Symposium | The Future of Global Democracy

Democracy’s Promise in the Global South

By Francia Márquez-Mina

Tagged ColombiaDemocracyprogressivismSouth America

While the meaning and translation of vivir sabroso has flummoxed international and national media over the last few months, the promise of a life with dignity certainly resonated with more than 11 million voters in Colombia’s recent presidential elections. These voters were motivated by a deep-seated desire for change in a country perpetually governed by a rotating cast of white men from a handful of elite families.

The notion of vivir sabroso is anchored in the centuries-old history of resistance of my ancestors in northern Cauca and the Pacific Coast, a region of cimarrones and Black struggles for dignity, freedom, the rights of Afro-descendants, and human rights in general, dating back to the colonial and slavery times. Vivir sabroso means to live in harmony with land and nature, in peace with one another, and without fear of being killed, persecuted, or banished from our territories. That is the promise of the new democracy we hope to usher in in Colombia: an emancipatory call that we hope will echo across Latin America and the Caribbean—and, why not, the whole world. 

We are aware that for millions of Colombians, democracy is an empty word. It means nothing to them, having been abandoned by the state and subjected to the economic, gender, and racial violences that lie at the core of the state’s narrative of progress. 

This is also the case for millions across Latin America and the Caribbean, who are still reeling from the economic, emotional, and social toll of a global pandemic. As of May 3, 2022, Latin America and the Caribbean had experienced nearly 1.7 million COVID-19 deaths—more than 27 percent of deaths worldwide. Throughout 2020, economic contraction exacerbated poverty and inequality in what was already the most income-unequal region in the world. The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimates that 17 million people fell into poverty in 2020, with poverty rising to 33 percent from 30.5 percent in 2019. Domestic economic troubles have been compounded by geopolitical crises out of our control—including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A conflict halfway around the world has pushed fuel costs beyond reach and is impacting the region’s ability to feed itself.

These factors add to political fragility and can deepen the social unrest that began well before the pandemic when thousands of citizens across the region poured onto the streets to demand their governments address the ongoing climate crisis and persistent inequalities that kept them deprived of their most basic rights. Massive protests in Ecuador over mounting fuel prices in July of this year are a recent case in point.

At the same time, despite facing an unprecedented crisis with the world’s highest death rates from COVID-19, and the most significant economic contraction and lowest growth forecasts for 2022, citizens have also found ways to channel their dissatisfaction through electoral and institutional means. Demands for real change have translated into historic opportunities—we have seen it in Chile and Honduras. That time has now come for Colombia.

The election of a leftist government, risen from the struggles of ethnic peoples, is a watershed moment for Colombia, where previous leftist candidates have been killed on the campaign trail. Indeed, at times I worried about not making it alive to Election Day. The lead-up to March’s congressional elections and May’s first presidential round were one of the most violent electoral periods in recent history, according to reports from Colombian civil society organizations. Both President Gustavo Petro and I were forced to give our final campaign speeches from behind bulletproof shields, and fears of a post-election institutional crisis and widespread violence were very real.

In 2016, a deeply divided Colombia voted on a plebiscite to accept or reject the peace accords that then-President Juan Manuel Santos forged with the world’s oldest guerrilla group—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP). Voting trends from the time clearly show that those who were in favor of the accords were people living in the regions that suffered most from the conflict. The similarity with the geographical distribution of the votes that elected President Petro and me is striking. In the wake of election night, a political analyst remarked that “it is almost like tracing the same map.”

It is a momentous time for my country. A country plagued by decades of conflict. A country where dirty politics and disinformation led to the rejection of the accords to bring this conflict to an end. A conflict of which I am one of the millions of victims. Victims that have struggled for agency and recognition. Victims that are yet to be vindicated in their rights.

For many, this election brought to life the potential of demobilization efforts and the peace accords. Voters were motivated by hunger for change rather than security concerns, which were the driving force in Colombian politics for the past 25 years. Thanks to millions living on the margins of capitalism and society—those whom I call “the nobodies”—Colombia now has a chance to fulfill the dream of an inclusive, long-lasting, and transformative peace; of building a new democracy where the promise of equality is realized for millions of Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ people, as well as peasants, people with disabilities, women, and youth—many of whom are also victims of the conflict.

Indeed, Colombia is part of a regional trend of new leaderships embracing a more inclusive view of democracy, putting climate, gender, and racial justice at the center of their agendas. In Chile, President Gabriel Boric defines himself as a feminist and is acutely aware that, to build a long-term political project, his government needs to deliver to a base deeply concerned with the climate crisis. In Honduras, President Xiomara Castro’s agenda is also shaped by feminist activism and other social movements seeking to address gender-based and structural violence; she too needs to deliver to her base. In Brazil, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s ability to assemble a winning coalition in the elections scheduled for October 2 will require activating the Black, climate justice, feminist, and youth movements.

Our government will embrace the opportunity and promise of this new progressivism. Colombia has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world; the second highest among 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean; and the highest among all OECD countries. This situation is unsustainable: a source of political fragility and a major hindrance to economic growth and social progress. First order of business: addressing structural inequities that impact Black, Indigenous, and peasant populations, the LGBTQ+ community, and women, while curbing the generalized violence that envelops too many lives throughout our territories. We need to transform the structures of classist, patriarchal, and racist oppression that take dignity away from millions of Colombians. 

As part of the government, our great challenge will be to do this from within a state that has historically been a source of discrimination, exclusion, and violence. We need to transform the fraught legacies of Colombia’s slave economies, including by tackling societal and state violence against Black men and women. Our country’s struggle for democracy will never be complete without a route for historical reparations for the profound effects of colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and slavery.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has stated that Afro-Colombians are subject to “persistent structural and historical discrimination,” which results “in high levels of poverty and social exclusion.” Indeed, Afro-Colombians score the lowest across the board of social and wellbeing indicators, including income disparity, literacy, poverty, and unemployment. Black men and women across the Americas face this same reality. We are past due for a hemispheric racial reckoning.

Colombia already has a robust system for reparations, created to respond to the victims of the armed conflict. Unfortunately, the majority of victims is still waiting for their rights to be restored and for guarantees of non-recurrence. Having a national debate on historical reparations for colonialism, racism, and slavery and how to establish a similar system for victims of this racialized democracy should be the next step. To be clear, reparations are not only about compensation; they are also about creating a society-wide conscience of the legacies of colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and slavery and how they helped perpetuate deep inequalities and a racialized society. It is no coincidence that the life expectancy of Afro-descendant women in Colombia is five years lower than the average life expectancy of women in general, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics. Collaboration between government and society in the co-creation and institutionalization of reparations is the only way to move forward and regenerate and restore Black communities and enable them to participate in economic, political, and social life of our countries on equal footing.

The pandemic highlighted the centrality of care as an economic activity and as part of the wellbeing of families and societies, but also revealed the injustices and shortcomings of the current model in the region. It is insufficient for people in need of care and unfair with care workers—with girls and women disproportionately bearing the brunt. Latin America and the Caribbean are in dire need of national and subnational care systems that balance out the unfair burden that women shoulder when caring for children and families.

Colombia is the first country in the region to track data on the impact of care in the economy. According to official data from 2020, care activities and work amounted to 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product—above other economic activities like agriculture and finance. With women dedicating almost 80 percent of their working hours to unpaid care work, and the limitations this entails in terms of access to income-generating activities in the formal sector, it is high time for the state to shoulder the cost of caring for the most impoverished and vulnerable. Doing so will balance care responsibilities between men and women and improve women’s rights, while boosting GDP and creating jobs. We are already seeing the impact of initiatives like these in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and México; not to mention, our own capital city: Bogotá.

Progressivism Shall be Black and Feminist, or It Shall Not Be. The intersection between climate change and economic vulnerability is increasingly the focus of conservation efforts that recognize how those who have contributed the least to the problem feel the greatest effects. To foster green and inclusive recoveries from the onslaught of the pandemic, we will shift our development model away from unsustainable extractivism and bring strong gender, racial, and social justice ambitions to our energy transition. According to the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Labor Organization, decarbonization efforts in the region could create 15 million net jobs. Renewable energy and sustainable and community agriculture and tourism are among the sectors that are ripe for a post-pandemic Latin America and the Caribbean. Governments in the region need to grab this opportunity and together in solidarity become the site for socially just innovations that deliver on the promise of a green future.

Through circular, feminist, and solidarity economies we will lift communities that have been historically left behind by creating equitable growth and green jobs. Building an economy that sustains life—including through agroecological investments that lead to food sovereignty—should be a top priority for the region’s democracies to deliver on their promises to future generations.

Public sector programs are a vital part of this transformation and can have a positive impact in terms of economic growth and environmental regeneration. “Nature-based solutions should be a central part of a triple-dividend resilient recovery,” as advocated by the Global Center on Adaptation. “These projects bring several benefits. Beyond sustainable valuable ecosystems services and being carbon sinks that can generate income, they also reduce the risk of disasters, are sources of food and water, and support sustainable tourism activities.”

Finally, democracies should deliver not only to their native sons and daughters but also to those who, in fleeing persecution or poverty elsewhere, have established themselves in their territories. This is a commitment Colombians take seriously—a reflection of our own historical displacements. As the continued effects of global crises push thousands of people across borders, with many passing through our country to make the journey north across the death trap of the Darien Gap, migrants and refugees will continue to find haven and opportunities to thrive in Colombia. Governments in the region need to continue showing leadership and come together to implement a concerted approach to manage migration in a humane, orderly, and secure way. However, it is no less true that we are in desperate need of international support for short-term humanitarian responses but mostly for long-term development programs for migrant-receiving communities.

On this and other fronts, we will work alongside the international community, which needs to stop viewing our country and our region through the lens of security and a failed War on Drugs that has sowed infinite pain in our communities and territories. Indeed, anti-narcotics policies lie behind mounting human-rights violations that disproportionately impact Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—including displacement caused by aerial fumigation of coca and poppy plantations. To make matters worse, the approach has not actually reduced coca production, but merely shifted some of it to neighboring Bolivia and Peru.

We will need to resolve, once and for all, the armed conflict that not only costs thousands of lives but also prevents the type of development that enables a good life—vivir sabroso. Stopping the war means silencing the rifles, but also advancing a new paradigm in drug policy; one where “zero tolerance” does not leave thousands of deaths in the territories, while keeping millions of dollars in the banks. We need to open the debate on the legalization of cannabis and coca leaf with a human rights approach, allowing us to safeguard the lives lost in the wake of drug trafficking and the ongoing War on Drugs. We need to incentivize pharmaceutical and food industries to create economic opportunities for communities historically victimized by these policies, while also recognizing ancestral and cultural uses in Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities. Finally, drug policy should be a public health policy, one that addresses problematic consumption without criminalizing users.

Colombians are no longer interpreting their own reality through the lens of security and the War on Drugs. President Petro and I are the political consequence of this shift. Our election comes at a time of enormous tensions, following four years of deteriorating security in rural areas, economic shocks and inflation, and massive mobilizations and protests. With indignation over the inequities of the social and political status quo still simmering, our government has a historic opportunity to channel this discontent into a green transition centered on economic, gender, and racial justice.

Our domestic and foreign policies will be life-enabling and strive to realize the promises of democracy. Vivir sabroso. A good life of dignity, equality, and peace. We will not let Colombia down.

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Francia Márquez-Mina is Vice President of Colombia, elected with new President Gustavo Petro in June. They were sworn into office August 7, 2022.

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