Why The Left Has Never Ruled In Colombia And Why That May Change With Gustavo Petro

Why the left has never ruled in Colombia and why that may change with Gustavo Petro

It is not the first time that the former mayor of Bogotá and ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro has emerged with solvency in the face of presidential elections in Colombia. This time, however, there is a growing concern, perhaps unprecedented, in the circles of the establishment due to its consistency in surveys. The most recent, published in October by the reputable firm Datexco, gives him an advantage of 16 points over his closest competitor, the centrist Sergio Fajardo, ahead of the elections on May 29.

Although analysts agree that it is still too early to make predictions, Colombia’s history indicates that its victory would be a surprise: the center and the right have been in power for a century and a half of Republican life. Colombia is the only country in South America where the democratic left has never ruled. A political characteristic attributable, in part, to the exhaustion of a civil society suffocated with 60 years of confrontation between the State and various far-left guerrillas, such as the disappeared M-19, where Petro was a member.


Violence has conditioned the “reproduction of the political system”, according to the historian Medófilo Medina. He also explains that since the 50s of the last century the “alternative, populist or left” sectors rejected the possibility of influencing as a democratic alternative: “they chose to respond to the establishment with the incorporation of violent and military guidelines.”

César Villegas, a political scientist and essayist, says that there have also been virulent reactions from the illegal right wing, on many occasions with the complicity of state forces. In the 1980s, for example, paramilitary forces assassinated 1,163 members of the legal party of guerrilla roots Unión Patriótica (including two presidential candidates). According to Villegas, author of The land of sad emotions, “as long as the parties do not agree to reject violent extremes related to their ideological orientations, Colombian democracy will not be consolidated.”

In any case, and judging by the electoral results, it has been the conservative politicians, perhaps, who have made the most of the tension. In his Twitter account, former President Álvaro Uribe often uses labels such as “Castro-Chavismo”, “neocommunism” or “infiltrated by terrorism.” The platform has blocked and limited the account of the Colombian politician on at least two occasions.

The historian and doctor of philosophy María Emma Wills emphasizes that in South America various populist movements flourished in South America in the 1920s and 30s, with figures such as Perón in Argentina or Getulio Vargas in Brazil. A fact that supposed a certain “pluralization” of politics, with socialist or workers’ parties. In those days, in Colombia what for many has been the only robust social agenda proposed from power was shipwrecked.

Its author, the liberal Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-1938), wanted to implement an agrarian reform that gave the land a social function, but “sectors of his own party, anchored in very conservative regional orders, did not support the package of reforms and they left the party fractured. “

Ten years later, on April 9, 1948, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, a populist leader of the most rebellious and secessionist wing of the Liberal Party, was assassinated in the heart of Bogotá. His socialist-looking project posed a great threat to the bipartisan oligarchy and the assassination led to an outbreak known as the Bogotazo, an insurrection that is still being studied as a possible dynamo for later conflicts.

The academic María Emma Wills says that not only have there been no progressive governments, but also that a single mature and long-term liberal project has not been achieved: “The last attempt, perhaps, has been the peace agreement with the FARC (2016 ), but the ruling party – the conservative Democratic Center – has dedicated itself to postponing and weakening it. ”

Gonzalo Sánchez, historian and former director of the Center for Historical Memory, adds that it is a nation with few political upheavals: “We have the impression, due to acts of violence, of always skirting the precipice. But in the end nothing ever happens because the elites have been very adept at maintaining tradition and balance. ” The clearest example of the above is a bipolar fraternal pact baptized as the National Front, designed and signed between Sitges and Benidorm.

The leaders of the two old parties, Liberal and Conservative, agreed to alternate power between 1958 and 1974 as the most effective method to appease the partisan violence that had bled the country to death since the mid-1940s. For Sánchez, these “mediocrities from above” are a historical constant. The political elites of the right and the center have survived the great crises by making some concessions that have allowed them to retain power.

A skill that increasingly contrasts with the general feeling that profound changes are needed to tackle problems in education, justice, equality or the agrarian world. Historian Jorge Orlando Melo suggests that the closure of political and economic elites has blocked any attempt to examine alternatives to a socioeconomic system that has benefited “bankers, big business, and political elites.”

Colombia is the most unequal country in the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to which it acceded last year. And a 2018 study by the same agency indicated that it would take a poor child 330 years to get out of poverty, the equivalent of eleven generations (in Chile six and in Spain four).

As early as the 1920s, a veteran politician equated local democracy with an “orangutan with a sacoleva.” He was referring to an unjust and repressive domestic structure, camouflaged by a stable appearance when holding elections. That balancing act has left historical differences with its neighbors, such as having a civil tradition, or not having suffered long dictatorships, or incurring major economic or financial setbacks. In return, the country has gone through a prolonged and bloody armed conflict, fueled by drug trafficking and deep social imbalances (42.4% today live in poverty).

“It has fallen into a huge conservatization of politics,” says Gonzalo Sánchez, author of Roads of War, Utopias of Peace (Colombia: 1948-2020). And he points out: “It is a question of a democracy that, ultimately, does not feel sufficiently demanded to carry out necessary reforms.” And María Emma Wills adds an element of study to understand the strength of a “very cohesive conservative nucleus”: the Concordat signed between the Vatican and the Colombian State in the 19th century and which, exceptionally on the continent, remained almost unchanged until 1993.

For a century the Church dominated public education and its members were exempt from investigation by the ordinary penal system. According to Melo, “a model of electoral coexistence, democratic, sometimes tricky, very patronizing has been woven, which has never dared to question, for example, a fairly unequal economic project.”

Since the 1960s, the Colombian economy has had stable figures, with slow but constant growth. At first guided by the protectionist postulates of ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), from the 90s it took the course of an orthodox neoliberal opening.

The economist and politician Cecilia López Montaño recalls that although economic management never had the objective of fighting inequality, with the politics of the 90s, inequality ran rampant, public spending was reduced and the concentration of traditional power was further accentuated .

Today the level of concentration of rural land, according to the Gini index, is 0.89: “The number 1 would be total concentration. It is shameful,” he says.

A popular phrase said that the only difference between conservative and liberal politicians was that while some went to mass in the morning service, the others did so in the afternoon. The ideological boundaries have not been as sharp as their first names suggest. Yale University sociologist and professor Fernando Guillén Martínez wrote in the 1970s that, with “the exception of their struggles for presidential and public administration control,” the two traditional parties “did not seem at all divided in terms of their opinions. social and economic “.

Today the panorama has been dismembered in a handful of parties that change their name as the formula runs out. Made up of remnants of the two old formations, now very discredited, their actors try to adjust to the new times with names such as the ruling Democratic Center, or the National Unity Party, of former president Juan Manuel Santos. Or the Historical Pact movement, by Gustavo Petro. A series of names that add to the confusion: “Unmasking the ideologies of political parties in Colombia has never been easy. Today it is less so,” says Cecilia López.

For María Emma Wills, in any case, it would be unfair to ignore that there is a “supremely vital” civil society, with progressive academic circles and social movements that demand change. “What happens,” says Wills, “is that the political system has been unable to represent them. There is a knot in the political representation of a vibrant country.”

Jorge Orlando Melo agrees and is cautious at the same time. He does not believe that traditional machinery is going to let the pendulum drop to the right. The opening of democracy may still take some time: “As long as the popular sectors are guaranteed basic subsidies and the elites are not bothered by higher direct taxes, the system will continue to operate with all its flaws and inconsistencies,” says Melo, author of Minimal history of Colombia.



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