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Colombia Votes For Vivir Sabroso: Chronicle Of An Historic Election

Above Photo: Francia Marquez and Gustavo Petro were recently elected vice president and president of Colombia. Oscar Perez.

The election victory of Colombia’s Historical Pact was the culmination of years of struggle in that country.

To the memory of Viejo Manué, for his practical lessons in the politics of love!

After 214 years we achieved a government of the people, a popular government, the government of the people with calloused hands, the government of ordinary people, the government of the ‘have nots’ of Colombia.” – Francia Márquez

The change means that the government of hope has arrived” Gustavo Petro

The night before the elections, Gustavo Petro participated in a ceremony in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, where indigenous spiritual leaders–Arhuaco, Kankuamo, Kogui, and Yukpas peoples–from the “navel of the world”, tuned him with ancestral and natural powers to be president. After the dynamic duo of the “Historic Pact”, Petro for President, and Francia Márquez for Vice President, obtained the highest number of votes in a first round in all of Colombian history, on May 29, with 8.5 million, the road to the final election turned into three weeks of high tension, of contending wills and sharp suspense.

Immediately, the Colombian corporate media began a campaign in favor of presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernández. They presented him as the possible winner despite having obtained 2.5 million less than Petro, adding his 6 million to the 5 of Federico Gutiérrez, a right-wing candidate who quickly supported Hernández in the second round. The right-wing chorus for Hernandez was orchestrated by former president and political chief Álvaro Uribe, in concert with the whole conservative political establishment.

The mainstream magazine Semana and large television and radio networks such as Caracol and RCN, positively projected Rodolfo Hernández as an “outsider” of the political class, allegedly wielding a program against corruption, ignoring the fact that he had to resign as mayor of Bucaramanga due to cases of corruption to be elucidated in court on July 21. To a large extent, they made Francia Márquez—Afrocolombian candidate to vice-president of the Historic Pact–invisible in the corporate media, while presenting Marlene Castillo, Hernández’s vice-presidential partner, as an “educated” Afro-descendant woman, with graduate degrees and administrative experience in the university world, overlooking her political inexperience, as well as her lack of proposals and arguments.

The climax of the mass media campaign revolved around the so-called “Petrovideos”, a series of leaked “clips” of private meetings of the Historic Pact where tactics were proposed to defeat political contenders. These were denounced by the corporate media and Petro’s opponents as examples of a “dirty campaign” and even described as “criminal”. In the U.S. they would be equivalent to “Watergate” and hence evidence to investigate those who infiltrated Petro’s campaign. Nonetheless, they did not have the intended effect because they did not prove any illegal act. Petro even offered to withdraw from the candidacy if they could reveal any ethical flaw. The controversy was fueled on social media where many people criticized the corporate media for intending a kind of communicational “political murder” against Petro and Francia.

Social media became a political and ideological battlefield. The growing division of the country was strongly deployed through the social web. Hernández had campaigned on Tik Tok, but now all the networks were flooded with memes and conflicting dialogues. Anti-communist fears of Petro’s alleged “Castrochavismo” where contrasted with videos of Hernández declaring admiration for Hitler or dancing on a luxurious yacht in Miami with a group of young women in a party sponsored by Pfizer. Topics such as the economic model, the character of democracy, the prospects for peace, racism, sexism, and the possible paths of change were discussed. Banality was combined with argumentative debate in a daily practice of political controversy that nurtured the polarized Colombian electoral scene to the extent that all political sectors expressed concerns about a perceived environment of civil war.

The police arrest of young activists from the so-called “front line” in several cities a few days before the elections, along with an alleged mock test where the Colombian electoral registry announced Hernández as the winner a day before, fueled fears of fraud. An air of collective vigilance was breathed to enforce the popular will. Petro and Francia’s campaign had become a sort of deep search, looking into and linking the plurality of territories and regions that make up the country. After the first electoral round, the people came out to the streets to campaign, a number of strategies were created from below by the “have nots”, including humor, music, art, performance, and dozens of public gatherings in which women played a leading role. In recent weeks, Petro and Francia traveled to various places across the national territory, from Chocó to Los Llanos, from the Amazon to the Sierra Nevada, to meet with miners, sugar producers, ranchers, coffee growers, urban dwellers, etc., sleeping in working-class homes, listening to petitions and aspirations, getting to know better a deep-rooted Colombia that for this reason celebrated their victory with enthusiasm and hope on June 19. In Bogotá, people hugged each other in the streets, while in coastal Black communities at Chocó and Timbiquí the majority came out drumming in carnivalesque mood to dance on the streets.

Petro and Francia won 11,281,013 votes in the final election, the highest number in the country’s history. As we now see, hear and read throughout the world, Petro is the first president of the left and Francia the first Afro-descendant woman vice president in Colombia. Their alliance reveals the richness of the Historic Pact, the most powerful coalition of communities, currents, movements, peoples and parties that has ever existed in Colombia. A bird’s-eye view of the trajectories of Petro and Francia helps us draw a sketch of the character and composition of the Historic Pact.

Colombian Counterpoint: Petro and Francia

Gustavo Petro, an economist by trade, has come a long way from being an urban community organizer and later a member of the M-19, to being mayor of Bogotá, senator of the Republic and now President. The M-19 was a political-military organization formed as a sui generis “guerrilla” that rebelled against electoral fraud in 1970 in its quest to restore the democratic order. The M-19 gave-up arms through a peace process in 1990,and was a key force for the constitutional change of 1991. As a senator, Petro was a leading voice against the “corruption regime” that combines right-wing politicos with paramilitarism and narco-politics, a fact that makes him an archenemy of the conservative elite. As mayor of Bogotá  and in his 2018 presidential campaign he launched the slogan for a “Human Colombia” that now translates as “Colombia world power for life.”

In turn, Francia Márquez Mina has been an activist since her adolescence, standing out as the leader of her community council in Suárez, Cauca. She was formed in the Process of Black Communities-PCN, a social movement organization of national reach, linked to Black liberation networks throughout the Americas and beyond. Her political and intellectual leadership has led Francia to obtain Colombia’s National Prize for Human Rights in 2015, the prestigious Goldman Prize for Environmental Justice in 2018, and the presidency of the National Commission for Peace in 2020. In 2014 she was lead organizer of the “Black Women’s March for Life and in Defense of their Ancestral Territories” a week-long pilgrimage across Colombia. She has a law degree that has been a tool of struggle. During the 2021 national strike Francia became vox populi of the cry of protest and plea for change of Afro-descendants, indigenous people, women, LGTBQ+, youth, students, artists, intellectuals, peasants, and urban barrios. That broad constellation of struggles nurtured the “I’m Because We Are” movement that propelled her presidential candidacy.

“I am because we are” is a translation of “Ubuntu” a key category in African philosophies to name the “good life”. It expresses an African communitarianism that recognizes that individual identity only exists because of its social nature, based on belonging to an ancestral lineage, harmony with nature, and liberation against all injustices. Ubuntu served as the ethical-political principle for the constitution of South Africa after the abolition of the apartheid regime and now serves as a banner for black movements throughout the world. In Francia Marquez’s campaign, Ubuntu was translated into “vivir sabroso”, a vernacular category of the territory-region of Choco that expresses an Afro-diasporic conception of “good living”.

Francia and Petro competed in their aspiration to get the presidential nomination of the Historic Pact, in the March 13, 2022, election that combined legislative polls with party primaries to determine executive candidates. In March 13, Petro, with 4.5 million votes, was the candidate with most votes of any party, while Francia came second in the Historic Pact ballot. However, her 800,000 votes were the most innovative phenomenon of the poll, surpassing the numbers of established politicians such as Sergio Fajardo of “Centro Esperanza” party, thus earning the ethical and political right to be Petro’s vice-presidential formula in the ballot of the Historic Pact.

Once declared a candidate for vice president, Francia Márquez became the most commented political figure in Colombia. The forceful presence of a black woman of rural origin, who enunciates a vernacular discourse denouncing structural racism, patriarchy and the neoliberal model of development as the main motives for the armed conflict, aroused racist and classist expressions in the public sphere, as well as a growing accumulation of admiration and respect for Francia. In her continuous crusade across the country, Francia emerged as the articulating voice of the archipelago of communities and movements that formed the base of the Historic Pact. Along the way, she transformed the country’s political language and the national project itself, popularizing expressions such as “the have nots” as political subjects of a new democracy, fostering a societal movement from “resistance to power until dignity becomes customary.” The “have nots” of Francia are equivalent to “the wretched of the earth” of Franz Fanon.

The Petro and Francia couple redefined the political scene. While Petro brought together the political energies of the left and center of the political spectrum, Francia became a spokesperson for groups and territories excluded from social and political power. Standing from her identity as a grassroots black woman from “ancestral territory”, Francia raised the flag of the “have nots” as a radical democratic project to reconfigure the nation through a new historic pact of broad inclusion and systemic change. Together, Francia and Petro convened a historic bloc capable of overthrowing more than two centuries of bourgeois elite governments in Colombia.

The memorable Bogotazo with the assassination of the radical populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, inaugurated a repertoire of annihilations of viable candidacies leading national-popular coalitions. It seemed as if progressive electoral change was doomed to fail in Colombia. Six presidential candidates of the left were killed since Gaitan. In the nineties, thousands of militants of the Patriotic Union—a broad popular front from the left–and the M-19 were assassinated. Against the current, Petro and France survived election days under constant death threats, with cautious custody and rigorous security operations. They were guarded not only by their escorts but also by the “indigenous guard”, the “maroon guard”, and public surveillance. An ancient death curse was literally overcome to be replaced with a robust politics of life.

Programs and Horizons of the Politics of Love and Life

The program of the Historic Pact is represented in two slogans pointing to the future, Petro’s call to transform Colombia into “a world power of life” and Francia’s invitation to build a country where we can “live joyfully”. In concert, both Petro and Francia have characterized their praxis and project as a “politics of love.” What are the concrete proposals and ethical-political principles, and how do their actual politics correspond to these titles and slogans?

In his victory speech, Petro summed up the project in three principles: peace, social justice, and environmental justice. In the program, these principles entail a set of structural changes, among which I highlight the following: 1) prioritize commitments to build peace, this implies implementing the 2016 peace accords beginning with an agrarian reform, dialogues with the ELN guerrillas, combating paramilitarism and narco-politics, cultivating restorative justice and reconciliation; 2) move from an extractivist neoliberal economy to a productive ecological economy, based on knowledge, food sovereignty and care; 3) promote national agriculture and industry based on trade protectionism, progressive taxation, energy transition from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energies, regional development and local entrepreneurship, foster universal health and education; 4) extend the citizen franchise and human rights with recognition, representation and resources to sectors excluded by their race and ethnicity, gender, generation, sexuality, territory, disability, and social class; 5) redistributive social policies to attack poverty and hunger with short-term state policies such as buying crops to distribute food and provide income, as well as medium-range strategies to generate wealth and full employment.

In a country where more than 90 annual massacres take place (so far in 2022 there are 45), where more social and union leaders are murdered in the Americas, which has one of the worst rates of inequality and highest number of internal exiles in the world, this program represents a blueprint for a politics of life against the prevailing necropolitics. Such politics of death is the offspring of a neoliberal regime based on the despotic power of the state in partnership with transnational and Colombian capital. In counterpoint, when Petro bets on turning Colombia into “a world power of life”, he signals an epochal change in the country, a turning point of great relevance for the Americas and the planet. That’s why the eyes of the world are attentively watching the new era marked by this election of Petro and Francia.

Possibilities and Challenges of the Government of the Historical Pact

During the recent so-called Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, convened by President Biden, Gustavo Petro noted that he belongs to an emerging current that includes Mexico, Chile and the possible Lula government in Brazil. Such group is defined as a “new progressivism” to which Peru and Honduras are added. It is important not to fall into generalizations that do not distinguish national scenarios and historical projects, as happened in much of the analysis of the so-called “pink wave” of progressive governments at the beginning of the 21st century. We must also recognize the emergence of a tendency in the political pendulum moving toward defeats of the right and electing governments committed to a new Latin Americanism that defends national and regional sovereignty, but without enunciating strong anti-imperialist discourses. In that vein, Petro spoke of a relationship “of equals” with the United States and of an interamerican order “without exclusions”, in clear allusion to the refusal to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela to Biden’s Summit. Nonetheless, the fact that Biden called Petro two days after being elected, to have a “friendly” and “equal” conversation, as Petro said in a television interview, reveals results of the “realist” foreign policy of the new Colombian administration. It remains to be seen the unfolding of a series of potentially controversial issues in the relationship between Colombia and the United States, such as the policy of emission of toxic gases, the fumigation of illicit crops, migration policies, and the economic and geo-political independence of a South American country where there are nine North American military bases installed.

The platform of the Historical Pact is a combination of realpolitik and a set of principles defining the horizon to be pursued, of the politics of the possible with the politics of the desired. Realism in foreign policy is combined with a neo-developmentalist tendency in economic policies. When Petro said in his victory speech that they were going to “develop capitalism in Colombia”, to end “pre-modern serfdom and slavery regimes”, he was not only giving a signal of non-expropriation to national capital in order to avoid announced capital flight, he also affirmed a vision of a path of change. Capitalist national economic development has historically proven that it has its limits. The viability of national development, along the path that Samir Amin called “auto-centered accumulation” in the nation-state, is one of the great challenges for the realization of Petro’s program. Minimally dealing with the problems of hunger, unemployment and inequality, in the short and medium term, will be one of its acid tests. Above all, in the midst of a global crisis of western capitalist civilization and a thorny economic situation in Colombia which is the fourth largest economy in Latin America.

A key issue in the government program of the Historic Pact will be the role of Francia Márquez as Vice President. Humberto de la Calle, a respected figure who was vice president of the republic, once said that in Colombia the vice presidency is a lame position without powers comparable to “a porcelain in the freezer.” Francia breaks that mold, in light of what she embodies, represents, enunciates and proposes. Her grassroots origin, transformative vision, and ethical integrity, endows her leadership with particular power. In her speeches she shows a clear critique of systemic oppressions and uncompromised commitment to a transformative project of liberation rooted in her lived experience and therefore in the needs and aspirations of the dispossessed majority. As William Mina argues, Francia’s intervention constitutes a “radicalization of racial democracy”, transforming the very terms of politics, not only with her presence that transgresses the class, race and gender that presides over the national scene, but also with the rhetoric, the categories, and the contents of what she says and proposes.

The continental and global significance of Francia Marquez’s election as the first Black woman elected as Vice President of Colombia is a matter of much celebration. Many equate such achievement to the current tenure of two Black Women as Vice Presidents in the Americas, Kamala Harris in the United States, and Epsy Campbell in Costa Rica. However, without denying the importance of the rise of a wave of Black women as executives in the Americas, it is also imperative to highlight their differences. Kamala Harris is Vice President of an imperial state, clearly committed to imperial geo-political and military power in the Americas and the world, and advocate of a neoliberal economic paradigm, without a flesh-out anti-racist politics. In turn, Epsy Campbell came to be Vice President of Costa Rica, a small country in Central America, as a leader of a social-democratic political party, and as a long-term activist of national and international networks of liberal feminist anti-racist politics, largely based on lobbying governmental and transnational institutions such as the United Nations and the Interamerican Development Bank, for liberal-minded sexual and racial justice. In contrast to both, Francia Marquez came to the national scene as a grassroots activist of the Afrocolombian social movement, defending a radical program of social change that challenges the establishment, seeking to radically democratize the terms of politics and redefine the social contract by effectively empowering the “have nots”.

In her victory speech, Francia Márquez said: “After 214 years we achieved a government of the people, a popular government, the government of the people with calloused hands, the government of ordinary people, the government of the ‘have nots’ of Colombia”. Here, Francia upholds a radical populism whose political subject, “the have nots”, bursts in like a storm to substantively change the character of Colombian politics in search of transforming power relations and the social contract. With her vernacular, frank and genuine, powerful and creative word, that clearly questions the order of power, invoking “the ancestral embrace”, promoting “joyful living”, Francia rises as a connecting voice of the national-popular, seeking to reinvent the social tissue and the national project. It is worth highlighting her formation and vocation in grassroots decolonial black feminism—as many women from the Black Communities Process-PCN say—with an intersectional politics that combines a myriad of liberation struggles against all oppressions.

Concretized in the public policy agenda, such a search to combat entangled inequalities building bonds of liberation, will be organized through a new Ministry of Equality and Women that will be headed by Francia Márquez. Among the initial tasks of said ministry are the regulation and remuneration of domestic labor, and the creation of a national Afro-reparations fund and program that would be the first established in a state institution anywhere in the world. Some examples, now extinct, with their positive and negative lessons, are the Secretariat of Racial Equity of Brazil, the Secretariat of Peoples and Citizenship of Ecuador, the Ministry of Decolonization and Depatriarchalization of Bolivia, and the Ministry of Social Rights of Uruguay. We wish this Ministry of Equality and Women to become a laboratory to develop policies and means for “living joyfully”.

The call to “vivir sabroso”, so trivialized and folklorized in the corporate media, enunciates a project of “good living” on Africana beat. At the core there is a will of cultivating harmony between humans and with nature. It is a maternal commitment to the care of the “big house” as Francia calls it, of plural solidarity to build scenarios of peace and justice at the national and global levels. It expresses a search to link the satisfaction of basic needs -education, health, food, security, territory- with the cultivation of happiness and enjoyment. With an Afro-Colombian expression from Chocó, a radical vitalism, a politics of eros, of life, desire and hope, is advocated with humor and mischief. For this reason, Colombia voted for “vivir sabroso”.

In a country where the corporate media have normalized daily social and political homicide, in which the ubiquity of violence motivated the creation of a field of knowledge called “violentology”, the commitment to turn Colombia into a “world power of life” to cultivate “joyful living” is a revolutionary proposal in so far as it demands deep changes.

Playing that drum, Gustavo Petro characterizes his praxis and project as a “politics of love”. In keeping with his Catholic tradition of liberation theology, Petro posits that “the politics of love is a politics of solidarity” that seeks to forge peace with social justice. For this reason, it seeks to “defeat hatred and fear of change” and to “end the enormous inequality that exists among Colombians.” In this key, Petro argues that “in times of hatred only tyranny will come”, in contrast to his determined commitment to build a “multicolored democracy”.

Petro’s political polychromy is largely due to the pedagogical values of Francia Márquez’s decolonial black feminism. The centrality of the critique of racism, heteronormativity, and sexism in Petro’s current discourse expresses refreshing changes in his ways of the politics of love. How to build that multicolored democracy, to forge a nation articulating its pluriverse–territorial, ethnic, racial, sexual, generational, etc–is one of the great challenges of the new era opened with the triumph of the Historic Pact.

President Petro’s call for a national dialogue is a significant start. The desire for dialogue indicates an avatar of the politics of love, the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation. In a deeply ideologically polarized country, where violence still prevails throughout the national territory, where almost 50% of the electorate did not vote, there are no guarantees that the kind of hegemony that Antonio Gramsci described as “an unstable equilibrium of compromises” will be sustained. After the honeymoon that comes with victory, come the challenges of keeping alive the historic bloc that elected Petro and Francia, which is now a government alliance. In the broad government coalition, some see this moment of alliances and commitments between diverse actors as composing a transition government towards more radical changes, while others view it with more skepticism and less expectations of profound transformations.

A week after the elections, fissures can already be seen in the coalition of the Historic Pact. The selection as President of the Senate of Roy Barreras, a senator who has gone through various vicissitudes of conventional Colombian politics, above various leftist leaders in the legislative body, has turned out to be controversial. In contrast, the appointment of Aurora Vergara Figueroa, a respected Afro-descendant intellectual, as representative appointed by Francia Marquez to the Joint Committee between the past administration and the new government team, has raised broad support, especially in the academic community and Afro-Colombian scenarios. Aurora has stood out both in the intellectual field and in the public sphere, occupying high-ranking government advisory positions as well as accumulating experience with international organizations. Her irreproachable ethical integrity and enormous intellectual talent have led many to advocate that she should be appointed as the new Minister of Education.

It is undeniable that we won. The lovers of radical democracy and people’s power in Colombia and in the world obtained a great triumph, embodied in the executive authority of Francia and Petro. For the Colombian right-wing, and in particular for its political chief Álvaro Uribe and his misnamed “democratic center”, these elections marked the “autumn of the patriarch”. The big loser was the right. That’s why the Colombian right is now internally embattled and already looking for ways to reinvent himself.

In a documentary titled “Gustavo Petro: The Politics of Love,” the now president-elect says that his father taught him to read Rousseau, who is still one of the main references in Petro’s conception of democracy. In his victory speech, Petro affirmed that the project of effective change of the Historic Pact seeks to build a “multicolored Republic”, inclusive, egalitarian, and pacifist. In this pathway, the politics of love is based on a radical republicanism seeking to facilitate the conditions of possibility for a national project where all can “live joyfully”. This should imply, as Jane Gordon would say, a sort of “creolization of political theory”, where we could “read Rousseau through Fanon”. In other words, this means to establish a dynamic dialogue between Petro’s “Colombia world power of life” and Francia’s “vivir sabroso“.

In one of the first interviews after being elected as vice president, Francia Márquez, responding to a journalist who tried to trivialize the meaning of “vivir sabroso”, said that “living joyfully” means living with dignity, without fear, with basic goods, with happiness and solidarity. Playing that drum, with Francia Márquez, the time has come for grassroots decolonial black feminism as political common sense, the time has come for the rebellion of the “have nots” to reinvent the nation and refound the state, to maroon power “until dignity becomes customary”.

A literal translation of “vivir sabroso” will be “living tasty”. Given that “vivir sabroso” is an expression from the predominantly Black region of the Choco, Colombia, to signify the “good life”, I translate it as “living joyfully”. I will use both “vivir sabroso” and “living joyfully” interchangeably through this article.

Franz Fanon (1961). The Wretched of the Earth. Grove.

Samir Amin (1974). Accumulation on a World-Scale: A Critique of the Theory of Underdevelopment.              Monthly Review Press.

William Mina Aragón (2022).  “Francia Márquez Mina: La radicalización de la democracia racial”.

It’s also begs the question of why not Black women presidents. Here, it is germane to observe that the official memory in Colombia whitewashed that Juan José Nieto Gil, a Black leader of the radical sector of the Liberal Party as President of Colombia in the period 1859-1864.

Jane Gordon (2014). Creolizing Political Theory: Reading Rousseau through Fanon. Fordham University Press.

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