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.

When elites see their wealth threatened, they move heaven and earth

On Nov. 11, 1979, San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero preached on Mark 12:38-44, The Widow’s Offering: Jesus watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” 

Colombia’s president sends more troops to Cali to try to quell a month of protests. The British magazine The Economist invites a resurgence of U.S. imperialism to thwart the Mexican president’s option for the poor. The six-decade-long U.S. blockade of Cuba is so severe that the country cannot obtain sufficient syringes to protect its population with the vaccines it has developed.

And I think of the words of St. Oscar Romero on Nov. 11, 1979, when he offered a warning about money when it becomes an idol:

It’s natural that when the right feels that their economic privileges are being threatened, they will move heaven and earth in order to maintain their idol of wealth.

Next Sunday, June 6, Mexicans and Peruvians head to the polls. In Mexico, these mid-term elections—the national legislature and many state and local races—are marred by violence: at least 35 candidates of various parties have been murdered. In Peru, it’s the second round of voting to elect a new president: from the left, Pedro Castillo stands a reasonable chance of defeating Keiko Fujimori, despite her powerful, rich supporters.

The Economist’s attack on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his initials as AMLO) in startling. There are reasonable grounds to debate this policy (the pandemic response) or that development plan (the tourist train in the Yucatán peninsula that is opposed by Indigenous people in the region), but The Economist argues that he is a populist comparable to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and that democracy is threatened:

Mr. López Obrador divides Mexicans into two groups: “the people”, by which he means those who support him; and the elite, whom he denounces, often by name, as crooks and traitors who are to blame for all Mexico’s problems. He says he is building a more authentic democracy. 

Left: Cartoon by Israel Vargas, The Economist, May 27, 2021. Right: cartoon by El Fisgón, La Jornada, May 29, 2021. (“The Economist: The magazine of the True Oligarchy.”)

It then goes further, suggesting that the United States get involved in Mexico’s internal affairs:

The United States needs to pay attention. Donald Trump did not care about Mexican democracy. President Joe Biden should make clear that he does. He must be tactful: Mexicans are understandably allergic to being pushed around by their big neighbour. But America ought not to turn a blind eye to creeping authoritarianism in its backyard. As well as sending vaccines, unconditionally, Mr. Biden should send quiet warnings.

So, what is a populist anyway? 

A Venezuelan friend who lives in Costa Rica, José Amesty, says populism is a term used by elites when they do not understand what is going on. I would refine that slightly and suggest that it is a term used by elites and technocrats to describe political movements that reject their narrow economic priorities—maintaining their own privileges—by putting social goals first. 

Amesty cites AMLO: “supporting the poor, supporting elderly adults, supporting youth: if that is to be populist, then add me to the list.” AMLO stands in the tradition of Lázaro Cárdenas, the revolutionary Mexican president who in the 1930s led a land reform that put half of the farming land in the hands of local community councils (ejidos) and who nationalized the petroleum industry.

Populism is one of the least useful terms in our political lexicon. I think we’re clearer when we use tags that are generally understood: left (social democrat, socialist, communist), centre (liberal), or right (conservative, traditional, elitist, militarist). Better yet: actually describe the content of political platforms. What does this candidate stand for? With whom do they stand? 

The government of Iván Duque in Colombia and the candidacy of Fujimori in Peru are projections of traditional elites trying to hold on to their power and economic privileges against diverse social and political movements that would empower people who have usually been locked out of power: the rural and urban poor, Indigenous and descendants of Africans, women and LGBTI people. 

In that sense, democracy in Latin America is not so much being threatened as it is still being invented.

¿Qué hubo? What’s going on in Colombia?

“This space is for civilian women and men. No armed actors.”

Against all odds, the Colombian people have succeeded these recent weeks in mounting the biggest challenge to the country’s ruling class in living memory. 

Since April 28, Colombia has been rocked by mass protests—and excessive police and military repression. The government’s human rights office acknowledges the deaths of at least 42 protesters and one policeman, but independent groups put the toll much higher. 

Protests began because of an ill-conceived plan to raises taxes on working and middle-class people while the COVID pandemic continues to take a huge toll on human lives and the economy. The government backed down and the finance minister quit, but the protests continue because taxes are not the only problem.

“Together we build peace; with the accords, we all win.”

The government of Iván Duque, the president who depends on former president Álvaro Uribe for political support, has done little to implement the peace agreement reached in 2016 by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, and the FARC guerrillas. Nor has it pursued talks with the other guerrilla army, the ELN. Some of the once-demobilized FARC fighters have taken up arms again. Killings of social movement leaders, human rights defenders and ex-combatants continue, reaching “shocking levels” in 2020 according to Amnesty International.

Little is done to assist Colombia’s nearly 8 million internally-displaced people to recover land taken from them by paramilitary death squads acting on behalf of large land-owners—the class that Uribe defends most ardently. Ancestors of that group seized control of Colombia in the wake of the independence struggle two centuries ago, and it continues to take land from Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and other small land-holder farmers. 

With the pandemic, poverty has worsened—and the government does not address the problem. The UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated that 37.5 per cent of Colombia’s population lived below the poverty line by the end of 2020, making it the country with the highest poverty rate in Latin America. The World Bank’s numbers give cause to even greater pessimism: it estimates a poverty rate of 45 per cent.

Trade unions, women’s groups, students, Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and LGBTI groups have all been part of the protests. Churches were slow to speak—and some merely echoed the government’s call for order. But Colombia’s Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church have affirmed the rights of the multitudes to protest. The Evangelical Lutheran Church called on the government to “peacefully listen.”

The Women’s Popular Organization (OFP), a partner of KAIROS Canada, called for political will to implement the peace accords, demilitarization of areas where protests are taking place, and for a “universal basic income for women and families living in poverty.” 

Through Common Frontiers, several Canadian allies of Colombian groups issued a joint statement of solidarity with the protests, and called on Canada to press Colombia to dismantle its riot squad (called the ESMAD and held responsible for most of the violence), halt human rights violations, to negotiate with the National Strike Committee, and “engage in a serious dialogue with social and institutional actors to address the deep inequalities which are at the root of this conflict.”

For a few days, the protests garnered worldwide attention. Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Marc Garneau, condemned “the violence, including the disproportionate use of force by security forces.” He went on to express concern about “the acts of vandalism and attacks directed against public officials responsible for the protection of all Colombian citizens. Canada calls upon those responsible for road blockades to allow the free passage of goods and services essential to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Left: “The land is for those who work it.” Right: Displacement.

When thinking about Colombia today, however, it’s important to bear in mind the falsos positivos, the false positives—6,402 murders carried out during the Uribe presidency. Colombia’s armed forces kidnapped young men from urban barrios, murdered them, dressed them as guerrillas, and then tried to pass them off “successes” in its war on “terrorism.” They’re quite capable of dressing themselves up, acting as vandals, and then blaming the protesters.

While proclaiming support for peace, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a free trade agreement with Uribe in 2008; opponents (among whom I was one) stalled its implementation until 2011 because it rewards the same thieving class that has ruled Colombia since 1810. 

Canada also allows weapons sales to Colombia. The Colombian human rights group CREDHOS, a partner of Peace Brigades International, is calling on Canada to stop technical assistance, logistical or financial support to the Colombian armed forces and police. 

“The world is seeing the repression that is happening in Colombia. We call on Canada and other countries to please talk about the violence in Colombia. If there is any sort of military support or technical assistance, please abstain from providing that military aid because they are attacking the civilian population.”

“With due respect to the Canadian government we are asking that through your different actions and mechanisms, diplomatic channels that you have with the Colombian state, that you can speak to the national government and express your concern about systematic human rights violations in the context of the social protests.”

“Hopefully from the actions of the Canadian government and other countries we will be able to de-escalate the violence we are facing today in our country.”

Canada also has a “bilateral police initiative” with Colombia, announced in 2017 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau