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Colombia: ‘The Next President is Either Going to Effectively Kill the Peace Accord or Save it’

by Adam Isacson and Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli

The first round of the Presidential elections in Colombia was marked by the real possibility of a triumph of the political left, a stalemate in the peace process, the proliferation of armed groups, and growing violence.

Gustavo Petro, former senator and former mayor of Bogota, obtained 40 percent of the votes and Rodolfo Hernández, an emerging candidate, came in second with 28 percent. One of the big questions ahead of the second round on June 19 is whether Hernández will be able to capitalize on the 55 percent of voters who did not choose Petro.

In this interview, Gimena Sánchez, Director for the Andes at WOLA and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, discuss the main challenges the new president will face, the risks of electoral violence, and the implications of Colombia’s new political map for the bilateral relationship with the United States.

What does this initial result mean for Colombia’s future and what are the main challenges in the short term?

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli (GSG): Voters sent a clear message to those who have traditionally governed Colombia that they want change. The rise of Rodolfo Hernández, a populist real estate mogul known as the “Colombian Trump” who campaigned on a strong anti-corruption platform, was unexpected. The vote reflected how different parts of the country are living the ongoing conflict, humanitarian crises and insecurity. While Hernández has not provided a clear plan for how he would address such issues, he won the majority in Arauca and Catatumbo, two departments located along the Venezuelan border where the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) is a strong and multiple illegal armed groups engage in illicit activities. Voters from the Pacific region, Cauca and Valle del Cauca, voted for Petro. It shows that these parts of the country want the peace agenda advanced and protection for social leaders and civilians.

Both men said they will advance the 2016 peace accord. Petro has presented detailed proposals on how he would do it, including securing protection for social leaders, institutional reforms and reopening dialogues with the ELN. Hernández, who comes from a family that has lived through kidnappings and killings at the hands of illegal armed groups including guerillas, said he would offer the ELN the opportunity to add themselves to the 2016 peace accord.

Interestingly, now that Hernández will compete in the second round, Petro –who ran as the opposition candidate– looks like the more established candidate. The question will be what kind of change do Colombians want. Will the “never” Petro supporters of Fico now vote for Hernández? Initial tweets by Uribistas and Fico’s endorsement seem to indicate that this is the case. Or will many Colombians decide to protest with blank votes or not vote at all.

Adam Isacson (AI): Petro and Hernández were the two candidates promising the most radical change. Of the two, Hernández has the platform that’s more palatable to traditional political elites. After he lost, pro-government candidate Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez threw his support to Hernández, who until the very end was behind him in the polls. That gives Hernández a very narrow advantage in the second round.

It’s really not clear how Hernández would govern. He’s not a traditional right-winger: he favors legalizing drugs and access to abortion, and has criticized the Duque government for slow implementation of the peace accord (though he voted against the accord in the 2016 plebiscite). Hernández has said admiring things about Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, which may indicate that, if president, he would expand the military’s internal roles and seek to evade democratic checks and balances.

There is a lot of expectation around this election. What is at stake?

GSG: These are historic elections placed in a period of great tension and polarization. These are the second elections after the 2016 peace process that President Duque actually campaigned against. The result is really going to define whether or not Colombia is really going to move forward with the peace accord.

Also, these are the first elections after the pandemic. Colombia, already one of the most unequal countries in the world, is now more unequal. It also augmented its rampant classism and racism. Duque, even before the pandemic, wasn´t seen as particularly empathetic and interested in governing on behalf of the poor and the middle class, which led to the 2021 civic strike. Colombia is now a cauldron of insecurity and a lot of indignation. It is an incredibly emotional and polarized moment.

Also, implementation of the peace accord has been only focused on a security model that has failed Colombia for decades. That means that there has been a proliferation of illegal groups in different parts of the country, which has led to a humanitarian crisis.

Are we facing a milestone in Colombian politics? Some sort of referendum on the political system that has ruled the country for decades and has failed to end the cycles of violence and inequality?

AI: Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. There is a small group that has traditionally managed most of the political system and most of the economy for its own interests and has not always done so in a legal and peaceful way. Gustavo Petro is not the savior of Colombia, but his symbolic value right now is enormous. There has not been a viable left candidate in Colombia who has made it this far in an election and stayed alive.

And so for Petro, or anybody on the left, to have gotten this far is a testament to a couple of things. One, the peace accord, which was a real milestone. In one of the few countries in Latin America that never even had a land reform, to actually agree to have a rural reform accord and to protect the political participation of the left was a big concession and a big deal. It opened a path.

And it also meant, in the mind of the average middle-class Colombian, that voting for a leftist like Petro wasn´t voting for a terrorist group. Petro’s candidacy succeeding also means that people who probably supported Álvaro Uribe in the past have had it with that sector of Colombian politics because it has been more out of touch with the needs of average Colombians.

GSG: One of the things about the peace accord in terms of political diversification was to give seats to the FARC party, Comunes, which has faced many challenges. This paved the way for a person like Petro, who’s more progressive and didn’t come from that hard left, to be in the position he is in today.

Why weren’t the candidates at the center of the political spectrum able to capitalize on the path opened by the peace accord and the fading of Uribismo’s influence in Colombian politics?

AI: If you’re a technocrat in the political center, I think you have a hard time getting your message across. Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellín, is probably one of the most qualified of the candidates and he was polling around five or six percent (he secured 4 percent of the vote in the first round). This is a time when people are feeling desperate and they’re falling into poverty. They’re emotional.

GSG: It’s very emotional. The combination of the pandemic, the hope that many people had for peace, and the fact that things are moving backwards in terms of security made people less interested in a technocrat or the usual candidate. That’s part of the appeal of Francia Márquez, Petro’s vice presidential candidate. She’s someone who’s never held office. She’s Afro-Colombian and an environmentalist single-mom, in a country where people like her still face great obstacles to get into positions of power. She appeals to this idea of the “others”: the “nobodies” that are not the people who traditionally are considered respectable in Colombia. The other people, the rural Colombians, the maids, the people who wash the floors, people who advance despite all the obstacles… That’s had a tremendous amount of emotional resonance.

Does the possibility of Francia Márquez becoming the second in line to the presidency of Colombia point to real changes in terms of a more diverse political representation in the country?

GSG: It’s been transformative in the sense that there is an understanding that the typical candidate is not what is going to get you elected. There were four other presidential tickets that decided to have Afro-descendant candidates, with different political views and experiences. The fact that they felt like they needed to compete showed that there was a generalized acceptance that things have to be more modernized and more inclusive. This is a big transformation, not just in terms of what people look like, but more in thinking about what might be best for a broader set of Colombians. Debates surrounding racism, feminism, and the needs of the rural poor are all new to Colombian high politics.

These are the first elections in years without the shadow of former President Uribe looming… What will happen to those traditional political forces that he and his allies represent if Petro wins?

AI: I have a hard time imagining that. If he wins, Petro will never have the levels of popularity currently enjoyed by AMLO in Mexico or Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, which allows them to push everything they want through Congress. I think Petro will have very stiff opposition and with mediocre approval ratings much of the time he may have a hard time getting his agenda through the legislature.

And the forces that will unite the opposition to Petro are probably not going to be the technocratic institutionalists. It will probably be Uribismo. There will be rebuilding of these forces, and they will use some geographic areas and some institutions as a base for their “resistance”. I’m sure they will have their eyes very much on October 2023 when there are mayoral and gubernatorial elections around the country.

After a potential win by the left, what do you feel would be the immediate reaction of institutions like the military?

AI: If Petro wins by a landslide, and it’s not even close, he’ll have a popular mandate, and the opposition will have to accept it. But if it’s close, and they can claim fraud, or they can do a “big lie,” or all the other things we’ve seen here in the United States, then we’re off to the races.

Colombia has a very conservative military. I was talking to an expert and his idea was that the most likely outcome is that the military, rather than rattling their sabers all the time and threatening a coup or anything like that, will just sit there and do nothing other than what they’re told exactly to do, and I’m not sure that in an eventual Petro administration you will have great deep security expertise. So, if the military is going to just wait to be told what to do, security will get worse.

GSG: If Petro wins he will face stiff opposition. And I think it’s going to be similar to the situation Obama faced when you had the Tea Party in the Congress that just spent all of their time figuring out how to block, not give an inch, not negotiate anything that could make them seem that they’re cooperating.

Regardless of who wins, what are the challenges that the next President of Colombia will face with the peace accord in mind and the political and security landscape that followed 2016? 

GSG: They’re going to have to govern for everybody. In practical terms, figuring out how to truly address the security problem, and the lack of justice, every type of human rights case imaginable in a manner that is effective and functional. Making justice work is not easy, because it will generate pushback from the powerful who’ve gained economically and politically abusing human rights–the economic and political elites including Uribe and others.

They are going to have to figure out what they are going to do about the ELN. That is a big problem: today’s ELN is a transnational ELN that is on both sides of the border between Colombia and Venezuela. This starts touching upon another issue, which is a big challenge. Whoever is president will have to address how to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela that has completely spilled over onto Colombia. You have more than 2.1 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Colombia.

They will have to deal with the other illegal groups that operate along the border, the dissident FARC groups. And the fact that you have a situation of an incredibly large group of people with a lot of needs that are the same or worse than Colombians’ needs. Colombia has also become a pass-through country for migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Africa, and other parts of the world. How do you address all these things at the same time, this multi-dimensional humanitarian situation and crisis that is interlinked with the security issues? That’s going to be a huge challenge.

AI: The next president is either going to effectively kill the peace accord or save it. Saving it means, before anything, protecting the ex-combatants in the FARC – more than 300 have been murdered so far, and this has to stop.

This is a historic opportunity to do something about vast areas of Colombia, where people can spend much of their lives without seeing any government presence, no paved roads, no land titles, barely any policing or justice system, and no link to the electric grid. We’re talking about vast areas where armed groups thrive, and coca thrives. Start providing these basic services in consultation with the communities; that has to be revived. And it’s going to cost money. Colombia is a middle-income country, and it has a lot of wealthy people, who can find this money if they have to. This is just governing your own territory.

The other challenge here is this proliferation of armed groups. It needs to be dealt with through dialogue. It will be in negotiations with some of these groups to talk about what it would take to get them to turn in their weapons perhaps in exchange for some lighter sentencing. And in some cases, they might have to be fought, then the military will have to actually do its job if they are ordered to fight some of these groups.

You’re talking about armed groups that have alliances with large landowners, cattle ranchers, factions of the military, and drug traffickers. These people fight dirty. They will increase levels of violence when they feel threatened. It’s nation-building: gradually and steadily but inexorably reducing the amount of a territory that is off-limits to a democratic state.

How do you start that in regions with no state presence, where these coalitions of crime are the ones ruling the place?

GSG: Another challenge is changing the Colombian economy, which now is incredibly dependent on extractives that benefit a few national companies, families, and multinationals. How do you move to an economy that really benefits more people? It goes back to the peace accord. You need to be able to get the State into those areas so that it can build institutions and roads, and so that it can build strong local economies that can compete with the illicit ones.

This idea of building the State is not just for security reasons, it’s also for the licit economies that can compete with all of these cancers that Colombia has.

In the likely outcome of a President with narrow political margins, how much room is there for optimism?

AI: I do think that Colombia can avoid a new cycle of violence. It’s not too late. They’re not condemned to a return to the kind of violence and ungovernability that we saw in the early 2000s. There is room for progress. There is room even for a president whose popularity is continually 40 percent to actually leave the presidency with violent crime rates lower than when they came in, and with the amount of territory in the country under government control, larger than it was when they came in. At this point, any new president is going to be better than the current one, because not only is he highly unpopular, but he has proven incredibly ineffective in governing.

What do you think an eventual win by Gustavo Petro would mean to the bilateral relation with the Biden administration in the United States?

AI: I have seen the political appointees in the Biden administration be rather circumspect and avoid criticizing. But I have a strong sense that in the diplomatic corps and the military some share the view that Petro will blow up a relationship that they have spent 25 years trying to build. I do suspect that a lot of our bureaucracy in the US, both military and civilian, gets a lot of its information from a small sector of Colombia, including the part of Colombia that wears uniforms, and parts of Colombia that are very conservative. So, they are picking up a lot of things that may not be true about Petro. But it is certainly true that Petro is not going to privilege the bilateral relationship with the United States the way the last few presidents of Colombia have.

GSG: I think the relationship overall, and the mutual interests are strong enough that it can weather a different relationship. This notion that has grown among the more right-wing parts of our Congress, of equating Petro with terrorism and communism is problematic, and it is part of this Cold War idea. Petro has a more leftist approach, but he’s not a communist.

Even among moderates and Democrats, I think there is a little bit of concern because this is an unprecedented situation. And Colombia has never been in this sphere. Colombia was always the country that was the big ally no matter what. I think that’s shaking up and scaring people a bit. It would need to be handled with smart diplomacy, with dialogue, with more openness.