The geopolitics of Colombia’s historic 2022 election

Candidate Federico Gutiérrez in Chiquinquira. Prensa: Fico Presidente

The upcoming Presidential election in Colombia is significant for a number of reasons. Non-mainstream political movements have broken the mold and surpassed mainstream Liberal and Conservative parties. Francia Márquez, Senator Gustavo Petro’s candidate for Vice President, is the first black woman to ever be nominated for the position. Populist tactics have also been at the forefront of the campaign. Yet, not much has been said about the geopolitical implications of the presidential election and its outcome.

The current frontrunner, Gustavo Petro, and who previously served as the mayor of Bogotá, could be elected the country’s first leftist president on May 29. He has gained momentum running on a platform that disfavours American intervention and Western involvement in Colombia and the region at large.

Petro has rebuked Plan Colombia, the joint initiative carried out by former Colombian Presidents Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe, and former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to counter cartels and paramilitary groups within Colombia’s internal conflict. The almost four-decades old plan, despite leading to a stark decrease in organized crime and drug-related violence, has been a political punching bag since it was put in place in 2000 due to concerns over human rights, corruption, and due process.

Pro-US policies of current President Iván Duque have also been heavily criticized by Petro, including Duque’s emphasis on energy exploration on Colombia’s coasts. Petro’s proposed halting of oil exploration and green jobs transition would hurt Western corporations operating in the country, especially given that, currently, Colombia’s leading export is oil – half of total exports – mainly extracted by foreign companies. The American energy company S&P Global and US financial institution JP Morgan have already come out against Petro’s candidacy and proposed economic reforms.

As a young man, Petro, now 61, joined the left-wing guerrilla M-19, which was responsible for a number of terrorist attacks on Colombian elites and politicians. The M-19 was an enemy of the United States given the group’s collaboration with the Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar. Petro’s victory would hurt the American posture in Colombia, especially as Colombia, under current President Duque’s leadership, has been a crucial ally of the United States on many fronts.

Electing Petro could have major repercussions for the country’s shift away from the US and the West toward other great powers. In a communiqué issued in late January, Chinese state media said of the possibility of electing Petro in Colombia that “this represents a major change and opens new possibilities for the region’s role in world affairs, as well as opportunities for its relations with China.”

If Colombia reduces its domestic oil production, it may also have to depend on major foreign oil producers like Russia and the Gulf States for its energy needs, hurting the country’s ability to meet environmental and labour standards and achieve its renewable energy goals.

Were these developments to occur, the balance of power between great powers in Latin America would experience a paradigm shift. Latin America has already been on the verge of a second Pink Tide, a flashback to populist leftist leadership throughout Latin America in the 2000s, with populist leftist leaders being elected in the majority of countries in the hemisphere. Many of the newly-elected leaders have pursued policies of nationalist retrenchment or moved closer to China and Russia.

Nicaragua and Honduras, led by leftists Daniel Ortega and Xiomara Castro, have recently recognized Taiwan as falling within China’s internal sovereign affairs. A great number of leftist leaders in the region have also tacitly or explicitly backed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and blame the war on NATO expansion and US imperialism. The great-power pendulum has swung.

As per a recent Colombian intelligence report, Russia and Venezuela have already been accused by Petro’s critics and opponents of meddling in the election. The two countries have allegedly pursued disinformation and influence operations to secure a Petro win.

Colombia could no longer be taken for granted as a country falling within the United States’ sphere of influence. Were China and Russia to take advantage of Petro’s victory, the United States could be provoked into pursuing more aggressive policies toward the region to consolidate its assets and interests. Whether or not such an escalation would be preferable for the Colombian people, or great powers, however, is a completely different question.

There are alternatives to Petro which could help alleviate some of the concerns felt by the Colombian people without pushing Colombia too far away from geopolitical stability. These alternatives, like in the cases of centre-left candidate Sergio Fajardo and centre-right candidate Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, propose viable solutions for Colombians to achieve peace, security, and prosperity.

Fajardo, for example, has laid out a more socially and economically democratic vision for Colombia, emphasizing his reforms as former Mayor of Medellín that saw crime and violence drop massively under his tenure. On energy, Fajardo has emphasized a comprehensive energy plan, one that integrates green energy sources while understanding the constant need for oil and natural gas.

Fajardo, who earned his doctorate in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and speaks regularly to the American intelligentsia, is a favourite among US and Western interests.

Fajardo’s victory, however, remains unlikely, as he polls around 10 percent, far behind Petro’s 30 to 40 percent stake in recent national polls.

Similarly, Fico, currently in second place behind Petro, has emphasized economic growth and security cooperation. He has positioned himself as the pro-business candidate in the race. Like Fajardo, the former highly popular mayor of Medellín has championed reforms to decrease conflict and focus on economic prosperity. Fico or Fajardo are certainly the most stable options for Colombia’s geopolitical future.

Regardless, this election is historically significant for Colombia, as it will garner further momentum for populist, nationalist, and anti-imperialist forces within the country, who had previously resorted to violent tactics due to having very little popular support and electoral momentum. Participants and observers in the election should remain cautious, as the direction they choose for Colombia will reverberate far beyond its borders.

Joseph Bouchard is a Canadian geopolitical analyst focusing on the Americas.