Anti-Petro coup imperils Historic Pact government in Colombia
President Gustavo Petro of Colombia. A coup against him is a threat to peace in that country. | Samantha Power/USAID

President Gustavo Petro, head of the left-leaning Historic Pact coalition, took office on August 8, 2022. He is Colombia’s most progressive president ever. Now he faces a coup. The fate of Petro’s government connects with prospects for peace in Colombia

On social media Petro indicated that, “Unions have been raided and witnesses have been tortured and otherwise pressured so as to accuse the president (himself)  …  Narcotrafficking sectors, perpetrators of crimes against humanity, corrupt politicians and sections of the attorney general’s office are desperately looking to remove him from … office.”

The lead coup-plotters have been former Attorney General Francisco Barbosa and Vice-Attorney General Martha Mancera, hold-overs from previous administrations.  Peculiarities of Colombian governmental arrangements have officials installed in the top levels of government whom the president did not select and does not control.

Barbosa is the public face of the opposition. He ended his four-year term of office on February 12.

The Supreme Court of Justice, charged with replacing him, failed to choose one of the three candidates Petro offered for the post. The Court named Mancera as temporary attorney general.

According to one commentator, Mancera has long had actual charge of the attorney general’s office. Francisco Barbosa was “a façade.” She is accused of protecting corrupt officials and drug traffickers.

Barbosa charged the Colombian Federation of Educators with illegally providing Petro’s presidential campaign with funds amounting to the equivalent of $128,000. Searching for evidence on January 22, his agents trashed the union’s headquarters.

Barbosa announced last December that he would detain young people whom Petro had released from prison, praising their dedication to peace.  The release would occur long after they had been jailed originally following participation in protest rallies in mid-2021.

Barbosa in January visited the Justice Department in Washington. He reported on “his stewardship [as attorney general] and sought U.S. support for Martha Mancera to become Colombia’s new attorney-general.”

A three-month suspension

Inspector general Margarita Cabello on February 2 ordered a three-month suspension of Chancellor Álvaro Leyva Duran. His ministry, she charged, had illegally contracted the preparation of passports to a new company. A defender claimed he was breaking a monopoly in passport preparation held by an “old Bogota family.”

In street demonstrations taking place throughout Colombia on February 8, unionists, students, and teachers demanded that the Supreme Court name a Petro nominee as Colombia’s new attorney general.

Military intelligence reports revealed plans for expanded use of social media to broadcast news of destabilizing activities. Reserve and retired army officers, a powerful sector, have held anti-government protests.

Commentators liken Colombia’s evolving coup to the other “soft coups,” or exercise of “lawfare,” that removed Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo (2012), Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (2016), Bolivian President Evo Morales (2019), and Peruvian President Pedro Castillo (2023).

For the Petro government to disappear would deliver a major blow to Colombians who for decades have sought and struggled for peace in their country. Petro had campaigned for “total peace.” It was a signature cause for him.

The signing of a Peace Agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government in 2014 came close to satisfying the longings of peace advocates. From then on, however, it was downhill.

In that very year, rightwing political forces engineered a watered-down version of the Agreement reached months earlier. Subsequently, the governments of Presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Iván Duque, Petro’s predecessor as president, failed to implement crucial parts of the Agreement.

Beginning in 2015, 419 former FARC combatants and 1596 social and community leaders have been assassinated – 188 of them in 2023, while Petro was president.  Continuing armed conflict has led to 154 instances of “massive forced displacement” affecting 56,665 persons.

Dissident FARC groups, the National Army of Liberation, and paramilitaries – often in the service of narco-traffickers – account for most of the killings and turmoil.  The current government is negotiating with the remaining insurgencies.

Information from the historical record, recent and remote, suggests that causative factors accounting for violent conflict and the incipient coup are identical.

September 26, 2016 saw a revealing moment. The Peace Agreement was being signed in Cartegena, Colombia. “Timochenko,” the FARC leader, was speaking to notables assembled from several continents.

Fighter planes overhead

At precisely that point, fighter planes of the Colombian Air Force zoomed by overhead. As noted by an observer: “The face of ‘Timo’ gave the impression of being under a bombardment.”

Colombia’s U.S.-supported military was weighing in. The nation’s military forces have long been at the disposal of the established sectors of Colombian society.

A well-to-do landowning, religious, and commercial elite has charge of Colombia, now and ever since the Europeans’ arrival. That sector is not happy with either Petro or with peace in the countryside.

Analyst Carlos Rangel Cárdenas sees Petro’s “total peace” as “constructing peace by involving civil society in binding dialogues.” He points out that violence in the countryside increased so much during the presidency of Iván Duque as to approach the excesses of earlier eras.

Dialogues do not thrive in conditions of war, presumably. The coup plotters and their soulmates who tolerate war in the countryside are linked.

An urban-based oligarchy, with cooperation from big landowners, controls the financial, commercial, business and media entities in Colombia that shepherd economic development in rural areas. The heavy hitters there, economically, are industrial-scale agriculture, mining operations, energy production, and narcotrafficking. These activities attract investment and enable wealth accumulation.

Colombia’s majority population is different. They are marginalized urban inhabitants, often refugees from an inhospitable countryside.

They are rural people, overwhelmingly poverty-stricken and poorly-educated, who, most of them, have limited access to social services and to land that would allow for subsistence farming.

Defenders of the Historic Pact government confront a set of rulers equipped with money power, a big army, ample police, and ready access to U.S. military resources. They have been on the losing side of struggle between one social class and another. They are quite unable to project the appearance or reality of the kind of political power that matters.

Social movements have more of a hold on Colombians, especially in rural areas, than do political parties. Writer Sidney Tarrow concludes that parties “seek to gain or retain power” while “Movements are more ideological.” The latter, he implies, are weaker.

In a 2021 interview, Petro suggested that, “The necessities of Colombian society are not based on building socialism, but on building democracy and peace, period.” He is pondering the matter, evidently. On February 9, he indicated that, “We believe and desire that the means of production are in the hands of the people and not the state.”

In any event, an opinion survey shows young Colombians turning increasingly to “rightwing ideological views,” from “7% in May, 2021 to 37% in October, 2023.”

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W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.