Laura Acosta and Nicolás Torres-Echeverry
Colombia is an “orangutan in cutaway,” a stable democracy in perpetual violence, a paradox, many say (Bushnell 1993; Gutiérrez 2014). It is a country that has had one of the oldest electoral democracies in the world and yet it is marked by cycles of violence that reproduce one another. In the mid-twentieth century, the country fought a civil war along party lines—Conservatives vs. Liberals during the infamous period of “La Violencia”—that ended with a short military dictatorship and a pact between the parties to alternate the presidency and divide both bureaucratic and electoral offices between them. The pact came to be known as the National Front (1958-1974). It managed to stop a first wave of violence, but lurking beneath was a second wave, one that was fought on the terms of the Cold War.
Three main kinds of actors entered the fray during this second civil war: leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups (with close connections to the military and local elites), and the state. The communist-left was composed of a plurality of insurgent actors—the most prominent being the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), 19th of April Movement (M-19), and Popular Liberation Army (EPL). Most of them had ties with the Colombian Communist Party and had specific political ideals. In 1964, for instance, FARC launched its revolutionary program urging other leftist groups to join an armed struggle for agrarian reform. As the 1980s advanced, guerrilla groups, as well as right-wing paramilitaries, grew in conjunction with the increasingly profitable drug industry.
The term “left” in the country came to be associated with this contentious left. This was a left unlike the left elsewhere which is often associated with workers’ movements—an important difference to keep in mind in the Colombian context. During the 1990s, some of these contentious left groups or some of their factions entered institutional politics—though the largest ones, FARC and ELN, did not—but the fault-line did not blur and the left continued to be deemed the enemy of the nation.
On the contrary, former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) furthered the marginalization of the left from the political establishment. He arose amidst a destabilized party system that saw the Liberal and Conservative parties lose control of the field. He espoused a law-and-order discourse; his rise was interpreted favorably by the United States as it was discursively aligned with the American government’s war on terrorism after 9/11, the national elites that saw the rise of FARC and ELN as a threat, and the anti-left commitments of paramilitary groups.
The recent presidential election represents a break from this pattern. On 19 June 2022, in the second round of the presidential election, Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez won the presidential and vice-presidential seats, respectively. Petro is a demobilized member of M-19—a guerrilla organization that in 1990 transformed into the political movement Democratic Alliance M-19. That is, the new president, Gustavo Petro, comes from the communist left, and thus hails from a category that only a short time ago was deemed an enemy of the nation.
This points to a number of questions of interest to those in the historical and political social sciences and to Latin America experts alike. What is happening in Colombia? Is it as big a shift as it seems? Where could the country be heading? Laura Acosta and Nicolás Torres-Echeverry, experts on Colombia, provide insights.
CHS: What do you make of this political moment in Colombia?
Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez won on a platform that promised radical and substantive social and economic change. For years, Petro and Márquez have consistently launched political programs that are meant to represent the “people” and “the nobodies.” Their election has given hope to many Colombians who have been historically oppressed by violence, patriarchy, racism, and classism. Will they be able to live up to their promises? That is still to be seen. Their electoral victory, however, appears to be of historic importance because the election of the alternative candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, would presumably have taken the country in a dramatically different direction. Most importantly, judging by the country’s most recent history, the results of the election were hard to predict.
Petro won with 50.4 percent of the vote against Hernández, a 70-year old businessman and TikTok celebrity who has been called the Colombian Trump. Among his most controversial statements are that women from neighboring Venezuela (a country with which Colombia had broken off diplomatic relations due to the emigration crisis) “are factories of poor children” and that Adolf Hitler was a “great thinker.”
Considering Hernández’s profile in addition to his plans to expand the military budget, it is not unreasonable to believe that recent post-election events would not have happened if he had won. A few days after the election, the last group of FARC leaders appeared in front of the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (in Spanish: Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) to give evidence of human rights violations—JEP was created in the framework of the peace agreement signed in 2016 between FARC and the Colombian government. Additionally, the still-active guerrilla ELN expressed their intention to engage in peace negotiations with Petro’s government.
Only weeks after the election, Petro sat to dialogue with Uribe and formed alliances with Liberals, Conservatives, and the U party—he has now consolidated a majority coalition in congress. After half a century of fighting against communist guerrillas and preventing the left from participating in politics, is it possible for former antagonists to stand on the same side of the political boundary? Has the left finally lost its place as the primary enemy of the nation?
Seen with a bit of hindsight, it appears as though the current moment may represent a shift of political boundaries. Colombia has a long history of intense anti-communist violence. For decades, mutating violent coalitions have persecuted leftist political parties and social movements (Gómez-Suárez 2020). The violence escalated in the late 1980s with the genocide of the leftist leaders of the Unión Patriótica—a political party launched by FARC. And even after the signing of a peace agreement between the government and FARC in 2016, murders of leftist leaders of social movements and demobilized combatants continued. This year alone, 99 social leaders and 23 demobilized FARC combatants have been assassinated.
As President, Uribe claimed that leftist guerrilla groups were “international criminal organizations” who disguised themselves as representatives of the “people.” During his mandate, official violence against the left escalated to the point that the army executed thousands of people it deemed “insurgents” who were in fact innocent civilians. National and international human rights activists condemned his government’s use of excessive force and exposed Uribe’s ties with right-wing paramilitaries. He was also a vocal opponent of peace negotiations with FARC and led the campaign to reject the peace agreement because, as he declared, the country should not “negotiate with criminals.”
The Colombian right has capitalized on anti-leftist discourse for nearly two decades while enjoying—almost unchallenged—electoral success. Not only that, it has motivated a campaign of violent oppression against social leaders in the country’s periphery. While Petro’s victory was surprising under such circumstances, it is perhaps even more unexpected to see former enemies cooperating with him. It will be interesting to see how political discourse develops as politicians make sense of the current moment and what may be a very different future.
I agree that this is a big shift in Colombian politics. I would add three things to what Laura has already said.
First, the political field in Colombia is highly fragmented, which serves to explain why it is susceptible to rapid ideological change and the current political moment. For a long time, during the National Front, the 1970s and 1980s, that fragmentation was contained within the two dominant parties. During this period, as the conflict ceased to be fought along party lines and competition turned intra-partisan, party boundaries lost meaning and fragmentation increased (Gutiérrez 2007). As a result, political operatives started to cross party boundaries. For these operatives, the one boundary that remained relevant throughout the 1990s and 2000s and thus limited their action was the one which divided the establishment parties from “the left”; this boundary was also central to the “left” insofar as it did not countenance working with the political actors tied to the two parties.
But something has changed. During my fieldwork examining the presidential elections in mid-sized cities, I saw a variety of political operatives and organizations moving to support Petro and Márquez’s campaign. A clear example were neighborhood leaders or “brokers,” figures who are central to electoral mobilization in Colombia as they are elsewhere (Auyero 2001). Many of these brokers supported the political patrons they had worked with in the congressional elections in March 2022—in parties that had explicitly opposed the Petro-Márquez campaign. When the congressional election was over, these operatives switched to support the Petro-Márquez ticket in the presidential campaign. Patrons, mostly congressional candidates and party bosses, were very worried about this; they couldn’t believe that, the week before the election for congress, neighborhood brokers used their WhatsApp profile pictures to promote one candidate, say of the Conservative Party, and a week after the election, they used them to promote the Petro-Márquez campaign. There was a fissure that allowed those political operatives to cross what had been a boundary.
Yet, the fissuring of support for traditional political elites doesn’t mean solid support for Petro and Márquez. The Petro-Máquez campaign relied on a patchwork of diverse and fragmented organizations. Some had social movement characteristics, like peasant associations, indigenous and Afro-Colombian associations, and student organizations. These were often types of organizations that developed solidarities in the midst of the ongoing civil war or in advocating for peace and for victims. Others were more like the political organizations that comprised the base of the Liberal and Conservative parties of yore and the parties that branched out of them after the 1990s—organizations which relied more heavily on patronage and clientelism, often in the form of bureaucratic appointments and state support to improve neighborhoods. What changed to enable these unlikely friends to work together is a question that we should grapple with in the future.
So, there was organizational grounding behind Petro and Márquez, but it was quite fragmented—it did not stand on a strong labor or indigenous movement, for instance. For this reason, it is hard to assess how stable the political phenomenon will be in the long run. In other words, Petro and Márquez’s base is shifting under their feet. But we should keep an eye on Petro’s party development and how it evolves in the lead-up to the local elections next year. I am skeptical that the party-building effort will be successful; I do not see the conditions that would allow for a more institutionalized political organization in the country.
The second thing that I’d like to say is that I trace the process of incorporation of the left—of the contentious or communist left as mentioned above—as part of the broader changes tied to the 1991 Constitution and the political decentralization that took place around the same period. This might seem flippant to some sociologists that do not think of constitutions as deepening democracy, but, in the case of Colombia (and I would argue that more broadly in other Global South countries), constitutional reforms in recent decades represented an attempt to incorporate groups that did not participate in institutional politics and the constitutions themselves were products of political struggles. In the case of M-19 and Gustavo Petro, this incorporation is very clear; they decided to pivot from contentious armed action to participation in the national assembly that drafted the Constitution. M-19 had around one third of the seats in that assembly.
The Constitution was already a product of diverse organized groups (Lemaitre 2009). But it also provided several mechanisms of participation from which the same groups and others developed political identities and tools to organize politically and fight for their interests on institutional terrain. Tianna Paschel (2016) has described this well in the case of Afro-Colombian communities. Afro-Colombians mobilized to demand recognition as an ethnic group in the Constitution. It led to blackness becoming a category of contestation. In striving for this, black organizations developed capabilities and an understanding of blackness as a political category tied to ethnicity and rights over their territories. This is only an example, but it is particularly interesting for the election at hand because Francia Márquez, a former activist, single mother, and the first Afro-Colombian vice-president, comes from this process. Yet, we need to keep in mind that the development of political identities and organizational capabilities has been broader including indigenous, peasant, and LGBTQ movements. In this sense, those changes that deepened democratization in Colombia are similar to other Global South democracies that triggered the development of an increasing variety of political identities that entered the fight for power within institutions (see Heller 2022). Part of the Petro and Márquez story starts there.
The third thing I want to briefly mention is political decentralization. Decentralization was also a reform that came as an incorporation mechanism negotiated between the government and FARC in the mid-1980s. For the former contentious actors of the left, involvement in subnational governments, especially in large cities, was very important. Their experience governing Bogotá was especially important. Cities offered relative cover from violence, allowed them to develop a bureaucracy, and taught them to compete in large elections. The case of Gustavo Petro shows just how important this was, since he grew politically from his term as mayor of Bogotá (2011-2015), gaining visibility and testing policy ideas. Without subnational elections and the left’s control of subnational governments, I think, we would be seeing a very different political field and, possibly, a very different kind of left.
CHS: Where could the country be heading?
Colombia still has a lot to learn from its own history. Institutional reform, alone, does not provide all the guarantees needed to achieve true peace. The government also needs to protect its civilians and former rebels from violence. This is going to be a major challenge in a country that suffers from a disconnection between what is discussed and articulated at the institutional level and the reality of unfolding events on the ground.
Studying the period between “La Violencia” (1948-1958) and the second civil war (1964-2016), I have found that by 1958 both local and national leaders were willing to cooperate within the existing institutional arrangements. In the provinces, rebel leaders mobilized their organizations to sign peace pacts with former enemies. They were committed to a peaceful bipartisan coexistence as well as cooperating with the national government. Thousands of combatants demobilized in the framework of the National Front. In return, they demanded that the new government expand democratic protections and adopt a new state policy toward the countryside, which would include the loosening of Agrarian Bank loan requirements, building roads and schools, and returning stolen lands (Karl 2017).
On paper, Liberals and Conservatives agreed to implement an agrarian reform. But they failed to do so. Perhaps even more consequential was their failure to protect demobilized combatants and civilians from ongoing violence, which ultimately forced them to return to arms in 1964. Elite politicians in Bogotá thought that if they stopped fighting, violence would stop too. Yet they ignored that violence, as it was experienced in rural areas, followed a very different logic. Rural citizens reported being persecuted by state officials (Guzmán, Fals Borda, and Luna 1962). On the ground, violence was understood as a form of state oppression.
It appears that the country is heading in a new direction. Petro and Márquez are set to start their mandate on 7 August 2022 not only with a majority coalition in congress, but also with active armed groups willing to negotiate. The ELN guerrilla leaders and leaders from “El Clan del Golfo” and other remobilized paramilitary groups have stated their intention to engage in peace talks with Petro’s government. Some experts are optimistic about the possibility of a lasting and genuine peace.
Yet, not all of the news is good news. In a country where the government does not have a monopoly on violence, the military is reluctant to cooperate. A day after Petro announced his plans to reform the military, Colombia’s chief general, Eduardo Zapateiro, resigned. The Colombian military has fought against leftist guerrillas for decades and, as in many countries, it is a politically conservative institution. It is still to be seen what kind of relationship Petro will have with the military. So far, the persecution of leftist leaders and ex-combatants does not seem to have diminished and they urgently need the protection of the incoming government.
I take Laura’s cautious remark seriously, but I am more optimistic. The reason has precisely to do with the change of political subjectivities tied to the second wave of conflict and the political coalition and bureaucracy that is starting to emerge around Petro and Márquez’s government.
The National Front did end the first wave of violence. It did so partially because it extinguished discursively the fight between liberals and conservatives and transformed political subjectivities. We might be facing a similar context in which “the left” will finally be completely incorporated institutionally and in which the Manichean discourse against it perishes. This would imply a reinvention of the left and the right in the country. Though of course we also need to be attentive to the way a discursive reinvention of the ideological spectrum holds the potential to reproduce violence.
What also seems to be happening is that two bureaucratic paths are converging. One path comes from the trajectory of the left in subnational governments; the other comes from the bureaucracy that was developed during the era of President Juan Manuel Santos(2010-2018) and that accompanied the peace process. On the one hand, this is a competent bureaucracy that also has the potential of integrating a set of minority actors into the state—as has recently happened by naming indigenous leaders as heads of the Unit for Victims and the Unit for Land Restitution. On the other hand, this convergence of bureaucratic paths appears to represent a pact between the left and a sector of the national elites. Both things might lead to more stable and capable government, even if less transgressive in terms of the political reforms that some expect from Petro and Márquez, or less progressive and inclusive than even Petro and Márquez would wish for.
Laura Acosta is a PhD candidate in sociology at Northwestern University. Her research investigates the causes of the most persistent civil wars and the factors that lead to their self-reproduction.
Nicolás Torres-Echeverry is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago. His research grapples with the decay of political parties and the forms of political organization that take their place.
Auyero, J. (2001). Poor people’s politics: Peronist survival networks and the legacy of Evita. Duke University Press.
Bushnell, D. (1993). The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself. University of California Press.
Gómez-Suárez, A. (2020). A Short History of Anti-Communist Violence in Colombia (1930–2018): Rupture with the Past or Rebranding? The Palgrave Handbook of Anti-Communist Persecutions, 383-403.
Gutiérrez, F. (2007). ¿Lo que el viento se llevó? Los partidos políticos y la democracia en Colombia, 1958-2002. Editorial Norma.
Gutiérrez, F. (2014). El orangután con sacoleva: cien años de democracia y represión en Colombia (1910-2010). IEPRI.
Guzmán, G., Fals Borda, O., & Luna, E. U. (1962). La violencia en Colombia: estudio de un proceso social (Vol. 10). Ediciones Tercer Mundo.
Heller, P. (2022). Democracy in the Global South. Annual Review of Sociology, 48.
Karl, R. (2017). Forgotten Peace. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Lemaitre, J. (2009). El derecho como conjuro: fetichismo legal, violencia y movimientos sociales. Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre, Uniandes.
Paschel, T. S. (2016). Becoming Black Political Subjects. Princeton University Press.
Photo Credit: Esteban Vega la-rotta-semana