Projet Accompagnement Solidarité Colombie

Colombia, reflections on the new left-wing government

14 March 2023

On June 19 2022, for the first time ever, a president considered to be leftist, won the presidential elections in Colombia. Gustavo Petro (a former guerrilla member of the M19 from the 1980s) was elected president and Francia Márquez (a popular Afro grassroots activist) was elected vice-president. In a country historically dominated by a hard right wing government (linked to drug trafficking, large landholdings and extractive capital), this electoral victory seems like a breath of fresh air and creates great expectations.


This government is after all a mix of various political tendencies. In order to be elected, it had to form an alliance with the Liberal Party (a right-wing party linked to ex-president Santos 2010-2018, representing the traditional oligarchy).


The most important ministries - Interior and Finance - are in the hands of people Santos trusts, who are liberals with a certain social sensitivity. The rest of the cabinet is far from concentrating the most left-wing forces; if the position of Minister of the Environment has been given to a doctoral student close to social movements, and Minister of Culture to a committed artist, there are politicians known to be apostles of neoliberalism. On the other hand, as President Petro has stated, the inertia of a state apparatus that hinders progressive reforms and the will for change must be confronted to contracts signed before the elections . For example, the Minister of Mines must respect contracts signed for decades with multinationals, protected by free trade agreements. According to people close to the ministry, it will be almost impossible to do more than pacify territorial conflicts during this mandate. Moreover, for many, the objective is to be re-elected in 4 years, in order to be able to make progress.


As a reminder, in Colombia, 39% of the population lives in poverty, 12% in extreme poverty and 81% of the land is owned by 1% of the population (Oxfam, 2017). The country gives everything to extractivist policies and mono-cultures that expel peasants from their lands. In terms of repression, on average, three activists are murdered by paramilitaries every week, and many others are imprisoned. For the moment, the presence of the new government has not slowed down the assassinations of activists nor broken the links between the public force and the paramilitaries.


What is the role of the popular movement? To wait wisely, or to engage in a dynamic of struggle? First, there is the fear of "playing into the hands of the right". Then there is the fact that, in general, social movements see this government as an opportunity to make significant gains in housing, health, access to land, etc. Also, many activists have been co-opted into positions related to ministries, which has incapacitated some organisations. This is why mobilizations are weakening and criticism is being silenced. Of course, there are groups that are suspicious of the government's options, that have learned the lessons of the progressive government cycle that Latin America has experienced, and that believe that only the struggle will bring about change. The self-righteous left takes advantage of this to try to isolate them as the extremists who will bring the right back to power. But the local struggles continue despite the paramilitary attacks.


On the less organized side, the population, which mobilized in the great strike of 2021, believes that it is "their" government that was elected. The presence of Francia Marquez as vice-president reinforces this feeling, and there are many expectations. Those in the know, know that Petro has to deal with hostile officials and an assembly in which he does not have a majority, but he is still expected to arbitrate fairly on local conflicts against regional sponsors.


government and social movement a creative tension


There is great tension regarding land recuperation (taking back unused/used land from large landowners or companies to settle in communities and cultivate). This fall, Francia Márquez, along with the Ministers of Defense and Agriculture, and Giovanni Yule, an indigenous leader in charge of the National Land Agency, issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the "land invaders". It was a call for respect for private property and the imminent announcement of a police intervention. The intervention was not long in coming: the riot police were on the occupied land the very next day. It should be noted that Marquez and Yule, before being in government, supported the land takeovers.


The government is thus putting pressure on the most radical groups, reassuring the landowners and imposing its strategy of buying back land from the large landowners to distribute it to small farmers. For many people, this buyout is a scandal because these lands were monopolized through paramilitarism. Moreover, the proposed plan only compensates for what should have been recovered in order to respect the peace agreements with the FARC and does not go any further.


Despite this government intervention, some occupiers in other regions still hope that the government will intervene on their behalf. This is not easy, because on the one hand it would mean that the government would enter into conflict with people of great power in a region, and on the other hand local power has priority in terms of police intervention. This shows how difficult it is to understand what the government can or will do.


Moreover, the demands of peasant organizations, such as the Coordinador Nacional Agrario (CNA), have always invoked a project of agrarian reform that would make it possible to establish food self-sufficiency at the national level. This would respond to a number of fundamental issues in the country: an equitable distribution of land and production according to an agro-ecological development plan, the containment of political violence orchestrated by extreme right-wing groups and, finally, the construction of a self-centered economic model that will bypass the international market. However, the first statements of the Minister of Agriculture suggest a typical modernization project, i.e. an industrialization of the rural world entrusted to entrepreneurs. This model is only marginally suited to the expectations of the peasants, who certainly hope for investments or gains in machinery, but above all want to develop the countryside from their existing organizational structure.


Similarly, the fight against extractivism is divided. The government wants to propose laws to regulate extractivism, the de-carbonization of the economy, to move towards an energy transition. But, on the one hand, it cannot cancel the current contracts. It would therefore be surprising if this were to pass and, beyond that, without spitting on the proposed limitation of extractivism, some social movements question the model itself and do not want green capitalism, nor what the energy transition conveys. Their struggle against extractivism is carried out through the construction of "popular power". For example, in Arauca, where there is heavy oil exploitation, the social movement, in spite of assassinations and prison sentences, has recovered land (some of it belonging to oil companies) for food production, manages the water network of several towns, developed transportation cooperatives, community radio, builds schools and manages the arrival of teachers, has substituted coca for food production, etc... There is a "life plan" that goes beyond the search for a "good extractivist policy". In the last year, paramilitary attacks have resumed. This time by a group calling itself a dissident of the Farc ( manipulation proven by the prosecutor’s office files). This is a territorial struggle, but also a struggle against the construction of grassroots popular powers that the state does not like. It will be interesting to see how the new government acts in this particular case1.


The armed conflict continues, with the ELN as the main active guerrilla group. The peace talks with the previous government were not successful, but Petro would like to bring them to a successful conclusion this time. Negotiations with this guerrilla group are different from those with the FARC, since the ELN wants civil society to take part in the negotiations. There is also a strong distrust of the agreements signed with the Colombian state, as it has still not implemented those signed with FARC in 2016. And then, what if Petro is not re-elected in 4 years?

To put an end to the conflict, the government is proposing a "Total Peace" plan which would involve the ELN, the new FARC (segunda Marquetalia) but also other armed actors, rather paramilitary, linked to various forms of trafficking, including dissidents from the FARC. For some, this proposal for a "total peace" risks not respecting the historical demands of the social movement, by mixing the actors and not recognizing the political character of the conflict.


After a 10-year cycle of strong social mobilizations, one wonders if the presence of a left-wing government will weaken or strengthen the social movement. What is certain is that this government is not revolutionary, that its hands are not very free and that there is a strong chance that little will change. One of the fears is that the population that has dreamed of change will stop mobilizing and return to voting for the extreme right.