Could Colombia Show Us a Way Out of Our Political Nightmare?

The recent election in Colombia has produced new hope for the country—and for the whole region.

John Feffer

This article first appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus.

Perhaps the most radical statement from Gustavo Petro, the newly elected president of Colombia, has been his promise to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Petro has said that he will not issue any new licenses for hydrocarbon exploration, will stop fracking pilot projects, and will end the development of offshore drilling.

Petro has called for a transition from an economy of death to an economy of life,” saying that we cannot accept that the wealth and foreign exchange reserves in Colombia come from the export of three of humanity’s poisons: petroleum, coal, and cocaine.” Since oil and coal are Colombia’s largest export earners — and the country remains the largest cocaine producer in the world—this is not going to be an easy transition for a Colombian politician to implement or sell to the public.

But Gustavo Petro is no ordinary politician. He began his political career as an urban guerrilla, joining the revolutionary group M‑19 as a 17-year-old. He was never part of the inner circle, but he did spend time in prison for his involvement in underground activities. Later, after becoming an economist, he served in the Colombian parliament and as the mayor of Bogota.

He has been fearless as a politician, exposing himself time and again to criticism and worse. He broke with his political colleagues in 2009 to form a new party. As a member of parliament, he exposed corrupt deals between his fellow senators and various death squads. Further revelations implicated the conservative Uribe government and the country’s spy agency.

As a parliamentarian and then as a candidate for president in 2010 and 2018, Petro received numerous death threats. The result has been bodyguards and security details, precautions he followed even when he came to Washington, D.C. to accept a Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award in 2007.

Running for president for a third time this year, Petro was even more careful. At one campaign stop, The Washington Post reports, When Petro walked up, the crowd could hardly see him. He hid behind four men carrying large bulletproof shields. And as he spoke, the armor remained on either side of him, reminding those in the plaza of what it means to run for office in this South American country.” In the last 35 years, four presidential candidates in Colombia were assassinated, three of them on the left.

Vice-President-elect Francia Márquez has been equally courageous. A Goldman Prize-winning environmentalist, she led the fight against illegal gold mining in Colombia. What might be simply challenging work in another country is extraordinarily risky in Colombia where 138 human rights defenders were killed last year.

Standing up to a sometimes-violent right-wing is par for the course in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America. Dealing with a corrupt establishment is also, unfortunately, routine.

But politicians like Petro and Márquez, as well as newcomer Gabriel Boric in Chile, must also navigate their way through the various layers of the Latin American left. In so doing, they are helping to build a new progressive movement that is significantly different from the old left (Castro and Cuba) and the new left (Lula and Brazil). Transformed by social movements, Latin America’s new left is showing the world how progressives can wield power justly and judiciously in an age of climate change and political polarization.

Fixation on Growth

Going back to the dawn of progressivism, the left has always been preoccupied with the issue of economic justice. Once in power, left parties have been united in their belief that to achieve a more equal distribution of wealth and power, the economy must grow — and fast. The Soviet Union set the precedent with Five Year Plans devoted to transforming a largely agrarian society into an industrial giant. Social Democratic governments in Europe also supported economic growth in the belief that a rising tide would lift all boats, as a similar-minded John F. Kennedy would later say. Communists embraced economic growth as a way to catch up to the West; middle-of-the-road leftists wanted to grow the economy to boost employment rates and have more resources available for social welfare programs.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth. Before climate change was a thing, 30 experts from around the world issued a stern warning that the planet couldn’t support the exponential growth of human activity because of the limits of arable land, mineral resources for industry, and the consequences of pollution. Except for the Greens, progressives have been slow to come to terms with these limits to economic growth.

In Latin America, Green parties never took off. Instead, progressives have traditionally followed one of two paths. Cuba followed the Soviet model of rapid growth with a command economy and state-owned enterprises, though it ultimately had to abandon large parts of that approach when the Soviet Union collapsed and subsidies from Moscow largely withered away. Flush with oil money, Hugo Chávez adopted a similar approach in Venezuela.

The new left in Latin America, by contrast, was firmly committed to operating within democratic institutions, beginning with the ill-fated Allende administration in Chile and continuing through the Workers Party governments in Brazil. Although the new left diverged from the old left on democracy and human rights, it also equated unrestrained economic growth with progress, particularly during the pink tide” of the 2000s. The growth rate in Brazil under Lula, for instance, skyrocketed from 1.9 percent to 5.2 percent and the trade surplus more than doubled. In Argentina, left-leaning Peronist Néstor Kirchner also pushed to expand the economy in his initial years by devaluing the peso and severing the country’s dependence on the IMF. Uruguay, under the progressive Frente Amplio, underwent significant economic expansion, particularly in its first decade in power. In Bolivia, Evo Morales boosted his country’s extraction industries and achieved an average of nearly 5 percent growth annually across his 13 years in office.

But a different kind of left was also emerging in those years, one that reflected the demands of indigenous communities and environmental activists.

In 2007, Rafael Correa presented the world with an innovative proposal. The Ecuadorian president pledged to leave the oil underneath the Yasuni National Park, a vast reserve of biodiversity, if the international community came up with $3.6 billion in compensation (about half what Ecuador could have received by selling the oil). The fundraising began in 2011 and reached about 10 percent of the target figure a year later. But the effort fizzled out, and the Ecuadorian government ultimately teamed up with a Chinese firm to begin drilling for the Yasuni oil in 2016, a partnership that has only expanded under the current conservative government.

But Correa’s initial approach at least hinted at a new progressivism that did not put unrestrained growth at the center of economic policy. That approach has been reflected, for instance, in the shift in the politics in Uruguay where, despite conventional pro-growth economic policies, the left-wing government made huge investments in clean energy, with nearly 95 percent of electricity provided by renewable sources by 2015. Costa Rica, under several social democratic leaders, has followed a similar path of decarbonization.

Latin America remains a key supplier of both dirty energy and resources like lithium, which power a clean” energy transition. The new wave of left politicians must grapple with the challenges generated by climate change as well as the economic precarity aggravated by the pandemic. They don’t have a lot of room for maneuver. A far-right populism — embodied by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and the two losing challengers in Chile (José Antonio Kast) and Colombia (Rodolfo Hernández) — remains powerful and at the ready if the new left falters.

A Post-Pink Wave

The U.S. government is reserving judgment on the victory of Gustavo Pietro and Francia Márquez. Not so The Washington Post, which recently editorialized: There is much cause for concern in the policy direction Mr. Petro has articulated, in particular his call for an end to new oil exploration, a potential blow to the country’s industry likely to do much damage to export revenue and little good for the global environment.”

The Post, which continues to publish full-page ads for fossil fuel companies instead of following the divestment lead of The Guardian, is being obtuse here. Yes, an end to new oil exploration will hurt Colombia’s export revenues, but The Post is probably more concerned about the impact on U.S. oil companies and the price of gas in America. As for doing little good for the global environment,” if Colombia indeed phases down fossil fuel production under Petro, it would be the largest global producer to follow through on such a commitment. That would be hugely significant.

That’s not all. Petro wants to work with other progressive leaders in Latin America on a region-wide transition. One of those leaders is the recently elected president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, who has put environmentalism at the top of his agenda. One of his first acts was to reverse the policy of the previous administration by signing the Escazu Agreement, which focuses on access to information and environmental justice. He appointed scientists to top positions in his administration, including climatologist Maisa Rojas as minister of the environment. Climate change is not an abstract issue for Chile. The country has been experiencing a decade-long drought, among other conditions aggravated by global warming.

One of the major challenges that Boric faces is Chile’s lithium industry, which has the world’s largest reserves of this valuable commodity. He has promised to nationalize the sector, which could enable the government to regulate the mines more rigorously in terms of labor and environmental considerations. He is also eying the possibility of creating more value-added processing—rather than simply exporting raw materials — that would in turn mean more and better-paying jobs.

Across a range of issues, Boric faces a vocal conservative opposition. But he also must deal with an uncompromising left that is not happy with his willingness to talk with his political adversaries, for instance in championing a new constitution for the country. That kind of negotiating is essential in a democracy, and Boric is committed to the democratic process — both inside Chile and outside.

No matter who it bothers, our government will have total commitment to democracy and human rights, without support for any kind of dictatorship or autocracy,” Boric has tweeted. He has criticized the human rights records of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s leader, countered by calling Boric a member of the cowardly left.”

But cowardly” is the least apt word to describe Boric. Like Petro and Márquez in Colombia, Boric is not afraid to chart an entirely new path for his country. Together, these leaders are willing to challenge many of the tired, outdated policies that characterized the previous pink wave.

The Colombian victory is providing oxygen for a Latin American politics that has been characterized by a lack of vision,” write Argentinian environmentalists Maristella Svampa and Enrique Viale. This has been visible in the obstinate progressivism in Argentina, Bolivia and most probably Brazil as well if Lula triumphs in the next elections. They are interested neither in promoting an ecosocial agenda nor in discussing a Just Transition. Consequently, they are significantly reducing the prospects for democracy and a life of dignity and sustainability.”

Although still within the big tent of Latin American progressivism, Petro, Márquez, and Boric represent something new. And it’s not just happening at the level of elite governance. Svampa and Viale helped create the Ecosocial Pact of the South, which has also challenged the growth paradigm, criticized the authoritarian tendencies of the old left, put environmentalism front and center, and insisted on amplifying voices of social movements from indigenous communities and feminists to LGBTQ and anti-racism activists.

These are grim times when some of the least competent and most outrageous men and women have risen to positions of power in some of the largest countries in the world. Maybe Latin America can show us a way out of this predicament. Led by Petro, Márquez, and Boric from above and pushed by the Ecosocial Pact from below, the region has a real chance to undo this extraordinary mismatch between the needs of the moment and the capacities of our leaders.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His most recent book, Frostlands, comes out in November (Haymarket).
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