The Colombian Left Comes to Power

Gustavo Petro of the Humane Colombia party is set to become the country’s first leftist leader.

Newly elected Colombian President Gustavo Petro (L) and his running mate Francia Marquez celebrate at the Movistar Arena in Bogota, on June 19, 2022 after winning the presidential runoff election on June 19, 2022.
Elected Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Vice President-Elect Francia Márquez in Bogota, on June 19, 2022. Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images)

After this week’s runoff elections in Colombia, former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro is set to become the South American country’s first leftist president. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America, joins Ryan Grim to discuss what Petro’s election means and how it happened.

[Deconstructed theme music.]

Ryan Grim: After runoff elections in Colombia this week, the South American country has a new president.

Gustavo Petro: [Cheers and applause in the background.] Me llamo Gustavo Petro y soy su presidente!

RG: Gustavo Petro had been a member of the guerilla group called the 19th of April Movement as a teenager and well into his 20s. His running mate, Francia Márquez, the first afro-latina to become vice president, has spent her adult life battling against extractive industries in rural Colombia. More recently, Petro served as mayor of Colombia’s capital of Bogotá.

Petro, in the runoff, faced the Trump-like Rodolfo Hernández, dubbed the “TikTok King” who had the full support of the Colombian right. With Petro’s upset, he becomes the first left-wing president ever elected in Colombia’s history. It’s a country where the left has traditionally been identified with guerilla groups like the FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — but a peace deal signed in 2016 created hope that Colombia could move past its decades-long civil war and channel that ideological conflict into electoral politics, transferring power peacefully instead.

In the final days of the election, the U.S. government made it abundantly clear they were strongly opposed to Petro, but Colombian voters shrugged us gringos off and elected him anyway.

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli is the Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America, known as WOLA, where she is the leading Colombia human rights advocate. She was on the ground in Colombia to observe the recent elections and joins us from there now to discuss.

Gimena, welcome to Deconstructed.

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: Thank you for having me.

RG: So first of all, can you talk a little bit about election day itself? You were down there in Colombia. We were just talking earlier, you were down there observing some of the elections. What is an election like in Colombia? And what was the aftermath?

GSG: Well, at the beginning of Election Day, really, there was no sense of what could happen. On the one hand, it could have turned into a situation of complete chaos and social protests, or a huge celebration. I think there was tremendous tension and expectation. The second candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, was a huge surprise after the first round. And so it was very unclear what could happen.

And so the actual day of the elections went incredibly smooth. And then around 4:30, as soon as it was clear that Gustavo Petro was going to win, it just erupted into a massive party and carnival: people pouring out into the streets, screaming, dancing, crying, celebrating. It was just unbelievable. And that went on all night, until the next day.

RG: And what kind of people were pouring into the streets? What is the Petro/Francia Márquez coalition?

GSG: Well, here in Cali, it was ordinary people. So you had many different people who had been part of the social protests that happened in 2021, that were brutally repressed. So a lot of young people of all walks of life, Black, Indigenous, Mestizo, you had elderly people. You basically had the Colombia that you normally don’t see all pouring out into the streets. And what I mean [by] the one that you don’t see is that Colombia has been basically ruled for years by traditional political parties that are very distanced from the general population. And usually when you have an election, I’ve been here for other elections before, it’s something that’s just announced on TV, and there isn’t that much excitement. And you’ve never seen something where there’s such a popular mandate, where there’s such fervor and excitement. And you see people of all walks of life. I mean, you’ve had here in Cali, Indigenous Nasa dancing, along with Afro-Colombians, with young women. I mean, you had everyone, basically, in a total uproar.

RG: And to set the context for what you were talking about, can we go back to 1948 real quickly? And can you talk a little bit about how the assassination of Jorge Gaitán kind of set the stage for the next 70 years of Colombian politics?

GSG: Sure.

So Jorge Gaitán was basically the first real expression of a progressive leader in Colombia that was gaining much force, and he was assassinated. And as soon as he was assassinated, that brought in what is known as the Bogotazo, which is basically people of the different ideological strains killing each other and attacking each other, and that delved into what was the modern civil war that we had here between the Revolutionary Force of Colombia and the government that didn’t end officially until 2016.

It also ushered in eras of multiple different leftist guerrilla movements, an incredible amount of violence, a repression and use of paramilitary groups that committed crimes against humanity. And so there was a sense that after everything that happened in the past two years with the pandemic, with the hope of the peace accord being dashed by Iván Duque being president and doing his utmost to completely undermine the peace, and him also completely repressing the popular demands and needs that were expressed in the civic strike of last year, that if in this situation, there was some kind of fraud, or some kind of wrongdoing, where plan B, for the right, which was Rodolfo Hernández, this outsider candidate that came out of nowhere, one that would very likely devolve into people turning to violence on Sunday, and that didn’t happen. So that was pretty amazing.

RG: And so how does Gustavo Petro fit into this history? And what is M-19? And what’s their relationship to the FARC and to the other armed leftist movements?

GSG: So the M-19 was mostly an urban, intellectual guerrilla movement in the late 80s that pretty much wanted to have a government in a way of life that took into account the majority of the country in Colombia — things are incredibly unequal, resources are not well-distributed, land is very much concentrated into a few families. And the way that power has been kept by a lot of those families has been through using violence and coercion, and also very much exploiting a labor class, and getting the gains of the country and keeping it to themselves.

And so the M-19, among multiple groups that have developed in Colombia, but especially the M-19, had a vision of changing that. And when they demobilized, they brought in, basically, what was a constitutional assembly that led to the most progressive constitution Colombia has ever had in 1991. And this constitution is great in the sense that there’s a constitutional court, individuals can say that certain rights haven’t been met, and actually ask for the Constitutional Court to intervene. It’s the first time that Afro-Colombian, Indigenous people were really recognized as part of the country, so it made the country pluriethnic; it led to the passage of laws that grant Afro-Indigenous people collective land rights, things like that.

So here you have this incredible hope of this constitution. But unfortunately, little of it has really been applied in the past 30 years. And so Gustavo Petro, comes from that movement —

RG: Mhmm.

GSG: — that very progressive point of view of a state that really works for people. And that’s very much reflected in what he’s proposing to do in terms of his governmental plan.

RG: And you often hear him described as a former rebel and/or a former guerilla. What exactly do we know about what he did with M-19?

GSG: So it’s important to understand that in Colombia, there are a lot of former rebels or former people who demobilized and went into government. For example, there were multiple former rebels that ended up working in the Alvaro Uribe Velez — very right-wing, nearly fascist — government. And there are different types of rebels in Colombia.

Of all of the different rebel groups in the history of Colombia, the M-19, was probably one of the least violent — although it did commit mistakes, and is very much criticized for taking over the Palace of Justice that led to the military coming in, and basically, the disappearance of most of the judges. That was a tragic event. But generally speaking, compared to the other guerrilla groups that have committed mass human rights violations, like the FARC, that kidnapped thousands of people, committed all sorts of massacres, this was one of the least violent guerrillas. Most of its actions were symbolic. And the role that he played was very much one more of a political one, not an armed fighter, going out and setting off bombs and things like that. So it’s important to understand that there are different types of guerrillas in Colombia. You can’t lump them in all together.

RG: How do the narcos fit into the politics as they unfolded over the ’80s and ’90s? And what has Petro’s posture been toward them? And I’ve heard him saying that he’s planning on taking them on. What does that mean? What does that look like?

GSG: So you can’t divorce Colombian economy, or Colombian life, from narco trafficking since the mid-1980s, when you had the whole proliferation of the cocaine trade. And most of the country is basically corrupted by the narco trade. You don’t have the high-level of exploitation of cocaine the way that you do without most of the country in some way either being bought off, or involved, or complicit in that drug trade. And by that, I mean the institutions, and I mean members of the armed forces.

That said, all of the armed groups have also benefited from narco trafficking. So after the world started changing, and the Soviet Union collapsed, and Cuba was no longer financing guerrilla operations, a lot of the leftist groups started relying on narco-trafficking coca and taxation of that whole process to survive. At the same time, the right wing paramilitaries, which, at one point, were a federation of paramilitaries, and now you have about 13 different successor groups of those paramilitaries, are all making money off of the drug trade. It’s one of the many illicit activities that they make money.

So in the 1980s, you had the fight of different cartels that were trying to dominate Colombia. It was at the time of Pablo Escobar, the Cali, and all of that. Since then, the cartels have really formed into smaller entities and fluctuated and not had that high-profile that you had at that time. But it’s still very existent. And it is something that you can’t divorce.

So the way that they’ve addressed narco trafficking since the year 2000, has been through this notion, heavily funded by the United States, that started as Plan Colombia with this idea that is completely ridiculous, which is, if you attack the coca, you’re going to have so little coca produced, that it’s going to make cocaine so expensive, that people outside are not going to buy it.

RG: It’s so dumb. It’s almost laughable.

GSG: Yeah. But that’s the official position.

So the way that narco traffickers have been attacked for years have been either by attacking the coca plant, which means mostly rural farmers, which are the lowest level in this operation, and a high level interdiction of top assets, and many of them extradited to the United States.

This has not worked in any way, shape, or form. Because the drug trade is so incredibly lucrative, that you take out one hand and you have like 10 different middle people who are willing to take that on.

RG: And it’s self-defeating.

GSG: It is.

RG: If their goal is to raise the price of it, then they make it more attractive for other people to get in. So like on its own terms, it just falls apart. [Laughs.]

GSG: The whole thing makes no sense. And then it also has had another part, which has been incredibly environmentally destructive and bad to health, which has been aerially fumigating crops with what is pretty much the equivalent of Roundup mixed with other things, which all it did was spread the coca throughout the entire country. So coca was very concentrated in certain parts of the country, and as aerial fumigation started taking place, the growers started spreading it into smaller plots, and now you have coca grown all over the country. Yeah, there’s some areas where it’s more concentrated. But the point is that this policy and so forth hasn’t worked.

So what Gustavo Petro has proposed is to have a much more integral holistic policy that looks at two things First, implementing what was agreed to in the peace accord on illicit coca crops. And that’s completely focused on building markets for those rural farmers. Now, to build markets for those rural farmers, it’s not just giving them another job, which is something that is hard to compete in areas where you’ve had high insecurity, war zones, and lack of any infrastructure — roads and what have you. So, you know, that sounds easier said than done, but it basically is building the state in multiple parts of the country where the institutions have really abandoned those populations. Hence, illicit crops have become the way for people to survive.

Secondly, that part of the peace accord led to a whole bunch of agreements with a lot of these rural farmers on how to do that. And the Duque administration basically did nothing to advance this. And so, Gustavo Petro is going to take that on again.

And then, at the same time, other parts of the peace accord involve narco traffickers, which is basically all different sorts of efforts to dismantle these illegal groups that all feed off of narco traffickers. In the case of more paramilitary groups, he’s talked about giving them the opportunity to have incentives to basically demobilize, to turn themselves in, which is something that has been hotly opposed by the right and many others but, in the context of Colombia, actually makes sense, and it’s probably a good way.

And then, lastly, looking at the drug policy issue in its full force: What [are] the markets that are causing this? Working to have a harm-reduction approach within the country for the micro-trafficking of drugs and the harmful impacts it has for people who are addicted, and so forth. Basically, taking away this criminalization of a lot of the softer parts of the drug trade and focusing really on the bigger, more macro, fundamental issues. So this would be radically different than what you’ve had now, especially under Duque, which has been the ongoing, hardline military security approach to addressing this, which creates its own human rights abuses and, in the end, it’s just a cycle. You rob somebody or whatever, and then the next day you have two more.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: Here in the United States, speaking of the consuming countries, when his victory was announced, a lot of people around here were joking: Wow the CIA is really asleep at the switch here. Like, how did they let this happen?

GSG: [Laughs.] Yeah.

RG: What has been the U.S. posture toward Petro? And how nervous should people be that there’s going to be attempts by American authorities to kind of undermine his regime — I’m not talking about assassinations, hopefully that’s in the past — but is there going to be cooperation? Or is this going to be something where the U.S. says: Well, what we need to do is just make this economy scream, have the right-wing legislature block him, and then we’ll get back in the saddle next time?

GSG: So, prior to him being elected, there was tremendous distance with the Petro and Francia Márquez campaign. Francia Márquez came to D.C. not too long ago, and nobody met with her from the State Department, for example. A high-level State Department delegation went to Colombia a couple months back, they met with all of the presidential candidates but Petro. And so I think there was tremendous cause for concern for them, because this is the first time in history that you have a government that isn’t right-wing, or that isn’t a given that is going to do exactly what the United States wants. And the United States really has very few allies in the region. Aside from Brazil, now, Colombia is the number one ally on everything. And the United States relies on Colombia for the anti-narcotics issues, it’s one major commercial trading partner. And, at the same time, Colombia has built itself in the prior governments as being the friend that you need to contain and basically lead to regime change in Venezuela.

At the same time, Colombia houses more than 2 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees, and most of the countries in the region are not accepting of the Venezuelans. And the U.S., given its sanctions, given its efforts to pressure Venezuela, basically needs to have a country that can receive the Venezuelans. And so, there are many questions.

Another one is economic: Petro has talked about changing the focus of the economy in Colombia. It was highly reliant on extractive industry and on that way of building wealth, which is one of the root causes of inequality in this country. And you see a situation where there are fears, for some investors, of what that’s gonna mean, because the free-trade agreement, for example, is all focused on mining, and that kind of thing.

So I think that there’s been tremendous fear. But, to my surprise, at least, the reaction was after the wind that Secretary of State Blinken called and then Biden called very shortly after saying they would continue to work together in terms of mutual interests. This contrasts greatly from when Duque won. At that time, the Democrats were really mad because the governing party, the democratic center had intervened in U.S. congressional elections in southern Florida, and had also been very, very much pro-Trump very explicitly. So I think that I was surprised by the initial outreach. And I think part of that was really to sort of calm the nerves of investors and others, and send the message that the U.S. is going to figure out a way to work with Gustavo Petro. But the relationship is not going to be, I think, the same as prior relationships that you’ve had, where very much those governments have wanted to please and do exactly what the U.S. wants.

RG: How much can he do? Like, what kind of mandate does he have?

GSG: OK, so: Governance is going to be not easy for him.

First, the [INDISTINCT WORD] was a coalition. At the same time, the traditional parties are very much in the Congress. And in Colombia, you need to pass legislation through the Congress to make a lot of the radical changes that he wants to make. So he’s going to have to build coalitions with groups and peoples that he normally doesn’t.

At the same time, and this was part of his speech, he talked a lot about trying to unify. Colombia is incredibly polarized. And there’s a very strong right that has consolidated that basically has decided that they’re going to make his life miserable, or they tried everything for him not to get elected, including mass disinformation campaigns, and fear-mongering, and what have you, and threatening to leave the country. I mean, already, you have the Colombian ambassador to the U.S. resigning within five minutes to make a big point that the country’s going to hell, and he’s resigning. So you’re going to have a lot of dramatic political theater and efforts to block his situation, and he’s going to have to figure out a way to bring the country together — at least on certain issues, if he wants to advance a lot of those issues.

The question is: How are the violent people here going to react, especially on the right? If we see changes in the economy that they don’t like, or what have you, are they going to paralyze parts of the country?

Prior to the elections, for example, one of these illegal groups, basically paralyzed the equivalent of 11 states. So they still have a lot of power. And so we’ll have to see how that turns out.

At the same time, he said that he’s going to reach out to the secondary guerrilla group, the ELN and, like I said earlier, offer incentives for some of these groups to submit themselves to justice. And so we’ll have to see how that goes.

The military in Colombia, the way it’s presented in the international press, is that the military is incredibly concerned, that they’re very anti-Petro. And yes, the commander of the army is, and he actually made many statements during the campaign, something that you’re not supposed to do by the Constitution in Colombia. But if you’re around the rest of the military that’s not the cúpula, that’s not the head, they’re actually very much in favor of Petro. For the first time, you’ve seen veterans who have all campaigned for Petro. And why are they doing that? Because the armed forces in Colombia have suffered multiple corruption scandals. And there are many issues in the armed forces that they’re hoping that Petro can help address.

One of them is supporting the soldiers that have confessed to extrajudicial killings, and that want the truth to come out through the transitional justice system about how they were ordered to do this, why this practice that led to the extrajudicial killing of more than 6,000 or more innocent people, where people were selected to be then killed and then dressed as guerrilla killed in combat, because there was so much pressure to show results through body counts. So basically, each battalion had to report how many people they killed. They want all of that exposed, because they want that to change. And so I think that there may be some opposition from some of the higher command or what have you, but in general, there is great support for him from the majority of the folks in the armed forces.

RG: And I know you’ve got to run in a second, but I wanted to get your rundown on two other obviously very important people in this election. I think the listeners would love to hear about both of them, both Francia Márquez and Rodolfo Hernández. Let’s start with Rodolfo: Utterly fascinating figure, but might be a new archetype for our time, like a very kind of Trumpy-like figure; the election itself kind of feels like of our time, like the shadow of leftist movements on one side and some populist energy combining together into this weird “TikTok King” on the other side. And how would you even describe him politically?

GSG: I would describe him as an opportunist, who basically is a magnate, somebody with money, who’s been able to have a voice in politics because he managed to manipulate social media very well. But more than that, he managed to read a country where people are completely disgusted by the traditional politics, that they have felt that none of that has really met their needs, and then a sector of the population that is tired of polarization, and who saw Petro as part of that polarization, and so they just wanted to vote for anybody who wasn’t part of that. And it was, more than anything, a protest vote against the traditional parties.

That said, his so-called campaign was against corruption, which is completely ironic, because he’s facing all these charges of corruption.

RG: Right. Again, the parallels to our own politics here in the U.S. are just unreal.

GSG: Yeah.

And then, his way of being was incredibly brash: attacking journalists, attacking women, saying whatever he feels at the moment. There were no real policy prescriptions behind many of the things he said, or he would contradict himself. But I think the reason that he rose to fame was first because Colombians who were more towards the right, also were completely sick and tired of the typical right. Duque is leaving with a very high level of unpopularity. And that unpopularity is not just from people from the left; I think from the right, there was a lot of dislike of Duque because they felt that he didn’t handle things properly, and what have you. And so I think that those people who didn’t want to vote for Petro, because they feel like that was too much for them, in terms of towards the left, really kind of rallied around this guy.

But, also, I think what made him popular was the fact that he didn’t follow any of the rules: He didn’t want to debate, he accepted the fact that he was the second candidate from his kitchen counter, he immediately left the country and was in Miami, basically. And so I think that it was, for me, an expression of: We’re just tired of things as usual, so we’ll just go with whatever, even though it’s a wild card, and we don’t know exactly what he will do. But he’s a common guy that we like.

And I think that that was very, very problematic, and very scary, because you don’t know what you’re gonna get. At the same time, the right, when they saw that their candidate had no chance of winning, they saw him as their plan B. And so immediately, they all started rallying behind him, and, you know, making him out to be this hero and all these things, because they felt that they could somehow preserve their interests through him.

RG: And it looked like he had it in the bag after the runoff.

GSG: Mhmm. Mhmm.

RG: Because, like you said, instantly, the entire right gets behind him. And polls had him up, say, what? 58-42 or something —

GSG: Mhmm.

RG: — the day after making the runoff. Why did he collapse?

GSG: Well, two things there. One, I think that a lot of the way that he was presented as doing so well, is partly because the mainstream media is mostly financed by business interests, and by the right. And so I think that there was a bit of an exaggeration of how well he was doing and so forth.

And then the polls in Colombia, they tend to be very focused on certain sectors. And so I’m not sure that’s completely how it really was, even though that was what was presented. But there was definitely this rallying behind him as the option because the right was so concerned.

In any event, the elections proved that he wasn’t. And so we’ll have to see what role he plays now that he’s going to be in the Congress. He doesn’t have a coalition.

RG: Mhmm.

GSG: I think there may be two or three other representatives [laughs] from his coalition, so he’s not going to have a lot of power. But given his way of acting, and so forth, he’s probably going to be quite a character in politics.

RG: And Francia Márquez, the first Afro-Latina to be elected, either president or vice president. Who is she?

GSG: Well, full disclosure, we’ve worked with Francia Márquez since 2005. She’s a prominent Afro-Colombian social leader from the region of Cauca, which is an ethnically diverse area, mostly Indigenous and Afro-Colombian. Afro-Colombians have been there since the time of slavery, and basically have survived there living off of agriculture and some of the gold mines in artisanal mining. So she comes from actually being a miner in those areas.

She became a figure, at least a social leader, when, in these territories, illegal gold interests through third parties tried to evict her entire community. So basically, in lots of the parts of the country, Afro-Colombians were granted collective land rights, which allowed them to basically stop outside interests from taking over their natural resources. In the case of northern Cauca, that promise never happened. And so, judicially, outsiders were able to claim that part of those lands where they don’t live or even have a presence is theirs. And she fought that. She fought that by organizing her community against that encroachment, also a large hydroelectric dam that has been incredibly damaging in this whole area.

And after that, she organized the women of northern Cauca to mobilize to Bogotá, to try and raise awareness of the fact that there’s tremendous insecurity in the region that she was from. So the areas of Cauca that we’re talking about are part of this corridor, this narco corridor. There, you have the presence of multiple illegal armed groups, and especially from the right, but you also have them from the left. And the civilian population is kind of stuck between all of them. And so she’s been a major force in organizing people against these groups, which is why she was displaced and why she’s had so many death threats and attacks.

She then ran for Congress, where she got a tremendous amount of votes and support. And then through the latest campaign where she was running for president, she became a national figure. And I think what’s made her particularly attractive to people, not just the rural, Afro and Indigenous people, but broader people in the country is that she represented like a feminist campaign, and that she would represent the interests of women; at the same time, “the nobodies,” which are basically the people who don’t traditionally get any attention paid to them in Colombia. But more than that, her style of being very direct and saying things as they are captured the sentiment of lots of different people in the country.

And that’s what made her so popular. Frankly, Petro would not have won if she hadn’t been his candidate. And if you look at the whole Pacific region, Francia was the reason why he won.

RG: Wow. Well, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, thank you so much for joining us this morning. Really appreciate it.

GSG: Thank you. Have a great day.

RG: You too.

[End credits music.]

RG: That was Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

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