Colombia: You Can’t Elect an End to Exploitation   

colombia strike
2019 Strike

Many progressives are excited about the electoral victory of  so-called leftist, Gustavo Petro, who defeated both the centrist candidate representing the status quo and the right wing Rodolfo Hernández. “So-called” leftist is the key word here, because, to quote Petro,  he is fighting for “democracy and peace, not socialism.” 1 He wants to raise taxes on the rich, combat hunger, increase access to health care and education, and halt oil exploration, but he envisions accomplishing this by allying himself with liberal politicians in order to “ pass progressive liberal reforms.”2

As President, Petro would command 228,000 soldiers and 172,000 police, the second biggest military In South American and the recipient in millions of dollars of US aid.3 Although Petro has criticized the military for corruption, promised some reforms, and even fought against them as a youthful member of the guerilla group M-19, he is not planning to dismantle the institution.

Petro hopes that will not be overthrown by a US-backed coup, although he has raised this possibility. Tellingly, Biden sent his Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, the same person sent to engineer the pro-US coup in Ukraine in 2014, to oversee the election in Colombia.4 So whether it be by violence with which the US was complicit, as with Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, Allende in Chili in 1970, and Zelaya in Honduras in 2009 or fraud accusations as against Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2019 (to name a few), reformers in Latin America cannot expect to stay in office for long.

Workers’ Power Comes From the Barrel of a Gun

Because Petro is not a Marxist or a revolutionary, he fails to deal with the question of power. Who holds power — that is what decides the ability of a system to determine and implement its priorities. Under capitalism, the capitalist class, the owners of industry and banks, holds power, ultimately through its control of the military and police. Capitalists never have and never will give up power voluntarily. The only way for workers to overturn the system in order to erase the concept of profits is to organize millions, including as many soldiers as possible, to fight the capitalist class. There is no other path to create a system with totally new priorities, in which production is for what people need rather than for what sells and in which services to maximize health, education, housing, and creativity are the priority. A politician alone without organized armed backing cannot reorder social priorities.

By definition, profit is made only by returning to the working class less than the value it produces – a simple relation elucidated by Marx 150 years ago. If a capitalist nation is doing well relative to others, controlling resources and markets and not facing military threats, it may be able to treat workers relatively well, as did the US after World War II. But if profits are threatened by low productivity, poor trade relations, loss of hegemony, then workers will pay the price. Thus we see a decline in wages and services in the US, now being out produced by China, and a continually low standard of living for workers in the countries of the global south.

Not all capitalists agree about the degree to which workers should be exploited or the amount of services they should be provided, but the bottom line is that, overall, profits must be maintained. Petro and many other reformers in Latin America and social democrats like Bernie Sanders in the US believe that it is possible to require or pressure capitalists to provide workers with good wages and services without removing them from power. They take this position because their greatest fear is that the working class should actually take power.

Fake Leftists Steer Protestors to the Ballot Box

Ever since gaining independence 200 years ago, Colombia has been ruled by a small elite that is protected by the armed forces that depend on US dollars, the largest recipient in the hemisphere. Ever since 1921 US aid has been aimed at containing any communist threat throughout the hemisphere, so much so that Colombia fought along with the US in World War II, Korea, and has been named a partner of NATO. Ever since the Reagan administration this military aid has been given under the cover of the “war on drugs,” although it has mainly been used to quell local and regional guerilla, leftist and protest movements.4.5

Today Colombia is one of the two largest cocaine producers and distributors in the world. At least 130,000 small farmers make their living growing coca, and the drug profits are so great that many politicians, judicial officials and security forces are bribed to facilitate the trade.6 Petro’s only solution is to gradually replace the coca crops with legal ones such as marijuana, but even his mild opposition to the drug war threatens the US plan to continue its armed presence.7

As recently as 2019 there were mass protests in Colombia over 19 percent tax increases on many everyday goods and services. The more than 42 percent of the population that already lives in poverty would have had trouble just surviving. Health and pension cuts would have also affected the middle class. Thus huge numbers of workers and neighborhood organizations, students, young people and minority groups mobilized to protest.8  At least 45 demonstrators were killed by security forces and 1649 arrested.

Rather than taking a lead in this popular struggle, Petro discouraged militant tactics like blockades and urged reliance in elections.9 On April 17, 2021, he addressed the nation and appealed for calm. “The police aren’t the enemy,” he said in the video published on social media. “The enemy is the tax reform.” Once tax reform was rescinded, he urged strikers to go home.10 Nonetheless only 48 percent of potential voters participated in the recent election.11

What is Needed

Thus it is unlikely, impossible, that Petro’s victory will resolve the problems of working class Colombians. Even if Petro is not soon assassinated or deposed, the wealthy elite and the military they control jointly with the US will not allow any reforms that threaten their wealth or the priorities of US foreign policy. The greatest danger and the greatest tragedy is that the mass movement that developed from 2019-21 has become quiescent and may be discouraged by Petro’s failures. We can hope that it restarts and sees the necessity of actually seizing power as a mass movement, that same necessity for workers everywhere.





Ellen Isaacs is a physician and long time anti-racist and anti-capitalist organizer. She is co-editor of and can be reached at [email protected]. This article first appeared on

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