IN one of the many videos circulating on social media of people celebrating the results of Colombia’s presidential election run-off on 19 June, a man bursts from a door onto a small concrete balcony: ‘The first Black vice-president! First Black vice-president, son of a bitch! Viva Colombia! Viva Francia! Thank you, God!’ Two teenage girls run to hug him, wiping away their tears. Neighbours, all Afro-Colombian, cheer from balconies and the street below. The Colombian national anthem, which plays on all radio stations at 6 p.m. every evening, can be heard in the background. This was the moment that Gustavo Petro, ex-mayor of Bogotá and former M-19 guerrilla fighter, was announced president. His running mate, now vice-president elect, Francia Márquez, is a single mother, one time housekeeper and environmental activist, and the first Afro-Colombian to achieve high office. Both are from regions far from the political centre, badly affected by six decades of armed conflict.
For more than two hundred years, Colombia has been governed by white-mestizo elites, educated in the best private universities at home and abroad. Since independence in 1810, they have dominated the cooler climes of the Andean interior, where Bogotá is located. The peripheral lowlands and tropics, inhabited by indigenous communities and Black descendants of slaves, were seen as uncivilised. Petro and Márquez are the first candidates to reach the Casa de Nariño without the backing of the Bogotá establishment. Five others have come close, in 1948, 1987, 1989 and 1990; each was assassinated before a vote could be cast.
‘Peace means that someone like me can be elected president,’ Petro said in his acceptance speech, but he and Márquez will need to ensure that peace holds. After years of fierce fighting between the Liberals and the Conservatives (a period known as La Violencia) ended in 1958, a series of guerrilla wars began. The two parties had agreed to form a National Front, rotating power every four years and strictly limiting third-party representation. Leftist groups – seeking everything from political participation to socialist revolution – took up arms. They were countered by right-wing paramilitary units, trained by the state with help from the US army. The war got worse with the rise of cocaine. In 1991, a new constitution expanded political participation, and many guerrilla groups disbanded. But the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) did not. Three rounds of negotiations failed before the government of Juan Manuel Santos reached a deal with the Farc in 2016. Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
This long conflict has taken its toll: hundreds of thousands of deaths and disappearances, more than seven million people displaced, countless victims of landmines, sexual violence, kidnapping. The peace deal not only promised an end to the violence, but proposed essential reforms to land ownership and the political system, crop substitution for coca farmers, as well as a truth commission and a special tribunal to redress the rights of victims. But in a referendum 50.2 per cent of Colombians rejected the peace deal after a disinformation campaign by the former president Álvaro Uribe and his Democratic Centre party, which accused the government of giving too much away. Santos and the Farc agreed to incorporate many of Uribe’s demands before implementation began in December 2016. Thirteen thousand Farc combatants disarmed, and the murder rate dropped to a forty-year low. Less than two years later Iván Duque, the Democratic Centre candidate, was elected to power.
Duque could not dismantle the deal, but he undermined it in many ways, issuing legal challenges to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (the transitional tribunal created to investigate war crimes) as well as underfunding relevant institutions and selectively implementing measures. Data from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies show that less than a tenth of the agreement was enacted during his mandate. Insecurity returned and violence increased. At least three hundred former Farc members and 1200 social leaders and activists have been murdered since 2016. Paramilitary groups have proliferated, claiming territory formerly controlled by Farc. The National Liberation Army (ELN), the last remaining guerrilla group, has intensified its actions. Inequality has risen, most dramatically during the pandemic, and in 2021 Colombia followed Chile and Ecuador in holding national strikes. Widespread protests were followed by allegations of police violence.
Duque’s approval rating had been low for a long time, so it wasn’t a surprise that his most significant opponents were anti-establishment figures promising change. Petro pledged, among other things, to finish implementing the peace deal, introduce redistributive rural and tax reforms, protect the environment, promote women’s rights and improve access to education. His opponent, Rodolfo Hernández, a millionaire businessman and former mayor of Bucaramanga, best known for hitting a local councillor over the head on national television, ran his anti-politics campaign almost entirely on social media (he’s big on TikTok). He pledged to tackle corruption by reducing the state and empowering the private sector.
Petro won the first round with 40 per cent of the vote. Hernández came second with 28 per cent, beating the uribista candidate, Federico Gutiérrez. The centrist candidate, Sergio Fajardo, representing a coalition that has failed to establish exactly what it stands for other than being anti-Petro and anti-Uribe, received less than 5 per cent of the vote. Gutiérrez’s coalition switched their support to Hernández, although Hernández rejected any alliance. The second round was closer: Petro took just over half the vote, with Hernández at 47 per cent.
The Liberal and Conservative parties had no real runners in the race. There are now 23 recognised political parties in Colombia, and campaigning often looks more like political marketing, with politicians treated as ‘brands’. Petro leads the leftist Colombia Humana party, which forms part of a broader coalition, the Pacto Histórico. A number of centrist figures, including the former presidential hopeful Alejandro Gaviria and several members of the Santos government, joined Petro’s platform in the second round, which should shore up his ability to govern.
It isn’t going to be easy. Congress was elected in March with no overall majority and legislative gridlock is likely. There is a pro-peace majority, but the Farc deal is hanging by a thread. Preserving the deal means restoring faith in its processes. The final report of the truth commission will be published on 28 June. The Petro government should be committed to disseminating its findings and enacting its recommendations. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which will soon issue its first sentences (against Farc for kidnapping and against the army for extrajudicial killings), will have more support under Petro than it did at any point under Duque – essential for maintaining its legitimacy.
Petro also wants to negotiate with the ELN. Local pacts have been effective in some regions, and Petro could build on these, but he will need broad political support. Past talks with the ELN all ended in failure. He may also face tensions with the armed forces (though military pride in belonging to the ‘oldest democracy in Latin America’ helps). Meanwhile, the right and the private sector, particularly larger companies, will oppose structural reforms and any loss of privileges.
Petro’s win, like the election of Gabriel Boric in Chile, means change for the region. For decades, the US has relied on Colombia to support its war on drugs. Obama supported voluntary crop substitution, but forced eradication was resumed under Duque and Trump. Biden will be less hawkish. Petro also wants a bilateral agreement with the US on climate change, and to re-establish diplomatic relations with Venezuela. There is a widespread feeling of hope in Colombia. But dissatisfaction will quickly follow if the Pacto Histórico fails to deliver. The new government takes power on 7 August.