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WORLD AFFAIRS: Latin America

Is Latin America witnessing a return of the ‘Pink Tide’?

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Is Latin America witnessing a return of the ‘Pink Tide’?

President-elect Gustavo Petro and Vice President-elect Francia Marquez celebrate their historic victory, in Bogota on June 19. 

President-elect Gustavo Petro and Vice President-elect Francia Marquez celebrate their historic victory, in Bogota on June 19.  | Photo Credit: GUILLERMO LEGARIA

After Peru, Chile and Honduras, Colombia elects a left-wing President, a result that is all the more significant in a country where right-wing regimes have long been staunch US allies.

For the first time in its history, Colombia has elected a left-wing candidate to the presidency. Gustavo Petro, leader of the left-wing coalition grouping known as the “Pacto Historico” (Historical Pact), defeated his right-wing rival, Rodolfo Hernandez, in a closely fought election held on June 20. Petro received more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, while Hernandez, a billionaire construction magnate, got 47 per cent.  Only 59 per cent of the 39-million-strong electorate cast their votes.

Hernandez had come second in the first round of elections held in late May. He got 28 per cent of the vote running on the platform of the League of Anti-Corruption Rulers, a newly created party. The right-wing establishment choice was Federico Gutierrez, Mayor of Medellin. Alviro Uribe, a former right-wing President who still wields considerable clout in the country’s politics, was his earliest backers and Ivan Duque, the President, had actively campaigned for him. But the government’s unpopularity ensured that Gutierrez came third in the first round, getting only 23 per cent of the vote.

Hernandez was a former mayor of Bucaramanga, a small town near Bogota. He had very little political exposure before he entered the presidency race, but his campaign with its focus on fighting corruption soon gained traction. Hernandez also tried to portray himself as an anti-establishment candidate like Petro, but in reality he was an extreme right-winger.

A banner outside the Rodolfo Hernandez campaign headquarters, in Bucaramanga, Colombia, on June 20.
A banner outside the Rodolfo Hernandez campaign headquarters, in Bucaramanga, Colombia, on June 20. | Photo Credit: SANTIAGO ARCOS

In a 2016 interview which resurfaced during the campaign, Hernandez said that he was an admirer of Adolf Hitler. He described Hitler as “a great German thinker”. He is also being investigated for corruption when he served as Mayor. Some opinion polls showed Hernandez leading a few days before the final round of the election. Colombia seems to have narrowly staved off a major political disaster that could have adversely impacted on the entire region.

According to the World Bank, Colombia is “one of the most unequal countries in the world”. It is the second most unequal country in Latin America after Brazil. Since Duque took over the presidency, the country has  witnessed more political turmoil. Since 2019, Colombians in large numbers have taken to the streets to protest against growing unemployment and poverty. The presidential election was dominated by the social and political issues that were raised by the protesters on the streets of major Colombian cities in 2021. Those protests had violently shaken up the political establishment. The situation  worsened after the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. Currently, there is a 10 per cent annual inflation rate, 20 per cent youth unemployment rate and a 40 per cent poverty rate. Petro, who will be sworn in in August, faces a Herculean task ahead to resolve the myriad problems the country faces.

Challenges ahead

Petro had said that if elected he would restructure the country’s economy by making it less dependent on “extractive industries” like oil and coal and expand the social sector. He cited environmental concerns as having influenced his decision to shift from Colombia’s “old extractive economy”. He also promised to crack down on illicit cocaine trade, which has a turnover of billions of dollars.

Supporters of Petro in Bogota on June 19.
Supporters of Petro in Bogota on June 19. | Photo Credit: VANNESSA JIMENEZ

The biggest and most lucrative market for cocaine produced in Colombia is in the US. Narcotics, Petro said, had significantly contributed to the rising gap between the rich and the poor. The US government has poured in billions of dollars to combat narco traffickers and help the Colombian government fight left-wing guerrillas. The Clinton administration had given more than $2 billion in military aid under “Plan Colombia” in the late 1990s. In all, the US has provided Colombia $13 billion in military and economic assistance, the highest for any country in the region, the security component being twice as large as the economic assistance. The US military helped the Colombian army to militarily weaken the left-wing guerrilla movements but was not successful in curtailing coca cultivation or the export of cocaine. Petro plans to reorient the anti-drugs programme by shifting the focus from eradication of the coca crop to agricultural reforms.

““The government of hope has arrived,” Petro told his jubilant supporters after his opponent conceded defeat.”

A plan to introduce guaranteed work with a basic income, government control over the health system, pension system reform, and increased access to higher education are some of the other important promises made by Petro’s campaign. Petro hopes to achieve these radical goals by taxing the 4,000 wealthiest families in the country. “The government of hope has arrived,” Petro told his jubilant supporters after his opponent conceded defeat. “The story that we are writing today is a new story for Colombia, for Latin America and the world.”

‘A victory for all women’

The election was historical for yet another reason. For the first time in the country’s history a candidate from the marginalised Afro-Colombian community was elected as Vice President. Petro, 62, had his running mate, Francia Marquez, 40, by his side when he addressed an ecstatic crowd in  Bogota on the day of the results. Marquez is a renowned environmental activist and feminist who grew up in abject poverty. A single mother, she once worked as a housekeeper. Speaking at the victory celebrations, she said that the election results “are a victory for all women” and that Colombians “are facing the greatest possibility of change in recent times”.

Francia Marquez (centre), Colombia’s vice president-elect.
Francia Marquez (centre), Colombia’s vice president-elect. | Photo Credit: Nathalia Angarita/Bloomberg

Known for her impressive oratory and ability to attract grassroots support from impoverished areas, she came third in the presidential primaries held in March. She is more radical than Petro on many issues, especially on the hot button topic of abortion. Marquez wants abortion to be legalised in a country which is overwhelmingly Catholic. Petro is more cautious and  prefers a “pregnancy prevention” programme that leads to a “zero abortion” situation in the country.

Leftward turn

The election results are another confirmation of the leftward turn Latin America and the Caribbean are once again taking. The “pink tide” that first swept the region in the late 1990s with the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela had ebbed considerably two decades later. But with the latest results in Colombia, the Left has made a remarkable comeback. Last year, the people of Peru, Chile and Honduras voted for left-wing candidates to head their governments. There are only a few holdouts such as Guatemala and Paraguay that are still under right-wing rule. Brazil, most pollsters and analysts predict, will revert back to the left after four years of disastrous rule under President Jair Bolsonaro.

Petro’s victory is especially significant for the region. Since the beginning of the Cold War, Colombia has been the staunchest ally of the US on the continent. During the Cold War period, right-wing military dictatorships backed by Washington overthrew democratically elected governments.

Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. His election victory sparked the “pink tide” that first swept the region in the late 1990s.
Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. His election victory sparked the “pink tide” that first swept the region in the late 1990s. | Photo Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Galviz/File Photo

Colombia itself experienced one of the longest civil wars in modern history after the assassination of the charismatic left-wing leader Jorge Elizier Gaitan in 1948. He was on the verge of being elected President when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet. All hell broke loose after that. Bloodletting on an unprecedented scale took place for more than six decades, and an estimated 2,20,000 people were killed. Various left-wing guerrilla groupings took over the countryside, rallying the peasantry against the government dominated by oligarchs. The most prominent was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, popularly known by its acronym FARC.

During the election campaign, Petro had openly expressed his fears about meeting a fate similar to Gaitan’s. In the 20th century, five presidential candidates were assassinated with the involvement of the Colombian “deep state”. Three of them, including Gaitan, were leftist politicians. The other two belonged to the Liberal Party.

Guerrilla movement

Petro in his youth was a non-combatant member of the 19th of May (M-19) guerrilla group. The party was formed after US-backed right-wing forces hijacked an election in May 1970. The M-19 was inspired by the Cuban revolution but was not founded on communist principles, unlike the other guerrilla groups in the country such as FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Front). Itsaim was to create a more inclusive and representative democracy.

After waging war against the state for more than two decades, the M-19 signed a peace deal with the government in 1990 and disarmed itself. Under the terms of the deal, the M-19 was integrated into the country’s political process. Within weeks of signing the deal, however, the group’s leader, Carlos Pizarro, was assassinated. Many other leaders of the movement met a similar fate. The government did not bother to honour its commitment.

Outgoing Colombian President Ivan Duque.
Outgoing Colombian President Ivan Duque. | Photo Credit: REUTERS/Vannessa Jimenez

A more or less similar fate befell FARC after it signed a peace deal in 2016. Many of its demobilised fighters were targeted for assassination by the army and right-wing militias. Petro has pledged to fully implement the peace deal. The deal had called for “universal” education in rural areas through the secondary school level and heavy subsidies for development programmes in territories controlled by the former rebels.

The right-wing Duque government was voted to power in 2018 on the promise of undermining the deal. The outgoing President is a protégé of Alviro Uribe, under whose presidency “Plan Colombia” was put into action. Under the 2016 peace agreement with FARC, the government agreed to a “crop substitution programme” under which coca farmers would be given cash compensation for switching to the cultivation of legal crops.

Colombian military personnel, retired and serving, started issuing threats against Petro as his lead increased in opinion polls. Jose Marulanda, president of the Colombian Association of Retired Officers, said that a section of the armed forces viewed Petro’s candidature with “a certain fear and trepidation”. A serving army commander, Eduardo Zapatero, threatened Petro on social media for his comments on the army’s role in the country’s politics. President Duque supported the officer’s tirade against the frontrunner in the  election.

US State Department’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland.
US State Department’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. | Photo Credit: FADEL SENNA / AFP

In February, US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, while on a visit to Colombia, said that “foreign actors” were trying to influence the trajectory of the election. She announced that in response American military and intelligence agents would work together with their Colombian counterparts to guarantee a fair and free election. 

Petro has promised the US that he will not adopt an openly confrontational stance. But he has indicated that Colombia will shift the emphasis from US’failed anti-drug war to cooperation between the countries in the fight against climate change and the preservation of the Amazon forest. Petro also seems determined in his resolve to “re-negotiate” the free trade agreement between the two countries, to protect domestic manufacturing and agriculture.

Region welcomes result

The region’s left-wing leaders have all effusively welcomed Petro’s landmark victory. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former President of Brazil, said that Petro’s victory “strengthens democracy and progressive forces in Latin America”. Peru’s left-wing President, Pedro Castillo, said that the region was “united by a common feeling that seeks collective, social and regional integration improvements for our peoples”. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in his congratulatory message to Petro, said that “the will of the Colombian people has been heard. They have come out to defend the path of democracy and peace.”

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former President of Brazil, said that Petro’s victory “strengthens democracy and progressive forces in Latin America”.
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former President of Brazil, said that Petro’s victory “strengthens democracy and progressive forces in Latin America”. | Photo Credit: NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP

Venezuela and Colombia share a long border. Ties between the countries have been tense for many years as the right-wing Colombian government fully backed the US’plans to destabilise the socialist government in Caracas. The two countries had even severed diplomatic links. With the change in government in Bogota, Washington’s plans to isolate Venezuela in the region has suffered a serious setback. Petro is committed to the restoration of diplomatic ties with Venezuela.

“Your victory validates democracy and ensures a path towards an integrated Latin America in this time when we demand maximum solidarity among brother peoples,” said Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez on Twitter. Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who recently refused to attend the Washington-sponsored “Summit of the Americas”, said that Petro’s success could heal the wounds in a country where political assassinations were not uncommon. He referred to the bloody civil that had wracked the country after the assassination of Gaitan. “Today’s triumph can be the end of this curse and the awakening of a brotherly and dignified people,” Obrador said in his congratulatory message.