Corn for Cocaine

Forrest Hylton

The first round of Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday was followed by several moderate earthquakes in Antioquia and Santander. The former is home to the right-wing candidate Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez, and the only department that he won; the latter to Rodolfo Hernández, ‘the little old guy on TikTok’, who ran as an anti-corruption ‘outsider’ candidate, like Trump, Bolsonaro or Alberto Fujimori.

Boosted by former president Álvaro Uribe’s supporters, Fico performed more or less as expected, picking up 23.9 per cent of the vote (5,058,010), while Hernández, a 77-year-old businessman and former mayor of Bucaramanga, took 28.2 per cent (5,953,209), to everyone’s surprise, even though polls – along with the leading news magazine Semana, which featured him on its cover – registered his surge in the final weeks of campaigning. Like the current president, Ivan Duque, neither Fico nor Hernández was a national political figure before running.

The frontrunner, Gustavo Petro, who ran for president in 2010 and again in 2018, took 40.3 per cent (8,527,768), an improvement on his performance in 2018 – and the first time a candidate from the left has ever won the first round – but not enough, it would seem, to defeat the right in the second round of voting on 19 June. While in theory anything is possible, Fico has already declared his support for Hernández, labelling Petro a danger to ‘democracy, freedom, the economy, and our children and families’. Most of Fico’s voters, especially in Antioquia, the country’s most populous department (6.4 million), probably agree.

After the results were announced on Sunday evening, the mood in Petro’s headquarters at the Tequendama Hotel oscillated between panic and despair. A change in strategy is required, and time is of the essence. They hadn’t prepared to take on Hernández in the run-off, and the numbers from the first round do not add up to victory in the second.

It isn’t clear if, or how, Petro can peel off enough ballots from Hernández, or register millions of new voters before 19 June. (Turnout in the first round was 55 per cent.) It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Petro breaches a ceiling of 45 per cent (which would still represent an improvement of 3 per cent on 2018). Along with the cities of Cali, Bogotá, Barranquilla, Cartagena and Buenaventura, he took the same departments that Juan Manuel Santos won in the first round in 2014: the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and the Amazonian borderlands (except Vichada, which Hernández won, even though he had been unaware of its existence). These areas are among the most devastated by war and by the cocaine, mining, agribusiness and petroleum industries; the majority of the country’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples live there.

Hernández meanwhile carried the same Andean heartland departments (except Antioquia), where political, economic, institutional and demographic power is concentrated, that Santos’s far-right opponent won in 2014. He also took Amazonian regions where oil and gas extraction, as well as coca production, are anchored; regions long controlled by the Farc or the ELN (National Liberation Army, which still exists and operates out of Venezuela).

Like Duque before him, Hernández went on about Venezuela sin fin, emphasising the danger that Petro could turn Colombia into its neighbour. No matter that Petro has been critical of Nicolás Maduro, and to some degree of Hugo Chávez (or that even conservative historians have noted the difficulty of turning one country into the other). His past incarnation as an M-19 guerrilla is taken to be proof of crypto-communism, even though M-19 was a radical nationalist group, not a Marxist-Leninist group like the Farc. M-19 laid down its arms in order to participate in the Constitutional Assembly and draft the 1991 Constitution. Petro came in from the cold as the Soviet Union collapsed. A former mayor of Bogotá, he is currently a senator, serving for the second time.

Like Salvador Allende (and, closer to home, Carlos Gaviria, who ran against Uribe from the left in 2002 and 2006), Petro is a strict constitutionalist. If elected, he wants to implement the progressive liberal elements of the 1991 charter, especially the rule of law. Over the past twenty years, 95 per cent of homicides have not gone to trial. As recently as ten to fifteen years ago, the army disappeared thousands of civilians in order to demonstrate success (to Washington) against the Farc guerrillas. This, too, was done with impunity. The Colombian military has received $10 billion in US aid since 2000, and the country is Nato’s only ‘global partner’ in Latin America.

Petro has said in numerous interviews that his aims are moderate, as he hopes to enact long overdue liberal reforms, shelved in the 20th century, in healthcare, education, land tenure and labour law. Yet the media represents him as a radical ‘populist’ of the left, now pitted against Hernández, the ‘populist’ of the right, in a sharply polarised election. Pace the late Ernesto Laclau, however, not to mention mainstream political science, ‘populism’ as currently used isn’t so much a concept as a label that gets stuck to anyone and anything that strays from the neoliberal consensus. It has no real analytical purchase because it’s normative.

Oil extraction, and by extension free trade and the export economy, are likely to be defining issues in the second round. Oil is Colombia’s leading licit export, and equals or surpasses cocaine in terms of revenue; it accounts for over half of all exports. Hernández performed well in his home region of the Santanders, whose history is tied to both the oil and coca frontiers, as well as insurgency and counter-insurgency. He said nothing significant about anti-narcotics policy, which suggests he would leave the status quo in place. He is in favour of deepening Colombia’s rentier-extractivist model, dominated by multinational capital in mining and energy, as well as industrialising the countryside and opening the public pension system to ‘investment’ on the private model. But he has also pledged to protect petty rural producers from US imports, promote green energy projects, and produce medicines cheaply for the national market. He wants to eliminate regressive taxes on consumption, and streamline access to social security.

Petro meanwhile wants to protect mining communities of Indigenous, African and mixed descent by regulating foreign companies, and to enact agrarian reform using a census instrument that will deincentivise, but not expropriate, unproductive land. He says he’ll reform the central bank, and create a Ministry of Industry in order to integrate the private sector and the ‘informal’ economy with university science and technology departments. Higher education is to be free, mostly public, and universal. Petro wants to place a special emphasis on fighting hunger through food sovereignty, as the governments of Lula and Dilma did with such success in Brazil.

In contrast to ‘pink tide’ governments in Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, however, Petro has promised to stop future exploration of oil and gas reserves, while honouring existing contracts for exploration and drilling, with the aim of transitioning gradually to a green economy based on eco-tourism, light industry, biotechnology and sustainable agriculture for the national market, through the application of tariffs and import taxes.

The halt on future fossil fuel exploitation is perhaps the most innovative plank in Petro’s programme, as well as the most controversial, followed closely by his pledge to renegotiate anti-narcotics strategy and free trade pacts with the US. The cocaine economy is booming as never before in terms of both exports and domestic consumption, in spite (or because) of forty-five years of the war on drugs. Petro asked rhetorically on Twitter if the US wanted to continue importing cocaine from Colombia and exporting (genetically modified) corn, or whether it might not be better to try something different. Let Colombia produce corn instead of cocaine, he said.

The leader of the country’s leading neo-paramilitary and drug-trafficking organisation, the AGC, was extradited to the US a few weeks ago. The group imposed an armed shutdown in a large part of the country, paralysing the Caribbean coast. The far-right government of Ivan Duque was caught flat-footed, and slow to respond.

In other words, the state is not the only pole of sovereignty: the para-state, whose weapons of first and last choice are terror and dispossession, exists alongside the legitimate government, and frequently overlaps with or supplants it. Bogotá exercises neither a legitimate monopoly on violence, nor sovereignty throughout the national territory. Uribe aspired to both, through a combination of counter-insurgent blood and fire, but did not succeed.

Even if uribista votes prove decisive in the second round, the current electoral cycle marks Uribe’s eclipse as kingmaker. This may be its most notable feature. Unless there is a rapid, dramatic reversal, the election is likely to signal the continuity of right-wing neoliberal rule with a repressive, authoritarian component, as well as the difficulty of mounting a successful electoral challenge to it.

In light of the massive general strike in late 2019 and the popular uprising in mid-2021, however, as well as historic congressional victories for Petro’s coalition in March, the opposition to a Hernández government is likely to prove formidable. Whether democratic forces can eventually break through remains to be seen. One thing though is certain: rather than solve the impasse, as promised, twenty years of uribismo only deepened the catastrophe to breaking point.