From the July-August 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Eugene Walker
The stunning electoral victory of Gustavo Petro as President and Francia Márquez as Vice President marks a new moment for Colombia. Petro was a former urban guerrilla and then mayor of Bogotá and a senator. Márquez, an Afro-Colombian woman, is an environmental justice activist. Colombia has never had any kind of a progressive or Leftist national government, It has been run most often by conservative Rightist elites, supported by the U.S.
YOUTH DRIVE THE ELECTION
Márquez, a dynamic speaker, focused her attention on the most marginalized—Indigenous, Black and rural people—while attacking the elites who “have condemned our people to misery, to hunger, to desolation.” She asks her audience “to break the structural racism that has not allowed us to breathe.” “Que viva la berraquera, carajo!” (“Long live our strength, damn it!”) (For more on Francia Márquez see “Afro-Colombian seeks solidarity in U.S.,” March-April 2010 N&L, “Afro-Colombians throw off shackles,” Nov.-Dec. 2012 N&L, and “Afro-Colombian Women: Defeating invisibility,” Jan.-Feb. 2013 N&L.)
As important as the candidates were, a crucial stimulus for this election has been youth who, in May 2021, took to the streets in massive protests against the poverty and inequality that generations have faced. They did so as the COVID-19 pandemic made the situation even more desperate. In Cali, the country’s third largest city, the protests were not alone against the old regime, but participants were searching for a different way of life. The police responded with violent repression, killing dozens and beating hundreds. But the youth continued their fight, particularly around this presidential election.
Petro based his campaign on expanding social programs: a subsidy to single mothers, guaranteed work and a wage for the unemployed, access to higher education, a publicly controlled healthcare system and improved pensions. Unfortunately, he has no majority in Congress. The right wing, though defeated in the elections, is very much around. They worked to sabotage the 2016 Peace Agreement with the FARC guerillas.
Two major issues of this new moment are land reform and a different relationship with the U.S. Though land reform was supposed to be undertaken with the peace agreement, no progress has been made. As for the U.S., which has long cozied up to the Colombian right-wing regimes and its military, it remains to be seen what its attitude to the new government, scheduled to take office in August, will be.
What Francia Márquez and the rebellious youth of Colombia represent is more than a new electoral moment. Can this become the fullness of a new beginning, the social transformation that the most marginalized have fought for?