COLOMBIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS — ANY CHANGE?

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh, political activist and analyst for many years in Colombia, was interviewed by Dimitris Givisis about the current presidential elections there and a candidate presenting as Left; published in https://www.rednblack.gr/arthra/kolomvia-o-petro-oikodomei-mia-eklogiki-symmachia-kai-ochi-mia-koinoniki-dynami/

1) What do you think the elections of May 29th will mean for the future of Colombia? What are the stakes of these elections?

The elections are not as key as some commentators would like to make out in terms of profound changes in Colombia. Though, the reaction in some sectors and fears about the transparency of the elections are well founded and even some fears of a violent reaction from some sectors of the bourgeoisie and the army. So, on one level the elections are about the degree to which the bourgeoisie, including the narco-bourgeoisie are willing to accept electoral defeat. This election is likely to bring about a long period of uncertainty in the country as Petro tries to manage the expectations and demands of the bourgeoisie and contain the hopes of his own supporters.

People displaced in the north of Santander by ongoing violence try to get by as best they can (Photo cred: GÓ Loingsigh)

2) What is the political scenery like, one week before the elections? These elections take place midst what kind of atmosphere?

The atmosphere oscillates between one of hope that Petro will be elected and bring an end to a long conflict that has been going on for almost 60 years and one of fear. No one knows what the far right are capable of doing and thinking at the moment. General Zapateiro intervened in the election campaign, which is unconstitutional as the military don’t even have the right to vote in Colombia. There are other fears about electoral fraud, a portal has been set up to report electoral fraud. Already it has tallied 3,500 incidents and no one has cast a vote yet. Leading businesses have stated they will sack any workers who vote for Petro and have demanded that their employees take photos of the electoral card that they mark and send it to them. It is expected that Petro has the ability to win in the first round, sufficient electoral fraud to force a second round run off with any candidate other than Fico would make matters more complicated for Petro as people may vote against him out of fear were it to come to a second round against one of the other candidates other than the reincarnation of Uribe that is Fico.

The Colombian military are not permitted to vote but there is always the possibility that they will intervene militarily (Photo cred: GÓ Loingsigh)

3) In the surveys, we see that Gustavo Petrois is ahead. How do you interpret this? What are the social alliances he has created? What are people’s expectations from him?

Petro has been around for a long time and this is not his first but third outing as a presidential candidate. After 20 years of Uribe as the leading figure in Colombian politics, there is a growing tiredness coupled with really serious levels of poverty, whilst kleptocrats openly steal the resources of the state. However, he hasn’t built social alliances as such. There has been a confluence of various social organisations and sectors more out of a hope that there might be some change. Petro for example opposed the wave of protests that erupted in the country last year. At a moment when Duque looked very weak, Petro came out to say that he didn’t want Duque to fall through the protests and demanded that the protests be called off. He more than anyone was responsible for the defeat. Petro is building an electoral alliance not a social force and his electoral alliance includes the bourgeoisie. He has long called for a programmatic agreement with the bourgeoisie and his alliance includes people from various previous governments, including Uribe’s governments. Leading functionaries from the Santos government play lead roles in his campaign, such as Alfonso Prada, who is also a close friend of Santos. Former president Samper, the man who implemented the decree that gave us the Convivir, the legal façade for the paramilitaries in the 1990s is also involved in his campaign. This is not a minor point, Samper managed to reinvent himself as a man of peace, even though he more than any president bears responsibility for the blood bath of the mid 1990s to the early years of the 21st century. He also tried to include the former president Cesar Gaviria, the man who gave us the economic aperture of the neoliberal period. It was opposition from his electoral base which forced him to rethink that one. These people play a greater role than any social movement.

Marchers on the annual Victims’ Day in March with placards of murdered trade union and human rights activists (Photo cred: GO’Loingsigh)

4) If Gustavo Petro wins the elections, what possibilities/room does he have to implement a progressive/social democratic policy for the people΄s classes, the workers, the poor, the precarious, etc?

This goes back to the last question and his programmatic alliance with the bourgeoisie. So, there are two elements, to what degree does he actually want to implement a progressive policy? He has spoken about reforms in health and education, some of which sound almost Keynesian, but Petro is not Keynesian. His programme does not contemplate a break with neoliberalism but to work within it, controlling deficits etc, subsidies for industry etc.. His economic policies are a continuation of the last 30 years, with one difference, he wants to move away from mining and oil exploitation, the former coming to an end in any case with various coal mining companies announcing their withdrawal from the country, though some gold mining companies are staying and these companies have legal guarantees on continuing with mining prospecting and exploitation that Petro will not and cannot legally bring to an end. He has however, said that he will promote agribusiness and continue with the policies that are in place, again with some minor tweaking.

Gustavos Petro campaigning (Photo cred: Financial Times)

5) How do you see the next day, after the disaster that the four years of Duque’s neoliberal policy has brought? What are the most important problems that the new government will face? What are the difficulties?

The next day, the one problem Petro will have is how the right will react to destabilise his government. A situation similar to that of Allende of a long drawn-out phase of destabilisation from some sectors is a possibility, though unlike Allende, Petro’s campaign is electoral, he does not believe in organising people and is in fact opposed to it. Part of his base has been bought off with the promise of jobs for the leaders of organisations and access to the public purse, which is normal for Colombian elections. Offers of jobs and government contracts in communities is the normal way elections are bought in Colombia.

Colombian military looks towards a protest demonstration (Photo cred: GO’Loingsigh)

Petro also does not have a majority in Congress, in fact he is very far from it. And will have to negotiate many things, which will push his programme further to the right as he will not use popular mobilisation to counter any blocking of policies by Congress. In the long term, this presents a problem for him and we will almost certainly see another wave of protests like those of last year, but this time against the Petro government. I also predict that his Vice President, Francia Márquez will not complete her term of office and will resign at some point in the face of the reality of Petro’s government as opposed to the expectations.

He has proposed renegotiating the free trade agreements, a task that is just not possible. He will also face problems in reforming the health sector as many international health companies have invested heavily in the sector and will most like sue the government for any changes that affect their profits, something he will be forced to back down on. In fact, within his campaign there have already been retreats on this point, as he no longer proposes to abolish the role of these companies, just to change how much of the public purse they have access to.

end.

People fishing in Cesar Department, Colombia (Photo cred: G.Ó Loingsigh)
Coal miner in Colombia (Photo cred: G.Ó Loingsigh)