A Political Earthquake Just Took Place in Latin America

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.

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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.

 

 

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24 comments

  1. Ignacio

    I cannot say a word on this before first stating:

    – Hey Nick, take care of yourself and hope you soon will feel much better.
    – By coincidence I had just wrote a comment on the French election results that coincides with your assessment on how little room for maneuver leftist parties have if they reach government.

    As a matter of fact Biden’s presidency and liberals everywhere will try to make sure that Petro and Gaitán Ayala disappoint since their success would mean there are already better (way better) alternatives. The nothing will fundamentally change (except for worse) crowd sees this as a risk that our incompetent elites don’t want to assume. They are to bring us either to fast catastrophe via wars or somehow slower catastrophe via climate change.

    Take care!

    Reply
  2. Tom Pfotzer

    Thanks Nick for a great report.

    I hope you’ll do more reporting on this region. Gustavo Petro has got a tiger by the tail, and will need every shred of political savvy he’s got in order to hang on.

    What I found most interesting about this report was Petro’s political platform, and the audiences he’s appealing to.

    I wonder a little about the taxation on remittances / and so-called “unproductive assets”.

    The deciding about what’s an “unproductive asset” will be a rough row to hoe.

    In a country that’s got such deep and prevalent political fault-lines, this is going to be a real challenge to pull off.

    And hopefully he, and Columbia, will do it. Together.

    BTW, hope you get well soon. The report didn’t seem to suffer any from your momentary reduction in powers.

    Reply
  3. The Rev Kev

    Hope that you get better soon, Nick. I remember reading when you said that both you and your wife came down with your first bout with this virus. Thanks too on this report on Colombia. When I heard about that election, I thought that Washington would flip. About twenty years ago they were so wrapped up with Iraq that a whole bunch of leftist governments came to power in South America (several of whose leaders got cancer and died in the years to come). Seems that Washington this time got so wrapped up in the Ukraine, that the same thing happened again. In the years to come I think that we will find urgent messages going from US embassies in South American countries trying to tell DC what is going on there only to be shuffled aside because of the latest news from Kiev.

    Reply
    1. johnny conspiranoid

      “several of whose leaders got cancer and died in the years to come”
      Tiny pellets of radioactive material made to be used in industrial radiography.

      Reply
  4. Thuto

    It’s about time Colombia found ideological and political kinship with other Latin American nations by taking a turn to the left. This almost guarantees that the (American) barbarians will soon be at the gates with a battering ram to smash this ascendant embrace of left wing politics in the region, so one can only hope that having five of largest economies in that part of the world repudiating en masse US sponsored puppet regimes will somehow result in cooperation to build a moat against what is surely an attack coming their way, that’s the nature of US sponsored democracy after all, it giveth (to local elites) and it taketh away. The substrate to an explanation for this damning indictment of US influence in Latin America is simple: the electorates in these countries are tired of the status quo, the corruption, the surging inequality etc and are saying “this far and no further.”

    Get well Nick.

    Reply
  5. Big River Bandido

    Thank, Nick, for this excellent piece and hope you’re on the mend.

    (The current president of Brazil’s first name is Jair, not Nair.)

    Reply
  6. Carolinian

    The “Empire of Chaos” seems to be crumbling on all fronts. Now if we could have some regime change here in the heart of the beast things would really be looking up–not just the Biden regime but the Beltway Blob as well. A world where Nature itself is under threat can no longer indulge these egomaniacs.

    This may be just a dream, but perhaps those other Americas will show us how its done.

    Reply
      1. juno mas

        From the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC):

        The top exports of Colombia are Crude Petroleum ($7.46B), Coal Briquettes ($4.13B), Coffee ($2.54B), Gold ($2.34B), and Refined Petroleum ($1.55B), exporting mostly to United States ($9.55B), China ($2.8B), Ecuador ($1.51B), Panama ($1.43B), and Brazil ($1.28B).

        Reply
        1. Aumua

          Yes, but there just one thing conspicuously missing there.

          Probably because it’s illegal and difficult to account for.

          Reply
    1. Anthony G Stegman

      It would be nice if some beautiful Colombian women were to be exported into my neighborhood. :)

      Reply
  7. Biologist

    Thank you Nick for covering this (and for your other posts which I always enjoy). I hope you get well soon. Covid’s a nasty one.

    Personally, as a Colombian, this is very emotional. The excitement for this political moment is real but so is the awareness of how high the stakes are. The left probably won’t get another chance in 50 years.

    One thing that struck me is that a lot of the vote was carried by supporters of Francia Marquez, the vice president. Her history is very interesting – she is an environmental activist, came to Cali as a displaced person and worked in domestic service / as house maid. Turnout and vote share was very high in the Pacific region, where many Afro-Colombians (descendents of slaves) live, where poverty is very high, and where the war has been very bloody indeed – which is a euphemistic way of saying that the killing of union leaders, environmental activists, indigenuous activists and countless ‘ordinary’ people by the military and state-supported pararamilitaries and criminals has been relentless in the last decades. People voted for their lives, literally.

    The other thing that might interest readers is a bit of history on M-19, the former guerrilla group of which the president-elect Petro previously was a member (and served prison time!). The group famously stole Bolivar’s sword from a museum, and infamously took several hundred top judges and lawyers hostage at the Supreme Court (Palace of Justice) in 1985. The siege was terminated with force by the military, leaving 100 people dead. M-19 laid down their arms in the 80s and transformed themselves into a political party. One by one many of their members and leaders were killed in the following years, including leftist presidential candidate Pizarro in 1990 in an airplane. They ceased to be a political force of any importance. The same thing happened to another political party, the Unión Patriótica (UP), loosely associated with that other major guerrilla group the FARC, but also with trade unions and other leftist groups. UP won many local elections in the mid 80s, and in response thousands of them were killed, including their leader, and their political moment passed. This is worth remembering when we talk about left being ‘under attack’ in Europe or in the US.

    Fast forward to the 2016 peace accords between the government and FARC. They laid down their arms and many got amnesty, which was highly controversial. Then-president Santos put the peace deal to a referendum, and Colombians rejected it narrowly. The main opponent was Santos’s predecessor Uribe, himself strongly linked with the paramilitaries. Santos got his Nobel prize in the end, but the country ended up with (ok voted for) their current outgoing president Duque in 2018, associate of Uribe and opposed to the peace process. Violence against the usual victims surged in these last couple of years, with many massacres in the countryside. Violence came to the cities a year ago, when non-violent anti-government protests became massive, caught a lot of momentum and police violence was very visible. A lot of that energy was channeled towards this presidential campaign.

    I’m very excited with this election result. As Petro said in his acceptance speech – Colombians voted for life, for peace, for social justice and for environmental justice. But 47% of the voters preferred some Tiktok rando. It will be a hard act to be inclusive to those 47% while at the same time be absolutely ruthless with the powers that want to destroy the left as they’ve done before (and Petro and Marquez have received enough death threats to be aware of this). This is the chance to change things, and there won’t be another one soon. Like Omar Little said in The Wire, ‘When you come at the king, you best not miss’.

    I want to end with two links. One is of Lucas Villa, a protester who was killed last year by ununiformed police or gangs associated with them, and his image became a symbol that energised the protests even more:
    https://elcomercio.pe/mundo/latinoamerica/lucas-villa-el-crimen-mas-sonado-de-las-protestas-en-colombia-cumple-un-ano-en-impunidad-ivan-duque-pereira-narracion-historias-ec-noticia/
    https://www.eltiempo.com/colombia/otras-ciudades/lucas-villa-asi-va-el-caso-del-estudiante-asesinado-en-una-protesta-669603

    The other is some context on Latin America’s current moment, from Gabriel García Marquez’s Nobel Prize speech in 1982, who reminded us of the outsized reality of the continent’s situation, where every day environmental activists, trade unionists and even just farmers are getting killed for existing against what Lambert calls neoliberal rule #2. We think we are sliding towards dystopia in Europe, but it can get a lot worse.
    https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1982/marquez/lecture/

    Reply
    1. Thuto

      Thanks Biologist for a comment that both celebrates this result and illuminates what’s at stake here.

      Quick question: Is the media in Colombia as thoroughly captured by the corporate-oligarch power structure as in much of the West, and if so would I be right in thinking the response to this election has been scathing? And linked to this question is: how far during electioneering did the “corporate media” go in trying to torpedo Petro’s chances in the elections (e.g. by running smear campaigns digging up his past as a rebel)? I ask because if large swathes of the media landscape are captured and pro-right, and he and Marquez prevailed in spite of this, then this result could signal a dimishining of the power of the media to catapult their favoured candidates to victory in presidential elections.

      PS: I also imagine, given the outsize role the army has played in Colombian politics (at least that’s how I read the situation from my far away perch in South Africa), that his explicit campaign promise to demilitarize the country has rubbed some very powerful the wrong way, and that this is another constituency that has every incentive to plot against him.

      Reply
  8. super extra

    This bit is what I have been watching closely vis-a-vis the ongoing Ukraine-Russia action and the wider impact on the $USD:

    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.

    It seems very possible that a historic confluence of events may not make that possible if trends continue? Or what if capital flight into the dollar happens as it is collapsing, or it is hoped that this flight will prop up the dollar in the face of all the oncoming headwinds? I don’t understand all the factors in this but I do understand that ‘wealth flies to safety’ and in this case I don’t know that the dollar is still that safe haven.

    Also can you imagine a taxation plank like that from a US politician!! Every time someone whines about tech workers making too much money I tell them to aim their fire higher up. Why not tax 90% off the top 10 instead? The indoctrination of americans against anyone they suspect doing better than them in their tax bracket is a multi-generational work to keep that larger wealth intact.

    Feel better Nick!

    Reply
  9. Henni

    Hope you feel better soon, Nick.

    A heartfelt recommendation for the covid protocols at flccc.net — our medical family has been applying the +iMask and +iRecover steps with no ill effects in Europe and USA and none have been sick for more than 24 hours despite constant exposure to infected patients.

    Reply
  10. flora

    Thanks for this post. The US made a couple of big, soft power blunders in Latin America in the last 2-3 years that were quickly taken advantage of by both China and RU, imo, in terms of offering what looked like a better deal with fewer strings attached. Whether or not those 2 countries were sincere is still unknown, but they did offer an alternative to the US proposal/demands. I wonder if those blunders contributed to these unexpected election results.

    Reply
  11. lyman alpha blob

    Thanks for this – always appreciate the reporting on Latin American politics.

    If Bolsonaro does use the nuclear option, it will be because his CIA handlers told him it was OK. If I were Lula or Petro or any other left of center Latino head of state, I would not get in any small planes any time soon.

    Reply
  12. BobbyK

    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.

    Huh, I wonder if this will ever happen in the United States.

    Reply
    1. Anthony G Stegman

      American voters will never elect true progressives due to the fact that American voters are highly susceptible to propaganda and easily swayed to maintain the status quo (nothing fundamentally will change).

      Reply
  13. Biologist

    Thank you Thuto, I always enjoy your comments.

    To be honest, I am not up to speed with Colombian news media, I’ve left the country a long time ago and mostly follow alternative media. I do occasionally browse El Espectador, one of the main and oldest dailies, or RCN, the main tv/radio network. I don’t think the media are as captured as in the US or UK, more comparable to continental Europe – pretty mainstream and close to power.

    But more to the point, Colombians are not nearly as gullible as western Europeans when it comes to believing what the media tells us. Long before the word became fashionable in Europe, ‘disinformation’ was how many people described the mainstream media. People know that they’re not giving the whole story, have their biases and sometimes corruption, and nobody believes them at face value. This kind of skeptical attitude is very common, I think because the realities of the conflict are just too hard to hide. Everyone knows someone who’s been killed. The cities have many displaced persons from the countryside, and they are visible. Last year’s protests and the violent police response was all over social media and even on the mainstream news. So in that sense I am optimistic. My pessimism concerns the strength (and methods) of the right and the amount of support they have in a large part of the (upper) middle classes.

    And yes the media did smear
    Petro but this was not very successful, especially after last year’s protests. Don’t forget he has been major of Bogotá and has been senator for a long time. He’s well-known, people know his history.

    Btw I personally don’t think the military drives the agenda of state violence, I see them more as an important instrument. What drives it imo are the interests of the traditional elites (e.g. large landholders) together with the (mostly international) corporations that don’t like worker rights or environmental protections. Think of the oil and coal industry, but also companies like Coca Cola and Chiquita (of United Fruit Company heritage if I’m not mistaken). Obviously the drug mafias are also big players in the conflict but that’s a whole separate story!

    Reply
    1. Thuto

      Thank you Biologist for your response. I certainly hope that, with Petro at the helm, Colombia will be able to make a clean break from a painful past and embrace the possibility of a brighter future free from the malign influence of Washington, even though we know this won’t be easy.

      Reply

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