A broad swath of leftist leaders from around the world warned in a letter Wednesday that “a soft coup” is underway in Colombia, accusing the country’s opposition of illegally working to remove President Gustavo Petro and many of his key allies from power.
The letter is signed by the former Colombian President Ernesto Samper; Gleisi Hoffmann, head of the Workers’ Party, the current ruling party of Brazil under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; Rafael Correa, the former president of Ecuador; former Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero; and the former heads of opposition parties around the world, including Jeremy Corbyn of the United Kingdom and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former French presidential candidate.
“Ever since the election of the country’s first progressive government,” the letter reads, “Colombia’s traditional powers have been organizing to restore an order marked by extreme inequality, environmental destruction, and state-sponsored violence.” The letter comes in defense of a Petro administration facing a cascading series of struggles.
Petro, a former guerilla, swept to power in June 2022 pledging peace deals with the country’s remaining rebels, along with a robust domestic policy agenda. But he lacked a majority in Congress and created a coalition with rival parties that included ceding control of some ministries. His health care reform effort was shot down by Congress, and the peace deals remain elusive. His top aides recently resigned after getting caught up in a bizarre scandal in which state resources were used to surveil a nanny they suspected of having stolen money. The scandal deepened with the release this weekend of audio of the top aides bickering and threatening to release damaging information related to Petro’s campaign.
Petro said that he has nothing to fear from the ongoing investigations, though the group of progressive leaders is less sanguine about the politics. “[T]hey are deploying the combined institutional power of the country’s regulatory agencies, media conglomerates, and judiciary branch to halt its reforms, intimidate its supporters, topple its leadership, and defame its image on the international stage,” the group of more than 400 international progressives warns.
In January, nine members of Congress, led by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., penned a letter to Francisco Palmieri, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, expressing concern about the security of Vice President Francia Márquez. Explosives had recently been discovered near her home. The letter was also signed by Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.; Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.; Jim McGovern, D-Mass.; Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.; Mark Pocan, D-Wis.; Cori Bush, D-Mo.; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
The Wednesday letter took particular aim at the opposition’s use of the offices of inspector general and attorney to target Petro and his allies. Those investigations could lead to the expulsion of party members from Parliament or even the removal of Petro, the letter warned, adding that “established legal precedent at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights” insists that administrative bodies lack such power. One senator, Wilson Arias, for instance, is being investigated for “slandering” the police as a result of critical comments he made about them in 2021.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a Colombia human rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that many of the investigations appeared to be an abuse of power. “The Attorney General is abusing his power to undermine the Petro government’s policies,” she told The Intercept. “The motivations of the Inspector General to open up cases against members of the Historic Pact are questionable.”
The scandal involving Petro’s top aides, she said, has been overblown by the media but did raise questions about why he allowed Armando Benedetti, one of the top aides who recently resigned, to run his campaign.
“The reaction of the opposition and media outlets in relation to the scandal involving Benedetti and [Laura] Sanabria is overblown,” she said. “It appears they were waiting for a reason to push forward a campaign to discredit the Petro government. At the same time, Benedetti has a problematic history, and it is hard to understand why Petro would have him run his presidential campaign.”
The full letter:
Ever since the election of the country’s first progressive government — led by President Gustavo Petro, Vice President Francia Márquez and the Historic Pact in Congress — Colombia’s traditional powers have been organizing to restore an order marked by extreme inequality, environmental destruction, and state-sponsored violence.
Now, less than one year from the inauguration of the Petro government, they are deploying the combined institutional power of the country’s regulatory agencies, media conglomerates, and judiciary branch to halt its reforms, intimidate its supporters, topple its leadership, and defame its image on the international stage.
From the Offices of the Inspector General and the Attorney General respectively, Margarita Cabello and Francisco Barbosa are actively targeting members of the Historic Pact with investigations that may result in the suspension, dismissal and disqualification of members of Congress such as Senator Alex Flórez, Senator Alexander López, House President David Racero, Representative Susana Gómez, lead peace negotiator María José Pizarro — and even President Petro himself.
In the case of Senator Wilson Arias, for example, Cabello — a close ally of former President Álvaro Uribe who served as Justice Minister under the previous administration of Iván Duque — has filed charges for suspension from the Senate for the “crime” of speaking out against police violence during the 2021 national protests: a flagrant violation of the established legal precedent at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that prevents administrative bodies like the Office of the Inspector General from removing elected officials from office.
Meanwhile, former generals, colonels, and members of the Colombian military have not only proclaimed their opposition to President Gustavo Petro — but even marched outside Congress to call for a coup d’etat against his government.
The goal of this coordinated campaign is clear: to protect the interests of Colombia’s traditional powers from popular reforms that would raise wages, improve healthcare, protect the environment, and deliver ‘total peace’ to the country.
We, the undersigned, call on friends of the Colombian people and allies of democracy everywhere to stand up against these insidious tactics and prevent the advance of a soft coup in Colombia.