Colombia votes in the final runoff round in one of its most pivotal and closely fought presidential elections in decades on June 17. The two remaining candidates are starkly polarized, as are the potential outcomes for Colombia and the entire Latin American region. Both candidates are charismatic, anti-establishment and anti-corruption, Gustavo Petro from the left, and Ivan Duque, ordained political heir of former hard-right President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (now under investigation by the Supreme Court over his alleged role in war crimes committed by a paramilitary death squad).
Petro has laid bare Colombia’s failed democracy in this campaign by aggressively highlighting revelations over vote-rigging, corruption, U.S. clientelism and the extent of the state’s involvement in atrocities committed by the paramilitaries responsible for the vast majority of bloodshed during the long-running civil war. Meanwhile, the fragile peace accord between the government and the FARC guerrilla group is on the verge of collapse (Bogota Post). Uribe, Duque and other right-wing politicians have railed against the perceived “leniency” of the peace deal with the help of mainstream media. The media has also helped by portraying Petro as a communist and raising the spectre of Colombia becoming the next Venezuela (Financial Times).
However, if Duque does win on June 17, this could definitively spell the end of the delicate peace process, plunging Colombia back into civil war. Chris Kraul writes in the LA Times: “Arlene Tickner, an international relations professor at Rosario University in Bogota, said the agreement already is in serious jeopardy because of ‘slow implementation, lack of money and other factors’, and that changes proposed by Duque could spell its doom.”
A fragile peace in the balance
With 49 million people, Colombia is the third-most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. However, due to its central geographical position, and leading role in the “Bolivarian” independence struggle against Spanish rule, it has traditionally held a historical leadership position in Latin America. Colombia is a nation rich in natural and human potential, one of the most bio-diverse nations in the world and featuring geography from tropical rain forest to Caribbean coast — and everything in between. However, as Bogota University professor and historian Renán Vega Cantor suggests, for the last century, the United States and a small Colombian elite have manipulated the course of Colombian politics through a long reign of militaristic, extractive and exploitative right-wing government and a protracted low-intensity civil war (arguably since around 1948). This brutal civil war between socialist guerrilla groups and the government has claimed at least 220,000 lives, displaced nearly six million people, and resulted in 27,000 kidnappings and 25,000 disappearances.
The civil war has slowly started to wind down since the presidency and Congressional majority passed from the far-right Conservative Party to Juan Manuel Santos and the centre-right in 2010. Business and citizen confidence has been finally growing again in Colombia, due to the past eight years of more stable and moderate policy. The historic peace accord between the FARC (Colombia’s largest communist guerrilla group) and the government brokered by Santos in 2016 was a huge step towards peaceful resolution of the conflict. This deal was possible largely due to the more amenable attitude of the Santos Administration towards a “truth and reconciliation” approach and “transitional justice” provisions for former combatants on both sides. With the deal agreed and the civil war beginning to wind down, Colombia was well poised to continue this path of peace and stability and become a regional powerhouse once again.
However, Duque and Conservative Party spiritual leader, Uribe have fought this peace process every step of the way. Uribe was the figurehead of the “No” campaign in the referendum in which 51 percent of Colombians voted against the peace accord in 2016. The Guardian reported “their decision was swayed by an opposition leader (Uribe) who will do anything for power.” That article refers to the significant manipulation of the truth by the conservatives and the media in the context of the 2016 referendum campaign. In 2018, Duque has continued the strategy of appealing to this deep vein of opposition to the transitional justice elements of the peace accord to garner votes for a more hard-line approach towards FARC. Colombia Reports states that Duque has threatened, on the campaign trail, to unilaterally amend the peace deal and to cancel ongoing talks with the ELN (the last remaining socialist rebel group). As a recent Reuters article puts it: “Opposition to the FARC accord, as too lenient on the former guerrillas, remains a vote-winner for the right and Duque has promised to modify the deal if he wins office.”
Furthermore, opposition to the peace accord resulted in a poor result for both the left and Santos’ centre right in the legislative elections in Colombia’s two-tier system. This outcome led to a right-wing controlled congress with a majority opposed to the peace process.
A broken democracy
These elections are now subject to allegations of fraud involving Santos and his centre-right candidate German Vargas. According to Semana magazine, Colombia’s electoral authorities were sued to investigate alleged fraud during the first round of presidential elections. Petro earlier called on his supporters to “defeat the fraud of Santos and the Registrar to favour candidate Vargas” in the preliminary round. The final round is taking place under the watch of EU monitors.
A swing back to a far-right presidency will do nothing to strengthen democracy or reform broken democratic institutions in Colombia. The Colombian far-right has demonstrated repeatedly that it is prepared to use undemocratic methods (including violence) to ensure this situation of militaristic government and perpetual war continues. A Colombia Reports exposé on the far right of Colombia states:“Making the distinction between democratic conservatism and fascism is difficult in Colombia. Unlike in most countries, Colombia’s Conservative Party has traditionally opposed democracy.”
Petro would, if he succeeds, be the first leftist president in Colombia’s history. However, he has already been the target of at least one serious assassination attempt on the campaign trail when a bullet missed his head by inches while traveling in an armoured vehicle in March 2018.
The bigger picture – U.S. involvement in Colombia’s war
Renán Vega Cantor recently published a study in the context of the negotiations to end the Colombian conflict delineating U.S. involvement and intervention in Colombia over the past century. It outlines how the U.S. has continued giving aid and military support while hundreds of thousands of Colombians were being killed, and millions forced off their lands, and political repression became the norm under successive right-wing governments. In Cantor’s words, the U.S. “is no mere outside influence, but is a direct actor in the conflict owing to prolonged involvement.” As Cantor says “there existed for more than 100 years a pact [with the U.S.] among the national elites for whom subordination led to economic and political gains”.
Uribe oversaw one of the worst periods of this bloody history. Dan Kovalik wrote an article in the Huffington Post summarising Chris Kraul’s article from the LA Times of November 21 2008 (which seems to have been removed from the internet). Kovilak explains that Kraul’s piece outlined that while Colombia received over $4 billion of U.S. military assistance between 2000 and 2008 and President Alvaro Uribe became the United States’ No. 1 Latin American ally in its war on terrorism and drugs, “Colombia is actually the greatest purveyor of terror against its own population in the region.” The article also cited the Colombian Commission of Jurists in noting that the Colombian military has been credibly accused of murdering 997 civilians since President Uribe took office in the spring of 2002.
The paramilitary movement expanded over this period, from a weapon of war into one of economic exploitation and expropriation. Insight Crime summarises the research of the project “Rutas De Conflicto” (Routes of Conflict) by Colombia’s National Center of Historical Memory and investigative website Verdad Abierta (Open Truth), which analyses the genesis and expansion of the paramilitary movement
A recent article by Kraul in the LA Times cites University of Miami professor Bruce Bagley as follows: “Duque is Uribe’s hand-picked candidate, a smart guy, technically competent, but with few if any identifiable independent political positions of his own, If he is elected, make no mistake, we will have ‘Uribe 2.0’ back in office.”
The threat of a Petro presidency
Petro, on the other hand, a staunchly socialist candidate and former member of the long-disbanded M-19 guerrilla group, has been a lightning rod for discontent about the macro-level issues facing Colombia. His fearless anti-corruption and pro-peace campaign has highlighted the need to address corruption, U.S. clientelism and past injustices and war crimes. A Petro presidency would mean the continuation of the peace process and would escalate judicial investigations into serious allegations of state involvement in vote rigging, war crimes and corruption. He also says he would end the neoliberal land grabs of paramilitaries and reform Colombia’s highly unequal land ownership.
Petro’s popularity is unprecedented for such a radically progressive politician in Colombia in recent times. This message was clearly resonating with many Colombians who have been left out of the progress made by the country over the past century of militaristic imperialist rule as throughout the campaign he has proven to be a rock star politician capable of pulling huge audiences of tens of thousands at stadium rallies reminiscent of Bernie Sanders.
Establishment reality bites Petro
However, strong media and political opposition to Petro appears to be taking its toll, as he gained only 25 percent of votes in the first round after polling significantly higher earlier in the campaign. The more moderate leftist candidate, Sergio Fajardo, gained in the late stages to split the left vote. Furthermore, this negative portrayal of Petro has forced Fajardo and the rest of the political centrists to refuse to endorse him in the presidential run-off. Colombia Reports stated that only socialist party Democratic Pole has said it would endorse Petro, while the Green Alliance said it would only endorse Petro under conditions.
As Colombia Reports puts it: “The moderate leaders coincide with Petro’s promise to promote peace and fight corruption, but reject his direct confrontations with Duque and his allies over clientelism and their alleged involvement in war crimes and corruption.”
These centrist leaders are encouraging voters to turn in a blank ballot, which essentially guarantees the election of Duque, who ended first in the first round with 39 percent of the votes. As Petro tweeted himself, those who cast a blank vote “will elect Duque.”
Fake News leading the march to war
As has been demonstrated in the U.S. and other democratic nations recently, “fake news” has been a highly effective tool for the far-right in Colombia. The ownership of Colombian media is highly concentrated and controlled by a wealthy elite which sets the agenda with a noticeable bias towards pro-business and pro-government news. As a result, the media has either ignored or distorted issues raised by Petro.
The media has maligned Petro alternately as a Satanist (for respecting indigenous traditions) or most often simply as a communist, and the next Nicolás Maduro seeking to collapse Colombia’s economy back to the stone age. As this Reuters article states: “The spectacle of neighboring Venezuela sinking into deep economic crisis under a Socialist government has also allowed him (Duque) to argue that a leftist victory would spell disaster.”
Leading global economist and writer Thomas Piketty has recently endorsed Petro which lends some credibility to his economic policies. However, this ‘Communist’ scaremongering has proved highly effective, as there are many Venezuelan immigrants in Colombia: more than one million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia to escape the unfolding humanitarian crisis caused by U.S. sanctions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently expressed its concern that groups are forming online and meeting in cities to protest the presence of Venezuelans.
However, Petro has in fact distanced himself from Maduro and clearly stated he is not seeking to turn Colombia into another Venezuela. Rather he has claimed he seeks to forge a new era in progressive Latin American progressive politics. As this interview in The Nation details, Petro states that he seeks to build a new left for Latin America and move away from the traditional Havana-Caracas-Buenos Aires-Managua axis.
Lack of diversity in Colombian media opinions is also in part due to a long history of murders or death threats against journalists (RSF) and activists who dare to speak out on human rights or corruption issues. Colombia remains on of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.
Peace provides impunity and free rein for paramilitaries and cartels
FARC has now successfully demobilised and rebranded as a peaceful political party under the terms of the peace accord. The FARC political party received very few votes in the 2018 elections and is not a major political force as a result. There is, however, clear precedent for the success of this approach with Sinn Féin in Ireland, and in South Africa. Furthermore, the AUC paramilitary group successfully demobilised in 2006 and its high ranking members received impunity and can run for public office.
However, as a result of their trust in the peace process and the Government in turning in their arms, FARC now have a substantially weakened position and many former members have been killed by paramilitaries or captured and imprisoned by the state. A former FARC idealogical leader is now facing extradition to the USA (which is contrary to the terms of the peace accord).
Most problematic of all, the demobilisation of FARC and the failure of the government to provide new opportunities or security has simply created a power vacuum and a chaotic situation. This has allowed right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels and splinter communist groups outside of the peace process to consolidate their grip over the lucrative drug growing and smuggling operations and illegal economic activities. This chaos has all led to a dramatic spike in violence in many impoverished rural areas.
For all their faults, the FARC and other communist groups, in many cases actually provided some stability and protection for their own poor, indigenous and rural communities from exploitation and violence at the hands of paramilitaries, cartels and companies. Their demobilisation has also seen a rise in neoliberal land and resource grabs and in murders of demobilised FARC members as well as human rights and environmental activists who oppose the new groups land grabs and illegal economic activity such as mining. New NGO research suggests that the killing of human rights activists doubled this year.
However, a Duque presidency means Colombia is likely to see the continuation of paramilitary and military activity in a bid to destroy the remaining leftist groups such as the ELN and continue an agenda of economic expropriation.
Mythology and misinformation threaten fragile peace process
The 2016 FARC peace deal initially promised great things for stability and peace in the region, and the war was significantly de-escalated as a result. However, the peace process is now on the verge of falling apart. Santos’ government has been accused of failing to deliver on its end of the bargain to rejuvenate rural areas with much-needed upgrades to infrastructure, health, education and agriculture and creating real transitional opportunities for ex-combatants. In the first year of the process, the centre-right government executed less than 20 percent of the agreements made with the guerrillas, and there have been allegations of corruption and missing funds within the project.
Colombia’s weak institutions and corrupt state have struggled with delivering the ambitious programme of reconciliation needed to peacefully and justly end the conflict. As a result, the European Union (EU) announced recently that it is providing more than $17 million to fund the transitional provisions to assist former combatants to reintegrate back into society.
Dispelling the mythological history of the war
Discontent over the deal’s ‘truth and reconciliation’ provisions allowing ex-combatants to transition back to society without threat of prosecutions led many to vote for Duque. This discontent, however, emerged over time through extensive media and political discourse expressing such vehemently anti-guerilla views.
While much press domestically and internationally has been given to atrocities alleged to have been committed by FARC guerrillas in the civil war, all independent evidence suggests that the right-wing government-backed militias such as the AUC were responsible for far more civilian deaths that the FARC over the course of the war. The project “Rutas de Conflicto”, clearly demonstrates this with the finding that between 1982 and 2013, paramilitary groups were responsible for the overwhelming majority of deaths — committing 1,166 massacres in total. This was followed by 295 massacres at the hands of unidentified groups, 238 by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and 139 by the security forces.
A linguistic analysis of Colombian media sources further highlights the extreme bias which led to the public perception that the guerillas were responsible for the war or the many civilian deaths. Newspapers persistently failed to name the perpetrators and dehumanised victims in the case of the state atrocities and almost always named FARC and other guerrilla groups (often falsely) as perpetrators and humanised victims when reporting guerilla violence.
In contrast to the media narrative about “leniency” towards FARC combatants, Colombia Reports states that when state-loyal paramilitary group AUC demobilised in 2006, there was no protest at all from either media or public, despite this group receiving far more judicial benefits and money, after having committed considerably more killings and massacres than all the guerrilla groups put together.
The myth belies a truth of impunity from justice
The Truth Commissions established by the peace deal are unearthing some damaging revelations from former guerrillas and paramilitary members about the roles of state players (including Uribe). As a result of these testimonies, evidence suggests that Uribe is currently under investigation by the Colombian Supreme Court for conspiracy to commit murder over his long alleged ties to paramilitary death squads responsible for war crimes in the civil war. The allegations are that Uribe helped form the Bloque Metro paramilitary group while he was governor of the Antioquia province in the 1990s. One of the main challenges of the investigation is keeping the witnesses against Uribe alive, as at least two witnesses to this inquiry have already been murdered and the last remaining witness has survived two attempts on his life.
As Petro says:
“How complicit was the state in the country’s genocide? A few specific politicians are particularly responsible. One of them, in my opinion, is Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is the politician most responsible for the expansion of paramilitarism, an instrument used for political power, for drug trafficking, and for genocide in Colombia—much more so than the guerrillas.”
Furthermore, declassified United States cables have led to claims that Uribe had ties to Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel in the 1990s and that his early Senate election campaigns were financed by the Ochoa crime family that helped found the infamous syndicate.
Uribe is far from being the only politician with reason to fear a Petro anti-corruption Presidency, as it appears the state involvement was systematic and widespread. President Santos served as defense minister from 2006 until 2009, at the height of The False positives scandal and neither he nor predecessor Álvaro Uribe have been called to account over this incomprehensible atrocity. The scandal emerged in 2008 implicating high level Colombian Military Generals in the slaughter of innocent civilians to raise their body counts to make it appear they were winning in the war against FARC and receive further U.S. funding for the war effort. However, The Guardian recently reported that a new study indicates the scale of this scandal was much larger than previously reported. According to the authors, approximately 10,000 civilians were executed by the army between 2002 and 2010 – more than three times the number tallied by human rights groups.
More revelations from the truth and reconciliation testimonies from one of the paramilitaries’ most important political chiefs, also suggest that far-right death squads controlled approximately half of Colombia’s congress in the early 2000s. Even The AUC’s former ideologue Ivan Roberto Duque (not the presidential candidate), has criticised the Colombian media and judicial system for failing to follow up on the “1,500 hours of testimonies” of demobilized members of the AUC (Paramilitary death squad) in which they identify businessmen and members of the military that allegedly participated in the mass victimization of civilians. Duque said he had “no doubt” that paramilitary commanders influenced the presidential elections of 2002 in which Uribe was elected president.
Colombian NGOs and human rights activists say the impunity to these crimes is galling. While nearly 5,000 state agents have been implicated, only around 780 have been convicted and there has not been a single general among them. The even larger issue is why the world does not know more about this and why the role of the USA and the CIA in this gruesome war has not been examined more closely. It is difficult to believe that the U.S. agents involved in the war on drugs had no knowledge of these war crimes. Even if that was so, the negligence that entails is perhaps even worse.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Colombia’s prosecution is investigating corruption in some of the country’s biggest ports after the arrest of a former defense ministry adviser who admitted to trafficking cocaine to Europe. The investigation alleges that multiple security officials in the Caribbean ports of Santa Marta and Barranquilla were paid to allow the passage of containers with cocaine.
A U.S. imperialist power play in South America?
There has also been a wider trend of interventionism, imperialism and manipulation of democratic processes emerging in Latin America of late. This manipulation coincides with U.S. strategic and economic interests in the region and has been primarily focused on Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil which all happen to be major oil producing nations.
Brazil’s recent events have been described by many as a “postmodern-coup”. The Intercept, for example, reported the new president Michel Temer has even admitted the motivation for this coup to have been the failure of President Dilma to adhere to a neoliberal programme.
Even closer is Venezuela, with which Colombia shares a common border. Much has been said in the mainstream media about the undemocratic nature of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro. However, such critiques ignore the role of an ongoing U.S. led economic war on the nation involving sanctions and attempts to re-install a neoliberal government. The London Independent reported last year that CIA chief Mike Pompeo admitted that the agency is working to change the elected government of Venezuela and is collaborating with two countries in the region to do so, one of which is Colombia. As a conveniently located U.S. ally on Venezuela’s border with access to the oil-rich Caribbean and Panama Canal, Colombia must be a highly strategic asset in any effort to control the Latin American region.
The state role in the failed war on drugs
Cocaine is the white elephant in the room in any discussion of Colombia’s troubles. This lucrative commodity grows natively and Colombia has been the largest producer in the world. In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. global “war on drugs” massively escalated Colombia’s civil war in attempting to eliminate supply at its source or as some argue, simply to assert political control over the supply. If the goal was to limit the flow, it was an abysmal failure as cocaine exports to the U.S. today are at roughly the same level they were in 1980. If, however, the U.S. strategic goal was simply to ensure the right people controlled the lucrative industry and therefore the country, then the continued backing of the militaristic government and paramilitaries makes much more sense. Meanwhile, as George Soros’ Open Society Foundation reports, the human toll of this war on drugs — which is still being tallied — is shocking.
Petro has proposed a new approach to combatting the cocaine trade, pushing for legalisation of all drugs and innovative alternative crops for growers. The 2016 peace agreement marked the first significant shift towards a new approach, that prioritises human rights and public health in the issue of coca. This is not as radical as it sounds. A new report, Coca Industrialization: A Path to Innovation, Development, and Peace in Colombia, explores coca’s beneficial uses — both new and old — and brings visibility to promising grassroots initiatives invigorated by this new turn toward more humane policies. This new strategy is based on the fact that the coca plant itself in its pure form is both a sacred indigenous crop and a nutritious natural health food and product. This approach presents a potentially lucrative industry for Colombia to move forward.