Gustavo Petro and the Colombian Populist Moment
An interview with Luciana Cadahia
Luciana Cadahia (Ph.D. Unidad Autónoma de Madrid [UAM]) is one of the most original voices in contemporary Latin American political thought. Although her academic work has focused on debates in political theory and the tradition of German Idealism, her recent interventions on populism and democratic theory are charged with a theoretical depth that expands the discursive work of late Argentine political philosopher Ernesto Laclau. Cadahia’s theoretical reflection has been pivotal in activating an ongoing intellectual conversation around democratic populism both in Spain and Latin America. This is particularly true in the Colombian context as she lives and works at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá. Her most recent publication is Mediaciones de lo sensible: hacia una nueva economía crítica de los dispositivos (Mediations of the Sensible: Towards a Critical Economy of Apparatuses ).
In the following exchange, we chose to bracket Cadahia’s important theoretical work in order to focus on the Colombian political climate, particularly on a progressive candidate, Gustavo Petro, and his political coalition Colombia-Humana. This coalition achieved a historical eight million votes in the national elections that took place in June 17th (amounting to nearly 40% of the national electorate), displacing the traditional political parties of the status quo. With this result in the first round of elections, Petro, who is the former mayor of Bogota, became the first progressive political candidate to lead a progressive coalition since the 1940s. Although Petro’s Colombia Humana (which stood for upholding the rule of law and the constitution, fighting inequality and political violence, and solidifying the peace accords with the FARC guerrilla group that took place in Havana under the Santos presidency,) represented a historic breakthrough, right-wing candidate Ivan Duque was able to pull through a comfortable victory. Duque will be assuming office early August, 2018.
Prof. Cadahia was one of the most prominent intellectual voices speaking on behalf of the Colombia Humana political platform during the months leading to the final stage of the election. Our conversation, which took place a few days after Petro’s defeat, is an attempt to think through his populist political platform and the relation between reaction and democracy in the region.
Public Seminar: Luciana, thank you for your time and for joining us at Public Seminar. You have observed the Colombian political moment as both an insider and an academic for some time. I remember when some of us followed the lead up to the 2012 Colombian elections that led Juan Manuel Santos to the presidency. At that time, Gustavo Petro was not even close to achieving the massive political mobilization and constituent solvency that we have seen in this election. In fact, it seemed then that the Green Party of Antanas Mockus was the only viable option. Could you give a broad overview as to what has changed in these intervening years? Why did Petro’s Colombia Humana become such an attractive political platform?
Luciana Cadahia: Since the World Cup has recently concluded, I will say that the success of Gustavo Petro has many elements in common with soccer. If you have the economic resources, you can find the best political coaches and the most sophisticated statistical models of predictions, but there is always an unforeseen element that will escape what is predicted. This is what is fascinating about politics and soccer. In this sense, I think that in Colombian politics, Gustavo Petro was the unforeseen guest. Now, if we were to explain what conditions contributed to launching his presidential campaign — and here I will have to simplify things a bit — I would name at least two things: (1) his role as mayor of Bogota, and (2) the Peace accords in the country. Petro was mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2015. Even though the media attacked him ruthlessly during these years, the reality is that Petro advanced a wide progressive political agenda for the most vulnerable citizens of the city. Let me give you a few examples: he unionized the recycling collection workers, built schools and colleges in low income neighborhoods, and pushed for environmental and clean air policies. At the same time, the attempt to impeach him by former attorney general Alejandro Ordoñez launched Petro’s name to the national scene — an event which Petro astutely took advantage of.
The political experience at the local level allowed Petro to connect with the popular sectors and the progressive youth of the country, including the LGBTQ, the feminists, the ecologists, the academics in universities, and professionals in cultural institutions. As he gained momentum, Petro was able to profit from a series of social demands and connect them to a historical narrative dating back to the plebian liberalism of Colombian politics of the 1940s. In contrast to other moments in recent history, these social demands began to appeal to popular masses in rather unexpected ways. We could say that the link between progressive politics and the popular actors was achieved through a specific construction of political subjectivity that for a long time remained asleep in Colombian politics.
Secondly, the aftermath of the Peace accords (el Proceso de Paz) was also advantageous. Let us remember that before the accords, armed conflict had blocked any possibility for a progressive and leftist political discourse in the public sphere. In other words, the attempt to articulate expressions such as “popular will,” “class contradictions,” or “social inequalities” was immediately identified as pro-FARC or benefiting the guerrilla rebels. As the left had no chance of building a common narrative to confront the social discontents, the right-wing political forces, spearheaded by former president Álvaro Uribe Velez, was intelligent enough to come up with imaginaries that combined, in very effective ways, the culture of warfare with imaginaries of personal success. This explains why the Colombian political landscape was completely alien to the progressive populisms of the region throughout most of the last decade. The Colombian political scenario was different: here we had a hyperpoliticized right-wing elite unified around the leadership of Álvaro Uribe Velez, and a scattered progressive wing dominated by Antanas Mockus and the Green Party’s technocratic politics.
So, the political discourse around the armed conflict, from both the left and the right, agreed on depolitization as the way to achieve their alternative goals. This worked more or less coherently when the FARC was mobilized and in full force, but once the Peace accords began during the Santos presidency, the country started to articulate other demands. This led to a radical transformation of the political dialogue. We could argue that the Peace accords between the government and the guerrilla forces made possible the return of politics. Now, this return of the political took two different tracks across the ideological spectrum: a reactive dimension wishing to perpetuate the culture of war, and a progressive and emancipatory dimension that is still under construction. Petro was effective enough to have been able to interpret and give shape to these political demands through a progressive channeling. In fact, Petro became the only effective progressive alternative equipped to counter Uribe’s conservative hegemony.
PS: In a country like Colombia, torn as it is by civil war, territorial violence, the displacement of communities, and with a long history with narco-trafficking, the institutional problems are immense. Right-wing candidate and President-elect Iván Duque promised the dismantling of federal courts and the recentralization of the judiciary. This made it very easy for Petro to uphold traditional principles of liberal democracy, such as the separation of powers, constitutionalism, and the rule of law. Someone like Íñigo Errejón in Spain, in fact, has suggested that today progressive forces only need to defend order and the rule of law to produce a new patriotic horizon that could include a majority beyond ideological constraints. Would you say that Petro’s specific populism was more a “centrist” reformulation of an effective republican ideal? If so, don’t you think that political centrism was also one of the factors that led to him fall short of the presidency?
LC: This question connects to something that I touched upon in my last response: how we are to understand the Liberal tradition in Colombia. Allow me to say a few words about this. In contrast to other Latin American countries where liberalism is usually entangled with conservative elites, in Colombia there are two traditions of liberalism. One is fully integrated into a conservative creole elite. But there is another that has a radical and plebeian dimension. This duality can be read all throughout the history of Colombia. Indeed, the history of violence in Colombia is also the history of elite liberalism’s betrayal of its plebian or popular aspiration. The FARC guerrillas, we should not forget, began as an armed wing of peasants betrayed by the liberal elites. The assassinations of historical leaders like Jorge Eliecer Gaitán (1903-1948) were very concrete attempts to eradicate the most radical wing of liberalism. We even saw this in the last elections, when the conservative wing of the Liberal Party spearheaded by Gaviria betrayed its party candidate, Humberto De La Calle, by making a political alliance with the President-elect Duque. It was only the young, progressive political forces that made alliance with Petro’s Colombia Humana.
Here I think that Petro was smart to localize his political program within the long tradition of Colombian progressive liberalism. This is why I wouldn’t interpret his strategy as “centrist,” but rather as a maneuver that sought to inscribe his platform within a tradition of radical democracy combining features of institutional and popular mobilization. This political tradition was never alien to institutions. We should not forget that Petro was one of the protagonists that drafted the Constitution of 1991; and the fact is that there is nothing more institutional than organizing a constituent assembly, since its purpose is precisely that of actualizing the bonds of the social contract with “We, the People.”
I think that the history of institutions in Latin America, perhaps with the exception of Chile, is very different from that of Europe. When Íñigo Errejón says that we must preserve institutional order and the rule of law, his expression means something entirely different in Spain than it would in the context of Latin America. In Latin America, there is a long history of social rights that we must defend within an institutional framework. In fact, I believe that the populist or national-popular experiments have consolidated an institutional legacy that is richer and more dynamic than the creole elite project. Even in Colombia where the populist tradition has been repeatedly short-circuited, we can find traces of this: from the Afrocolombian struggles in the Cauca region during the nineteenth century, to the March Revolution of López Pumarejo, to the Constitution of 1991. In this light, Petro’s progressive platform is nothing but the aspiration to render effective the goals of the Constitution.
PS: Both of us have participated in contemporary debates around populism in Spain after the rise of Podemos. Podemos interpreted itself as originating in the regime crisis of the traditional Spanish party system. Do you think that a similar regime crisis took place in Colombia in the Petro moment? What are some of the differences between Petrismo and political leadership of the Latin American Pink Tide (Marea Rosada) that governed in the region until recently?
LC: Let me begin by saying that Colombia is always a challenge for political reflection in tune with the major trends and broad analytical frameworks used to decipher the region. This is why the Colombian example is so rich and fascinating. Now, going back to your question, I would like to point out at least two elements. First of all, I think that regime crises open “frames of opportunities” (to borrow an expression from Bolivian Vice-President and political theorist Álvaro Garcia Linera) in order to foster real political alternatives. Podemos understood this very well and quickly adopted it for the Spanish national context. I don’t mean to say that Podemos and the Latin American populisms are one and the same, however. Figures such as Íñigo Errejón deserve merit for their keen political intelligence in advancing a project like Podemos in a country with a totally different political culture than the Latin American nations. However, and having said this, what is true is that the crisis of political representation in Latin America and beyond has allowed for the emergence of new political leaders. Here, I also wonder to what extent Bernie Sanders would have been possible without Latin American predecessors.
Secondly, I would argue that it was not a regime crisis, but rather a crisis of political narrative that led to the eruption of a candidate like Gustavo Petro. There is a slight difference here. Thanks to the relative stability Colombia experienced during the Santos term, Colombian civil society slowly began to question the post-political fiction of the conflict, while disavowing the warfare rhetoric coming from the uribistas. I am convinced that Petro shares a wide set of elements with the progressive populist leaders of the region. But it is also evident that he was inspired by the most positive initiatives of the so called “Pink Tide.” At the same time, he was attentive to some of its deadlocks. This helps to explain the novelty behind Petro’s political ideals. During his years as a mayor of Bogota, for example, Petro emphasized two aspects that were not common in other political experiments in the region: first, thinking beyond the logic of economic extractivism, and secondly, taking seriously the question of feminism. What is important, in my view, is that both of these commitments cut through the heart of neoliberalism and the civilizational crisis in which we are currently living. Petro’s political rhetoric is not only a renovation within Latin America but, more substantially, it has the potential of becoming an international alternative to the current economic organization of our societies. There is something universal in Petro’s political platform that has captured the attention of intellectuals and political leaders around the world.
PS: In a way, it is very difficult to come to terms as to why Petro lost the election given the apolitical stance of the right-wing candidate Iván Duque, an inexperienced and uncharismatic administrator with little or no political trajectory at all. At times, Duque even willingly chose not to attend some of the public debates with Petro. In my reading of this scenario, I have come to think that Petro’s shortcoming last week signaled the crisis of political leadership and charisma in our techno-political arrangement of public life (as if Petro were defeated by the spirit of techno-administration and not politics). Is political charisma today insufficient for channeling and sustaining popular affects?
LC: I think this is a central question, and it applies not only to the Colombian case. While it is true that Duque had the electoral and campaign apparatus on his side, there is also an epochal trend in national elections where opaque political figures triumph even though they are devoid of any substantive concrete project. At the same time, these figures are placed within a very sophisticated politico-aesthetic apparatus of image-making. We find in Macri, Trump, or Macron a particular organization of emotions that unite voters in a political climate that is opaque, while being effective during elections. The Ecuadorian political analyst Jaime Duran Barba, who is one of the masterminds behind this type of post-political strategy, has called them “pop campaigns” that carry signifiers devoid of specific content. If political theorist Ernesto Laclau taught us to think the articulation of different signifiers to construct political alternatives, then the strategy of someone like Duran Barba is the complete reversal of this model. In other words, the goal is no longer to articulate a concrete project, but to liberate individual emotions into a diffuse atmosphere of false personal satisfaction in a manner that resembles the strategies and effects of publicity.
Nonetheless, I think that political leaders are still very important in order to consolidate alternatives to neoliberalism, but they need to be constructed aesthetically in such a way that they can also use the features of publicity for political ends. I think that Podemos was successful in doing something like this, but so was Petro during the last weeks of his campaign. In fact, I see something of this strategy in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ intelligent campaigning. Ocasio-Cortez has been able to insert a term like “socialism” in an aesthetic pop dimension that we usually get from the new right.
PS: Let me turn to Iván Duque, who is now President-elect of Colombia. He represents both a renewal as well as a continuation of former president Álvaro Uribe Velez, who during the Santos administration led the political opposition against the Peace agreements with the FARC guerrilla group. Duque seems to express the consolidation of the new right turn in the region (along with Mauricio Macri in Argentina and to some extent to Lenin Moreno in Ecuador). How do you see Duque inserted within the geopolitical reconfiguration going on in Latin America?
LC:Here I am going to take an unorthodox position: I think that the new right-wing coalitions have been successful in recent electoral campaigns, but they have yet to consolidate themselves as a hegemonic alternative. During the 1980s, when neoliberal governance entered the region in full force, the governing elites were capable of guaranteeing a certain degree of economic and political stability. But if we look at presidents like Temer in Brazil, Moreno in Ecuador, or Macri in Argentina, it is evident that it has become difficult for them to draft a unifying and cohesive political narrative. Of course, much has changed from the 80s to the present. Certainly, these leaders have an economic plan (largely consisting of extractive economic practices, reduction of social rights, extension of the rhetoric of security and policing, etc.), but I do not see how they are going to sustain it for a long period of time. I am convinced that Ivan Duque will side with regional neoliberals, although I am skeptical as to the success of this alliance.
Duque seems have two options: first, he could become a presidential puppet of Uribe and in so doing sacrifice his own political career. Second, he could distance himself from Uribe in an attempt to produce a new and young conservative platform that goes hand in hand with an aggressive, deregulated economic model. In the long term, this could mean two things: an increasing violence in the region, but also the consolidation of wealth in the big urban centers. In other words, what I am trying to say is that although there is a strong political reaction at the moment in the region, one should not forget that our societies are very politicized. This also explains why alternative political agendas are slowly emerging on the ground. In the current political moment, it is not easy to describe how the regional map will be ordered.
PS: I am a little skeptical about the idea that the “new right” (nueva derecha) lacks political traction as a consequence of its post-political strategies. It is here where I see geopolitics playing a fundamental role in determining, and even overriding, national-popular sovereign initiatives. For instance, I was surprised to see that the Spanish right-wing organization FAES immediately supported Ivan Duque’s triumph. Do you also think that one of the tasks today is to think the transformations of the right in times of a new reorganization of geopolitics around “reactive sovereignties” on both sides of the Atlantic?
LC: I agree with you that the “new right” has a clear political program, that it is transnational in nature, and that it has the capacity to adapt to the specificity of each national landscape. The crisis of the neoliberal ethos at a global scale is now going through a process of reorganization. Therefore, the fiction of the welfare state in developed countries is no longer necessary; rather, what is emerging is a new global oligarchic order. I remember that when the crisis began in Europe around 2008, I was living in Spain and the rhetoric of guilt towards the most vulnerable sectors of society resembled the language used by the neoliberal elites in the Southern Cone during the 1990s. If there is something that the right tries to neutralize vis-à-vis what you called “reactive sovereignties” it is the rhetoric around the citizen as a “self-entrepreneur.” It is a stealth resource to appeal to fear while disciplining the population. However, what I do not see yet is how they will sustain this political governance. My impression is that they are still at the experimental stage.
PS: What is also surprising about Ivan Duque’s victory over Colombia Humana was the moral density of his political agenda. In fact, it was not political at all. If one reads his book El futuro está en el centro (The Future is at the Center) one finds that his discourse is grounded on an elite moral “decency” that is exclusive to those that possess it and excluding of those that are “indecent” and have no possibility of achieving it. In a way, decency functioned both as a policing apparatus and as a regulatory social division. Picking up on the notion of plebeization that you introduced before, you have suggested that a return to political antagonism could overturn the apolitical morality of the neoliberal governance. Is Petrismo an attempt to construct such horizon?
LC: Of course, I think that has been the major achievement of Petro. To break away from the apolitical moralism by drawing a new horizon for Colombian society that combines historical and political elements. This new horizon will insert Colombia in the region, while rendering visible the relation between violence and inequality that have functioned hand in hand throughout its history. Colombia is a country that has experienced a long ideological consensus among the elites, the media, and the political culture that consisted in depoliticizing social conflicts by reducing them to moral or juridical debates. This political consensus was comfortable with inequality as well as with the narrative of warfare in a way that was completely disconnected from historical understanding. In other words, it was as if the history of violence in Colombia had no causes in the development of regional capitalist accumulation. This social consensus today is visible in prominent intellectual figures such as Héctor Abad Faciolince, or even in so called alternative portals like La Silla Vacía (The Empty Chair). This explains why, as soon as Petro began to politicize the debates and to connect political violence to inequality and extractive model of accumulation, these actors immediately claimed that he was pursuing polarization through class hatred. For them anything that appears as political antagonism becomes immediately branded as polarization. This is very worrisome, since actors of center-left often deploy a rhetoric that touches the conservative fears of any potential change in the social contract. In spite of these responses, Petro was able to unify an array of social movements, as well as a younger generation of artists, academics, intellectuals, and members of important cultural institutions. This political campaign has been an exceptional lesson from the viewpoint of a new generation seeking to create a new common sense in politics. However, to achieve a point of irreversibility it is important to create a new aesthetic as well. This is why I think that the role of culture will be fundamental in the next political phase.
PS: Finally, one last question about “resistance.” Both in Spain and the United States there is an ongoing debate about local and state level federalism (local governments in the Spanish and American contexts) as a form for reorganizing democratic demands in the territories. It is a courageous position, no doubt, but what remains to be seen is whether a mediation between communities and the articulation of a national political horizon capable of transforming the texture of democracy can be formed. At the same time, the idea of community as an end is also problematic for politics, given that democratic politics always needs an outside, or an opening for disagreement. Would you say that populism, as an articulation and logic of the political, is the counter-communitarian form needed to reinvent politics today around the idea of a Republic (res publica)?
LC: I am not sure if I can answer all the nuances that are implied in this question, but I will say two things. First, I think that the local and the state dimensions should not be thought of as divergent strategies, but rather as complementary. In fact, Petro’s political strategy after the election is to achieve territorial presence, at the level of counties and districts, with the goal of solidifying the position of his program during the next electoral cycle. Secondly, I will also mention that, along with other Latin American and Spanish political theorists, I am a firm believer that populism and republicanism should be thought together. There is a whole tradition of plebeian republicanism that helps us explain the populist experiments in the region, and which differs from the main historical trends of the republican political elites. I agree with the importance of political mobilizations as an alternative to neoliberalism, but it is also fundamental that we think the role of institutions to translate demands and solidify them over long stretches of time. To paraphrase Kant, we could say that social movements without institutions are blind, but institutions and the rule of law without mobilizations are empty. In this sense, populism is the way in which our region has tried to articulate both dimensions into a common political strategy. We need both elements in order to create and imagine a horizon of emancipation. To this end, we need to redeem the full sense of the word Republic.
Gerardo Muñoz is a doctoral candidate in Hispanic Studies at Princeton University, working on political theory, crisis of sovereignty in Latin America, and populism. He is also a member of the academic collective Infrapolitical Deconstruction . He tweets at @gerardomunoz87.