By Oliver Griffin
SUAREZ, Colombia (Reuters) – Former neighbors and colleagues in Colombia’s largely marginalized Cauca province hope vice presidential candidate Francia Marquez, a single mother and former housekeeper, will help areas plagued by violence and poverty if her ticket wins the election on Sunday.
But it is unclear how much freedom Marquez, 40, would have to carry out her pledges to improve women’s rights and help the poor access health and education if she and presidential hopeful Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla and current senator, are victorious.
The position of vice president is nebulous in Colombia – presidents are free to assign ministries or other specialties to their second-in-command – and Petro is known as a stubborn manager, repeatedly clashing with officials when he was Bogota’s mayor.
Petro and Marquez are neck and neck in polls with surprise rivals Rodolfo Hernandez and his vice presidential candidate Marelen Castillo, who have promised to shrink government.
University official Castillo is, like Marquez, Afro-Colombian. No matter who wins on Sunday, it will be the first time a Black woman will serve as Colombia’s vice president.
Marquez is a celebrated environmental activist whose opposition to gold mining in her home municipality of Suarez saw her receive the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2018 – as well as death threats from illegal armed groups.
Marquez, who has never held elected office, is slated to lead a new equality ministry if she and Petro win.
If Petro reneges on plans to give Marquez a policymaking role or micro-manages her decisions, the two may clash once in office, Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Andes director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, told Reuters.
“He has always put what he thinks is most important, or his idea of what things should be, before really getting a full consensus with others,” Sanchez-Garzoli said, adding that Petro and Marquez will “butt heads” if he sidelines her.
Marquez, who came second to Petro in their coalition’s March primary with 783,000 votes, has significant support on her own merits, Sanchez-Garzoli said, tallying more ballots than the winner of the centrist primary.
She could also be of crucial help for economic development, Daniela Cuellar of FTI Consulting said, liaising between often-skeptical local people and major companies.
“This could help companies identify and work on issues of common interest with the communities,” Cuellar said.
A DAUGHTER OF SUAREZ
Residents of Suarez – adorned with colorful murals of Marquez – and neighboring Buenos Aires told Reuters her surprise shot at the vice presidency is a unique opportunity for marginalized regions like theirs.
Over 80% of people in Cauca – home to several armed groups, such as FARC guerrilla dissidents who reject a 2016 peace deal, illegal mining and coca production – live in some form of poverty.
Locals want her to shore up land rights and address inequality.
“I’m very happy,” said Gonzalo Ararat, 79, a farmer who was displaced by violence amid Colombia’s internal armed conflict in his youth and has known Marquez for more than 20 years.
Ararat proudly showed off a magazine from 2010 with a column written by Marquez laying out her plans to study law to defend her community from threats to their land, which he had taped together with her present-day campaign materials.
Local councillor Sandra Patricia Ibarra, 47, told Reuters she likes Marquez because she had risked her life to defend their home, despite dozens of killings of environmentalists each year in Colombia.
“Francia is a daughter of Suarez,” Ibarra said.
If she wins, Marquez is expected to push implementation of a recent Supreme Court ruling decriminalizing abortion, while keeping a special focus on access to the procedure for indigenous, Afro-Colombian and rural women.
“Being a woman in Colombia is not the same (…) if you are indigenous or of Afro descent,” said Ana Cristina Gonzalez of Causa Justa, a coalition of more than 90 pro-choice groups.
Afro-Colombian women activists from Buenos Aires, erstwhile colleagues of Marquez, said her plans to support poor areas and defend Afro-Colombian rights will face many obstacles.
But her presence in the halls of power would mark a profound change.
“Our land has not been properly cared for by the Colombian state, by Colombian governments, because it seems all they care about is looting the resources it holds,” said Clemencia Carabali, 51, a member of Afro-Colombian women’s group ASOM.
Carabali – flanked by government bodyguards provided because of death threats over her activism – described Marquez, a friend of 25 years, as a sister.
“As a woman I feel very proud of the work that she has been doing.”
(Reporting by Oliver Griffin; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Alistair Bell)