Colombia shifts left

Fabian Hamilton on hopes for ending years of brutal repression lying on new left-wing president’s shoulders

When Isabella’s 17-year-old son Mateo failed to come home from tending the community garden in the poor Bogotá suburb of Ciudad Bolivár a year ago, she began to worry – especially when she found out that there had been a violent battle with the police in the neighbourhood earlier that day. Mateo wasn’t someone who would be involved in fighting the police, but he was involved with the Youth Collective. After several frantic days of phoning police stations and hospitals, visiting police stations and talking to his friends, she found out that he had been arrested whilst digging in the garden – little more than a patch of scrub just off the dual carriageway which runs through the suburb, but where many of the unemployed young people were trying to cultivate flowers, vegetables and fruit.

Mateo’s body was found floating in a canal four months later. He had been tortured, violently beaten and murdered, but by whom and why nobody knew. His body was so badly mutilated that it was described as that of a 47-year-old male, not a teenager.

I found the story so upsetting that it was hard not to shed a tear, especially whilst watching Isabella’s reaction as she repeated it for my benefit whilst we sat together with twenty or so members of the Youth Collective in Ciudad Bolivár’s tidy but basic community centre one Monday afternoon in late May. At Isabella’s feet sat a large portrait of her dead son, and halfway through the story of Mateo’s disappearance, she left the room, unable to continue speaking. The rest of the distressing tale was told by Isabella’s brother, Diego.

Sadly, Mateo’s fate is not an isolated one in Colombia today. The police, which comes under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence, use horrifically violent methods to control demonstrations which are often precipitated by extreme poverty in a middle-income country that is one of the most unequal in the world.

I was in Colombia as part of my shadow ministerial brief covering Latin America and the Caribbean. I had been invited to join the Justice for Colombia delegation which visited the country from 27th May to 2nd June and aimed to show its participants a true picture of the country: the successes and gains made so far since the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) laid down its arms in a historic peace agreement five years ago, and the setbacks, including violent attacks on trade unionists, indigenous activists and human rights defenders. It almost seemed at times as if the right-wing government of incumbent President Ivan Duque wanted the peace agreement to fail. And yet, in spite of the 320 murders of former FARC combatants in the past year, 90% of them still believe in the peace agreement and are prepared to continue to adhere to it by engaging in peaceful political and economic activity.

We spent an afternoon at the House of Peace, sampling the locally brewed beer, La Trocha, made on the premises by the demobilised former insurgents who fed us with home-grown produce for lunch and spoke movingly of their hopes and dreams for a peaceful, democratic Colombia where injustice and inequality can be conquered. It was deeply touching and flew in the face of what is often appalling violence carried out undercover by wings of the military or police that do not want to see the peace agreement succeed, or who are out for vengeance against the former crimes of the insurgents.

On Sunday 19th June, just three weeks after witnessing the start of the presidential election in Bogotá’s Bolivar Square, Gustavi Petro, the first left candidate ever to have been elected, won the final round by a four percent margin. The hopes and dreams of all those who want to see a true democratic peace and prosperity for all Colombian citizens now rest with Petro. He will have a lot of goodwill with which to achieve his goal; let’s hope that he can realise those aspirations and finally make the historic peace agreement a true reality.

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