Gustavo Petro. Photo: Gustavo Petro Ureggo
Gustavo Petro. Photo: Gustavo Petro Ureggo

Tony Saunois, Committee for a Workers’ International secretary

In a major blow to the rich oligarchs and the ruling class in Colombia, the left-wing candidate, Gustavo Petro, won the presidential election, taking 50.5% of the vote to 47.3% for the maverick, right-wing populist, Rodolfo Hernández. The victory of Petro is a historic turn in Colombia, which has never had a left government in its 214 years of existence.

The victory of Petro is also a blow to the interests of US imperialism. Colombia has been US imperialism’s closest ally in the region, led by a series of reactionary right-wing regimes which have ruled the country. On trade, the drugs war, and regional alliances, Petro is in opposition to the policy of US imperialism. This latest political earthquake is part of a new period of upheaval and struggles rocking Latin America.

The Colombian ruling class has been panicked at this historic result, which has been greeted with wild enthusiasm by the working class, the poor and the most downtrodden in Colombian society. Part of the enthusiasm has been driven by the radical reformist programme of Petro, and also the election of Francia Márquez, the first black woman, from a much-oppressed layer, as vice-president.

This victory represents an important step forward and will have repercussions throughout the Americas. All of the centre-right pro-capitalist parties, the ruling class, and landowners swung behind the maverick Hernández, who, among other things, has described Adolf Hitler as a “great German thinker”.

Petro has promised “true change, real change”, saying: “We will not betray this electorate, which has cried out to the country… for Colombia to change from today”. His radical programme includes a wealth tax on the richest 400,000, an increase in the minimum wage, the introduction of unemployment payments, a public health system, radical land reform, and other reformist measures.

Like his counterpart Gabriel Boric in Chile, Petro has been swept to power on a tide demanding the transformation of society. His victory, like Boric’s, is in part a product of the mass movements which erupted in both countries – in Chile in 2019 and Colombia in 2021. In Colombia, the mass movement was triggered by a tax reform by the right-wing government. It then exploded into a wider social movement against inequality, poverty, unemployment and corruption.

A tremendous general strike developed and the masses challenged for power. Brutal repression, resulting in the deaths of dozens of protesters, took place in response. The movement ebbed and retreated, as the leadership failed to carry it forward to overthrow the regime and establish a government of the workers and the poor. However, the thirst for change was not crushed, and the movement was not demoralised. This has now been expressed in Petro’s election victory. A new chapter in Colombian history has begun.

Petro, a former guerrilla fighter in M-19, which disbanded in 1990, was arrested and tortured by the military. He has a lengthy history of struggle, and was eventually elected as mayor of the capital Bogotá, a position he was removed from for a period for attempting to end the privatisation of rubbish collection in the city. He is hated by the far right and the paramilitaries which still operate in Colombia.

The vicious civil war which raged between the military, paramilitary gangs and the guerrilla organisations, Farc, M-19 and the ELN, was formally ended in 2016, leaving 260,000 dead and seven million displaced. Farc took up arms in 1964, mainly as a struggle for land reform.

However, the peace agreement that was signed in 2016 has been cautiously implemented by the right-wing regimes which have ruled since. Today, drug cartels and the ELN continue fighting in some regions of the country, which remain scarred by bloody conflict. The brutal violence of the drug cartels has not stopped, as groups like the Gulf Clan continue to operate. This paramilitary drug cartel enforced a ‘strike’ and ordered the population to stay at home in protest against the arrest and deportation to the USA of its leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, in May. This was enforced in 11 of the 32 departments, or states, of Colombia. There is a yearning for peace in these areas.

Petro’s victory has aroused the confidence of millions who now look to his regime to carry through ‘real change’. However, the question is can he deliver on his radical programme of reform? He faces major obstacles and needs a revolutionary socialist programme to overcome them. Any serious attempt to implement land reform and other measures will arouse the wrath of the ruling class. His party, Pacto Histórico (Historic Pact) only has 15% of the seats in Congress. The traditional right holds a majority. It is the same obstacle faced by the left President Castillo in Peru, who recently won its presidential election.

To enact the reform programme, it is essential to go beyond Congress and not seek a constitutional road that will be blocked by the right. The threats of economic sabotage and a flight of capital by the ruling class are present from the very beginning. The far right and the paramilitaries could attempt an assassination should Petro take measures to threaten their interests.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to placate the market, Petro is already considering the appointment of a ‘centrist’ finance minister. Such attempts to appease the ruling class and moderate his programme will not satisfy the masses. Neither will it satisfy the ruling class and oligarchs. In Chile, Boric, after only a few months in power, has seen a collapse in his approval ratings as he has sought compromise after compromise with the ruling class and ‘centre’ political parties.

Mass action committees of workers, the urban and rural poor, and others who want radical reforms and change, need to be democratically elected. A national plan of struggle is needed to implement the programme that Petro was elected on and how to build a mass party of the working class with a socialist programme to break with capitalism. Such a movement can form the basis for forming a government of the workers and the poor. It would need a programme to break with landlordism and capitalism and introduce a democratic socialist plan.

Unfortunately, Petro dropped some of his most radical demands during the campaign to ‘win the centre’. Even since his election, he has declared he wants national unity. This road will give the right time to regroup and organise. If he rolls back his reform programme it will lead to disappointment and erosion of support.

However, his victory can boost the confidence and determination of the working class and poor to struggle and fight, and open a new era for the struggle for a socialist alternative in Colombia.