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Colombia made history this week. Progressive former M-19 guerrilla Gustavo Petro, a current senator and former mayor of the nation’s capital Bogotá, won the presidential election. His running mate Francia Márquez Mina will be the nation’s first Black vice president. Theirs will be the first leftist presidential administration in Colombian history. The Petro/Márquez ticket garnered more votes than in any presidential race in Colombian history.
“Brothers and sisters, we have made an important step forward,” Vice President-elect Francia Márquez said, addressing her supporters on election night. She is an Afro-Colombian environmental activist, land and water defender and 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winner. “After 214 years, we will have a government that represents the people.”
Unlike the recent experience in the United States, Petro’s opponent, rightwing populist millionaire businessman Rodolfo Hernández, conceded his defeat on election day.
Colombia is said to have the greatest inequality in Latin America. A recent OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report on the country found that it would take a poor family eleven generations to escape from the poorest 10% of the population to reach the median income. Systemic inequality was exacerbated by the pandemic, pushing millions deeper into poverty and food insecurity. Protests have rocked the country, met with police and military violence that left many dead.
In another historic move, Petro and Márquez were joined on the stage election night by Jenny Alejandra Medina, whose son, Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old student, was among those killed by police in mass protests in 2018. The still grieving mother boomed into the microphone,
“I raise my voice on behalf of my son to demand justice. I welcome you, President, because we all have our hopes in you, in justice. You are the hope of us, the poor, the needy.”
“Francia Márquez, speaking on the Democracy Now! news hour earlier this year, said, “Mothers go to work in the homes of other families, and they come home to bury their children. That is the history of our country.”
During that March interview, Márquez described her vision for the future of her country:
“In Colombia a new form of government is possible, governance that is built up from the Black, Indigenous and peasant peoples from the very different sectors of the community, LGBTIQ+, from the youth, from the women, from the small farmers of Colombia, those who have been no one — that is to say, who have never had a voice in the government, who have never had a voice in order to put forward our grievances as a people.”
Márquez continued, “Today we need to put forward the nobodies, the people who’ve never had a voice, to step into the state so that we can write our own history, a history that will make it possible to live with dignity, with justice, with equity, with equality, that would enable each and every one of us to turn the page of violence of the armed conflict and to pursue agenda of social justice.”
The establishment’s failure to “turn the page” on the long, violent history of Colombia also contributed to Petro’s victory. In 2016, the government signed a peace accord with the FARC rebel group, which had waged an armed insurrection in the country for more than fifty years. In exchange for laying down arms, former FARC guerrillas were promised reintegration with economic opportunity and political representation. Instead, low-income rural communities still suffer murders and disappearances at the hands of rightwing paramilitaries.
“The Constitutional Court has just recognized the unconstitutional state of affairs in terms of the failure of this government to implement the peace accords,” Francia Márquez explained. “This situation of armed conflict and abandonment in terms of no social investment, needs to be brought to a halt. It’s not going to be brought to a halt by the privileged elites of white men who have historically governed our country. It’s the people who need to step forward to press their grievances.”
On Election night, standing next to Vice President-elect Francia Márquez, herself a descendant of enslaved people, Gustavo Petro said, “We will develop capitalism in Colombia, not because we worship it, but because we first have to overcome premodernity in Colombia, feudalism in Colombia and the new slavery. We must overcome the past mentalities and behaviors linked to that world of slavery.”
The people of Colombia have given Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez an opportunity to pursue a different path forward for their country. They will confront opposition from a divided Congress. Describing the challenges ahead, Manuel Rozental, a Colombian physician, activist and grassroots organizer, said on Democracy Now!, “The hurdle has been overcome by winning the election, but the main hurdle, the Establishment, cannot be changed by the government; it has to be changed from the people, by the people.”