by Sashank Rajaram
Electing a left-wing candidate for the first time in over two hundred years, the recently concluded presidential election in Columbia which saw former guerrilla member and mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, emerge victorious is a monumental moment. Riding on anti-incumbency sentiments against the traditional centre-right parties, Petro has some radical reforms such as agricultural tariffs, free education, a higher tax on the rich, and paving the path for an economy based on greener energy. Yet, without a parliamentary majority, there are doubts whether Petro will be able to deliver on his promises. With the Latin American country turning a historic page, this article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the implications it bears on Colombia and its future.
Latin America, one of the most politically unstable regions, is undergoing a paradigm shift in recent years wherein throwing out incumbent governments for their mismanagement of the country’s resources has increasingly become the norm. Peru and Chile initiated the process and now Columbia seems to have followed suit. On the 19th of June, the country went through a seismic political upheaval as for the first time in its independence history, Colombia elected Gustavo Petro, a former member of an urban guerrilla outfit and one of the icons of the Left-wing, to the Casa de Nariño.
Securing 50.4% of the votes over his rival, a property tycoon, Rodolfo Hernández in the presidential run-off, Petro’s victory marked the highest number of votes for any Colombian president in an election that subsequently witnessed the highest electoral turnout. The momentous election results have also brought the vice presidency, for the first time, to Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian environmentalist from one of the country’s most backward and marginalized areas. Considering Gabriel Boric in Chile, Xiomara Castro in Honduras, Luis Arce in Bolivia, and Pedro Castillo in Peru, all belong to the left-wing of the political spectrum, what explains such an electoral turnaround in Colombia, and how does this impact Latin America as it attempts to re-establish its presence in the world affairs?
The Rise of Colombia
Over the past few years, Colombia has been a rare bird in Latin American politics. For example, during the 1960s and the 1970s, while Latin America was filled with right-wing military dictatorship, Colombia remained a relatively stable but restricted democracy in which the two parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, alternated power. Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the region began leaning towards the left, giving rise to what became known as the ‘pink tide’, Colombian politics began to tilt in the opposite direction, by electing Alvaro Uribe, a strong centre-right candidate, who in many ways, has dominated Colombian politics to this day.
And so, while the rest of Latin America saw abrupt shifts in their political regimes, Colombia, once again, remained largely immune to the fashions of the region. Taking a look at the statistics, Colombia was progressing at a healthy rate. In real terms, the GDP per capita increased from $1400 in 1990 to $6700 towards the end of 2018. Although it did not guarantee a ticker-tape parade, it registered a growth of 2.4% which was four times the growth of other countries such as Mexico and Argentina. This was also accompanied by profound social changes that transformed the economy. The share of people pursuing tertiary education quadrupled to 55% and other social indicators such as access to healthcare and sanitation vastly improved. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, Colombia experienced one of the fastest economic recoveries in Latin America, exceeding its pre-pandemic levels of production by 2021. Importantly, it’s not all about the economy. In addition, Colombia has been gaining some traction. In April 2020, the country joined the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance comprising wealthy democracies that promote market-based trade.
Five years ago, it became the first Latin American country to obtain the NATO ‘global partner’ status, and as early as April 2022, President Joe Biden designated Colombia as a ‘major non-NATO ally’—a status that carried with it preferential treatment in security and defense matters. In a way, Colombia’s growth was a much-needed reprieve for a country marked by a deadly armed conflict—a civil war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist guerrilla group, and the Colombian government. Put together, the country nearly equalled Chile’s (the most developed in the region) performance in the last two decades.
Yet, the returns of high economic growth were funnelled to the rich and powerful classes that had major stakes in many of the large Colombian corporations. This made the country one of the most unequal in the world. For example, upwards of 80% of private agricultural land is still owned by under 1% of landowners. Furthermore, Colombia has the second-highest incidence of informal labour in Latin America: close to 6 out of 10 workers do not have a formal job. To make matters worse, a flourishing narcotics trade, soaring food inflation, unemployment, high poverty and the regressive tax system, exacerbated the frustration of the people who were riding on a high anti-incumbency sentiment against the centre-right President Iván Duque.
Iván Duque ran for elections in 2018 with bold promises of change, transformation and modernization of the Colombian economy and society. He staunchly opposed the historic peace agreement struck between the FARC and the Colombian government in 2016 and promised to tackle the issue with priority if elected to power. However, the government’s Laodicean approach, even when former rebels and politicians continued to be murdered, caused dissent among the Colombian population. In 2019, protesters flooded the country, denouncing the President’s intentions to reduce the minimum wage and reform the pension system to stimulate the private sector. Duque’s lack of response, negotiation skills and leadership ended up freezing any programme for change.
Apart from the egregious handling of the pandemic, the government, without much explanation or consensus, passed a tax reform to raise the income tax on the middle classes and Value Added Tax (VAT) on basic goods in order to lower taxes and provide a boost to the secondary sector in 2021. The reform once again set the streets on fire and in the end, Duque ended up doing the opposite: passing another tax reform that raised the corporate tax from 31% to 35%. Besides, during Duque’s term in office, violence had been exacerbated by the growing activity of the drug cartels and FARC’s dissidents. All these scenarios fueled the growing dissatisfaction with the government, resulting in a low approval rating. It is under these circumstances that the political atmosphere of Colombia must be viewed.
Promises of Petro
For many decades, the long civil war in Colombia between the FARC and the government had not allowed leftist politicians to gain popular support. But the FARC’s decision to lay down arms and join the political mainstream in the 2016 Peace Agreement, widened the scope for leftists, including Petro. As the former Mayor of Bogota, he quickly gained support with his reforms focusing on progressive taxation, land redistribution, increased spending on education and health care, reduction in the fiscal deficit, and establishment of a social-democratic market economy that respects private property.
Speaking to The Economist, Petro emphasized taxation on Colombia’s wealthy elite, banning of new hydrocarbon extraction projects while taxing dividends earned in current ones, and agricultural reform as major policy measures that his government will pursue. Aware of the failure of previous left regimes in the 21st century, Petro has made a major distinction: instead of redistributing earnings from the petroleum extraction industry, his political platform will focus on economic diversification into renewable energy and tourism. His other promises include reopening Venezuela’s borders for better diplomatic relations despite political and ideological differences.
While his promises may bring some reassurance to Colombia, economists remain sceptical. According to Petro, his tax reform will raise around $14-$17 billion. However, economists feel his main promises alone are estimated to cost twice that amount. At the same time, his critical take on the ‘war on drugs’ – a policy effort that led the U.S. to eradicate coca production in South America – has caused some alarm in Washington too. By distancing himself from the United States, raising tariffs and renegotiating the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement, which he considers unfairly skewed against Colombian farmers and manufacturers, it is not surprising that the Central bank has detected capital outflow from the country.
Hopes and Doubts
The expression ‘pink tide’ was used in the early 2000s to symbolize the swath of left-wing governments that took shape throughout most of Latin America, from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Lula Da Silva in Brazil. And now, Petro represents the ‘new pink tide’ in Latin America along with his fellow progressives. However, the journey will not be easy. Petro’s leftist coalition controls only 25 of the 188 seats in the lower chamber. It is likely that institutions that thrived during Alvaro Uribe’s reign – a reign characterized by right-wing authoritarianism and neoliberalism – will reject Petro’s major reforms. Aside from the economic consequences, his decision to change to sustainable energy will face stiff resistance from the entrenched oil industry.
As a result, Petro would need to rally additional support from civil society to accomplish any significant gains. Ambitious policy reforms without a parliamentary majority, substantial fiscal limitations, and a volatile international climate often do not create a winning combination for incoming governments. As Colombia heads into the unknown, Gustavo Petro should remain focused and endeavour to unify a country shattered by civil war, drug cartels, corruption, and economic injustice.
Sashank Rajaram is a 1st-year Undergraduate student at Ashoka University, pursuing an Economics Major and Political Science Minor.
Image Credits: Ernesto Guzmán Jr/EPA