With 50.48 percent of the vote, Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez have won the electoral contest in the Colombian presidential election against right-wing demagogue Rodolfo Hernandez. The historic significance of the victory of Petro, Marquez and the Pacto Histórico cannot be underestimated. Gustavo Petro has become the first leftist president in the history of Colombia. His presidency represents a turning point in the class struggle of a country in which the capitalist oligarchy has typically played the role of executioner with impunity.
Let us not forget that this is a country in which all candidates who have directly opposed the oligarchy in the past have been assassinated (Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Jaime Pardo Leal, Bernardo Jaramillo, Carlos Pizarro, Luís Carlos Galán), and in which the formation of a party of the left has been confronted with the mass murder of its activists (such as the case of the Patriotic Union, which saw 1,163 of its activists killed over eight years, including two presidential candidates, 13 members of parliament and 11 local mayors). The victory of a mass party that considers itself to be on the left is an unprecedented event, which reflects the depth of the crisis facing Colombian and international capitalism.
Petro's victory is a defeat for Uribismo and will have the effect of increasing the confidence of the masses in their own strength. That is what the ruling class fears, that Petro's presidency will further open the floodgates of the struggle for better living conditions and that it will become a runaway torrent that they will not be able to control.
Lessons from 2018
Petro's third attempt to win the presidency reflected a partial correction to the flaws that defined his 2018 runoff campaign. For example, the shift in focus toward mobilising the masses (through massive efforts to transporting abstentionist voters, creating electoral witness committees to prevent fraud, etc.) are new events that will teach a whole layer of workers, youth and peasants that they cannot count only on the advantages of bourgeois democracy to win, but that can only rely on their own forces.
Petro redoubled his efforts in the regions lost in 2018, such as the Atlantic coast and the Amazon. However, it must be said that the way in which he achieved this was not only by organising bigger events in all the regions, but also relying on the support of local “caciques” (traditional leaders linked to traditional politics) of each department to mobilise votes. Alliances with dubious characters like Zulema Jattin and William Montes, coordinated by figures like Roy Barreras, Armando Benedetti and Alfonso Prada (from Santismo) are demonstrations of the weak side of Petrismo.
By comparison, Hernandez obtained 10.5 million votes, practically all his own base plus that of Federico ‘Fico’ Gutierrez, the right-wing candidate defeated in the first round, which totaled 11 million. Therefore, the difference between Petro's 8.5 million in the first round and the 11.2 that he received in the second came mainly from the increased turnout, which went from 55 percent to 58 percent. This indicates the tactics of the Pacto Histórico throughout this second round, where they concentrated on looking for those who abstained from voting in the first round, instead of watering down the political programme that had been agreed upon since the first round.
Now, it should be noted that the political programme of the Pacto Histórico in 2022 is a result of the moderations and mitigations that Petro had already made in the second round of 2018.
A historic victory
This victory simply would not have been possible without the unprecedented mass mobilisation of the national strike of 2021. During those three months, Uribismo was put in check and the ruling class recognised the Primera Linea self defence organised by the youth as the harbinger of its fall. The only thing that saved the Iván Duque government then was the role of the trade union leaders, who demobilised unionised workers and served as brakes on the movement. But the warning made the most intelligent sector of the bourgeoisie stop and think. This state of mind was reflected in Alejandro Gaviria's statements to the London Financial Times: “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.”
The historical significance of this victory also comes from the fact that Petro has won thanks to the formation of a coalition of all the mass leftist parties in the country. From the Colombian Communist Party to Colombia Humana, Petro has formed a mass-based coalition. However, in the search for the presidency, the Pacto Histórico has opened the door to the supporters of former president Santos (who originally was a minister under Uribe and then became president himself). This is the contradiction that defines Petro’s Pacto Histórico. It is a mass party whose base wants to fight for substantial improvements in their living conditions and for historical demands (such as agrarian reform and a reform of the health system), but whose leadership has ties to those who have earned their great fortunes through the accumulation of land and the privatisation of healthcare in the ‘90s.
Various episodes throughout the formation of the Pacto Histórico reflect this tension, from the closed list scandal to the “Petrovideos” (videos in which the leaders of Pacto Histórico discuss among themselves how to win the votes of the rich and even finance companies like Supergiros). Meanwhile, the election of Francia Márquez as vice president demonstrates Petro's need to offer the most militant section of his base, who want radical change, a prominent place in the coalition. Marquez has been clear from the start that she was not about to be just a figurehead. In fact, her tendency to be open about her differences with the leadership put her in doubt for the vice presidency and ended up driving away César Gaviria, the top leader of the liberal party.
It is quite possible that Francia will play a very important role in waging the struggle within the Pacto Histórico against those who decide that defending the interests of the bosses is more important than achieving the reforms that have put them in power. But it will only be to the extent that the rank-and-file of the Pacto Histórico respond to the need to break with these leaders and impose democratic measures of accountability (such as the principle of election to leadership positions and the right of revocation) within the coalition
The limits of ‘Petrismo’
The four years of Petro’s presidency will be defined by the international crisis of capitalism and the havoc that it has wreaked on the Colombian economy. In a country in which the external debt is equivalent to 50 percent of GDP, where inflation has turned the Colombian peso into the most devalued currency in the world, and where unemployment is the highest in the continent (10 percent according to The Economist) it is clear that the Petro government will be put to the test.
To be clear, Petro’s programme is clearly a reformist one. Its slogan is that of a more humane capitalism. What has earned Petro the hatred of the ruling class has been the fact that he has proposed reforms that – in the context of backward Colombian capitalism, dominated by imperialism – imply great losses for the true owners of the Colombian economy: US imperialism and its puppets in the capitalist oligarchy.
For example, his proposal to stop oil and mining exploration (“from day one”) in order to start a transition to green sources of energy is a direct attack on the profits of a ruling class whose main export is oil. Similarly, his proposal to create a public pension system in a country in which 90 percent of workers do not receive pensions sufficient to retire, has attracted the interest of workers and peasants. Meanwhile, it has been attacked by the Colombian oligarchy that uses pension money to invest and obtain personal gain, with little benefit to pensioners.
It must be said that these proposals are not the proposals of a ‘crazed communist’ ready to expropriate and nationalise all sectors of industry. These proposals do not begin to touch the sources of power of the Colombian oligarchy. His proposal for agrarian reform begins with the prospect of buying the unproductive land of the latifundistas where the latter do not wish to use their land and refuse to pay their taxes (Pacto Histórico Programme, pg. 19).
These proposals, and their attempts to conciliate with the ruling class, are the weaknesses of a Petro government. To see this weak side, we need not look beyond his acceptance speech, in which he invited the opposition to govern with him and declared “to those who said that we were going to destroy private property, I would say the following: We are going to develop Colombian capitalism. We have to overcome Colombian feudalism.”
We must clarify that Colombia’s backwardness is not the product of “feudalism”. In Colombia, there is a “free market”, wage slavery, and private property of the means of production. These are the characteristics of capitalism. But Colombian capitalism is defined by uneven and combined development, where the landowning oligarchy depends on the concentration of land and the financial support of US imperialism, which places it in a position of subordination with respect to the world capitalist economy.
The Colombian economy pays a price, however, as its economy is relegated to that of an exporter of raw materials, denied the opportunity to manufacture or to import techniques. In other words, the backwardness of the Colombian economy is for the benefit of US imperialism. The task of developing the Colombian economy is not a question of required stages, whereby socialism can only be achieved through capitalist development in each country. The important thing is to understand that the world economy is capitalist, and that this makes it necessary to fight for socialism in each country. The “democratic and productive capitalism” that Petro spoke of does not exist and cannot exist in Colombia in the epoch of imperialist domination.
The ruling class assault
The ruling class’ response to Petro’s victory has been one of acceptance with implicit conditions. Both Alvaro Uribe Velez and Rodolfo Hernández have “accepted” Petro’s victory. But they have done so while reminding people that they are only willing to accept a Petro government to the extent that it “respects the institutions”.
They insist on the need to reach a “grand national agreement” (language that Petro has also adopted) and for him to govern “not only for those who have voted for him but also for those who have opposed him”. On the other hand, when a right-wing capitalist candidate like Duque wins, they say that he has “the mandate to implement his programme without concern”.
What motivates their acceptance of Petro’s victory is their need to avoid another social explosion, in which the Colombian bourgeoisie, which is conscious of its dwindling support, feels unsure that it would maintain its grip on power. But more than this, it has a long-term strategy of relying on bourgeois democratic institutions to reroute the movement behind Petro into the safest possible channels in order to defang it.
Not only will he have to deal with the opposition of the most conservative elements in the country, who still have a large part of the legislative seats. The Pacto Histórico government will also have to face the fact that, while they have the highest number of senators and the second highest number of representatives, they are still a minority in both chambers.
The ruling class will use all means at their disposal to sabotage any progressive measure the democratically elected president dares to take. It will use the media to wage an unparalleled campaign of slander and defamation, it will resort to sabotage by the bourgeois state apparatus, the judicial system, and the armed forces. We will see the threat of an investment strike and capital flight. The leadership of the Pact will then say that the task will be to moderate the reforms in order to pass them through ‘consensus’.
Our answer to these unfavourable conditions has to be mass mobilisation in the streets to put pressure on the leaders of those parties that use their power to stop change. There is nothing more democratic and powerful than working people on the move and it is time to prove this.
The fight continues
Petro’s victory represents a great sigh of relief for those who feared a Rodolfo Hernández victory and the continuation of the policies of austerity and repression that defined the four years of Iván Duque. Not only this, but right now Petro’s victory embodies the aspirations of millions of Colombians who want to put an end to the country’s backwardness. His victory is a historic event, and it was rightly celebrated as such on Sunday night by tens of thousands across the country. But it is only a first step. It will be important for Marxists to watch the actions of the Petro government carefully.
Petro is facing a crossroads: he can rule for the mass of working people who have elected him, or rule for the oligarchy. To the extent that he implements reforms that improve the quality of life of the masses, he will earn the hatred of businessmen, large landowners, and US imperialism. The Colombian economy is of such a backward character that profits cannot be redistributed without taking them away from the oligarchy. If he wavers or offers concessions to the oligarchy in the name of class conciliation, he will demoralise his own base of support and lay the foundation for his downfall.
As long as the means of production are in the hands of the oligarchy, Petro will not be able to control them and will never, therefore, be able to develop the productive capacity of the country. The cost of investment is too great for the bosses, who are only interested in profits. And any spending on social infrastructure or reforms would mean taking money away from the imperialists in Washington.
The only way forward is to break with the logic of capitalism. The youth, the peasantry, and the Colombian working class, can only rely on their own strength: the strength which rocked the ruling class for three months in 2021 and ended tax reform. It is urgent to form a revolutionary alternative that can bring this programme into the discussion that is going to open up in the mass organisations.
Any step forward that the government takes will have to be defended in the streets in the face of resistance from the ruling class. Every hesitation or retreat by the government will have to be resisted through mass struggle in the streets.
The task of the Marxists in these next four years is clear: to form a link with the most advanced section of the masses who will take to the streets to organise; to offer tactics and strategy in every fight that can win us the reforms that this presidency promises; to increase the confidence of the working class in its own strength; and to win over the best elements of the labour movement. Only in this way can we build a true revolutionary alternative that can convert the struggle for reforms into the struggle for socialism in order to put an end to the Colombian oligarchy – a cabal of parasites whose only interest is the enrichment of their coffers and those of their friends in Washington.