Right Livelihood Laureates hope for change as Colombians vote for new president

News 18.06.2022

The second and final round of presidential elections in Colombia is being held this Sunday, June 19. Linked to the cultural and legal life of the country, poet Fernando Rendón and lawyer Iván Velásquez explain their open support for the left-leaning political coalition Historical Pact for Colombia, which obtained the highest results of all parties during the first round of elections with 40 per cent of the votes. 

This is the first time in Colombian history that a left-leaning political coalition could come into power.

For Rendón, who is the co-founder and director of the International Poetry Festival of Medellín, which received the 2006 Right Livelihood Award, the progressive coalition of the Historical Pact led by Gustavo Petro means the possibility of a peaceful transition to a situation of “full social, political and cultural democracy.” 

On the other side is the right-wing candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, “a corrupt, authoritarian, misogynist, with no known virtues person,” said Velásquez, a former prosecutor, judge and investigator for the Colombian Supreme Court, who received the Right Livelihood Award in 2018 for fighting corruption and impunity in Guatemala. He noted that Hernández faces two upcoming judicial processes for corruption and union persecution. 

“Presidential and vice-presidential candidates Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez represent the only hope we see for a change in Colombia,” Rendón told Right Livelihood in a recent interview. “We have the firm expectation of being able to overcome the difficulties to see a new form of government and a new political reality in Colombia.”

The 28 per cent of votes obtained by Hernández was a surprise in the May 29 first round of elections. It was expected that the ruling party’s candidate, Federico Gutiérrez, would go to the second round. According to Velásquez, Hernández’s victory over Gutiérrez can be explained by a significant will to change the political establishment. 

The department of Antioquia, and its capital Medellin, has historically been a stronghold for the political line of former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and outgoing president Iván Duque (2018-2022). This time it was the only electoral district won by Gutiérrez, who belongs to this old political establishment. 

However, even Medellín saw the emergence of other voices. Rendón himself ran – unsuccessfully – for Senator under the banner of the Historical Pact during legislative elections in March. For the poet, the current situation of extreme violence and social injustice that leads the majority of the Colombian population to lack fundamental rights must be reversed. 

“There is an unemployment and underemployment rate of over 50 per cent,” he said. “The majority cannot access higher education. Social security is fragile, as is the right to a retirement pension. Agriculture is unprotected. Almost one-fifth of the Colombian population is displaced or exiled, lost their land due to violence or war, and, although some of these people have returned, violence is once again upon them because the land restitution process is very weak.”

Also born in Medellín, Velásquez shares the diagnosis of the structural problems affecting most of the Colombian population. He says that one issue that excites him about the Historical Pact is the promise to request the United Nations to implement an international commission against impunity – similar to the one he presided over in Guatemala. 

“Corruption is also a serious problem in Colombia,” he added. 

Land ownership is another crucial issue for which the Historical Pact has a good proposal, according to Velásquez: an agrarian reform through the adjudication of fiscal land and the provision of resources for production to farmers. 

“With Petro, there would be a variation of the economic model. What is at stake is the possibility of starting a real transformation of the country,” he said.

With more than 39 million voters in the country and abroad, Colombia is set to elect its president for 4 years this Sunday. 

“Never has anyone reached the presidency without the backing of the political establishment. Dissidents have always been assassinated,” Velásquez said. 

But it is not all about expectations in Colombia. Civil society has awakened and is living a new era after the massive and heavily-repressed national strike against Duque’s government last year. 

Right Livelihood Laureates are also actively working on transforming the country’s society. The 32nd edition of the International Poetry Festival of Medellín is starting on July 9 to promote peace, culture and social engagement. 

Whether Petro or Hernández is the elected this Sunday, the new president will soon have in his office a proposal to reform the Colombian police force, on which Velásquez is currently working as a member of the newly-formed Justice and Democracy Corporation.

“Colombian people need to be vindicated and have the protection of the State,” Rendón said.

Rendón’s International Poetry Festival of Medellín was given the Right Livelihood Award “for showing how creativity, beauty, free expression and community can flourish amongst and overcome even deeply entrenched fear and violence.”

Velásquez received the Right Livelihood Award in 2018 with former Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana “for their innovative work in exposing abuse of power and prosecuting corruption, thus rebuilding people’s trust in public institutions.”

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