Colombia elections: the bourgeoisie closes ranks to attack Petro

With the presidential elections in Colombia less than a week away, the ruling class has conducted an aggressive campaign of slander and threats with one objective: to prevent the election of Gustavo Petro, the centre-left candidate who leads the polls with a 38.8% voting intention. His nearest rival, the right-wing candidate Federico “Fico” Gutierrez has 24.6%. It is encouraging to note that the INVAMER poll in particular, found that Petro would win a second round with 52.4% of the voting intention as against 35.2% for Fico.

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However, these numbers raise another concern: they suggest that Petro would have to win the election in its second round, in which the ruling class would use the whole media to erode his base of support. While the recent polls promise victory for Petro, a slander campaign like the one we’re seeing and a poor response from the left could spell defeat for Petro’s coalition, Pacto Histórico (Historical Pact), on the electoral battleground.

Petro’s life has also recently been threatened, causing him to cancel his tour around the country. In the context of Colombian history and the fact that presidential candidates who have confronted the political establishment like Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, Carlos Pizarro, Jaime Pardo Leal, Bernardo Jaramillo and Luis Carlos Galán have all been assassinated, these threats hold weight.

It’s important that Pacto Histórico’s rank-and-file are prepared with the correct tactics and know how to respond to the slanders and threats from the establishment in the upcoming period. It is also essential to understand Pacto Histórico’s limits as a political formation, and to establish a strategy from the ground up that is able to overcome all the obstacles that the oligarchy is throwing in the way of the left.

The desperation of the ruling class

According to a poll by CELAG (Centro Estratégico Latinoamericano de Geopolítica), Iván Duque, the current president, now has a disapproval rating of 80%. More than this, 30% believe that Alvaro Uribe (Duque’s political patron and leader of the party to which they both belong, Centro Democratico) should be imprisoned, while another 41% believe he should no longer seek political office. These numbers are astounding, considering that Uribe finished his presidency in 2008 with a positive approval rate of 80%, which propelled him into a senate seat.

The poll also reflects a widespread rejection of the Colombian oligarchy. 63.7% of Colombians think it’s necessary to limit the earnings of the private banks and 53.7% believe that it is necessary to raise taxes on the rich. It is worth noting 44.8% of the population considers corruption to be the main problem. However, this has to be weighed against the fact that the political establishment uses corruption as a scapegoat for its own crimes. These figures reflect the fact that a big layer of the population recognises the fact that the political institutions are corrupt.

hope or fear Image Edgar Zuniga FlickrAs the ruling class discredited itself, Petro has increasingly come under attack from the media / Image: Edgar Zuniga, Flickr

These are the circumstances that inform the tactics of the oligarchy. A government that had everything under control would have no need to recur to constant attacks on the opposition candidate. It would only have to maintain its course and ignore him. But this is not the case, and therefore the ruling class has to close ranks and direct all its fire against Petro in order to prevent his victory. From the direct interventions of President Duque (who has criticised Petro’s proposal to create a public pensions fund) to the TV networks and radio stations spreading slanderous claims without any evidence (such as the allegation that Petro was financed by Nicolas Maduro’s government), all of these are tactics of a class that knows it cannot offer economic stability to the workers or a future to its youth.

In a sense, this is understood by the masses. There was a very telling response to the events of 18 April, when various publications and radio stations claimed to have material (rumored to be of a personal character) that would end Petro’s campaign. Between the repudiation of leaking of personal information, to the fact that neither the establishment nor the people commented on the matter further after nothing came out, it is clear that the majority of the population simply do not buy into these tactics.

Tremors in the armed forces

Of greater importance is the position that the armed forces have taken. The commander of the National Army of Colombia, General Eduardo Zapateiro, has publicly accused Petro of receiving money from unlawful sources. He has effectively revived one of the old slander campaigns from Petro’s days as mayor of Bogotá. The accusations came in response to Petro’s statement regarding the massacre in Putumayo, where the army claimed to have killed eleven FARC dissidents. However, a report by Voragine, Cambio and El Espectador showed there were traces of evidence tampering to disguise the fact that four civilians were among the eleven dead.

The response from the right wing was what one would expect: an all-out defense of the army’s actions and the utmost use of propaganda to justify what happened in Putumayo, opening the floodgates of lies and disinformation in order to drown out the facts. Even more telling, however, was the response from the liberal sector of the establishment, which decided its best line of attack was to whine about the constitution and the need for the army to respect it.

General Zapateiro has broken more than one constitutional article in his escalating campaign of slander against Petro. Zapateiro’s tweets have made clear that a big layer of the state apparatus will be unwilling to follow the orders of President Petro. It is necessary to understand that the constitution is nothing more than words on paper. The interests of the landlords and the capitalist class are above any written law, and therefore determine the state’s course of action.

We may recall that the 1991 Constitution promises fundamental rights: such as the right to live, to assembly, and to free speech. But it is clear that these rights are withdrawn the moment that the ruling class feels threatened by their being exercised. A Petro presidency would be a risk for the ruling class, not because of his programme, but because it would encourage the masses’ aspirations for a better life.

There are thinking layers of the ruling class that recognise that Petro offers possibilities to reroute the movement into safe channels, where it can crash against the big wall of the political institutions. For instance, there’s Alejandro Gaviria, who was quoted in the Financial Times as saying: “We are sleeping on top of a volcano. There is a lot of dissatisfaction. It could be better to have a controlled explosion with Petro than to bottle up the volcano. The country is demanding change.” Similarly, Luis Sarmiento Angulo, Colombia’s richest man, stated in an interview with Semana that, “when Petro becomes president and sees things as they are, he’ll change his mind. If he takes the necessary time and finds the most convenient assessors, he’ll see things are as I say.”

However, there are layers of the ruling class that recognise that Colombia’s economic position is dependent on cheap wages and a low cost of social infrastructure, which allows the international ruling class to reap bigger profits than in their own countries. This layer is the one leading the fight against Petro.

Zapateiro’s tweets are a confirmation that this sector of the ruling class has the sympathy and the interest of the Colombian armed forces. This reflects a fundamental lesson from the work of Marx and Engels: The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes. This repressive apparatus is meant to be operated by the landlords and the bourgeoisie and it is tied to them by a thousand threads (through financing, collection of taxes, ideological apparatuses such as the means of communication and the universities).

The armed blockade by the Clan del Golfo (one of the most feared drug cartels in the country) is an astonishing demonstration of this dynamic. While the drug dealers burn trucks and force businesses to close throughout 95 cities in ten departments in order to spread terror, the ESMAD (the anti-riot police that infamously repressed the “paro nacional” movement of workers and youth a year ago) mysteriously disappears. Duque leaves the country while the Clan threatens women and children. In fact, rich families are managing to celebrate weddings and parties just fine, while the police openly collaborate with the Clan. The idea that Petro can be the commander-in-chief of these armed forces without facing the possibility of a mutiny is utopian.

Daniel Quintero’s suspension

Alongside the criminal blockade by the Clan del Golfo and the campaign by the media and institutions against Petro, it is worth mentioning the events in Medellín, where mayor Daniel Quintero has been suspended for three months (long after the elections are over). The justification given for this measure was his participation in politics. According to Inspector General Margarita Cabello, a video of the mayor shifting gears in his vehicles and saying “el cambio es en primera” (“change is on first” a slogan associated with Petro, who has insisted on the necessity of winning in the first round) is reason enough to suspend the public official.

Daniel Quintero Calle Image Felipealvaran Wikimedia CommonsMedellín mayor, Quintero, has been suspended for repeating one of Petro's slogan in a video – all the while Duque's slanderous remarks are not faced with any consequences / Image: Felipealvaran, Wikimedia Commons

Whilst Duque and Zapateiro have maintained their accusations and haven’t seen any long-term consequences for their commentary in the elections, Quintero (the first public office holder to indicate his support for Petro without quitting first) has been immediately suspended.

But as Marxists, we cannot simply support Quintero. While he has broken with the status quo of naked corruption and austerity that citizens of Medellín have come to expect from mayors like Sergio Fajardo and Fico amongst others, it is important to understand that Quintero is not on the side of the working class. One only has to bring to mind his deployment of the police to attack International Working Women’s Day marches to understand that, regardless of his inclusive language and pleasant demeanor, Quintero’s interests are not the same as those of the working class.

The fact that Quintero has become a kind of martyr for Pacto Histórico, if anything, reflects the coalition’s main weakness: its unequivocal faith in institutions and the so-called “progressive” layers of the bourgeoisie. While we cannot ignore how Duque’s government has used him as an example to attack a layer of the bourgeoisie who supports Petro, neither can we ignore the fact that Quintero’s mayorship of Medellín saw hunger strikes by workers and the deployment of police to the University of Antioquia.

How can Pacto Histórico respond?

The main task ahead of the rank-and-file of Pacto Histórico must be the critical defense of Petro’s programme from the onslaught of the right. Its progressive value in comparison to what the establishment has to offer must be demonstrated at the same time as explaining its limits. An uncritical defense of such a programme will be exposed once the limits of Petro’s programme meet the light of day. But at the same time, it is necessary to avert the demoralisation of those who have been newly mobilised and awakened to political life.

Nothing can be conceded to the ruling class, however, in terms of the defense of Pacto Histórico. The real question is: who holds the solution to Colombia’s problems? Who holds the solution to inflation, inequality and rampant violence? Even the most casual observer will understand that it was the policies of Uribe and Duque that landed us in this crisis. Their continuation would only exacerbate the situation.

It is crucial that Marxists recognise that the rank-and-file of Pacto Histórico follow Petro on account of the fact that he’s the government’s opponent with the greatest chance of implementing policies of change in the current period. Petro’s ideas challenge the ruling class within the limits of capitalism. His challenge would mean a loss of profits in a period of capitalist crisis. This is the core of the matter: the creation of a system of public pensions to lower the retirement age, the expansion of public healthcare, education and housing, etc. are not revolutionary positions, but they respond to the needs of millions of Colombians who are barely able to survive on minimum wages that cover one third of the cost of living.

This is why a comradely dialogue must be established with the rank-and-file of Pacto Histórico. They must be approached with a clear analysis of the current situation and an explanation of why what Colombia is suffering is the consequence of a worldwide crisis of capitalism. It must be explained that Petro’s government will be confronted by a very simple truth: you cannot control what you do not own. While the economy is in the hands of a minority connected to the international bourgeoisie, whose main interests line in maintaining Colombia’s economic backwardness in order to reduce the cost of wages, any reform which reduces the minority’s profits in order to raise the living standards of the majority will be stymied and attacked with the all the strength that the state and the ruling class can muster.

In this period, in which the ruling class uses the armed blockade as a smokescreen to implement repression and measures of terror against the youth and a working class on the march, we must respond with the means and strength possessed by the working class and the youth. It’s clear that the state has no interest in defending our democratic rights. Depending on the situation in each region, it will become necessary to rebuild the Primeras Líneas from the days of the paro nacional [national stoppage] or else organise an orderly retreat, but only the tactics of the paro nacional will allow us to respond swiftly to the armed blockade and the slander campaign of the ruling class.

Pacto Histórico’s leadership will only go as far as its programme allows. The nature of the coalition prepares it for capitulation before the pressures of the Colombian ruling class on various points on its programme. To avoid the demoralisation of the hundreds of thousands that Petro has inspired to enter political life, it is necessary to provide alternative tactics, strategy and programme to the ones Pacto Histórico offers. This can only be done by an organisation that brings in those who are already doubting what the coalition can achieve, but who are willing to fight to put an end to the backwardness that defines life in Colombia.

The rank-and-file of Pacto Histórico can play a leading role in the creation of such an organisation: a workers’ party that recognises that the interests of the working class and the ruling class are simply irreconcilable; a party that is willing to fight beyond the limits of Petro’s programme, linking the reforms with militant tactics of mass demonstrations, strikes and a unionisation campaign.

Ultimately, we must explain that even Petro’s limited programme of reforms is in contradiction with the fundamental interests of the ruling class. It can only actually be implemented through expropriations. The fight to improve the living conditions of the majority of the Colombian people (the workers, peasants, youth and the poor); to obtain a living wage, employment, housing and bread – this is the fight for socialism. Colombia is a rich country. Its people are poor because its wealth is concentrated in the hands of a fistful of parasitic capitalists, landlords, businessmen and criminal elements who serve as lackeys to the interests of imperialism and the multinational corporations. For everything to change, all of the wealth that we create must be in the hands of the working people.