Siloé is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Colombia’s third largest city, Cali. These impossible barrios, characterized by chaotic growth and utterly precarious services, teetering acrobatically on the hillsides that surround the city, are called invasiones or invasions by locals. In Brazil they would be called favelas. In one of Siloé’s primary schools there is a polling station. We get there up steep streets where there are more motorcycles than pedestrians. The second round of the Colombian presidential election is being held today, and we are there as members of the European Union’s Election Observation Mission. In the school, with small, dilapidated classrooms and a little courtyard in the middle, I chat with a testigo or witness—a party observer—of the left-wing coalition Pacto Histórico, which will indeed accomplish a historic feat: getting a left-wing candidate elected to the presidency of Colombia for the very first time. This man of sixty long years tells me that it is a pity that in the evening we would have to return to Bogotá, that with more time he would have shown us around the barrio where he lives, of which he speaks with great pride. He also tells me, with tears in his eyes, that during the estallido social—the social outbreak of 2021 which had its epicentre in Cali, he saw the police shoot three youths in the barrio. So that this does not happen again, so that the youth of barrios like his can hope for a better future, it is necessary to vote for Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez, he says.
Most voters that Sunday thought the same—at that polling station, surely almost everyone—because Petro got just over 50% of the vote and a margin of 700,000 ballots over Rodolfo Hernandez, a histrionic businessman who was the dark horse in the election, with an anti-corruption and purportedly anti-establishment discourse deftly spread via social media. In the first round of the elections, Rodolfo had snatched up second place, which got him into the second and final round, ahead of the traditional right-wing continuity candidate, Fico Hernández. Seeing how voting intention for this unknown businessman was growing, someone will surely have calculated that to defeat left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro in a country tired of the same old elites, a billionaire outsider—the Trump of the Andes someone called him—would be more useful. In the end, too many days of ardent campaign outbursts, although his quick acknowledgment of defeat an hour after the polling stations closed, dispelling suspicions of fraud and avoiding days of uncertainty, is something Colombian democracy should be thankful for.
Gustavo Petro will take office as the new president of Colombia in August. This former M-19 guerrilla fighter and ex-mayor of Bogotá, who surrounded himself with discreet Catalan advisers to achieve electoral victory—among them our admired fellow comrade Xavi Vendrell—will have a huge task ahead. Colombia is one of the most dynamic countries in the region, but it is also one of the most unequal, with huge pockets of poverty. From the luxury of a few to the misery of many, without a sizeable enough middle class. And although 5 years have already gone by since the signing of the Peace Agreement between the government and the FARC, during which the end of the armed conflict has gelled, there is still a lot of violence linked to paramilitary groups, to dissenting FARC splinter groups, to other guerrillas such as the ELN, which is still active, and to drug lords. The state is very fragile, or non-existent in some regions controlled by these groups. And if this context were not complex enough, Petro will only have four years to start getting things changed—the Colombian constitution prohibits re-election of presidents—and he will have to juggle with the Senate and the House of Representatives, where he is far from holding majorities.
However, the complexity of the task does not detract from the victory of Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez—an Afro-Colombian woman and a tireless champion for the most deprived, to whom many attribute much of the victory—in a country where left-wing presidential candidates with no ties to the elites have either been physically eliminated or have never been able to electorally outperform the traditional alliances. A victory that helps broaden the recent wave of victories for the Latin-American left—in Chile, Peru, Honduras, and now Colombia—and that may continue to grow this October with Lula da Silva’s victory in Brazil. Petro’s greatest challenge will be to show that the Latin-American left can bring about transformations in terms of social and environmental justice, with broad alliances and without indulging in populism or nodding at authoritarianism.
Secretari de Política Internacional d'Esquerra Republicana