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Editorial: Colombia's blood-soaked right must not be allowed to eject President Petro

TRADE unions marching in defence of Colombia’s first left-wing president need support, solidarity and publicity from their British counterparts.

The  “soft coup” warned of by Colombia’s biggest union federations the CUT, CTC and FECODE is a reminder that Latin America is a front-line geopolitical battleground. 

Nobody should underestimate the risks. It is barely six months since a constitutional coup was launched against neighbouring Peru’s socialist president Pedro Castillo, followed swiftly by his arrest and by a murderous crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Establishment-friendly journalists describe Colombia as “the most stable democracy in Latin America.” 

It’s an odd description for the scene of the continent’s longest-running civil war, where a fragile peace process could break down entirely if the left is removed from office.

This “stable democracy” is rated year after year the deadliest country on Earth for trade unionists.

Colombia’s so-called stability simply denotes its formerly stable place in the orbit of the United States. The victims of Washington’s allies don’t count. 

They seldom even make the news: in 2019, vast anti-government protests that rocked Colombia were passed over in silence by British broadcasters who built up simultaneous protests in Venezuela into an international crisis.

We would be unwise to assume Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first left-wing leader, will be permitted to deliver on promises like universal healthcare and land reform in peace.

Private healthcare bosses have already orchestrated the kind of “protests” that make the headlines (as in Venezuela or Bolivia in 2019, where pro- and anti-government forces took to the streets, it is not the size of the demo but whose side it’s on that determines your airtime).

Rallies by forces veterans are more worrying still, with retired army officer John Marulando’s reference last month to the successful overthrow of Castillo as a model.

No reforming government in a country riven by civil war for five decades can ignore the question of impunity for war crimes. And the unions marching today demanded an end to impunity alongside their support for Petro’s social programmes.

But holding the military to account is dangerous. Colombian officers have a lot to answer for.  The army’s own admissions point to more than 10,000 innocent people being murdered during the “false positives” affair, when rewards based on the number of rebels killed led troops to lure people to remote parts of the country, kill them and dress the corpses up in guerilla outfits.

Worse, this military is the US’s closest lieutenant in Latin America. Colombia is Nato’s only “global partner” on the continent. 

The US is on the back foot in the region. Last month’s Brasilia summit showcased a new unity among left leaders. Many, including President Lula of Brazil, look to partnership with China as a means of challenging US domination.

But the US plays dirty — and so do we. As Declassified UK has exposed, Britain was complicit in the coup against Bolivia’s Evo Morales in 2019. Rishi Sunak, currently paying court to President Biden in Washington, is as committed to shoring up the US-led world order as any of his predecessors.

Every trick in the book has been used to bring down socialists in Latin America. Armed force, “lawfare,” turncoat presidents like Lenin Moreno who abandon the platform they were elected on and launch a witch hunt against their former leader’s supporters (yes, there are some parallels with British politics).

Colombia is turning a page. It has a leader committed to peace, justice for the civil war’s victims, redistribution of wealth. It has a chance to shake off the number-one spot it has occupied so long on the list of deadliest places to be in a trade union.

All that is at risk. Many British unions have ties with Colombian counterparts through groups like Justice for Colombia. We must be ready to stand with them — our state and our media will not.

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