of President Alberto Fernández and Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and that feeds the expectations of victory of the right in the general elections next year.

In October, to this list of heads of State who promise social justice, promote Latin American integration and are in permanent discursive confrontation with the US and business and media powers, the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, could be added again. ‘Lula’, who is immersed in his sixth presidential campaign with the hope of putting an end to the government of Jair Bolsonaro, for now, is leading the polls but nothing can be taken for granted until the votes are counted.

Petro and Márquez know this well, for whom in the final stretch of the campaign several polls predicted defeats or technical draws. But they won. Last night, in her celebration speech, the elected vice president promised reconciliation without fear. «We are not going to betray that electorate», completed Petro. This is what “the nobodies” expect from those who became protagonists of the historic Colombian political turn.

The challenges for the new Colombia

The country that Petro will receive is plagued by poverty, drug trafficking, popular discontent, the systematic murder of social leaders and former guerrillas, and the demand for a greater presence of the State in areas where the armed conflict persists. The new occupant of the Casa de Nariño, seat of the Colombian Government, will have to attend to a variety of urgent matters, among which are the following.

1. The ‘social outbreak’

After decades without massive demonstrations, in 2018, the student movement took to the streets to demand a larger budget for university education. Subsequently, other groups and social sectors joined the protest demanding that the Government address the most urgent and historically forgotten problems.

Although the mobilizations remained intermittent in the following years, in 2021 the so-called ‘social outbreak’ occurred, which was triggered by a failed tax reform and Duque’s «package», in the midst of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. These demonstrations were key to making visible and denouncing the excesses committed by the security forces to contain them.

In several cities, free access to public university education, the creation of a basic monthly income, the strengthening of the public health system, guarantees for the exercise of protest, a police reform and the integral presence of the State where illegal armed groups operate was demanded.

After almost three months of protests, Colombian NGOs –such as the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz) and Temblores– recorded a figure of 80 deaths related to the demonstrations. For its part, the Prosecutor’s Office handled a smaller number of 29 homicides that would be related to the protests.

2. The figures left by Duque

Although Duque leaves Colombia with an economy that grew more than 10.2% in 2021, other worrying indicators, which were the framework of the protests, will be the backdrop for this new mandate.

In 2021, the monetary poverty rate stood at 39.3%, which means that 19.6 million people do not have the means to cover their basic needs. This figure had a decrease of 3.2%, compared to 2020, but the attention of the issue, by the State, continues to be a demand.

According to projections by Banco de la República, the unemployment rate in the country was between 10.5% and 13% in 2022, so job creation will also be a pending issue for Petro.

As for the increase in the prices of goods and services, the panorama does not seem to be more encouraging. In May, annualized inflation fell to 9.07%, after it stood at 9.23% in April, an indicator that had not been so high since the year 2000, when it stood at 9.29%, according to the Administrative Department of National Statistics (DANE).

3. Expansion of armed groups

In the report ‘Bullets (Plomo) is what there is’, by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Pares), it is stated that in the last four years there has been a «strengthening» and «expansion» of the main armed groups in the country: the Clan del Golfo , the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the FARC dissidents. This study showed that there is presence of all of them in 37% of the Colombian territory.

The Clan del Golfo, the main narco-paramilitary organization in the country, suffered a severe blow when its boss, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias ‘Otoniel’, was captured in October 2021 and extradited in May of this year. This action was followed by an «armed strike» that besieged cities in 11 Colombian departments for five days and caused the death of six people, amid criticism of the government for its slow response to the power of the criminal group.

4. Compliance with the Colombian peace agreement

The demand for compliance with what was established by the Government in the peace agreement with the FARC was the «leitmotif» of Duque’s presidency. Different sectors have linked the lack of guarantees on the part of the State and the difficulty of access to justice with the rise in violence and the continuation of the armed conflict in the country.

In a report at the end of March, the UN once again listed the pending issues: the assassination of social leaders and ex-combatants covered by the peace agreement, the increase in violence in rural areas, forced displacement and the need for greater action by the State where the illegal armed groups confronted by territorial control, operate.

In this regard, the Kroc Institute, belonging to the University of Notre Dame (US), had already warned in a report last year that the «rhythm» of the full implementation of the agreement was affected by the conditions of insecurity. According to this institution, from 2019 to 2020 only 2% of progress was made.

The outgoing president has defended the comprehensive approach of «peace with legality», which «maintains a critical vision in order to improve the things that require it». In his opinion, drug trafficking and illegal armed groups are solely responsible for the violence in the country.

5. Assassinations of social leaders and ex-combatants

The constant ‘trickle’ of social leaders and former members of the FARC assassinated during the Duque administration did not stop. In his first year in office, from August 7, 2018 to July 26, 2019, 229 human rights defenders and 55 ex-combatants were killed, according to the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz), the NGO that has kept track of these deaths.

The list has continued to grow. In 2019, 234 social activists and 77 former members of the FARC were murdered, the most violent year for this population reincorporated into civilian life, according to the UN.

From 2019 to the present, 801 community leaders and 183 former guerrillas were killed.

There is no single explanation for these homicides. While the outgoing government attributes the deaths to clashes between drug trafficking groups in illicit crop areas, analysts reiterate the issue of State abandonment of rural areas in different departments.

6. Massacres and displacement

The massacres, a phenomenon that seemed to have disappeared, returned with the pandemic. In 2020, according to Indepaz, there were 91 events of this type; while in 2021 the number rose to 96 and, so far this year, it reaches the figure of 44, with 158 victims. In the last three years, 231 events of this type have been recorded in which a total of 877 people have been murdered.

Duque described these massacres as «collective homicides» and related them to conflicts between criminal organizations. However, other voices point to the struggle for control exercised by the armed groups in the areas abandoned by the FARC, after the signing of the peace agreement.

Regarding internal forced displacement, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) collected, in a report, that at least 73,974 people were forced to leave their territories, which implies 181% more than in 2020.

Similarly, according to two reports by the Internal Displacement Observatory and the Norwegian Center for Refugees (CNR), Colombia was the third country in the world with the highest number of internally displaced persons during 2021, behind Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

7. Security and Public Force

The issue of security in Colombia received wide international visibility during the anti-government protests.

Faced with the complaints of «excessive use of force», the official position referred to actions by the security forces against «groups of hooligans» with «destabilizing plans», while organizations such as the UN spoke of violation of human rights.

The Mobile Anti-riot Squad (ESMAD) has been in the public eye due to the complaints against it for «excessive use of force» during the protests. Indepaz registered the death of 80 people in the mobilizations of 2021.

The pending debt, according to some sectors, is the elimination of this police force, which has already been transformed and modernized by the Government, without generating structural changes.

8. Scandals in the Armed Forces

The Armed Forces were also involved in several scandals. One of them forced the departure of the Minister of Defense, Guillermo Botero, after a bombiing against armed groups where at least seven minors died in November 2019. 

The current holder of that portfolio, Diego Molano, faced three motions of censure, of which he came out successful, one of them for the death of 11 civilians during a military operation in the department of Putumayo.

In addition to these facts, in 2019 a New York Times investigation revealed that the high command of the Colombian Army promised to increase operations and double the number of criminals and rebels killed, captured and forced to surrender, regardless of whether the civilians casualties increased. The then general commander of that military component, Nicacio Martínez, was dismissed because of this complaint.

Later, in 2020, the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into Martínez for his alleged relationship with a series of illegal interceptions and wiretaps of some 130 people, including journalists, human rights defenders and members of the Government.

9. Cultivations and production of cocaine in Colombia

Although the area of coca cultivation has decreased in Colombia, the production of cocaine continues to increase, according to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). For its part, the White House handles other numbers.

Of the 154,000 hectares planted in 2019, it went to 143,000 in 2020, which implies a decrease of 7%, while in 2018 the extension was 169,000 hectares. 70% of the crop is concentrated in the departments of Norte de Santander, Nariño, Putumayo and Cauca.

As for the production of the illicit substance, the amount was 1,228 metric tons in 2020, which shows an increase of 8%, compared to 1,136 tons in 2019.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has another record and states that in 2020 coca crops in Colombia reached the highest level and were located at 245,000 hectares, an increase of 15% compared to 2019, which would have been 212,000 hectares.

10. Drug trafficking

Duque maintains that his anti-drug policy is «totally aligned» with the «new strategy» of the US, which called for the reinforcement of the preventive State presence in rural areas and the peace agreements areas. This demand, which is the same as that of human rights defense organizations, did not seem to antagonize his government on this occasion.

This change in the US approach was preceded by the report, in 2020, of a House of Representatives commission that cataloged the ‘Plan Colombia’, signed by the South American country and the US government in 2000, as «a failure» in the control of drug production and trafficking. In that period, Washington would have spent some 11.6 billion dollars.

Already in 2019, then-president Donald Trump pointed to Duque’s management and blamed him for the increase in the amount of drugs reaching the US. Given this criticism, the then-deceased Colombianforeign minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, excused himself saying that he had received a «cursed inheritance».

11. Relationship with Venezuela

At this point there is no doubt that the new president will have to unlock the game. Diplomatic relations with Venezuela deteriorated to the point of being broken in 2019, when Bogotá supported the self-proclamation of former Venezuelan deputy Juan Guaidó and the Colombian president received him in Cúcuta, to accompany him in his failed attempt to enter supposed «humanitarian aid» into neighboring territory.

Caracas puts the Casa de Nariño as the epicenter of the violent plans, to which other countries in the region would have joined, to remove Nicolás Maduro from power. For its part, Bogotá, the promoter of the so-called «diplomatic siege» against the Venezuelan president, points to Miraflores as hosting members of Colombian armed groups who would develop destabilizing plans to harm Duque.

In the middle of that dispute are the migrants from Venezuela. The Migration authority from Colombia maintains that there are almost two million Venezuelan citizens, while Caracas questions these figures although it does not offer others.

Duque’s management had the migratory issue as its flag and for this reason he asked other countries to allocate resources to attend to the supposed «humanitarian crisis» that had been generated. The authorities of the neighboring nation accused the Colombian president of appropriating the funds intended for the care of Venezuelan migrants and asserted that these actions were part of an international campaign against Venezuela.


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