Kelti Cameron | CUPE Staff

Street art in Bogotá, Colombia, of newly elected President Gustavo Petro and Vice-President Francia Márquez, July 2022.

In 2022, Colombia elected a progressive, left-wing government for the first time in its 214-year history. The election of Gustavo Petro as president, and Francia Márquez as vice-president is historic. It is a hopeful moment for workers, activists, the marginalized and the poor.

Their coalition, the Historic Pact, is a united front of progressive parties and social movements representing trade unions, youth, women, and ethnic minorities. Founded on February 11, 2021, it is the result of years of grassroots organizing and coordination by movements and communities who have endured decades of violence and poverty. 

Petro and Márquez have committed to advancing a political program that promises expanded free public education and child care, new jobs, public pensions, environmental and water protection, agricultural reforms and food sovereignty. Many are optimistic they will move away from the dependence on oil and gas, and halt current and future fossil fuel expansion projects. In a country that has mainly served the interests of foreign investors and neoliberal proponents, this program is considered a radical turn of events by some. Its implementation will be challenging and is sure to draw a great deal of concern from Canadian corporate investors.

Márquez is also the first Afro-Colombian woman to hold the vice-presidency. With a long history of fighting for her community’s ancestral land rights in the Cauca region of Colombia, she has working class roots, she is an environmental activist and was member of the resistance movement against corporate gold mining that she joined as a young teenager. She chose to run in this election “because our governments have turned their backs on the people, on justice and on peace.” Her victory is an inspiration for many young people from her community.

History in the making

Canadian labour leaders traveled to Colombia to stand in solidarity with Colombian labour and human rights defenders, such as the Union of Postal Workers of Colombia (STPC) in Bogotá, July 2022.

Petro and Márquez’s victory is part of a political shift in several South and Central American countries, where left-wing governments have been elected on platforms that challenge, directly or indirectly, the imposition of U.S. foreign policy, and harmful anti-worker, anti-people practices in their countries.

In Colombia, the past several years were marked by mass mobilizations and violent crackdowns on activists. For instance, in April 2021, a tax reform bill triggered a National Strike (Paro National) that lasted over four months. The bill imposed, among other things, a Value Added Tax (VAT) on basic goods and services. The response was swift from all sectors of society struggling with the rising costs of food and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Young Colombians under age 24 were hit the hardest by the economic crisis, and 1 in 4 are unemployed regardless of their level of education. Therefore, the 2021 protests further ignited massive youth-led mobilizations that challenged not only regressive government policies, but also confronted the violent state repression that followed.

Between April and June 2021, state forces, police and anti-riot troops committed serious human rights violations. Dozens of people were killed with live ammunition, hundreds were injured.

But as the protests spread throughout the country, the Historic Pact was gaining support. Many member organizations of the coalition were proving to have the trust of activists in the streets, and the capacity to reach some of the most isolated and marginalized communities in the country. This effectively secured their undeniable victory in the 2022 national elections. 

Colombia’s hope for change

The Frontlines Delegation gathered around the Point of Resistance monument in Cali, Colombia, July 2022.

It is an exciting and a vulnerable time for left-wing activists who are all too aware that this period of transition will be fraught with political challenges and contradictions.

More than 500 human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia since 2016 — among the highest numbers worldwide, — and according to the International Trade Union Confederation 2022 Global Rights Index, Colombia is still one of the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world for trade union leaders. Activists know these conditions will not change overnight or by simply electing a new government.

In July 2022, CUPE joined the Frontlines Delegation to Colombia with leaders from CLC, PSAC, NUPGE and CUPW to hear firsthand accounts of the significance of the election of the Historic Pact and to learn more about the state violence that preceded it in 2021. We landed as the Truth Commission, established in 2018, presented its final report, trying to shed light on five decades of atrocities and human rights violations committed during the country’s armed conflict.

The report’s 10 chapters addressed themes such as human rights violations and sexual violence, their impact on mental and physical health, the role of armed groups, and the forced exile of thousands of people. Everyone we spoke with was cautiously optimistic that the new government can now begin to repair the damage caused by the right-wing governments of the past — knowing full well that many conservative politicians hold key roles on cabinet, — and provide the space for social movements to continue to organize toward justice.

In the home of families living in the Siloé neighbourhood of Cali (also known as Comuna 20), July 2022. Family members are still demanding justice after the killing of 24-year-old Michael Andres Aranda Perez during the National Strike in 2021.

Yet, the calls for justice from families who lost loved ones to police brutality in 2021 continue to be a priority for local leaders, and are a devastating reminder of the enormous task ahead for the new government. A family member who lost her son told the delegation: “We are not willing to walk toward justice on the path of impunity.”

Communities throughout the country are gathering and uniting around key demands they want addressed by Petro and Márquez’s new government. The trade union movement has developed a labour reform program entitled Change for Life (Cambio por la Vida) which includes proposals for decent jobs, labour equity, improved working conditions, and compliance with international labour standards, including freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Petro and Márquez also face major challenges in a fragmented congress and working alongside the business elite. But the new president pledged to govern with the people and to continuously consult them when developing and implementing government policies, without exceptions and exclusions.

In a meeting with faith based leaders in Cali, the delegation was told that, “only the people, save the people. In order to advance as a country, and to strengthen our political organizations and civil society, we need to continue to unite as a popular force. The new national leaders will need to unite with us because we already have a political program they can follow.”

Learn more, take a look at the delegation’s photo album on CUPE’s Facebook page.

For almost 20 years the Frontlines Delegation has been organizing worker-to-worker solidarity exchanges between Canadian and Colombian unions, social movements and human rights organizers to support the peace process, expose the negative impacts of harmful investment and economic policies, and build mutual solidarity between public sector workers. As members of the international community, and as unions fighting in our own countries, we have an important contribution to make in this global struggle. We will carry on this work and will stand in solidarity with workers, human rights and land defenders, and social movement leaders in their pursuit for peace and justice.