Vivir Sabroso!

The left's win in Colombia signals that after more than six decades of war, people just want to live with dignity and in peace.

Leon Hernandez / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

My heart skipped a beat in a newsroom around 5pm on June 19 when it was clear that Colombia had, for the first time in its history, elected a new president from a left-wing party: Gustavo Petro. For months, every time a friend asked me if I thought such a victory would be possible, I was adamant about it: “no way, impossible!” Colombia, I repeated dozens of times, is too conservative to elect a left-wing guy, much less a man who was a former rebel in the 1970s and 1980s. I thought Bernie Sanders had a better chance of winning the US presidency in past elections than Petro had in Colombia. I was wrong, partly.

Compared to its neighbors, Colombia had indeed been quite conservative in the last decades. At the beginning of the 21st century, when Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil elected left-wing presidents, Colombians instead brought Álvaro Uribe, a leader from the far-right, to power (2002-2010) to combat the left-wing guerrillas that remained active in the country. The following two presidents were elected with Uribe’s support and even when the first successor betrayed him—negotiating a peace deal with the FARC, the largest rebel group—the response of the electorate in 2018 was to put another of his pupils in power. The electorate was so right wing that in 2016 the majority voted “No” in a referendum to approve the peace deal with the FARC. Who votes no to peace? Colombia. That’s how far the country was from sitting at the same table with the left. Added to that, was the collapse of our neighbor Venezuela’s economy and democracy in the past decade, which only strengthened the idea that the left was no option here.

Again, I was wrong, and there are now some good hypotheses floating around on why this change happened, but I’ll just mention two. As in other countries that have turned to the left recently, including Chile, Argentina, Honduras, Perú, and México, an urgent cry to change an unequal economic system moved the electorate, especially after the pandemic left millions more without food to put on their table.

But that couldn’t be the only explanation, because inequality and poverty have been around for decades. So what else? In Chile and Colombia, at least, the electorate also punished right-wing politicians who responded to national protests that erupted in 2019 against police brutality. In a symbolic moment during his acceptance speech, Petro handed the microphone to the mother of one of the dozens of young men killed by the police. “I raise my voice for my boy, I demand justice, and I welcome you Mr President,” she said. Among the promises that Chile’s Gabriel Boric and Petro made to the electorate were comprehensive reforms to the special forces that killed protesters. It was not just about the economy. It was also about human rights.

The “new pink tide” (as this shift to the left has been called in the press) is here. The risk of adopting this new concept, however, is forgetting how all the new left-wing presidents don’t represent a monolithic block. Boric and Petro have been closer to the environmental movements, for example, whereas López Obrador in México has confronted them. Several of the new presidents are not aligned with the authoritarian governments in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, and even if some are cautious towards the US, they remain interested in keeping a good diplomatic relationship with the American government.

After the election, a few foreign friends asked me what happened in Colombia. “Imagine if Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump in the 2016 elections, with Angela Davis as Bernie’s VP,” I texted one of them. Petro chose, as his running mate, an admired environmental activist called Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian lawyer who comes from one of the most impoverished areas of the country (and happens to be a friend of Angela Davis). Her political movement called Soy Porque Somos,  (I am because we are), is a reference to the philosophical concept of Ubuntu that originates from sub-Saharan Africa. They mobilized thousands of votes that Petro needed to win the election, especially in the regions of the Pacific coast, where a large majority of the population is black and lives in poverty. Márquez is the first black woman to be vice president. One of her famous slogans is “Vivir Sabroso,” which roughly translates to wanting for all Colombians to live with dignity in a peaceful country.

Of the many hypotheses on why the left won, that’s the closest to my heart: perhaps a country that has been at war for more than 60 years just wants, for once, to live with dignity, and to vote yes to peace.

Further Reading

AMLO’s way

Mexico’s president has a mandate for radical change, but this change must be negotiated within a context of limits produced by the neoliberal period itself.