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Colombia and the new Latin American left

What is really new and distinctive about the progressivism that won this year is the proposed environmental agenda and economic model that understands that fossil fuels are the past

Gustavo Petro, the new president-elect of Colombia.
Gustavo Petro, the new president-elect of Colombia.Europa Press

After the victory of president-elect Gustavo Petro and vice-president-elect Francia Márquez in Colombia, many have concluded that we are entering a new leftist wave in Latin America. But simply announcing the rise of a new left is more confusing than it is illuminating. New in what sense? In comparison to what? What distinguishes it from others? Who are its members? Without answers to these questions, Latin America’s political moment cannot be understood, and one risks stating the obvious (that the left is new because it is recent) or randomly grouping together very different movements and governments.

What is new about the new left?” is a question that surfaces from time to time. The last “new left” (which, of course, it is no longer) was the pink wave at the beginning of the century. As I wrote at the time in a book entitled, predictably, The New Latin American Left, it was the wave led by Lula’s Brazil and swelled by other governments that would follow very different paths, from the progressive democracy of Tabaré Vásquez and Pepe Mujica in Uruguay to the authoritarian disaster of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, as well as governments as diverse as those of the Kirchners in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

I think that what is new and distinctive of the progressivism that won this year in Colombia and Chile is precisely what all those left-wing governments lacked: an environmental agenda and economic policies that understand that fossil fuels and extractive industries are the past. And that there is no future, neither for the left nor for anyone else, on an uninhabitable planet. Despite the profound differences among the leftist governments of the last two decades, all of them shared with right-wing governments the enthusiastic promotion of extractive industries, from oil and coal to mining and agribusiness.

In Brazil, Lula and Dilma Rousseff ended up fulfilling the military dictatorship’s dreams of opening up the Amazon to monumental hydroelectric dams like Belo Monte, to feed energy to mining projects throughout the region. In Bolivia, former vice-president Alvaro García Linera went so far as to publish a defense of extractivism in the Amazon. Rafael Correa was even more explicit: he referred to Indigenous peoples and environmentalists who opposed his policies of aggressive expansion of oil and mining in Ecuador as the “infantile left.” The aberrant case of Venezuela belongs to a different category: “21st century socialism” not only maintained oil dependence, but used it to finance what ended up being a “dictatorship of the 21st century,” as Provea, the well-known Venezuelan NGO, has called it.

The extractivism of the left was due, in part, to reasons of convenience. The pink wave overlapped with a period of record prices for commodities. The resulting hard currency financed exemplary social policies in several countries, such as the Zero Hunger and Bolsa Familia programs in Brazil. In part, however, it was due to sheer conviction. Even today, important sectors of the left, such as the López Obrador government in Mexico, tend to see oil and mining exploitation as indisputable pillars of national development and sovereignty—and environmentalism as a naïve movement, at best, or as an instrument of the rich countries, at worst.

But much has changed in the last twenty years. Today we are living the reality of climate change and know that we have less than a decade left for governments to take urgent action to avoid the most catastrophic scenarios of global warming and the irreversible destruction of vital ecosystems such as the Amazon. We understand that human health and the health of the planet depend on national policies and international agreements to protect biodiversity in at least 30% of the Earth by 2030. Finally, we know that Latin America would suffer disproportionately from the effects of environmental collapse, such as forced migrations, economic and food crises, and social conflicts.

If it is to deserve the label “new,” the left in power would have to rise to this new planetary moment. And follow the momentum of the progressive movements that embody it and that were essential to the electoral outcome in Colombia, as shown by the iconic figure of vice-president-elect Francia Márquez: the Black and Indigenous movements, the urban environmentalism of young people, ecofeminism, the small farmers’ movements.

At a time when the global right seems to bet on the destruction of the planet (Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin, etc.), the left should distinguish itself not only by its social agenda but also by its environmental agenda. Abandoning extractivism and moving towards clean economies is not irresponsible, as critics suggest, but indispensable. This seems to be the view of the environmental progressivism that is emerging in Colombia and Chile. Petro and Márquez’s proposals contemplate a gradual and fair transition to reduce the historic dependence on oil and coal, among other measures. Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s government promised a “just socio-ecological transition” and has just shut down the Ventanas copper smelter, an emblem of mining pollution.

Thus, the first leftist government in Colombia may have regional and global repercussions. An initial sign of this turn was the first conversation between Petro and President Biden, which included a possible alliance on climate change and Amazon conservation. If accompanied by a shift to the left in Brazil (where it remains to be seen whether a possible Lula government would abandon the extractivist tradition) and adequate funding from wealthy countries that have polluted the most, the proposal of Latin American environmental progressivism could contribute not only to the consolidation of a new left, but also to the preservation of life on the planet.

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