One could be forgiven for thinking it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. On April 1, thousands of people marched through Colombian cities in a protest against corruption — led by some of the country’s most corrupt politicians.
Foremost among them was former president Álvaro Uribe, now a senator and leader of the inaccurately named Democratic Center (the political party is far to the right). Implicated in the murders of thousands of innocent people by the army, collusion with paramilitaries, illegal wiretapping, and countless cases of bribery and corruption, Uribe seems an odd choice for leader of an anticorruption march.
But in reality, this was no such thing. It was the Right’s attempt to show their continued opposition to the country’s peace process and prepare for next year’s presidential election, which looks set to the most contentious in decades.
It is hardly surprising that Uribe and others on the far right, such as his predecessor President Andres Pastrana, would try to capitalize on the recent corruption scandals. Recent revelations of massive bribery by the Brazilian construction firm Oderbrecht have ignited fury throughout Latin America, with Colombia being no exception. It emerged that the company had paid bribes to countless politicians, funded presidential campaigns, and even paid off the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in order to do business.
Seeing that Santos, his former ally turned bitter enemy, was in trouble, Uribe took his chance to campaign against the government. Of course, his own party did not escape the scandal — its 2014 presidential candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, had also received bribes.
The obvious hypocrisy of corrupt politicians railing against the corruption of others didn’t seem to deter the many who attended these marches. This is because the real focus of the protest was the peace agreement between the government and FARC.
After four years of peace talks, and despite the initial deal’s narrow rejection by voters in October, the government pushed through an amended deal in December. Over six thousand members of the left-wing guerrilla army are currently demobilizing and preparing to reenter civilian life. Meanwhile, a transitional justice system is being created to address the countless war crimes in a conflict which has left over 260,000 people dead and six million displaced since 1964.
All of this would suggest that the peace process is now irreversible, but those on the Right do not seem to think so.
At the march on April 1, former inspector general Alejandro Ordóñez, one of the most likely candidates for the Democratic Center in next year’s elections, suggested that if he won, he would tear up the peace accords.
Many of his allies have good reason to oppose the peace agreement: they fear prosecution for war crimes. Many military officials and politicians are already in prison for links to right-wing paramilitaries, including Uribe’s own brother. He undoubtedly fears he will be next if the crimes of the past are thoroughly investigated.
Over 80 percent of civilian deaths in the war were caused by the paramilitaries, often in alliance with the military. Despite having officially been demobilized during Uribe’s presidency, many paramilitary groups remain active in drug trafficking and repression of the Colombian left.
Since the peace process began, twenty-eight community leaders have been murdered. Despite this, the anger of the Colombian public has long been primarily directed at the FARC. Many in urban centers are unaware of the widespread war crimes and displacements carried out by or with the backing of the state. (Unsurprisingly, the people most likely to support the peace deal are those in remote areas most affected by the war). Many millions of Colombians firmly back Uribe in his opposition to the peace process, believing it to be a sellout to terrorists or a communist takeover of the country.
All of this means that next year’s election is key to the future of the country. The Right will campaign bitterly against the peace process, denouncing it at every turn. They will continually criticize any perceived faults of the government, no matter how hypocritical their complaints may be. Should they be victorious, they will do everything in their power to destroy the peace agreement and intensify repression of the Left.
This is particularly worrying because the government is currently in peace talks with the Army of National Liberation (ELN), the largest guerrilla organization in the country now that the FARC are no longer active. Should these talks or the FARC peace process experience problems, it will help bring about a right-wing victory. Conversely, should the Right win and tear up the FARC peace process, they will destroy any chance of a settlement with the ELN.
Sadly, a Democratic Center government is more likely than a left-wing victory. Colombia has long been the United States’s closest ally in South America and a strongly capitalist state, one that has never been ruled by a government remotely to the left.
With rabid anticommunism widespread and leftists often suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers, the Left is generally weak. Bogotá was governed by the center-left Alternative Democratic Pole for many years, but following a string of corruption scandals, the mayoralty reverted to right-winger Enrique Peñalosa. (Thankfully, his privatization and unwillingness to invest in public transit has prompted a massive backlash, and he currently enjoys lower approval ratings than FARC).
The most promising left-wing candidate is Gustavo Petro, formerly a member of demobilized guerrilla group M-19 and the controversial mayor of Bogotá. He is a typical example of the Colombian establishment’s repression of the Left: he was illegally removed from office by Ordoñez for having lowered bus fares. This was a stark contrast to the thousands of other politicians who remain in office despite massive corruption and links to paramilitaries. The massive backlash to this politically motivated dismissal eventually saw Petro reinstated, and he completed his term as mayor.
While Petro enjoys some level of support, especially in Bogotá where many contrast him favorably with his successor, it is extremely unlikely that any left-wing candidate will be able to triumph in 2018. The election will very likely result in a second round between an Uribista candidate and an establishment pro-peace candidate, much like the 2014 second round between Santos and Zuluaga. Who would win really depends on the candidates chosen: some would be able to win center ground, while others, such as Ordoñez, are highly unpopular outside their own base.
Like in many other such conflicts, once the peace agreement was signed, many politicians and journalists around the world seem to have assumed that peace had come and that it would all be straightforward from there. Of course, things are rarely so simple. While enormous steps have been taken towards peace, the continued activity of paramilitaries and the massive political opposition to peace threaten to throw the country back into intense conflict.
Those on the Left must hope that the peace process will be successful, and that we will see the more inclusive society that was promised — not another instance of betrayal by the Colombian oligarchy.