Note to readers: Before I begin this article, a couple of caveats: #1. Colombia is one of the countries in Latin America with which I am least familiar, having never visited the country or had little contact with it. It is also one of the most complex countries in the region, largely due to the fact it has been through (and still hasn’t fully emerged from) one of the longest armed conflicts in the world. Nonetheless, I decided to dedicate this post to the past weekend’s elections in Colombia because, as I note in the title, they represent a political earthquake in a region that is taking on increasing import at a geopolitical level; #2. I am now on day 5 of my second Covid-19 infection. While my (visible) symptoms are not nearly as bad as they were the first time around, my head is pretty fuzzy and my energy levels well below par. As such, there may be some important gaps or even, dare I say it, mistakes that I invite well-placed readers to fill or correct.
Colombia’s presidential elections this past weekend were historical on a number of levels, not least because they portend a shift in relations with its long-term hegemon, the US.
Gustavo Petro made history by becoming the country’s first left-wing president since Colombia won independence in 1819. One of the few people who came close to achieving the feat, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala, was assassinated during his second presidential campaign, way back in 1948. His murder, during the conference that gave birth to the Organization of American States (OAS), sparked the beginning of La Violencia, a Colombian civil war that lasted until the mid-fifties and killed an estimated 300,000 Colombians.
Petro’s running mate, the veteran environmentalist Francia Marquez, also made history by becoming the country’s first ever ever Afro-Colombian vice president. The electoral coalition led by Petro and Marquez, the so-called “Historic Pact for Colombia,” obtained almost three million more votes than in the first round and 700,000 more than Petro’s opponent, the right-wing, business-friendly populist Rodolfo Hernández.
For the first time ever a majority of Colombian voters have voted against the status quo.
Big Ambitions, Limited Room for Maneuver
Preto and Márques have big ambitions for Colombia. Their manifesto includes pledges to:
- Demilitarize public life in Colombia, by cementing once and for all the prevalence of civil authorities over the military. Although a peace agreement was signed between Colombia’s Military Forces and the insurgent’s group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (People’s Army or FARC) in 2016, bringing the 50-year armed civil war to an end, violence continues in the country relentlessly. As such, peace is the number-one priority;
- Phase out oil (Colombia’s #1 export) and coal while taking steps to protect Colombia’s invaluable ecosystems and rich biodiversity;
- Tackle agrarian reform, one of the main goals being to reduce the extreme inequality in ownership and use of land, guaranteeing the right to land for rural families (with women as a priority).
- Promote gender equality;
- Provide broader public access to healthcare;
- Reform the tax system, by introducing a more progressive system of income and wealth taxation.
For the Historical Pact for Colombia, the current tax system has a “clear bias in favor of excessively rich people.” To change that, Petro proposes a tax reform that, among other aspects, will focus on financial dividends: it will be mandatory to declare them and those receiving them will have to pay taxes on them.
In statements during the campaign, Petro said the lion’s share of the tax burden will be borne by the “4,000 largest fortunes in Colombia,” adding that his government will not target productive companies but rather unproductive assets, including dividends and transfers abroad. Transfers abroad make for an interesting target given the propensity for wealthy Latin American businesses and families to move their money overseas, particularly to Miami, whenever a government of even mild left-wing persuasion comes into power.
However, Petro will have limited room for maneuver, firstly because he will only have one four-year term in which to institute all of his government’s proposed structural changes. Also, like Peru’s President Pedro Castillo, he does not have a full majority in either of the two legislative chambers, meaning he will depend on the support of one of the dozen or so opposition parties in Congress.
In Peru Castillo has failed miserably to overcome rabid right-wing opposition to his government, which appears to be in the process of crashing and burning. But there is one important difference between the two leaders: whereas Castillo was a virtual political nobody before riding to power on a wave of popular anger at establishment parties, Petro is a political animal who has been in the game most of his adult life. He is probably not as radical as some might hope; otherwise he probably wouldn’t have made it this far. He also presumably knows that if he wants to make big changes, he will have to choose his moment — and his political allies — carefully.
But he will also face severe economic obstacles and constraints along the way. As just mentioned, it won’t take much for large investors, both foreign and domestic, to begin yanking their money out of the country. That in itself can be enough to trigger a financial crisis. Like most countries in the region, Colombia’s public debt has surged during the pandemic while inflation is at a 22-year high. Business leaders and the market are eagerly awaiting announcements about Petro’s governing team, especially for key positions such as the finance ministry. Volatility is expected in the peso and bonds when they open trading on Tuesday after a holiday weekend.
The End of Uribismo?
The elections were historic for another reason: they appear to have dealt a final death blow to “Uribismo” — the political force that has dominated Colombia for the past 20 years. Since 2002 all governments in Colombia have been led, either directly or indirectly, by Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a scandal-tarnished right-wing politician who was credited with bringing some semblance of order and stability to Colombia after decades of fratricidal warfare. This he did by mobilizing the army and ruthless paramilitary organizations against leftist guerrilla groups as well as innocent civilians, all made possible by a $2.8 billion US “aid” package called “Plan Colombia.”
Uribe himself is now facing trial for alleged procedural fraud and witness tampering. The former head of state is under investigation for having bribed several former paramilitaries so as not to incriminate him in the extrajudicial executions known as “false positives” that occurred during his government (2002-2010). In order to boost statistics in the civil war with leftist rebel groups, the army murdered thousands of innocent peasants and falsely declared them combat kills.
If, as publications both in Colombia and overseas are now suggesting, Uribismo is indeed on its last legs, it is probably not the best of news for Washington. An article published in late May by the North American Congress on Latin America explains why:
Uribismo has been propped up by a system of dominant alliances that cater to the United States and sustained by the perpetuation of internal armed conflict that legitimizes a brutal repressive order. It is, of course, also sustained by the export of cocaine.
Colombia became the United States’ main Latin American ally, its “beachhead” in the region. This came amid the Colombian government’s fight against guerrilla groups that controlled vast areas of the country, the rise of Chavismo in Venezuela, and the radicalization of various currents of the Left in Latin America. Uribe’s government welcomed U.S. military bases, advisers, troops, and tutelage into its strategic position to safeguard what Washington has long considered its backyard: Latin America, and specifically the juncture between South and Central America and between the Caribbean and the Pacific. This strategic site is now in serious jeopardy for Washington—not because of guerrilla victory as was the case in decades past, but because of the results of a peaceful, democratic, electoral process.
Seven Formal Military Bases and Many More “Quasi-Bases”
The US currently has seven formal military bases in Colombia, according to the Latin American Strategic Center for Geopolitics (also known as CELAG). Other reports I have come across suggest it has eight. However, a report (in Spanish) published by School of Americas Watch in April 2021 claims there are also dozens of so-called “quasi-bases” — which differ from formal bases in no other way than that they lack a formal lease agreement for use of facilities — scattered around the country, particularly in areas rich in mineral resources and/or close to Colombia’s border with Venezuela.
Since the year 2000 Colombia has received $13 billion of aid from the US, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. In recent years the US has further strengthened its military ties with Colombia. In 2017, Colombia became one of NATO’s global partners, and the Alliance’s first Latin American partner. The apparent benefits of being a global partner of NATO include interoperability with NATO forces as well as the opportunity to participate in NATO-led operations and missions around the world. As a matter of fact, Colombian forces already participated in Ocean Shield, NATO’s maritime operation to counter piracy off the Horn of Africa, in 2015, two years before becoming a NATO partner.
Now, it is too early to know just how Petro’s election will affect US-Colombia relations and US-Colombia military cooperation. Given the US’ history of interventions in Colombia as well as Colombia’s decades-long civil war, one expects Petro to tread very carefully, not only in his relations with Washington but also in the way he handles Colombia’s business and financial elite.
Shortly after the election results were announced, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted out:
Congratulations to the Colombian people for exercising their right to vote and reaffirming the strength of their democracy. We look forward to continuing our strong partnership with President-Elect Gustavo Petro and building a more democratic and equitable hemisphere.
State Department Spokesman Ned Price added the following:
We look forward to further strengthening our partnership with Colombian President-Elect @petrogustavo and congratulate our Colombian friends on their free and fair elections.
Despite these messages from the Biden Administration, there can be no doubt that bilateral relations between the two countries will be a hot topic in Washington in the coming months. As Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, told Bloomberg before the election, the vote, regardless of who wins, is likely to destroy the bipartisan consensus under which both Democrats and Republicans backed military cooperation and joint efforts to fight illicit drug trafficking: “Come what may that relationship is going to be frayed.”
The US already appears to be putting a contingency plan in place. Just two weeks ago, the right-wing president of Ecuador (and former senior banker and Coca Cola executive) Guillermo Lasso asked the United States for a military and security aid package similar to Plan Colombia, ostensibly to help in the fight against organized crime. But the government is also struggling to contain popular rage against rising prices of fuel, food and other essential items. On Thursday (June 21), Lasso extended a national state of emergency following eight straight days of protest by indigenous communities.
Political Trends in Latin America Are Not Exactly the US’ Friend
Of course, the US has hardly done itself any favors of late. At the recent Summit of the Americas it hosted in LA, from which it excluded Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua and to which the leaders of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Bolivia declined to show up, As I noticed almost a year ago, in “The US Is Losing Power and Influence, Even In Its Own ‘Back Yard,'” the sands are shifting in Latin America, politically, economically and geopolitically — and not in the way Washington would like:
China is not quite supplanting the US in Latin America just yet — the US is still top dog, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean — but it is eroding its influence. And the political sands in the region are not exactly shifting in the US’ favor right now. Even historically closely aligned countries such as Peru and Mexico are now governed by people and parties that are somewhat less disposed to US influence.
Eleven months after writing that article, five out of six of Latin America’s largest economies now have left-of-center governments: Mexico, Colombia, Chile Argentina and Peru. The only one that doesn’t, Brazil, is scheduled to hold presidential elections in October and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, (Aka Lula), is hotly tipped to beat Jair Bolsonaro by a wide margin, though fears are rising that Bolsonaro will refuse to accept defeat and call upon the military to thwart the voters’ will.
For the moment there is no way of knowing if, when push comes to shove, Bolsonaro will opt for this nuclear option, or if the military will oblige. One thing that is clear is that if Lula does win unheeded, Latin America will have a progressive alliance of governments across all six of its largest economies. And that truly would be historical.