Colombian president Gustavo Petro walking the tightrope of ‘total peace’

Will the new government be allowed to implement its social programmes to address the damage from decades of US-backed terrorism and war?

Lalkar writers

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Under new legislation, young people in Colombia will have the opportunity of carrying out ‘social service for peace’ as an alternative to military service. Alongside agricultural reforms and measures aimed at redressing rampant inequality, this is one of the measures the new government hopes will be able to transform the country after decades of US-inspired fratricide. But will Uncle Sam step aside for these people-centred reforms to take effect? And will Colombia’s traditionally imperialist-allied armed forces keep the line?

Lalkar writers

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Two regional trade union officials were killed in southern Colombia in mid-October – Ferney Morales and Rigo Alape were attacked in a municipality of Putumayo, apparently being forced by armed assailants to leave a community meeting before being murdered.

What was a poignant tragedy is in danger of becoming a commonplace in a country still beset by right-wing paramilitary violence. The two men were organisers for the FENSUAGRO agricultural trade union, and prominent members of the regional ASTRACAM peasant farmers’ association. FENSUAGRO is the most ruthlessly targeted trade union in Colombia, having had close to 40 members killed since a peace agreement was signed between the government and guerrillas of the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in 2016. More than 700 affiliates of the union have been murdered or have disappeared since its foundation in the mid-1970s.

As another trade unionist, Olga Quintero of the ASCAMCAT peasant farmers’ association in north-eastern Colombia, pointedly put it: “We are asking for political action so that human rights activism in Colombia is neither a crime nor a death sentence.”

Over the past four years, an alarming average of 240 community activists have been murdered each year – part of an endemic patchwork of violence that has haunted this rich and vibrant Latin-American country ever since the assassination in 1948 of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, an unashamedly socialist politician set to be elected the next president of Colombia. Now the challenge for Gustavo Petro, the country’s new progressive president who has made it into office via the ballot box, is to put an end to this blood-drenched cycle.

Petro’s response has been to declare a policy of paz total (‘total peace’). As a former member of the M-19 left-wing guerrilla group, and subsequently mayor of the capital, Bogotá, he is as well-placed as anyone to try to rein in the excesses of armed paramilitary groups – primarily the misleadingly named extreme right-wing autodefensas (‘self-defence groups’) whose patron is the ultra-reactionary Machiavellian figure of Álvaro Uribe, a former president of Colombia and beneficiary of lavish favours from the CIA.

The new government claims that at least ten armed groups have agreed to participate in unilateral ceasefires. Its high commissioner for peace, Danilo Rueda, was upbeat: “Each group with its own identity, nature and motivation is expressing its disposition to be part of a total peace. In this exploration phase we’ve asked them not to kill, not to abduct people and not to torture. We are moving ahead.”

For its part, the government has pledged to suspend aerial bombardments by the military of armed groups in a bid to avoid harming civilians and killing forcibly recruited minors.

The country’s six-decade-long armed conflict has accounted for the lives of at least 450,000 people. President Petro has said that his government could offer reduced sentences to gang members who hand over assets gained through crime and give information about drug trafficking.

The armed groups include two breakaway factions of the Farc, the Estado Mayor Central and La Segunda Marquetalia, whose members returned to the armed struggle after watching with dismay how some of their former comrades were picked off by assassins on acceding to the peace agreement and surrendering their arms.

The largest remaining guerrilla group, the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN), favours a bilateral ceasefire to pave the way for renewed negotiations. The ELN had taken part in peace talks in Havana, but these were called off by Petro’s predecessor, the ever more unpopular right-winger Iván Duque. Petro says the talks are now set to resume.

The hidden hand of the USA

Of course, it would be naive to just take attempts at pacification at face value. An interesting light is cast on the pursuit of former Farc guerrilla leaders by Oliver Dodd, a journalist and doctoral candidate based at the National university in Bogotá.

Dodd recounts how four historic leaders of La Segunda Marquetalia – Jesús Santrich, Hernán Velásquez, Henry Castellanos and Miguel Botache – were killed in neighbouring Venezuela in what seemed to be targeted assassinations.

The group’s current leader, Iván Márquez – who had been the Farc’s lead negotiator in the Havana peace agreement of 2016 – survived a similar assassination attempt with minor injuries. The USA had placed a £8.9m bounty on his head.

“Counter-insurgency planners believe that by neutralising the Segunda Marquetalia’s most experienced leadership at an early stage in the regeneration process it can provoke an existential crisis within the ranks of the organisation and prevent it from establishing deeper roots.

“To avoid an outright war with Venezuela, they chose a hybrid warfare strategy of using small units of mercenaries to covertly assassinate Farc leaders.

“The Colombian state, including the former president Iván Duque and his right-wing government, always denied any involvement in the attacks and blamed random criminal gangs.

“Having spent some time in Colombian guerrilla territories and interviewed various communist guerrilla fighters for my research, it is clear to me that these heavily-protected and experienced guerrilla leaders were not targeted by criminal gangs but highly trained commandos benefiting from US intelligence.

“To selectively target highly protected guerrilla leaders in territories under their control requires real-time information about the area, the entry and exit routes, the make-up of the civilian population. The idea that this was the work of random criminal gangs is fake news.” (The unknown story of Colombia’s campaign of military intervention in Venezuela, Morning Star, 7 October 2022)

What Petro has to confront is the all-pervading influence of the United States on Colombia’s military, which under more pliant governments it has become accustomed to finance and control. Given its generous, self-interested investment, US imperialism will not regard him as an ally.

Tackling the agenda

Immediately after his ‘Historic Pact’ coalition took office in August, Petro sent sweeping proposals for tax reform to the country’s congress.

In contrast to tax hikes for the low-paid introduced by Duque in April 2021, which sparked mass popular protests and the killing of more than 50 Colombians by riot police, the new government sought to raise taxes on the wealthy and remove exemption on corporate tax enjoyed by many companies, resulting in a more equitable distribution of the country’s wealth. As the bill put it, it “aims to pay off part of the historical social debt of the state to the Colombian population”.

The reform is intended to raise $5.6bn in 2023 to support anti-poverty programmes – only half the amount Petro originally envisaged, as the ‘Historic Pact’ has had to make deals with other parties in congress in order to secure a working majority.

Another important component of the bill is to put a 10 percent export tax on oil, gas and coal, which make up more than 40 percent of Colombia’s exports. Part of the ‘Historic Pact’s’ core programme is to move away from extractive industries and promote more environmentally sensitive agricultural production.

The tax reforms have yet to get through congress, and their progress will be a barometer of the prospects of equally ambitious plans for much-needed agrarian reform and the campaign for ‘total peace’.

In July, members of congress movingly held up placards with photos of social activists and ex-guerrillas killed during the Duque presidency, and in October, the ‘Historic Pact’ government managed to push through legislation offering young people the opportunity to carry out ‘social service for peace’ as an alternative to military service.

It will consist of a one-year term as an alternative to being conscripted into the army, but providing similar accreditation and benefits, including an income. Young people will carry out duties designed to strengthen peace, particularly in communities that have suffered the impact of conflict and inequality. These could include literacy programmes, environmental protection and giving support to those affected by violence and sexual abuse.

The theme of community integration, social inclusion and shared prosperity is central to the ‘Historic Pact’ project, personified in the figure of Petro’s vice-president, Francia Márquez, herself a prominent social and environmental activist of African-Colombian descent. During the election campaign, Petro gave a revealing interview on his perspective on the role of women:

“Feminism has remained with the old traditional left in the intellectual sphere of the big city, without any link to the population as a whole. As mayor of Bogotá, I started to understand that there had been a kind of divorce between the feminist agenda and the agenda of a woman living in the city. That is a huge mistake that the movement needs to resolve, because it is necessary to build an agenda for the women of Colombia.

“If I had the opportunity to become president and carry out agrarian reform, I would not give the deed to the male farmer, but to the woman. This has to do with something I see as fundamental as, at the end of the day, male farmers allowed their land to be lost, in many cases, it was even sold to the mafia, because their link with the land is basically productive, commercial, while the relationship women have with the soil is more based on looking after it, which is very similar to indigenous sentiment in Colombia.

“Looking after fertile land, which is also looking after water and food for the rest of society, is a task that can be much more efficient in the hands of women than men. I have been arriving at these kinds of thoughts but not through the hand of feminism, which has not raised these issues. An agenda has arisen that I call feminist and which I give a prefix, popular – popular-feminism – which seems to me to be bringing us closer to the concrete possibility that women can have power within this society.” (El País, 20 September 2022)

Colombia’s fledgling government is shot through with idealism and an urgent sense of purpose that reflects the population’s thirst for peace. But ultimately its fate may rest on the more mundane issues of legislative manoeuvring and whether Petro can keep the powerful Colombian military onside.