Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
On a cold and rainy Sunday, June 19, 2022, I was in Bogotá, Colombia, to await the results of my country’s presidential election. Feeling fearful as well as hopeful, I settled into Lubianka Pub, a watering hole for demobilized veterans of FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the Marxist-Leninist guerilla group that was locked in armed struggle for decades with right-wing paramilitary groups and the state’s security forces until an armistice was implemented in 2016.
We gathered to hear if Colombian citizens, who had already decisively rejected the right-wing parties that had long governed the country, would elect an inexperienced populist Rodolfo Hernández, or Gustavo Petro, a veteran legislator and former guerrilla militant.
Just before 5:00 p.m., broadcasters announced that Gustavo Petro would become the next president of Colombia and everyone in the bar erupted in jubilation. Some of us cried; all of us started hugging.
On August 7, 2022, Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez, the first Black woman to serve in high office, will lead the country’s first left-wing government. Their rise to power mirrors the resurgence of various left-wing politicians in other parts of Latin America, which is undergoing a striking ideological shift.
Analyzing the results, Colombians’ mobilization to the polls increased significantly: 58 percent of the population voted in this runoff election, showing a decrease in abstentionism compared to the initial presidential election in May 2022 when 54 percent of the population voted, and in the 2018 elections when 53.98 percent voted. On the Colombian Pacific Coast, Indigenous and Afro communities went to the polls in massive numbers, showing the importance of this election for the ethnic communities who live there. In the departments of Cauca, Nariño, and Choco (which are on the Colombian Pacific Coast), Petro and Márquez got 80 percent of the votes with almost 60 percent participation. On the Caribbean Coast, they won with almost 65 percent of the vote. This was the region with the highest voter turnout. The cities did their part as well. Bogotá, Cali, and Barranquilla, three of the four biggest cities in the country, increased their percentages. Petro and Márquez achieved this by bringing new people to the polls.
The results suggest that Colombia may be back on track to resume and finalize the peace process that had led to the demobilization of FARC in 2016, and the subsequent participation of veteran militants like Gustavo Petro in electoral politics, premised on a peaceful transfer of power.
After the peace agreement had been signed, the president at the time, Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018), organized a referendum asking the Colombian people whether or not they approved this Peace Agreement. Unfortunately, a majority of voters indicated they “did not approve,” opening the door to the 2018 election of the right-wing presidential candidate, Iván Duque, who blocked full implementation of the peace agreement by defunding various policy initiatives specified in it.
In their speeches on the night of June 19, both Petro and Márquez highlighted the importance of the recognition for the victims of the armed conflict, but also the need for reconciliation of our country. Petro talked about the need for a “Great National Deal,” where there will be no room for hate but for a national dialogue in which forgiveness and reconciliation are at the forefront. He highlighted the importance of the Colombian Constitution and the total respect for fundamental rights.
Márquez acknowledged the sacrifices made by all the activists who had been killed fighting for this moment, all the young protestors murdered for the social change in the country and all the women killed. She thanked all those that had worked and planted the seeds for resistance and hope. Both leaders highlighted the importance of reconciliation for this moment in the country.
Colombia may well be at a turning point. Since being elected, Petro has shown he is serious about reconciliation by meeting and opening a dialogue with almost all his opponents. He met with Rodolfo Hernández and ex-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who has long attacked Petro as a dangerous terrorist. At the same time, Petro welcomed a report from the Colombian Truth Commission and plans to implement all of its recommendations to secure peace in the country. In addition, the way in which he is staffing his Council of Ministers with officials committed to the peace process shows that he is serious.
Still, Petro will face multiple challenges. The rural areas in Colombia continue living in intense violence with the appearance of new armed groups connected to drug trafficking. There is a significant increase in communitarian and environmental leaders being assassinated, including the FARC ex-combatants. The outgoing government has left behind a minimal budget to facilitate the peace process.
Nevertheless, as a sociologist-in-training who works with women in rural areas in Colombia, I see this as a moment of hope. I have seen how different social movements came together to elect Petro and Márquez. These movements have helped open new democratic spaces in Colombia. Perhaps, for all of us, Colombian society can become more just and more peaceful at last.
Aura Angelica Hernández Cárdenas is a PhD student in the sociology department at The New School for Social Research. Her research interests are connected with historical, environmental, and political sociology; Critical Agrarian Theory; and feminist theory with a focus on processes of resistance in rural communities in Latin America and gender issues within this context.