Let dignity be custom for all

Changing a system so deeply entrenched in racist, colonial, and capitalist policies will not be easy. Does the election of Colombia's new President, Gustavo Petro and Vice-President, Francia Marquez, signal hope?
A woman walks in front of a house with people in the background
Mariela Jimenez, president of El Guayabo Community Action Committee. Photo: Caldwell Manners/CPT

On 7 August, Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez were sworn in as President and Vice-President of Colombia. They were elected in a historical election, receiving over 11,000,000 votes, the most votes ever cast for a winning candidate. Colombians elected Petro and Márquez under the Historical Pact coalition of left-wing progressive political parties and social movements working tirelessly against a wealthy and corrupt system that has held political and economic control of Colombia since its foundation.

Gustavo Petro, a political activist from a young age, joined the M19 guerrilla group in the late 1970s. In 1990, the M19 signed an agreement to disarm and continue their struggle through politics. After the demobilization, Petro was elected to several public office positions serving as a senator and later as mayor of Bogotá. A key victory of the M19 was the formation of the National Constituents Assembly of 1991, which created the new Constitution replacing the markedly outdated constitution of 1886. The 1991 constitution provided significant guarantees for fundamental rights for all citizens, which was missing from the previous document.

Vice President Francia Márquez is an Afro-Colombian woman who grew up amid poverty and violence of war. She is from the pacific region that is predominantly populated by Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples. It is one of the most abandoned regions of Colombia due to institutional and societal racism. From a very young age, she assumed leadership to defend the rights of her community and the environment. Her leadership in the struggle to protect the environment led to her receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018. She was recognized as “a formidable leader of the Afro-Colombian community, [who] organized the women of La Toma and stopped illegal gold mining on their ancestral land,” reads the Goldman website. “She exerted steady pressure on the Colombian government and spearheaded a 10-day, 350-mile march of 80 women to the nation’s capital, resulting in the removal of all illegal miners and equipment from her community.”

During the presidential campaign, horrible racist remarks were made on social media against Márquez, comparing her to a gorilla and ridiculing the expression “vivir sabroso” used by her community and campaign. The phrase translates literally to “living deliciously,” which people interpreted as lazy black people who simply want to party all the time, living off the back of the state without working. Márquez patiently explained throughout the campaign that to ‘live deliciously’ means to live with dignity. She also replied to a famous singer who compared her to King Kong, sending the singer an “ancestral embrace” so she could find healing.

During her swearing-in ceremony, Francia Márquez repeated the oath, “I swear to God and to the people to faithfully fulfil the constitution and laws of Colombia.” Then she added, “I also swear before my ancestors until dignity becomes custom.”

Petro opened his inaugural speech by recognizing several foreign dignitaries present. Then, in a beautiful recognition of the grassroots people who participated in the mass movement to elect him, he saluted everyday ordinary folks including a fisherman, a young Afro-Colombian woman leader, a domestic worker, a small farmer, a traditional flower artist, and an informal street vendor. Then he continued to recognize the different dignitaries present, both foreign and national.

Continuing with his speech, Petro named several policy changes he plans to implement. He spoke about Colombia being a World Power of Life, ending decades of violence and inequality (armed, economic, cultural, societal) that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

He committed to fully implementing the Peace Agreements signed with the FARC in 2016. The former government had promised to do everything in its power not to implement the agreements and, sadly, fulfilled its promise. According to the most recent report by the University of Notre Dame Kroc Institute which has monitored the implementation of the agreements, only 30% of the stipulations have been completed, 19% are at an intermediate level of completion, 37% are at a minimum level, and 15% have not yet been initiated.

One of Petro’s main goals is to challenge northern countries to rethink their policies on drugs and recognize that the war on drugs is not the solution. On inauguration day, Petro stated, “It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed, that it has left a million dead Latin Americans during 40 years and that it leaves 70,000 North Americans dead by overdose each year. The war on drugs strengthened mafias and weakened states.”

Since Latin America gained independence from European countries, the economic and social elite have held power. Short attempts of progressive political movements have succeeded in reaching the highest office, but most have faced severe opposition from traditional elite and foreign governments and industry. This opposition manifested itself through coups d’état, economic sanctions, and the funding of armed groups to overthrow the government, among other tactics. Millions of people have died due to civil wars in the region, and millions more have died because they didn’t have their basic needs met. All of these millions died because of injustice and greed.

Colombia’s civil war is the longest in the Americas and will probably continue for many more years. Petro and Márquez are hoping to implement processes that will lead to a disarming of all current armed groups: “La Paz Total” (Total Peace). This will not be an easy road.

As the Historical Pact comes to power, they receive a country facing major levels of violence. According to IndePaz, in 2022, 128 social leaders were assassinated, and there were 79 massacres to date. The newly elect also must bolster a fragile economy that has been looted by decades of corruption as evidenced by a 2017 report from Comptroller General Edgardo Maya. Several more recent reports have revealed that money destined for the implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreements was stolen by government officials at all levels, leaving the new government with dramatically reduced coffers to move forward with genuine implementation of the 2016 agreements. On 7 August, Petro declared, “the objective of the State’s intelligence community is to investigate corruption,” sending a clear signal to those who have held onto their political and economic power through corrupt means.

Changing a system so deeply entrenched in racist, colonial, and capitalist policies will not be easy. Petro and Márquez both recognized it will be impossible to undo hundreds of years of violence and corruption in four years, but it has to start somewhere. So let us all make an oath like that of newly elected Vice-President Francia Márquez: to work and struggle to ensure dignity be the custom for all.

Correction: This article was amended on 14 October 2022 to correctly describe Francia Márquez as Vice President, not a vice-presidential candidate.

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