The Colombian Left’s Fight against Neoliberal Hegemony

Colombia election

In Colombia, the Historic Pact presidential ticket is favored to win the May 29, 2022, national elections, with between 37.9% to 48% of votes, according to various opinion polls. Historic Pact is a coalition of 20 different political parties and formations, ranging from the radical Left, Comunes, to the centre-Left’s Todos Somos Colombia and the Communist Party of Colombia. Its presidential candidate is Gustavo Petro – a former M-19 guerrilla member who was the mayor of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, from 2012-2014 and has been a senator since 2018. Its vice-presidential candidate is Francia Marquez – a Black feminist activist and Goldman Environmental Prize winner who led the resistance to illegal gold mining on the ancestral lands of her native Afro-Colombian community of La Toma in the Cauca region. In the March 13, 2022, primary election, Historic Pact obtained 16 seats in the Senate (one less than the Conservatives, who got the most), and 27 seats in the House of Representatives (five less than the Liberals, who got the most).

Since no party is expected to get more than 50% of the vote in the upcoming election, Petro will most likely have to compete in a runoff election with former Medellín mayor Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, who is supported by former dictatorial President Alvaro Uribe, or a Trumpist multi-millionaire businessman from Bucaramanga, Rodolfo Hernández. The second and final round of voting is scheduled for June 19, 2022. Historic Pact’s growing electoral strength has alarmed the Colombian right-wing oligarchy. It is not an accident that Petro and Marquez have been facing repeated death threats during their campaigns. Challenging the status quo in Colombia is dangerous given the economic and political dominance of national and transnational mining, agricultural, hydro-carbon and cattle ranching interests. The structurally entrenched power of these elite groups can be traced to the neoliberal transformations that took place in Colombia from the late 1980s.

During the post-WWII global conjuncture, Global South governments followed a model of state capitalism, which comprised state spending on a large-scale, state setting up of financial institutions for providing capital for investment projects, protectionism, state regulation of multinational corporations, state investment in key infrastructure sectors etc. All these measures were directly essential for the domestic bourgeoisie embarking upon accelerated capitalist development. However, indigenous capitalism was hamstrung by three problems: 1) the low productivity of import substitution industrialization, owing to the low rate of growth of agriculture within a largely unreformed agrarian structure; 2) inadequate fiscal revenue and taxation capacity, owing to the unwillingness of the bourgeoisie-landlord alliance to bear a heavier tax-burden; and 3) constricted internal demand for domestically produced goods due to the continuance of land concentration, which allowed landlords to siphon a large portion of the agricultural surplus.

To overcome the deficiencies of peripheral state capitalism, Third Word elites resorted to a model of debt-dependent capital accumulation, borrowing money to finance public spending. This made Global South administrations susceptible to the economic vagaries of the metropolitan core. In the 1960s and 1970s, heavy debt accumulation reached a crisis point with the institution of US restrictions on monetary expansion after a period of stagflation. While these measures drastically reduced inflation in America through the heightening of interest rates, they made debt repayment onerous between 1981 and 1983. As investors pulled out of Latin America and foreign exchange reserves depleted, most governments of the continent devalued currencies, refinanced foreign debts, reduced expenditures and structurally re-adjusted their domestic economies according to the plans established by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Through the destabilization of a form of state capitalism that was relatively autonomous from the imperatives of Global North economies, the debt crisis enabled the creation of strong interlinkages between peripheral states, the American empire and international lending institutions. This brought about the “Washington Consensus,” expressed in the implementation of a set of neoliberal measures that comprise trade and financial liberalization, removal of barriers to foreign direct investment, privatization, deregulation, and labour market flexibility. The enactment of neoliberal reforms took a particularly virulent form in Colombia. Having borrowed as much as $340 million per year from the World Bank by the early 1970s, with $125.2 million in annual debt service payments alone, the country witnessed the collapse of coffee prices, the onset of recessionary tendencies, and difficulties in accessing foreign credit.

In the mid-1980s, the Colombian ruling class decided to exit the debt crisis by subordinating the national economy to the dictates of imperialist powers. An important component of this re-configuration was the subversion of the traditional agricultural sector. Prabhat Patnaik notes: “Just as imperialism wants to corner all the food and raw material sources across the globe, just as it wants to control all the sources of fossil fuels in the world, it also wants to control the entire pattern of land-use all over the world, especially in the third world, most of which falls within the tropical and subtropical zone and hence is capable of growing crops that the temperate region, within which metropolitan capitalism is located, cannot grow”. Since the metropolis does not need food grains, it has to “get the peasants to move away from food grain production into producing the crops it needs”.  This can’t be done as long as “the government procures food grains at assured, pre-announced prices.”

“Reducing the domestic demand for food grains through compressing incomes of the working people via fiscal austerity…does not help imperialism in this situation, because it only leads to a piling up of food grain stocks with the government without reducing food grain output and changing the pattern of land-use. What imperialism needs therefore is a total abolition of this system of price-support, and, additionally, an alternative mechanism to influence the crop-growing decisions of the peasantry.” In Colombia, imperialist control over land was established through the expansion of international commodities markets and the growth of agro-industrial activity. With the abandonment of the goal of agrarian redistribution, land concentration increased, and the peasant economy got replaced by neoliberal economy of extractive industrial and resource-based development. The economic landscape of agricultural areas saw a large-scale, market-enforced conversion to cash crops and livestock (indicative of narco-interests), and the displacement of rural people toward urban slums and frontiers. Displaced people either joined precarious labour markets in the service sector or found themselves subject to exploitation at the hands of drug gangs, and paramilitaries.

The rapid urbanization and concentration of productive lands was inevitably accompanied by mass murder, and violent thefts of property. Afro-Colombians, indigenous groups and impoverished Mestizo farmers lost their lives and lands due to the neoliberal paradigm of dispossession by armed land grabs. The gutting of policies designed to promote access to frontier land among small farmers resulted in the consolidation of powerful agrarian capitalist operations. Agribusiness firms maintained their control over tracts of productive land by using paramilitaries, which regularly targeted leftist social activists, community organizers, human rights workers, journalists, and labor leaders and union members. These exceptional amounts of violence led to a long and deadly civil war between communist guerrillas and the Colombian state, with the victim toll estimated at more than 160,000 deaths and 6.5 million forced displacements between the early 1980s and the 2010s. In the words of Jacobo Grajales, “land inequality nurtured the process of violence escalation by marginalizing recently colonized territories where communist guerrillas were particularly influential, feeding the frustrations of landless peasants and frontier settlers and generating brutal class relations in the places most directly connected to global value chains.”

The hegemony of the bloc of landlords, paramilitaries, drug-lords and multinational corporations could not be challenged effectively till now due to the presence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP). Whenever protests erupted, the government found an easy scapegoat in the communist guerrillas to justify its heavy reliance on the army and police. But the signing of a peace agreement in November 2016 meant the disappearance of FARC-EP as a guerilla force from the political scene. Consequently, two national strikes were organized in 2019 and 2021. These protests vehemently expressed opposition to oligarchical groups and their political representatives. Historic Pact has tried to draw on this reservoir of popular anger by focusing on corruption, capitalist greed, militarism, and dependence on fossil fuels. The extent to which Petro can give an electoral expression to grassroots revolts is linked to his ability to intensify the mass mobilization of workers, peasants, youth, women and indigenous people and advance a program of social transformation.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected].

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