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Colombia: Election defeat of the right only opens new stage in the struggle

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The victory of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez in the elections for president and vice president in Colombia, was greeted with rejoicing on the streets of the capital and other cities. It also aroused enthusiasm among left wing leaders across Latin America. Former president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, declared that "their victory strengthens democracy and progressive forces in Latin America”.

The success of the Pacto Historico is indeed another win for what commentators are describing as a new Pink Tide, adding to a list which now includes Andrés Manuel López Obrador, "AMLO", in 2018, Alberto Fernandez in Argentina in 2019, Luis Arce in Bolivia in 2020 and, more recently, the victories of Gabriel Boric in Chile and Pedro Castillo in Peru in 2021. The addition of Colombia to the tide is regarded as a good omen for a Lula victory in Brazil’s election in October.

Yet, neither in Colombia nor elsewhere, are these the radical breakthroughs hoped for in the first decade of the century, from Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales and “the socialism of the twenty first century”.

Nevertheless, it does mark the end of Colombia's long domination by hard right wing forces, symbolised by former president Alavaro Uribe, when Colombia was the base for undermining left wing governments in other parts of the continent. This domination included a fifty year war between successive governments, backed by brutal right wing paramilitaries, against the FARC and ELN guerrillas; though this effectively ended in 2016 with the uneasy peace deal, negotiated between President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC in Havana.

The shift to the left is a product of the mass popular uprisings of 2019 and 2021 against Iván Duque’s hated government. More than 80 people were murdered by police and military officers during the Paro Nacional of 2021, according to a survey by the Institute for Development and Peace Studies.

There has been a sharp fall in the living standards of millions of people as a result of inflation. The country had one of the highest COVID mortality rates in the region, with 140,000 deaths, according to official data. In the same period, 3.6 million Colombians were thrown into poverty, with unemployment reaching an all-time high in 2021.

The Pacto Historico, Petro’s left populist electoral coalition, carried the entire Caribbean and Pacific Coasts with big majorities: Barranquilla (64.16%), Cartagena (67.46), Cali (63.76) and Bogotá (58.59). Nevertheless, the Colombian Right remains extremely powerful, not only because of the 48.0% of the vote for their candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, of the Partido Liberal, but because of their institutional support in the army and the police, plus the right wing paramilitaries, who still murder indigenous activists.

Petro is the founder and leader of Colombia Humana, a party originating in the Bogotá Local Administrative Board elections of 2011 and based on huge numbers of signatures to register his candidacy for the mayoralty, which he won. After completing his term of office, he stood for the presidency of the Republic in the 2018 elections but was blocked by the electoral commission. The party was the target of paramilitary gangs like the Black Eagles with nearly a dozen of its activists assassinated in 2020 alone.

Another major factor blocking real change in Colombia is the grip the US has on the country’s repressive institutions. Colombia has been the base for US interventions in many South American countries since the 1960s, including in neighbouring Venezuela under both Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. On May 20, Joe Biden designated Colombia “a major non-NATO ally” and promised continued US funding and security cooperation for the country’s armed forces. Two days after his election, president-elect Petro tweeted, "On the road to a more intense and normal diplomatic relationship I have just held a very friendly conversation with US President Biden".

Petro's politics, despite his membership of the M-19 guerrilla group in the 1980’s, has long evolved into a respectable electoralism. Indeed, like other ‘new’ pink tide leaders, he is no longer talking of “socialism of the twenty first century” but rather of the need for real capitalist development for Colombia. He claims that his goal is not socialism but rather overcoming the “pre-modern”, “feudal” and “slave-owning” survivals. This is no new idea but a version of the old stages theory of Stalinism. It also involves, in the Pacto, yet another Stalinist strategy, the “popular front”, that is, reforms to be carried out courtesy of progressive sectors of the bourgeoise. Along that line, he has talked of choosing “technocratic” leaders to ensure economic policies that win the approval of the international institutions, clearly meaning the IMF.

This does not bode well for any policies, like the universal free healthcare system promised in his manifesto, that his popular mass base voted for. An additional restraint on the new regime’s social policies is the fact that Petro and Marquez will not have a working majority in the legislature. Again, he is making overtures to the centre-right claiming he wishes to represent “all Colombians” accompanied by his trademark sickly sentimental rhetoric about “love for all, rich and poor”.

During the election campaign, Petro offered political alliances with various establishment bourgeois figures, presenting himself to them as someone who would in fact rule from the centre. He left black activist Francia Márquez, the daughter of a miner from one of the country’s most marginalised zones, to build support from workers, peasants and indigenist grassroots and social movements.

The two National Strikes, after the high point of mobilisations in April-May 2021, saw their National Committee leadership, made up of labour and peasant and student unions, lead them away from the revolutionary overthrow of the Duque government, let alone any assault on corrupt and murderous Colombian capitalism, towards an electoral goal, Petro’s candidacy. Numbers of young activists from this movement are still languishing in jail and Petro has not yet responded to calls for their release, even referring to demonstrators as “rioters”.

At the same time, he proclaims his desire for “love among all Colombians", both rich and poor. This can mean nothing other than class collaboration between the exploiters and oppressors and their victims. A Report by a Reconciliation Commission, set up after the peace agreement with the FARC, is due to report but, like its model in South Africa, this is likely to be a means of granting impunity from prosecution for the crimes committed by state and right wing gangs under Uribe and previous presidents.

It is certain that in the coming years, or even months, Petro and Marquez will disappoint and alienate their followers, like their pink tide equivalents across the continent. For a second time, left populism will show that its policies of class collaboration, based on “humanising" capitalism, simply will not work. At the moment, the employers are talking sweetly of welcoming Petro and cooperating with him but, in a period of growing economic crisis, these capitalists, domestic and foreign, will sabotage anything positive the government attempts. Equally, the IMF will hem it in with harsh conditions for any rescue packages. In response, Petro will make concession after concession, demoralising his own supporters. The only answer for the working class, peasants and indigenous populations of the cities and the countryside is to resume the mobilisations, the National Strikes, demanding a programme of radical solutions to the economic, social and environmental crises at the expense of the bankers, businessmen and landowners.

The committees and popular assemblies that mobilised the National Strikes need to be revived and become independent organisers of the struggles to force Petro and Marquez to fulfil their more radical promises. They also need to be independent of Colombia Humana, the government and the union bureaucracy which collaborates with them. This independence needs to become political in the form of a revolutionary workers' party. Such grassroots bodies will also have to become capable of defending themselves and resisting the bosses' sabotage and continued repression by the murderous gangs. This means building defence groups.

The masses have shown that they are capable of taking on the entrenched forces of the right. Now, the working class and all the other popular forces; the peasant and indigenous communities, women and the youth, need to mobilise for genuinely revolutionary social change in Colombia. True, this will be a hard and dangerous struggle, but it is the only road that will meet the needs of the working people.