WASHINGTON D.C. — My Colombian compatriots and I go to the polls today. The presidential runoff holds a key to South America’s future and will determine the future of justice and peace in our country. The choice is two starkly different candidates. Between them lies the future of Colombia and its democracy.
Colombia is a country of contradictions, sloganized as magical realism. Despite being the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, it is the U.S.’s staunchest ally in the region. It is both the most stable democracy in Latin America and the ninth most unequal country in the world. It has had the least number of years of dictatorship, but it dealt with significant internal strife with three communist guerrilla forces, one of them at one time numbering 18,000 combatants, and 31,000 paramilitary forces. It is the most biodiverse country in the world per square mile, but its economy is still based on exclusive, extractive institutions. It has had the least number of recessions in the region in 60 years (and is the only country in the region to never have had to restructure its foreign debt), but has also grown just above the region’s average (0.04%). According to Gallup’s annual survey Colombia is the happiest country in the world, but one-eighth of its population has been internally displaced.
Today, we decide between two polar extremes. On the one hand there is Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing terrorist/guerrilla leader, long demobilized, but whose group—that he defended as its political spokesman—burned the Palace of Justice and held the 24 Supreme Court Justices for ransom. Eleven of them, including the first woman justice, were killed. It also held the U.S. Ambassador, and other 15 diplomats, hostage for 61 days. He calls for peace.
On the other, we have Iván Duque a young U.S.-educated technocrat backed by—and entranced with—former President Álvaro Uribe, under whose administration 3,350 young civilians were dressed up as guerrillas, executed, and on whose warm bodies $887.50 each was collected by the soldiers who killed them—thanks to a bounty put on their heads. Nine hundred and three members of the armed forces are serving justice for those crimes. Some say many more, including Uribe, should face prosecution. Duque calls for justice.
Petro, promises to address inequality, drain the swamp of the traditional political class, support gay marriage, abortion, peace, and save the environment. Duque promises law and order, to cut taxes (corporate tax is at 69.7%), incentivize and formalize small and medium enterprises, create a more effective state, maintain free-trade agreements, and renovate the status quo with a young, liberal, and pragmatic generation.
The first has tied his wagon to the elusive and vague slogan of “Peace for our Time;” the second to law and order. We need both of those, though it appears that we have to choose between them.
Whatever the outcome, the damage has been done. Petro has successfully conjured the ghosts of future past and entranced a population with dreams of a revolution. Duque has successfully proven that former President Uribe’s cult of personality continues. He is riding on Uribe’s coattails and past promise of law and order.
This outcome is part of the price for the destruction of the two traditional political parties in 2002, that were long-in need of reform but refused to recognize it. The rest is the result of a contentious peace process. Some call it a fatal conceit by President Juan Manuel Santos; others believed it was long overdue. The former won the plebiscite with “peace but not like this;” the second rammed the final agreement through Congress.
Politics have become polarized in Colombia. Perhaps out of the ashes, a new party system and state will form. Perhaps out of this election, Colombians will reach some consensus over the direction of the country—peace, justice, inclusion—and in doing so again become an example of liberal, representative democracy in South America. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping.
The ghosts of the present and the yet-to-come are still to come. Too often elections are hailed as a watershed moment. This presidential election though really is. Really. The choices are stark, not just between the two individual candidates but also what they represent. This election is a hint of what is to come—not just for Colombia but also for the rest of a region that is also undergoing deep changes in its party systems and politics. Regardless of the outcome, Colombians must be eternally vigilant of the processes that preserve freedom. After all, it is always one generation away from extinction.
One thing is for sure, whatever the outcome, the fate of Colombia’s peace for the next four to eight years rests in the balance. We will find out whether one can have peace without justice, or justice without fairness. Or maybe we could get both. After all, it doesn’t have to be a binary choice.
Pedro Pizano is a Colombian-born international lawyer, political analyst, and writer. He just graduated with a J.D. and an LL.M. in International Law from Northwestern Law.