In Colombia, those who believe in peace with justice rejoice

A Gustavo Petro campaign poster from 2010.

On a winter evening about 20 years ago – I am sorry that I cannot be more precise – Bill Fairbairn and I met in Toronto with a Colombian congressman and one of his aides. Bill worked for the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA), and I served on its board. And I can’t remember if this meeting was before or after mid-2001 when the work of ICCHRLA was folded (partially) into KAIROS. We were in what I think we used to call the Blue Room of Deer Park United Church in Toronto where the offices of ICCHRLA and later KAIROS were located.

I do remember the congressman, Gustavo Petro, and his earnest search for international allies in the struggle to end Colombia’s civil war and to obtain a measure of social justice to the oppressed majority.

Two decades later, Petro is weeks away from being sworn in as Colombia’s first president from a party of the left. His victory results from the mobilization of young and new voters from parts of Colombia that are always ignored, especially the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. 

Celebrating victory (left); voters from the margins propelled Petro to power.

A large measure of credit goes to his running mate, the environmental activist and lawyer Francia Márquez, 40. She will become the country’s first Afro-Colombian to hold executive office. This election was the first time voter turnout topped 60 per cent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

I met Petro again in August 2004 in Caracas, Venezuela. We were staying in the same hotel and both of us were observers of a referendum that opponents hoped would remove President Hugo Chávez from power. During Petro’s three campaigns to become president, along with his congressional and senate races, and the 2011 drive that made him mayor of Bogotá, right-wing politicians tagged him as castrochavista (as if that were a bad thing). They decried his youthful involvement in the M-19 guerrillas. They had made peace with the government in 1990. Petro, unlike many former fighters who laid down their weapons, survived the waves of selective assassinations that sought to eliminate them from political life.

Victory this past Sunday by Gustavo Petro, 62, in Colombia’s presidential election offers hope for reviving a peace process stalled these past four years by President Iván Duque, protegé of former president Álvaro Uribe – the fiercest guardian of the ways that things have always been done by those with power in Colombia.

Petro defeated Rodolfo Hernández, a millionaire conservative who was frequently compared to Donald Trump.

This election (like recent ones in Chile, Honduras and Peru) is also firm rejection of Canadian and U.S. foreign policy that for the past 20 years has paid lip service to the search for peace, but always protected the interests of those who control land and natural resources. Before Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his majority in Parliament in 2011, Canada negotiated a free trade agreement with Colombia that as a sop to the Liberal party contained a mechanism for a toothless human rights impact assessment. Colombia was also the key regional ally in setting up the “Lima Group,” the attempt by Washington and Ottawa to isolate Venezuela when most members of the Organization of American States refused to play along.

After the victories by Hugo Chávez in December 1998 in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva in Brazil in 2002, some of us starting talking about a “pink tide” sweeping across Latin America (forgetting perhaps that tides also recede). Now the tide is back, this time stronger than before. In Brazil, Lula is again leading the polls in anticipation of the election later this year.

The road ahead for Petro will be difficult, just as it has been for Pedro Castillo in Peru since his victory a year ago. The opposition will set traps and take advantage of every misstep. In this third attempt to win power, Petro proposed pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms. He would change how Colombia fights drug cartels and start new talks with remaining guerrilla fighters. But his coalition has only about 15 per cent of the seats in Congress, which will force him to make deals, limit some reforms or abandon others. Parts of the U.S. government (military and intelligence agencies) will not be friendly, and Canada (because of influence by resource-extraction companies) may not be either.

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