Colombia’s turbulent election

Con resultados de la primera vuelta electoral. Photo: Telesur

Regardless of who wins this Sunday’s runoff presidential election, organized crime, and guerrilla groups remain in the wings.

By Mariano Aguirre (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – Rodolfo Hernández, a 77-year-old former mayor of Bucaramanga, only joined the electoral contest a few months ago. Candidate for the Liga de Gobernantes Anti Corrupción, the businessman surprised commentators and is a new and widely unknown competitor in the race. He landed with a bang, firing accusations at the rest of the candidates, accusing them as being corrupt and delinquent. Using mainly social networks, so-called “marches” and a provocative discourse based on proffering simple solutions to complex issues, he managed to displace Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, candidate of the right-wing alliance Equipo por Colombia, from second place. While attacking corruption in the traditional political parties, he proposes conservative ideas (reduce taxes) combined with liberal ones (for example, being in favor of abortion).

The run-off will pit him against Gustavo Petro, leader of the progressive party Pacto Histórico, who would make history by becoming the country’s first-ever left-wing president. He is running with Afro-Colombian activist Francia Márquez, who would be set to become the first ever black female vice president. They have a real chance of winning, which has caused an intense backlash from right-wing forces made up of the business class, the military and even state bodies, which should be neutral. The two politicians received many death threats from criminal organizations. “I have never seen anything like this,” a spokesperson for the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Colombia, which supports Petro, said in an interview ahead of the vote.

The election comes at a time of rising political violence and increased organized crime. The incoming leader will also hold sway over the future of the peace agreement signed in 2016, initially celebrated as the most progressive in the world – but which has been repeatedly hindered by the current government.

But Hernández’s surprising surge in support has shaken up the electoral scene. Seeing as only two candidates are running, many right-wing voters are likely to rally behind behind the businessman, who has been compared with Trump and Berlusconi. In this way, the Democratic Center (the party now in government) is hoping to continue to exercise power with a different president. On the other hand, many centrist voters continue to distrust Petro who, in his youth, was a guerrilla member. He has long since distanced himself a long time ago from armed struggle and in the runup to the June 19 vote, has been touting himself as the defender of an establishment that must be reformed as opposed to a populist who can destroy it.

A contradictory country

Colombia is a paradox: very advanced, rich in natural resources, with an extended urban middle class and an international economic elite; a member of the OECD and a strong ally of NATO and the United States. However, is also one of the most unequal Latin American countries, and, with it, one of the most unequal in the world. Tax evasion and corruption are rampant.

Lifestyles of the wealthier classes in Bogotá, Medellín or Cartagena often resemble those of a rich European city; but only a few kilometers away — and especially in regions like La Guajira, Cauca or Catacumbo — poverty is widespread. Roads, drinking water, hospitals, schools, judges, and police are lacking. Of a population of 51.6 million, 7.41 live in extreme poverty. Additionally, there are 2 million Venezuelan immigrants in the country. The white elites and the middle-class disdain Indigenous Peoples (subjugated and almost exterminated by Spanish colonialism), Afro-Colombians and poor communities.

That stretches back in time, as the Colombian state was built on wars and alliances between Bogotá’s elites and local bosses, or caudillos. In the 20th century, liberals and conservatives made a pact to control power, marginalizing farmers, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

In the 60s, several Marxist-Leninist guerrillas emerged, disrupting the State’s power and controlling territories and communities. Since the 70s, society and politics has been corrupted by drug trafficking, the armed forces and guerrilla groups. Extended violence among guerrillas, paramilitary groups, narcosand State security forces killed 261,000 people between 1958 and 2018, according to the National Centre for Historical Memory.

In Colombia, the state is deeply paradoxical. About 40 percent of the Colombian territory has no state presence, or it is weak and negotiates ‘shared sovereignty’ with criminal armed or criminal-political groups. 

Almost 100 criminal armed groups operate in nine regions in the country, including the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian borders. Many of them fight to control the territories abandoned by the FARC used to grow coca and develop other illegal economies. Military forces are deployed along the roads and rivers, but organised crime, FARC dissidents and the ELN control the lives and economies of the territories and their populations. Recently, to showcase their strength, the criminal Clan del Golfo group declared a general (armed) strike in 11 departments. The government did nothing to prevent it.

The long road to peace

In 2016, Juan Manuel Santos’ administration signed a peace agreement with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the strongest Marxist group, including rural reform to develop war-affected areas; a coca crop substitution plan; judicial measures and alternative sentences for guerrilla, former military force members and businesspeople involved in the violence; and plans for former FARC members to participate in legal politics and re-incorporate them to gainful employment.

Negotiations with the ELN (National Liberation Army) were expected to follow, but in 2018, right-wing candidate Iván Duque won the presidency on a platform of halting the Agreement. Since then, his political party, Centro Democrático, has fought the Agreement with every political means possible. Consequently, broad sections of the peace deal remain unfulfilled, especially relating to rural reforms. Nevertheless, Duque was unable to prevent the Truth Commission and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP) from investigating crimes and incitement to crime. Military, political and business classes continue to worry about the past complicities that the SJP will unearth.

Meanwhile, violence has increased against former FARC members, rural social leaders, and environmental, minorities and human rights defenders who support the Agreement. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 2021 saw the highest rise in violence in the last five years. Attacks and killings (around 1,000 since 2016) are committed by criminal groups, sometimes subcontracted by the economic classes who fear their privileges are at risk. The justice system lacks the means to prosecute and is slow and inefficient.

Between 2019 and 2021, mass demonstrations took to the streets, demanding universal health and education policies, anti-corruption measures, legal protection for minorities and social leaders and the implementation of the Peace Agreement.

Long to-do list

Topping the to-do list for the new president is the need for protections for citizens’ safety, profound tax reform, fighting of corruption and tax evasion, expand public services and re-establish diplomatic relations with Venezuela. However, the task ahead will be complicated by rising food and fertiliser prices due to the Ukraine war, threats of recession and the donor community focusing on more urgent scenarios in Europe.

The presidential candidates take starkly different approaches. Gustavo Petro wants to limit and tax the exploitation of oil and minerals ‒ a matter of concern for national and international companies ‒ as well as promoting the transition towards a green economy and implementing the Peace Agreement.

For his part, Hernández is running on a vague anti-politics program, looking set to manage the country as he does his private company while paying lip service to anti-corruption initiatives. It remains a mystery how he will deal with the country’s many pressing problems.

If Petro wins, almost half the country will expect him to deliver on the reforms the country has been denied for decades. The rest, including several power groups, will completely oppose him and do everything in their power to prevent him from governing.

If Hernández prevails in June, the Centro Democrático party currently in power will provide him with ministers to continue business-as-usual without activating any real change. This will likely trigger renewed social protests.

Regardless of who wins, organized crime, and guerrilla groups remain in the wings and look set to intensify their attacks.

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