A Historic Win for the Left in Colombia

Progressive International’s David Adler discusses Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez’s breakthrough victory, and Latin America’s wider shift.

David Klion
June 23, 2022

Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez celebrate victory in Bogotá, Colombia, June 19th, 2022

Robert Bonet/NurPhoto via AP

It may be a bleak time for the left in the United States, but the picture is a bit brighter elsewhere in the hemisphere. Over the weekend, Gustavo Petro defeated Rodolfo Hernández in the decisive second round of Colombia’s presidential elections—receiving 50% of the vote to Hernández’s 47%—paving the way to become the first left-wing president in Colombia’s history. Petro’s victory, running on a platform of expanded social programs, a shift away from fossil fuels, and rapprochement with neighboring Venezuela, comes on the heels of leftist Gabriel Boric’s win in Chile last December, among numerous other examples of Latin America’s so-called “Pink Tide.”

Petro’s incoming presidency carries significant implications for the whole region, including the US. For this week’s newsletter (subscribe here), I called up David Adler, the general coordinator of the Progressive International, an organization founded in 2020 to mobilize left-wing and progressive forces worldwide to take on the increasingly internationalized far right. (Petro sits on the organization’s advisory council, as do Jeremy Corbyn, Yanis Varoufakis, Naomi Klein, and other international luminaries.) David is also a former adviser on foreign policy to Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, and in his current role, he has built ties to unions, political parties, and social movements representing millions of people around the world, and particularly in Latin America. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Klion: You were on the ground for the first round of the Colombian presidential elections. What were you doing there, and what did you see?

David Adler: One of the major initiatives of the Progressive International is our observatory, where we travel to countries around the world at the invitation of local progressive forces to defend the integrity and transparency of electoral processes. I went to Colombia as a delegate of that observatory, to try to bring international attention to intervention and fraud that were already underway—ranging from purchasing votes to pre-marking ballots to invalidate them in pro-Petro areas. In around a dozen regions, right-wing paramilitaries shut down the streets in a show of intimidation to local residents. We heard from our allies across the country that international scrutiny was able to counter some of the right’s more aggressive efforts and to guarantee a decently fair and free election.

This victory began with the legislative elections in March, which were won by a new left-wing coalition called El Pacto Histórico—a progressive force that successfully brought together everyone from communists and Trots to liberals and even some conservatives to lead a legislative push for social services and ecological transition. Two leaders in particular emerged at the helm of that historic victory. One was Gustavo Petro, the former mayor of Bogotá, and before that an urban guerrilla in the M-19 fighting for a truly democratic constitution. The other was his running mate, Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian feminist, socialist, and land defender who has inspired people across Colombia with her courageous, almost death-defying defense of the environment against extractive industries.

The first round of the presidential election was in May, and three main blocs emerged. The first was El Pacto Histórico. The second was the Uribistas, so named for former president Álvaro Uribe, which is seen as an establishment conservative bloc—although that glosses over its extremely violent, terroristic history of supporting death squads that massacre indigenous and social movement leaders. Their candidate was Fico Gutiérrez, who didn’t even manage to make it to the second round. Instead, the right converged behind a third force represented by Rodolfo Hernández, a self-professed construction magnate and former mayor of a smaller city, Bucaramanga. He was not a previously well-known figure, and he led what he described as an anti-corruption crusade, refusing to do interviews or debates or appear on national television or radio. Instead he communicated almost exclusively through his TikTok and ran a novel, right-wing authoritarian populist campaign.

To no one’s surprise, on the eve of the first round, a coalition was formed between the conservative establishment and Hernández. That led to a very close, high-pitched, scandal-ridden second round, during which we saw progressive forces mobilize voters from the most marginalized regions of the country, including Afro-Colombian and indigenous voters, at record levels, in the face of violence and intimidation.

DK: Is it fair to describe the race between Petro and Hernández as analogous to a race between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?

DA: I’m usually hesitant about these “Trump of the Tropics” narratives that apply a US template to southern contexts. But to a remarkable degree, Hernández mirrored the career and the self-presentation of Trump. He would say, for instance, that Petro never worked a real job, that he’s just a career politician, whereas he, Hernández, was a construction magnate who made his own money—when in reality, he depended on handouts from the state, just like Trump. He promised to drain the swamp when he was actually a vessel for the conservative establishment. It’s a reasonable comparison, and the one between Petro and Sanders isn’t far off either. Petro ran on three pillars: restarting a peace process that outgoing President Iván Duque had abandoned; transitioning from fossil fuel extraction toward more ecologically sustainable industries; and a slew of social democratic investments, including supporting the elderly, working families, and tertiary education so that more people have an opportunity to access universities.

That said, the basic context of these countries is completely different. First of all, Colombia only recently came out of a decades-long civil war between guerrilla forces and the conservative state apparatus. Petro himself was in one of the urban guerrilla movements, but the biggest one was based in the countryside: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist guerrilla organization that claimed to be fighting for the liberation of Colombians in the countryside. They fought a bloody war with the state that finally ended with a peace process in 2016, after which the FARC laid down their arms and became a “legitimate” political movement. Although this is often seen as a successful peace process, in some ways it worsened the condition in the countryside by enabling the paramilitaries to occupy even more territory and further terrorize indigenous populations. That didn’t begin with the FARC and it didn’t end with their dissolution.

It cannot be overstated how much violence remains woven into the fabric of Colombian politics. In 2022 alone, we’ve seen over 50 targeted assassinations of social movement leaders across the country. Francia Márquez survived an assassination attempt three years ago, and Petro had one four years ago. Throughout this campaign, they had to go around in armored cars, and there were constant death threats from the Black Eagles and other paramilitary groups. No US politician has had to show the same degree of courage.

The other big difference is that Colombia has lived under the imperial thumb of the US for a very long time. After Bill Clinton signed Plan Colombia in 1999, the US poured billions of dollars into Colombia to arm the paramilitaries to take on FARC, effectively subsidizing terror in the countryside and even cocaine production. When we spoke with human rights activists in Colombia, the main thing they wanted us to do was speak to the US government, because Washington knows exactly where the drugs are produced and shipped, who owns the guns, who sells them, who buys them, and who shoots them. That’s where the comparison fails.

DK: David Frum had a piece in The Atlantic this week portraying the incumbent president, Duque, as a centrist hero who got no thanks for it. Can you talk a little more about how the center empowered the right in this election?

DA: I joked that on the eve of Petro’s victory, even from Bogotá you could hear the sound of a thousand pundits on the US eastern seaboard racing to their keyboards to type up glorious eulogies for Duque or grave warnings about Petro. It doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still infuriating given Duque’s record in office. He’s the heir to Uribismo, which is an iron-fisted approach to law and order in the countryside, taking on the guerrillas in partnership with the US.

In 2021, there was a national strike led by Colombia’s indigenous and trade union forces in response to Duque’s horrendous mismanagement and regressive economic policymaking, which sought to impose fiscal austerity in order to align Colombia’s finances with its external debt obligations. Millions of Colombians, especially young people, came out in the streets to demand an end to Duque’s government, and he deployed some of the most repressive police violence we’ve seen anywhere in the continent, as well as overseeing targeted assassinations of so many couageous leaders. There’s a popular slogan in Colombia now, “to be a social leader is not a crime,” which sounds banal but is actually powerful given the amount of state repression.

So of course Duque has boosters in Washington, well beyond David Frum. He has cultivated the loyalty of US foreign policy establishment intellectuals. In the runup to the first round of the presidential election, the Biden administration signed a new military pact with Colombia promising to deepen cooperation, and announced major non-NATO ally status for Colombia. Duque flew with his buddies to Washington to celebrate 200 years of US-Colombian friendship, as if to communicate that the US needed to come defend business interests against the unruly left-wing radicals. It certainly looks like meddling to me, to have these great celebrations of military cooperation, and also a way of telling Petro that he should not try to reform a relationship that has been so critical as the maintenance of that Monroe Doctrine over many decades.

DK: What are the implications for the US-Colombian relationship, and the US relationship with the Americas writ large?

DA: Colombia is the crown jewel of the US’s hemispheric empire. Until now, it has never had a progressive government that has dared to question the relationship. The US has used Colombia not only to extract resources to enrich itself at the expense of Colombians, but also to throw sand in the gears of any project of regional integration that might have resisted US hegemony. Petro’s presidency threatens Washington’s ability to neutralize any sort of Bolivarian resistance movement across the continent. We’re likely going to see Petro make attempts at real regional integration and increased local trade relationships that aren’t dominated by the US.

Petro has promised to reestablish diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and has already initiated that process. The two countries share a long border, across which many people have migrated in recent years, but having any kind of diplomatic relationship with Venezuela was an absolute red line for Uribistas—a wink toward the US, which has hoped to suffocate the late Hugo Chávez’s revolution in Venezuela from the beginning.

Having said that, I don’t think that Petro is such an existential threat to the US empire. For one thing, he simply doesn’t have the numbers in the legislature to pass huge sweeping reforms. He’s going to have to build a coalition; this is not a revolutionary project. Besides that, Petro has never taken an extremely antagonistic stance toward the US. During the campaign, he was frequently tweeting about how Bank of America or Credit Suisse were saying positive things about his presidential program. I can sympathize, because international finance has the structural power to either make or break any government in the Global South. Petro was pushed very hard to make certain promises around not expropriating people’s property, given that investors and industrialists were literally signing contracts saying that if Petro were to win, they would flee the country. In the face of a threatened investment strike and capital flight, he’s already made a lot of concessions. So we should temper our expectations of what Petro can achieve, and more hot-headed pundits should recognize that this is not going to turn the hemisphere on its head overnight.

DK: How potent is this “Pink Tide,” and what’s the wider context of the Latin American left right now?

DA: On the one hand, I don’t want to understate how historic the leftward shift of Latin America is right now. It creates an opportunity for the deeper institutional transformation I was talking about building earlier. That’s a really exciting project that is now underway, and the great visionary of that project is a man named Lula da Silva, who is almost guaranteed to win a return to the Brazilian presidency in October.

At the same time, I don’t want to overstate how much power these leaders can currently wield. First of all, most of them only control a minority of their legislature: That’s true of Petro, it will be true of Lula, it’s true of Boric in Chile, and it’s definitely true of Pedro Castillo in Peru who was never supposed to win, and who has so few allies in Congress that his program is effectively paralyzed. The structural conditions of the new Pink Tide could not be worse. The US Federal Reserve’s threatened rate hikes could produce a new lost decade of severe debt crises throughout Latin America, which could pull the rug out from under these governments. The region also has a rejuvenated populist right that more and more resembles the Republican Party in the US, and that uses clever tactics to undermine progressives—including with a captured judiciary that weaponizes lawfare against elected leaders, much as the US Supreme Court is now doing.

The US has a choice to make about whether it’s going to have a more friendly and cooperative posture toward Latin America, or whether it’s going to insist on its historical approach of domination, subjugation, and repression, by cozying up to some of the region’s most authoritarian actors: people like Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador, who’s now confronting his own nationwide uprising, or like Duque, who’s close with the Biden administration, or like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who is very close to Trump but is also maintaining good relations with Biden.

All of this combines to create a huge amount of uncertainty regarding the region’s leftward shift. And yet, I think we have to cling to the hope that these governments can come together to generate a new institutional framework for a more resilient, more prosperous, and more autonomous Latin America.

David Klion is a writer and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.