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Hope for Colombia: An interview with James Jordan about the election of Petro

By Meredith Aby-Keirstead |
July 1, 2022
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On June 19, Gustavo Petro won the second round of the Colombian presidential election with over 50% of the vote. This is a historic victory because Colombia, unlike many other South American countries, including neighboring Venezuela, doesn’t have a history of leftists winning office. 

For more than 52 years now the U.S. has backed the wealthy Colombian oligarchy against revolutionaries of the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People's Army) and ELN (National Liberation Army) who are fighting for national liberation against U.S. imperialism. There was a brief negotiated peace in 1985 and leftists ran for office under the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica), but 5733 party members and candidates were assassinated by right-wing paramilitary death squads which destroyed the peace process. In 2016 the FARC-EP and the Colombian government again initiated a peace process, and this recent election has been closely watched across the world. 

The election of Petro offers an opportunity for the Colombian government to demand the release of Colombian revolutionary Simon Trinidad from the Florence Colorado Supermax prison where he is held by the U.S. government.

Fight Back! interviewed longtime international solidarity activist James Jordan with the Alliance for Global Justice (https://afgj.org/) to get his insight on the Colombian presidential election. Jordan is the national co-coordinator for the Alliance for Global Justice and has led international solidarity work with Colombia for decades and was in Colombia during this most recent presidential election. 

Jordan’s delegations have given Americans the opportunity to see the consequences of "Plan Colombia", the U.S. plan to militarize and dominate Colombia, involving seven U.S. military bases and the U.S. funding of the “war on drugs”. Through this plan the U.S. sent billions in military aid which ended up funding right-wing paramilitaries who targeted union and human rights leaders with murder and disappearances. The U.S. also trained members of the Colombian military who led and participated in these paramilitary death squads at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. 

Fight Back!: What is the significance of the recent Colombian presidential election?

James Jordan: There are many things that are significant. This is the first time that a Center-Left ticket has been elected in Colombia's history. Francia Marquez is the first Afro-Colombian and the first woman vice president. But what's most significant to me is not what these two individuals or the electoral movements behind them achieved. It is not that they waged a smart and successful campaign. It is not that they were backed up by a majority of voters. What is most significant to me is that they were elected on a wave of popular movement militancy. I think both President-elect Gustavo Petro and Vice President-elect Marquez would agree that their success is a result of that old adage that, "If the people lead, the leaders will follow". There has been a steady drumbeat of mass mobilizations that they rode, that carried them to their positions of power today. 

There are many points where we could start, but let's start with the founding of the Marcha Patriótica (Patriot March) in 2012 and the demand for a peace process to end 50 years of war. Let's look at the indigenous mobilizations of 2012, the agrarian strike in 2013, a series of other such strikes and mobilizations, the negotiation and implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord, and the huge national strikes of 2019 and 2021, in which millions of Colombians took to the streets to beat back austerity measures proposed by the right-wing Ivan Duque government, and to demand compliance with the 2016 Peace Accord and an end to right-wing military and paramilitary violence that was killing social leaders, protesters and peace accord signers at a rate of one victim per day. 

That accord had been trashed and ignored and was in the trash can, ready to be hauled away to history's garbage dump. And that is another huge significance - the election of Petro and Marquez has pulled that accord out of trash and given it new life. All that was made possible because of the militancy and mass mobilizations of Colombians in the streets. And Vice President-elect Marquez is herself a product of the social movements. 

I hope people in the U.S. will take notice. If we take our power to the streets and demand everything, rather than tailing leaders who throw us crumbs, the same thing can happen in the U.S.!

Fight Back!: What can you tell us about Gustavo Petro?

Jordan: Another truly significant thing about Petro is that he began his life of struggle at age 17 as a young member of the M-19 guerrilla movement, as someone who in his youth gave himself to the armed struggle. His entry into political life was a result of another peace accord, and he has ever since supported a peace process with both the FARC-EP and the ELN. When Petro talks peace, it's not some namby-pamby romantic pacifism with no roadmap, just naively asking everyone to lay down their arms. He understands the kinds of concrete and practical steps needed to achieve peace. He also has an impressive track record as a former congressman, senator and mayor of the capital city of Bogotá.

Of course, we should understand that the Petro/Marquez election could be correctly described as a political revolution, but it's not the full-scale revolution many of us hope for. He says he supports "democratic capitalism" as if a system based on exploitation could be described as real "democracy." But this is a step towards people's democracy, but even that hasn't been achieved yet. Petro and Marquez will have to deal with nefarious forces in Congress, plus an oligarchy and a brutal right wing that will try to stop their progressive initiatives at every turn, using every tool at their disposal, both legal and illegal. And Petro/Marquez are not making a clear break at all with Colombia's status as the U.S.’s number one military colony in Latin America. But, yes, it's a start, and hopefully, again, the people will lead, and the leaders will follow.

Fight Back!: What are you hearing from grassroots movements in Colombia about the impact of this election?

Jordan: Ah, well, it's hard to hear anything above all the celebrating and dancing in the streets! Seriously, I was in the city of Cali when the victory was announced, and all over the city, you could hear people taking to the streets with joy. I think the grassroots movements are well aware of everything this election is and isn't. The real power in Colombia lies with the people, and this is their victory. But are their struggles over? Hardly. And if Petro and Marquez betray the people in any way, they will answer for it. The people will continue to mobilize, and I think that Petro and Marquez both know that whatever successes they achieve, they will need to keep riding that wave of popular leadership. The fight for Colombia's "second independence" is far from over. But, yes, a new Colombia is being born.

Fight Back!: How do you think the U.S. will respond to the election of Petro?

Jordan: The U.S. will try to co-opt Petro and Marquez, manipulate them, subvert them, convince them that the real power lies in Washington, DC. When that doesn't work, or even if it does work, they will be using all their influence, all their tools, to undermine their power in favor of those more amenable to the designs of empire. You can bet on that. They already called Marquez to a sit down in Washington, DC when she was in the U.S. speaking to Colombians living in our country. 

But Petro has already said that he wants to dismantle the hated ESMAD riot police, who were co-created by and who are armed and advised by the U.S. based on a U.S. police model. That itself shows some real backbone, and I only hope he follows through. ESMAD has brutally murdered protesters in both the cities and the countryside. I think that may be one of the real tests of the Petro presidency. Will he follow through on this promise? I just hope that U.S. popular movements will join in struggle with the Colombian people, because we are fighting the same oppressors, and we will win or lose, together. 

Colombia is so important throughout Latin America and the world. The influence that Colombia has, for good or for bad, is tremendous. We have often repeated the slogan - and it's the truth: "Peace for Colombia is peace for the world!"

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