Gustavo Petro, the left-leaning presidential candidate that is taking Colombia by storm, was once a member of the guerrilla group M19, the answer to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in the cities. Like many Colombian students in the 1970s, Petro was drawn to the M19 for their Robin Hood-style actions that seemed more urgent than the long drawn-out jungle war that their FARC comrades were waging at the time.
At just 17-years-old, Petro, already a member of the M19, showed outstanding intellectual capacity in his studies. He founded a newspaper called “Letter to the People,” where he denounced state crimes and gave a voice to the most oppressed in Colombian society. At 21, he was elected ombudsman of his municipality, Zipaquira, north of Bogotá. He was subsequently also elected councilman for said municipality between 1984-1986.
Fast forward to the early 1990s, Petro played an important role in the peace agreement between the government and the M19, helping to achieve amnesty for many of its members. A great feat considering that the Colombian state and their media apparatus had portrayed, as they still do, the revolutionary fighters as “terrorists.”
The 1990 peace agreement with the M19, like the present one with the FARC, was hardly peaceful. The main leader of the M19, Carlos Pizarro, was killed on board a commercial flight while he was running for the presidency. It seems that as a revolutionary in Colombia, laying down your arms costs you either your life or a significant part of your revolutionary spirit. In the case of Petro, he did not lose his life, but he did have to compromise his ideals.
After the peace agreement of 1990, Petro left for Belgium, where he studied economics and human rights. Thereafter, he came back to Colombia where he managed to reach governmental positions, first as a congressman in the late 1990s and then as mayor of Bogotá in 2011.
Despite having to compromise his early radicalism, Petro did manage to become a thorn in the side of the Colombian aristocracy by exposing paramilitary links to the government and carrying out other progressive deeds from his roles within the state. His time as Mayor of Bogotá resulted in mixed opinions in the country. While the poor tout him as the best mayor the city has ever had, the national press (controlled by a minority of criollo aristocratic families) asserts the exact opposite.
There’s no doubt that from a young age, Petro has envisioned and played a part in the positive transformation of Colombian society. He clearly means well.
But the question remains: is Petro’s possible ascendancy to the presidency the change that Colombia needs?
From a communist perspective, that is, from a profound and contextualized view of the economic and political conditions, one has to be pessimistic about the outcome of this year’s presidential elections. If Petro is even allowed to ascend to the presidency (there was widespread fraud in the recent legislative elections against him and even an assassination attempt) then his ability to change the socio-economic reality of the masses will no doubt be stifled by a Congress made up of the country’s most powerful political and economic elites.
Wherever he may be able to bring about tangible change, it will be limited to alleviating very specific symptoms of the capitalist-colonialist system as he did in Bogotá. A social democratic government will no doubt be overshadowed by a thoroughly aristocratic state whose powerful and plentiful representatives will do all they can to block any sign of progress. In short, if a revolutionary movement does not overthrow the state and take power of the country by force, all other projects and movements, no matter how well-meaning they may be, are bound to fail.
Furthermore, Petro’s slogan, which says he has come to enrich the poor and not impoverish the rich, shows that he may not be strong enough to confront the primary contradictions that engulf the country. A bright economist, as he is, should understand more profoundly that it is impossible to enrich poor people without taking from the parasites that hoard the wealth of the country. Hopefully, this idealistic phrase was used to buy time and votes but won’t actually be put into practice if he achieves power.
Many will argue that non-violent revolutionary governments in Latin America have been successful (i.g. Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales) but Colombia’s criollo elite is far more powerful than those in Venezuela, Ecuador or Bolivia, not forgetting the several U.S. military bases that are waiting to pounce on any revolutionary movement. Even those countries where social democratic processes have been somewhat successful in bringing temporary changes are now under threat, as is the case in Ecuador with the election and right-wing turn of President Lenín Moreno or the imperialist war against the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.
The painful reality is that it is going to take more than ballot boxes to transform Latin American society. One cannot take the Colombian revolutionaries’ and masses’ longing for peace lightly. Unfortunately, however, real political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, as Chairman Mao Zedong succinctly put it. The parasitic colonial elites are not going to give up power peacefully, as they have shown in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.
This apparent reconciliation with elites in Colombia and Latin America by revolutionaries does not have to be seen as a step backward. It is most likely a strategic or restive step, necessary for the final push to rid ourselves from the capitalist elites in a more permanent manner.
The future belongs to those of us who are willing to take the state by the throat, asphyxiate it to death and build a new socialist state on the ashes of the old.