Campaigning for a more dignified Colombia
F5 years after the beginning of the Colombian peace agreement, the country is preparing to elect a new president. Two of the eleven confirmed candidates for the March 13 preliminary elections are women: Francia Márquez Mina, an acclaimed Afro-Colombian activist and lawyer, and Ingrid Betancourt, a veteran politician best known for the six years she spent in captivity after kidnapped by rebels during her first presidential campaign in 2002.
Although they may come from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum, both Márquez and Betancourt have first-hand experience of widespread violence against women leaders and aim to address the corruption and social injustice that plagues it. feed.
Colombia has yet to elect a woman president. Since its independence in 1819, the country has been ruled by a succession of white and mixed-race men of aristocratic origins and conservative political views. The current vice-president, Maria Lucía Ramírez, is the first woman to hold her position. Women occupy only 20% of the seats in the Senate, a rate which is lower both than the Latin American average and the objective set by the Colombian government itself of ten percentage points.
Márquez, 40, has already made history as the first Afro-Colombian woman to officially run for president. For the lifelong activist and community leader, her campaign is above all an opportunity to amplify the voices of rural communities and ethnic minorities who have been ignored by the government. “The majority in this country are people who have lived under the oppression of this racist, patriarchal, classist state,” she told reporters in Bogotá while touring to garner public support for her movement, Soy Porque Somos (I am because we are).
Márquez grew up in the rural town of La Toma, in the southwestern department of Cauca. While still a teenager, the town was threatened by a government proposal to build a dam on the nearby Ovejas River, which would have diverted the community’s main water source and caused enormous environmental damage. She was part of the youth movement that successfully campaigned to stop the project.
“It was the first time I heard, as a girl of African descent, that we had rights,” Márquez said. “Collective rights to be defined in terms of what we wanted for our territory and in terms of what we wanted for our development.”
Márquez has since gained international recognition as an activist for environmental and social justice. In 2018, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her successful campaign to end illegal gold mining operations near La Toma four years prior.
Speaking out has made her a target for paramilitary groups who claim she hinders development. A series of threats against her family forced her to move to the city of Cali. During a 2019 conference with indigenous leaders from Cauca, men attacked the group with guns and grenades. Marquez escaped unscathed.
By taking her activism to Colombia’s biggest political stage, Márquez is well aware that she is putting herself in even greater danger. “Political participation for women like me is not easy, especially when we are ready to disrupt the status quo,” she said. “It’s dangerous. I thought about it before I made that decision to run, but defying fear is part of access to justice and that’s what I’ve done my whole life.
Ingrid Betancourt, 60, expressed a similar sense of defiance over her decision to return to Colombia for a second bid for the presidency. “Today I’m here to finish what I started with you in 2002,” she said during her campaign announcement in January. “I am here to claim the rights of 51 million Colombians who do not find justice because we live in a system designed to reward criminals.”
Twenty years ago, Betancourt became the best-known victim of Colombia’s 52-year civil war, when she was abducted from a FARC roadblock while visiting a contested area in the department of Caqueta. For the next six years, she was held captive and moved between various guerrilla camps. Conditions were harsh and often humiliating. Betancourt later recalled being chained up at night and being forced to walk for miles through the jungle to avoid detection by strangers. In July 2008, she and 14 other hostages were rescued in a covert military operation.
The experiences of Márquez and Betancourt are not isolated incidents. In 2019 alone, the Colombian Interior Ministry received 300 complaints of political violence against women. All were anonymous, presumably to avoid reprisals. Women leaders who advocate for environmental issues and the implementation of the peace agreement, including the replacement or legalization of coca crops, are at increased risk of being targeted, especially in areas where patriarchal hierarchies are the norm.
Márquez first announced his intention to campaign in August 2020, just days before the deadline for candidates to solicit support from citizens. With so little time, Márquez knew she would not be able to collect the 580,620 signatures needed to run as an independent candidate. As a result, his movement, Soy Porque Somos, joined the leftist coalition Pacto Histórico (Historical Pact) with Gustavo Petro, the current frontrunner in the opinion polls.
Márquez’s platform and active participation in the May 2021 protests that took place across the country resonated with progressive youth. “Parents came to tell me they didn’t know me, but their nine-year-old daughter told them they had to vote for me,” she said at the start of her campaign.
Betancourt first announced his intention to run for president on January 18, several months after the rest of the pre-candidates. During the first month of her campaign, Betancourt became a controversial figure. She is now running independently as a moderate candidate, having severed ties with the centrist Centro Esperanza (Hope Center) coalition when she publicly denied her demand to expel two members with ties to the former president. Alvaro Uribe.
She has spent most of the 13 years since her rescue in France, where she holds dual nationality. His lack of familiarity with current Colombian policies – the retirement age, for example – has drawn attention in recent interviews. Several political analysts have pointed out that his international recognition may not be enough to win the popular vote, given the active involvement of his opponents in national politics in recent years.
However, the foundation of Betancourt’s campaign lies not in concrete policy recommendations, but in appealing to those affected by the ongoing conflict and corruption as a result of the peace accord. “My story is the story of all Colombians,” she said. “While my colleagues and I were chained by the neck, Colombian families were chained by corruption, violence and injustice.”
Nine million people, nearly 20% of Colombia’s population, have registered with the government as victims of the conflict. Despite her ordeal at the hands of the now disbanded FARC, Betancourt supports the peace accord and has presented herself as an advocate for reconciliation.
Both candidates acknowledged the importance of making political participation more accessible to women, as well as the need to protect female leaders in conflict-prone areas. “The consolidation of the peace process in Colombia is also a gender process, since the war is fought mainly by men, but they pay the price for women,” Betancourt said. Márquez has criticized several polls and media outlets for not providing women and Indigenous pre-candidates with the same level of visibility as men.
With their lived experience of gender-based political violence, Márquez and Betancourt can ensure the much-needed representation of women at the highest levels of decision-making. They won’t be the only ones trying to do so; 11 women from the grassroots feminist movement Estamos Listas (We are ready) are running for seats in the Senate. This is the first time that a Latin American feminist group without allegiance to a political party or coalition has presented candidates for parliament.
The movement’s agenda goes beyond simply promoting the visibility of women in Congress; they are also firmly determined to respect the terms of the peace agreement by redistributing wealth and power. “We believe that women cannot empower themselves alone but with their communities,” said Marta Restrepo, founding member of the movement.
Estamos Listas has also pledged to support Francia Márquez, whose campaign promises to be particularly striking. If she claims second place in the Historic Pact in the March preliminaries, as polls suggest, she would become the party’s running mate. The title, however, is not what she ultimately aspires to.
“Reaching the presidency is not the end,” Márquez said. “The end is to make this country dignified, to make our humanity, the humanity of the majority, matter.”
Sita Bates is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on environmental policy and social justice issues. She holds a degree in ecology and environmental biology from Imperial College London.