It had been a long time since Latin American politics had seen a figure that completely overturned the geometry of power and its class hegemony, as has happened with Francia Márquez. A woman, Black, poor, displaced, subaltern, social leader, environmentalist, and feminist, she will be the first Afro-Colombian vice-president in Colombia after 214 years of right-wing governments.
“I am because we are” is the name of her movement, a translation of the African concept Ubuntu, which Francia describes in detail: “It is the philosophy that teaches us not to think of ourselves individually, that I am because you are, that we are if nature is; it is the attempt to redefine the value of life, so fractured in our country, always from the collective”. And in this communal cosmovision, or worldview, the disruptive and symbolic character of her leadership can be seen: on her back resound the cries of his enslaved ancestors, the demands of the excluded communities, the dreams -as she likes to say- of ‘the nobodies of Colombia’.
Francia was born in 1981 in La Toma, a village in the department of Cauca. The daughter of a midwife mother and an agro-miner father, at the age of 13 she began working as an artisanal miner and at 16 she became a mother for the first time. A year earlier she had joined her community’s struggle against a megaproject to divert the Ovejas River, the starting point for what would become a long environmental activism against illegal mining and dispossession, for which she received the Goldman Prize in 2018.
In between, she suffered forced displacement due to paramilitary threats, received her law degree while working as a maid, lost her partner, and survived an assassination attempt. “I want to be president”, she wrote in her social networks in 2019 and almost nobody took her seriously, until last March when she got almost 800,000 votes in the primaries and Gustavo Petro appointed her as his running mate.
Days after a historic election, Francia welcomes us and dazzles us with her simplicity as the warm Cali night falls. Dressed in one of her typical colorful outfits and with a friendly smile trying to overcome the exhaustion, the next vice-president of Colombia sits down, takes off her shoes and starts her captivating oratory.
Gerardo Szalkowicz: What are the main challenges you will have as a government, the most urgent issues to solve?
Francia Márquez: If the road to get there was not easy at all, being a government will be much more difficult, especially because we are proposing structural transformations. The first challenge is to continue the efforts to achieve peace, recognizing that many territories, many communities, continue to live in the midst of armed conflict and violence. Peace means guarantees of rights and opportunities and, above all, a path towards national reconciliation. Second, the issue of social justice. We are one of the most unequal countries on the planet, so eradicating hunger must be a priority. And third, the environmental crisis, moving from the extractivist economy to a sustainable economy, putting nature at the center. It is a long-term project; 500 years of exclusion, marginalization, and more than 60 years of armed conflict cannot be transformed in four years. We are going to lay the foundations for structural transformations that go beyond a period of government.
GS: What is the significance of your arrival to political power?
FM: Our mere presence is already a break with political hegemony. This country has been governed by elite, privileged people who never believed that a woman like me could occupy this place. A Black woman, impoverished, racialized, victim of the armed conflict and who has resisted all the politics of death. This achievement is an accumulation of many struggles, of many people who died fighting, several generations who had to suffer violence. It is the continuity of a process that has been going on for more than 500 years. I am part of that history of resistance that began with my ancestors who were brought here under conditions of slavery.
GS: Bearing in mind where you come from and who you represent, what will be your role?
FM: My social struggle will continue. The vice presidency is not an end, it is a means, the end is to achieve peace, to achieve dignity, to put life at the center. My role will be to accompany, to close the inequality gaps experienced by the excluded sectors: women, young people, diverse communities, ethnic, Indigenous, Afro-descendant and racialized communities, the forgotten regions. I would also like to work on peace and environmental issues, because that is what I have done, all my life I have faced war and I have defended nature in the territories. I am a woman of social struggle, I am not an office woman, I hope to be with the people building from the regions, from the peripheries. The president has decided that I will accompany him in other tasks as well, such as the creation of the Ministry of Equality, which will seek to attend to these excluded sectors and territories, where the State has never been present.
GS: The change of era that Colombia is going through has awakened great expectations in Latin America. How do you see the scenario in the region and what initiatives should be promoted?
FM: Latin America is one of the most impoverished regions. The COVID crisis, which highlighted the inequalities, obliges us to work together in a common block to strengthen the region’s economy, without looking so much at the ideological leanings of each one. A social economy that dignifies people’s lives. Secondly, Latin America has 40% of the planet’s biodiversity, which calls us to assume together a project from the different governments to face the environmental crisis. And this requires a transition from an extractivist economy to a sustainable economy. Third: the issue of peace involves resolving the drug issue in Colombia and in the region. The legalization of the coca leaf and marijuana is a path that we should take together as a region. Bolivia has advanced a little, Uruguay too, but we need to advance as a region in a drug policy different from the criminal policy we have had, a policy that addresses consumption as a health problem and also generates an economy for the peasantry. And another important issue is racism. Latin America has 200 million Afro-descendant people, people who do not live in dignity, who have no guarantee of rights. After 213 years, I am the first Black woman vice-president of this country and the second in Latin America. There is a challenge in the face of structural racism: the full guarantee of the political participation of ethnic, Indigenous, and Black people.
GS: Colombia has always avoided Latin American integration processes, prioritizing subordination to the US. How will the relationship with the region and with the North be?
FM: We must maintain relations with all Latin American countries, including the US. We must maintain diplomatic relations of mutual respect. We cannot engage in confrontation. It is necessary to move forward in our relationship with the US especially in the face of the environmental crisis.
GS: In the last few years there has been a great advance of Latin American feminism, of women’s struggles and dissidence, and yourself as a political figure has awakened great enthusiasm. What can you contribute to them?
FM: The struggle of traditional feminism is from a Eurocentric vision, whereas we work from a perspective of community-based feminism, a Black feminism. The intersectionality of race, class and gender is very necessary. I went to Argentina when I was campaigning and the government did not engage with me at all, they looked at me like a freak. Racism is also very present in progressive and left forces.
GS: From that place of Black and community-based feminism, what message would you give to Latin American feminisms?
FM: It is not enough to be feminist if you are not anti-capitalist, if you are not anti-racist, if you are not anti-colonial. We have to build with real sisterhood, to build with men as well, because we alone are not going to overthrow machismo and patriarchy. If men do not rethink what their masculinity mandates, it will be difficult for us to move forward.
GS: In the campaign you raised the slogan of “vivir sabroso” (the delicious life), which the right wing manipulated and denigrated. What is the meaning of this concept?
FM: Everyone gives it the interpretation they want. For us, vivir sabroso means living without fear, walking calmly, generosity within our communities, solidarity, dignity. It is a commitment to life, to live in relationship with nature.
GS: Who are your points of reference and who are your inspirations?
FM: My grandmother, my mother, my sisters, the women of my community. On a global level, Aurora Vergara Figueroa, Angela Davis; in art and culture, Susana Baca, Nidia Gongora, Mercedes Sosa, Zully Murillo… all of them are great women.
GS: How would you define yourself politically-ideologically?
FM: I consider myself anti-capitalist, although I know that we have made use of capitalism and as humanity we have generated a dependence on this system. However, this does not mean that we do not question it: this system has led the planet to an economic, human and environmental crisis. It is up to us to rethink this model of development and life.
This article was first published at ALAI.