On Sunday August 7, Gustavo Petro, an economist and former guerrilla fighter, was inaugurated as Colombia’s 34th president alongside Francia Marquez, the first-ever Afro-Colombian vice president. Marquez calls it a victory for the “nobodies.”
Marquez, a housekeeper who became an environmental activist and lawyer, advocates intersectional feminism. Over the years, I learned from the ways she embodies the campaign’s main slogan, vivir sabroso, or live with flavor. It is the Afro-Colombian “life philosophy” of “living without fear; it refers to living with dignity; it refers to living a life with rights guaranteed.”
In the face of what Marquez calls “the politics of death” that have denied populations the possibility to vivir sabroso, Petro calls for a “politics of love.”
The pair won, in terms of the geographic distribution of the vote, in the areas of Colombia most deeply impacted by the country’s protracted armed conflict. In 2016, the “yes” vote to the peace agreement also won in these regions of the country.
This geographically peripheral ring of the country is inhabited by populations that have been historically excluded; for decades, marginalized populations there have described being forgotten.
Colombia’s future will not be determined by an administration, however. My work and research with war-affected Colombian faith communities in those peripheral rings over two decades—through the height of armed conflict, negotiations of peace deals, and into post-accord Colombia—indicates that while it is tempting to place hope in official peace deals and people in high places, the ongoing participation and collective struggle of marginalized sectors of society is vital to transform deep-seated structural oppressions that enable and sustain forms of direct violence.
Some violence-affected faith communities have spurred social movements to transform the root causes of the armed conflict that has unleashed untold suffering and pain (though many if not most Christian leaders and churches have ignored the violence and pain of society’s most vulnerable, including their own members). War victims became social agents through reliance on moral power to create partial peace amidst crises. Small communities discovered they could change conflict dynamics through grassroots processes catalyzed by such improbable events. At times these prophetic minorities inspired others and joined together with additional groups. Consider examples from Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. The national news magazine Semana reported in 2014 that the radical decision of enemies from Adventist churches to reconcile was the “seed” that germinated into the nationally renowned Peaceful Process of Reconciliation and Integration of the Alta Montaña(or just “the movement”). To the west, despite threats, reprisals, and assassination of leaders, Evangelical communities helped found the inter-institutional, pluralistic Group for the Defense of Land and Territory of Córdoba. The group also includes 13 campesino and indigenous groups. Through cooperating with other excluded groups with converging goals, these violence-affected groups acquired new ways of thinking about problems and new tools for redressing them. Together they advance alternative approaches to dominant social, political, economic, and ecological relationships in the territory to transform the colonial and neoliberal structures that threaten rural populations’ survival.
In my new book Witnessing Peace: Becoming Agents Under Duress in Colombia, I interpret the emergence and trajectory of such movements in terms of political theology. My interpretation of their implicit eschatologies provides the orienting principles for the account of human political agency. In my reading, pluralistic social movements rising from moral power intersect with the state and can contribute to state-oriented processes, but they are never reliant on the state nor are they consumed by state. This ability to contribute without being triumphalistic when one’s preferred candidate wins in an election or consumed into the sameness of liberal society is of great importance.
The Petro-Marquez administration will need the active participation; cooperation; and, at times, contestation of groups like these that elected them if they are going to realize their campaign promises: implement the 2016 peace agreement and enact rural and land reform, including reforms that give women better access to ownership (one commitment among others toward ending patriarchal practices). Marquez’s embodiment of grassroots struggle for change and Petro’s thirty years of involvement in mainstream politics makes them a strategic, dynamite alliance. By way of illustration, on October 8, 2022, the Colombian Government and the Colombian Federation of Cattle Ranchers signed an agreement allowing the government to purchase three million hectares of land it will redistribute. The agreement will allow the National Government to begin to comply with and implement the first point of the peace agreement, titled Towards a New Colombian Countryside: Comprehensive Rural Reform, designed to transform the countryside nationwide. (Any existing details and mechanisms for distribution remain undisclosed.) Yet even in the most successful cases of political opposition and movement leaders becoming democratically elected Presidents in their countries, such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa or more recently Podemos in Spain and Evo Morales in Brazil, elected heads of state reach the end of their ability to alter ruling policies and confront established systems. The Petro-Marquez administration will likely fall short of its lofty goals, but grassroots pressure and animated mobilizations could help them ground the discourse into specific gains. The participation of organized, marginalized civil society actors can help them knit center and periphery into new patterns of relationships. It can help them create new and constructive relationships that will allow for structural change. It could also hold them accountable and help prevent them from abandoning their progressive priorities.
Beyond electoral victories for the nobodies, this is how the systems that produce “nobodies” might be transformed: through nobodies becoming political actors and what Pope Francis calls “social poets of transformation.” In contrast with other progressive administrations in other countries, Petro and Marquez seem to be depending on the people they represent to do just that. In his first speech as president-elect, Petro spoke of “binding regional dialogues” to build “the reforms that Colombia needs to be able to live together in peace.” The dialogues are “binding” in so far as the input the government is collecting in the dialogues will inform the national agenda (the roadmap the administration will follow for its four-year term). The dialogues are underway; fifty are slated for completion by December. Participation, expectations, and hope remain high. I will have my eye on the organized groups and social movements exerting pressure and energetically supporting specific constructive initiatives to consolidate change.
This piece is informed by research and analysis from Janna Hunter-Bowman’s new book, Witnessing Peace, the first book in the new Transforming Political Theologies series. Published by Routledge and affiliated with the Political Theology Network, this series highlights new methods and topics in the field of political theology. If you are interested in discussing a book project with the series editors, you can find out more about the series and the editors’ contact information here.