Francia Márquez embodies the recent progressive shift in Latin America. On Wednesday in Madrid, at the 2023 Foro Tendencias, she told María José “Pepa” Bueno – the editor-and-chief of EL PAÍS – that she got into politics to “save lives and keep speaking up.”
Márquez – the first Black woman in Colombian history to become vice president – said that, since she took office in August of this year, she has felt pressure from “young people, who voted for change.” She and President Gustavo Petro, of the left-wing Historic Pact for Colombia alliance, narrowly won the 2022 elections thanks to the decisive support of younger Colombians.
The dialogue – which took place at the Casino de Madrid, an exclusive social club – focused on the future of Colombia, a country that, for the first time ever, has leftist rulers.
Márquez – a 40-year-old lawyer and environmental activist – stressed that, when she chose to be on Petro’s presidential ticket, it was very difficult for her to convince her supporters that she could win. And, when she won, it was even harder to explain to them that she and her alliance couldn’t govern the country “like a utopia.”
Upon assuming office, Petro – a former guerilla and career politician – and Márquez found a collection of governmental institutions that “are not made for change… but rather, for everything to stay the same.” In her interview with Bueno, she said that she felt that the state “is treated like the property” of Colombia’s moneyed elites.
However, her mere arrival in the halls of power is, by its very nature, a significant change.
“Women are breaking down barriers all over the world,” Márquez stressed. “We are opening spaces… our presence opens up new discussions, new ways of doing politics, of transforming realities.”
During the interview – which lasted about 30 minutes – Bueno asked Márquez what limits she thinks that she and Petro will face during their administration.
“I’m well-aware that we’re not going to change 500 years of exclusion and marginalization,” the vice president admitted.
Márquez is prepared for the rough world of Colombian politics. In 2013 and 2014, she organized community members in the Valle del Cauca region to combat environmental damage caused by illegal miners. She and her children were subsequently forced to flee from the rural areas to the region’s capital, Cali, after receiving death threats from paramilitary groups. However, she made her mark as an effective social leader. In 2018, Márquez won the Goldman Prize – known as the “Green Nobel Prize” – for her environmental activism.
A native of Cauca – one of the poorest regions of the South American country, on the Pacific coast – Márquez has managed to attract a diverse coalition of supporters. Her simple and direct discourse has moved Afro-Colombians – descendants of slaves – rural residents, urban environmentalists and young women. Many of the people who voted for Petro did so not because of him, but because of her. Given that the cerebral and awkward Petro defeated his right-wing opponent by barely 3% of the vote, he owes his charismatic running mate big time.
The triumph of Márquez and Petro in the second round of the Colombian presidential elections last June filled a large sector of the country with hope. Millions of Colombians have never before seen themselves reflected in the political class, which is mostly male, wealthy and white.
Márquez told Bueno that “structural reforms are now being carried out [in Colombia],” having to do with “taxation, social investment and rural development.” She stated that one of her priorities during her term will be the creation of a Ministry of Equality, which will attempt to reduce gender disparities, economic and racial inequalities, as well as discrimination against the LGBT+ community.
Bueno wanted to know if Márquez still experiences racism as vice president. She replied, “of course,” explaining that, on occasion, she still has to demand that certain officials treat her with respect. “If I were a white man, that respect would be intrinsic,” she said.
Márquez recalled that, in recent years, before winning the vice presidency (her first elected office) she suffered countless racist incidents.
“I’ve been compared to apes by people on the extreme right. A clear colonial thought, meant to dehumanize, to expropriate the human condition of people of African or Indigenous descent. That narrative very much still exists.”
Asked about the armed conflicts that Colombia has been experiencing for more than half-a-century, Márquez responded by saying that “drug trafficking is the gasoline that makes the country burn with violence.” Her government is considering “a new drug policy that will try to solve the problem.” The vice president commented that “there are still many social leaders losing their lives” and that the Petro administration “has still not managed to stop the humanitarian crisis that affects communities who are experiencing forced displacements” at the hands of insurgent groups. Still, she hopes that Colombia can achieve “total peace.”
At the end of the conversation, Bueno asked Márquez how she imagined her legacy.
“I dream of achieving the energy transition, to leave future generations a world where more things are possible. I also dream of racial justice, that promotes historical reparations for colonialism. And social justice, which allows the most vulnerable communities to have the basic conditions needed for a decent life.”