Colombia’s President Uribe: ‘I deplore that Senator Obama’
Current Political Landscape
In contemporary discourse regarding Latin America, Colombia is often characterized as a failed state mired by ruinous civil war and reflecting the pervasive influence of powerful drug-running paramilitaries. On the other hand, there are those who see the country as an enviable exemplar of democracy led by one of the most popular presidents of the region. The U.S. government, not surprisingly, is the indefatigable spokesperson for the latter interpretation. Comments by officials like former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicolas Burns, who stated in 2006 that ‘during the last five years, the Colombian people have produced the greatest success story in Latin America,’ are unfortunately, common.
Depictions such as these above do little to deepen people’s understanding of this problematic country and its significance in contemporary Latin America. As of late, this type of inflated rhetoric has obfuscated developments which are challenging the status quo in Colombia and could fundamentally alter the country’s so-called ‘special’ relationship with the U.S., as well as with some of its Latin American neighbors. As of now, a challenge is emanating from multiple sectors of society, but particularly from the politically progressive wing comprised of the excluded, the dispossessed, and the indigenous, who are increasingly exerting anti-government pressure in the public forum in an effort to make themselves heard.
Many Colombians seek change and more of them are demanding it in very concrete terms. The 2006 elections clearly demonstrated that many such dissidents were willing to work within the traditional institutions to realize these progressive demands. Now, with less than two years until the next elections, this opposition to president Alvaro Uribe’s policy consistently right-wing initiatives and the philosophical beliefs behind them is maturing. Will the 2010 elections usher in a new era for Colombia? An examination of Uribe’s new democratic opposition, its successes up to now, its prevailing vision, its weaknesses, and its potential to effect change in the country, taken together, may shed some light on the frequently misrepresented state of Colombia’s democracy, the role of the guerilla insurgency, and the social realities which bedevil a country that is far from being a vigorous democracy.
The 2006 Elections
In Colombia’s 2006 elections, president Alvaro Uribe won the presidency with just over 60 per cent of the national vote, with the parties that supported his bid entrenching themselves in both houses of the legislature. It was a major victory for him and his supporters, as well as a testament to his enormous popularity and an inspiration to Washington. Soon after he was elected he was praised by the Republicans in Washington as being one of the most popular leaders in Latin America. According to political analysts, he had won a competitive and fair election with the overwhelming support of the voters, based on the merit of his policy initiatives and their inherent successes.
The centerpiece of Uribe’s platform was the establishment of maximum security throughout the nation, but the strengthening of the economy was a close second, which he masterfully tied into the security issue. Without stability, he argued, Colombia would lack the proper business climate necessary to draw investment and continue to develop. Eloquently, lip service was accorded to social injustice. Uribe’s government claimed it would invest in the health and education sectors, as well as insisted it was working to bring about a more socially just society by fighting to establish a government monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. What the government was really committed to was personal security, which translated into a reduction in the number of kidnappings and the ability of people to travel along previously perilous roads. Performance in these areas would indicate his firm stance in dealing with the country’s rebel groups and his zero tolerance for the offensive postures taken by the leftist guerilla group, the FARC. Promises to expand the offensive against the ELN and the FARC with the massive help of $5 billion in U.S. funding ignited public expectations that peace through the annihilation of the rebels—read war—was a realistic possibility.
Contributing to Uribe’s victory were the predominantly conservative and Uribe worshipping Colombian press, the support of active as well as recently demobilized paramilitaries, an electoral abstention rate of more than 60 per cent of the electorate, the framing of the election as a forbidding choice between improving democratic security or capitulating to communist control of the country, and his knowledge of ‘how to appeal to a crowd, often to its lesser instincts,’ as the New York Times put it. There were reports of paramilitary forces terrorizing people in the barrios during the electoral period and an unprecedented number of spoiled votes, some of them encapsulating people’s fear and disillusionment with the pre-Uribe system in the form of insults: asesinos (assassins), ladrones (thieves), corruptos (you’re all corrupt). Days before the election, El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper, reported a prospective voter’s complaints of intimidation ‘We are all so scared. These things never happened here…but today we’re even afraid to be seen talking to the police.’
Uribe was also criticized, even by prominent moderates, for not stating declaratively that he did not wish to receive any kind of support from these armed groups. This came after scores of pro-Uribe legislators and other officials were indicted on conspiracy charges involving so-called demobilized paramilitaries. For example, El Tiempo quoted Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, former president of Colombia and head of the Liberal Party, as well as an ex-Secretary General of the OAS, as stating ‘During the campaign I asked him [Uribe] to declare that he did not want any support from sectors linked to paramilitary activities. I said it many times. Unfortunately, I failed to get an answer…the President should have said explicitly that he did not want paramilitary support.’
The Success of the Polo Democratico
Although Uribe went on to win the elections by a wide margin, his most vigorous opposition party critics, the Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA), doubled the votes of the traditionally powerful Liberal Party in the presidential race (who had the 3rd most votes) and situated itself as a potentially potent political force. Although the PDA won only 22 per cent of the national vote for president, it did surprisingly well in the lower house as well as the senate and is now one of the most important parties in the country along with the Conservatives and Liberals. Most importantly, the PDA appears to be gaining momentum as the traditional dominance of the Liberal and Conservative parties is waning. It is indeed revealing that three of the Polo’s eleven senators were among the top ten vote getters of candidates throughout the country. Additionally, Gustavo Petro, known for his fearless investigations and exposures of paramilitary ties to the government, attracted the second-highest number of individual votes in the election.
In Bogotá, the country’s capital, PDA mayoral candidate Samuel Moreno tallied over 900,000 votes, handily defeating the Uribista candidate Enrique Peñalosa by more than 300,000 votes. The party also situated itself as the largest single bloc in Bogotá’s legislative assembly. Although its candidates met with some success in the capital and local representatives were elected in various areas of the country, the PDA hasn’t been able to establish strong bases of support in many crucial areas. For example, in Medellín and Cali, two of Colombia’s most important cities, local voters had no choice but to support independents against the Uribista candidates. While the roots of PDA support were nowhere near as extensive and deep as would have been needed to challenge the Uribe coalition, it made major inroads by being fortunate enough to have their most popular candidates score very well in the balloting, becoming better known across the country, and by hardening its reputation with the average Colombian as being the only tenable opposition party that refuses to engage in typical electoral related corruption. As Transport and General Workers (T&G) Union organizer Paul Haste noted in 2007 ‘In the recent local elections, it was common to see people paid by these parties to distribute leaflets and even attend meetings, while the Polo Democratico could count on its massive activists’ bases-some 500,000 members-whose work on the campaign did not need to be paid for, but was instead voluntary, committed and engaged.’
What’s happened since 2006?
Colombia has been a very polarized society throughout much of the country’s modern history, but the PDA is also, by necessity, a movement that is forced to react against many of the new policy initiatives Uribe is now implementing, as well as those from the recent past which he continues to build upon. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to briefly discuss some of the most important policies Uribe has engaged in and assess some of the most cogent criticisms that have been levied against them, because these critical sentiments held by segments of the population, are some of the factors behind the PDA’s burgeoning popularity.
Since Uribe has been installed in office, his approach to the country’s problems has largely revolved around the use of military force, counter-narcotics operations, and an emphasis on the full military spectrum of US-Colombia relations. The distinction between these has blurred significantly and their conflation has produced the country’s ‘war on terror,’ with all of its concomitant vagaries. Overarching policy initiatives such as Plan Colombia and Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy are some of the clearest and most visible manifestations of this. Uribe’s intense emphasis on waging an all-out crusade against terrorism as a means to help Colombia ‘progress,’ has led some commentators to praise him for the increased security to be found in urban areas and to celebrate the nuetralization of ‘terrorist’ leaders such as of FARC’s Raul Reyes, who was killed in a hotly debated Colombian cross-border raid into Ecuador.
On the other hand, many have criticized Uribe for using terrorism as a justification for expanding the power of the executive while manifesting his contempt for the other branches of government (particularly the judiciary), for generally ignoring the negative consequences of his seldom qualified arrogance, and for spending prodigious amounts of energy and funds on failed approaches which are seen as ignoring desperate domestic situations, such as the grave problem of 4 million internal refugees, his egregious scorn for human rights activists, and his quick dismissal of even the most prudent objections to the pending free trade pact with the U.S.. As Colombia specialist and international affairs professor Christina Rojas has noted, ‘the political program followed by Uribe has as its main goal the reduction of political institutions’ ability to control the discretion of the president over national security and economic policy.’ Many point out that after years of anti-drug efforts built into Plan Colombia, narcotic prices have remained relatively stable, which demonstrates an inability to curtail supply. Critics contend that the current approach makes no financial sense whatsoever, and point to plentiful evidence, such as a RAND corporation study, which came to the conclusion that domestic prevention and treatment would be 27 times more cost effective than anti-drug operations in foreign countries.
Another one of the most commonly perceived problems with Uribe’s policies is that too much of Colombia’s resources are being spent fighting a U.S. subsidized war that is more than a half century old and exacerbates the conditions of the 20 million Colombian’s who are suffering from hunger, increased human rights abuses, lack of access to healthcare, accelerated environmental degradation, increased inequality, and a deeply flawed educational system. As Julia Sweig Director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out ‘A purely military approach to the crisis…will not resolve the country’s deep-seated structural flaws, any more than it has in the past.’
Uribe’s Policies stoking his Opposition
Ironically, this increasingly militarized approach undertaken by the Uribe government to fight its ‘war on terror’ has boosted support for his democratic opposition, which has not shied away from criticizing it on any number of fronts. As PDA senator Jorge Robledo has contended, Plan Colombia is not just about the war on drugs either, it includes the economic and political realms as well. ‘Everything happening in Colombia has to do one way or another with Washington. We’re in the orbit of the empire, by way of Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia of 2000 did more than just impose a way of managing ‘narcotrafficking’. There were also 20 pages of small type in the Plan that detailed the reorganization of Colombia’s economy.’
Uribe has also attempted to dichotomize the population in a manner similar to what Bush has done in the United States. This is evident in his speeches, as well as on billboards throughout Colombia, stating ‘either you’re with Colombia or you’re with the terrorists.’ The ramifications of this divisive strategy have generated both a sense of division and unity among the country’s social movements. These include largely impoverished indigenous and afro-Colombiano populations, as well as journalists and trade unionists, who have faced increasing degrees of repression when they have the temerity to oppose the government’s policies, especially its neoliberal economic strategies. Recently, for example, approximately 10,000 protesting indigenous commenced a 62 mile-march to Cali to publicize the oppression they faced, including a lack of land. They claimed that at least 1,200 members of their communities had been brutally killed since Uribe became president in 2002 and demanded that they receive land which must be protected from the depredations of multinational companies. As a consequence, their march invited the wrath of the state’s upgraded security forces, leaving at least one dead and many wounded.
Contributing to the hostility that has been earned by Uribe within the country is the manner in which he addresses those who have confronted his administration with evidence of large scale human rights abuses resulting from his heavy handed approach to Colombia’s social problems, perpetrated by the military as well as shadowy paramilitaries thought to have connections to the government, or by the police who have been given freer rein to use controversial tactics. As Adam Sacson cited in the Brown Journal of World Affairs, Uribe has referred to some human rights groups as being ‘spokesmen for terrorism’ and challenged them to ‘take off their masks…and drop this cowardice of hiding their ideas behind human rights.’ These remarks were particularly incendiary because they took place in a country in which tens of thousands of innocent Colombians have been murdered by the military, death squads, and right-wing vigilante groups. Shortly after Uribe had been elected in 2002, bodies such as the UN High Commission for Human Rights were alleging that some of the country’s human rights violations ‘were committed pursuant to the new government’s security policy.’ As of now, Uribe’s vision for how to create a stable and prosperous Colombia has not fundamentally changed, with the antipathetic consequences of this vision becoming increasingly visible.
The New Opposition: Who They Are and What They Stand For
The PDA represents a new coalition of parties whose spectrum goes from the center-left to the communist and ex-guerrilla left. The coalition brought together disparate opposition parties such as the Social and Political Front (FSP), the Democratic Alternative (AD), the Partido Democratico Independiente (PDI), the Partido Comunista Colombiano (PCC), as well asorganized workers within the Confederacion Unitaria de Trabajadores union confederation (CUT). While the range of revolutionary fervor among these parties varies rather significantly, all of them know that if they can overcome their historical sectarianism they will become a force with which to be reckoned. This has inspired them to ignore their differences and unite underneath the banner of the PDA, in hopes of leaving their former political impotence behind them by creating a new political force to operate in Colombia.
Milton Hernandez, the international relations coordinator of the ELN (one of Colombia’s guerilla groups), explained that they had decided to participate in the 2006 elections with the PDA because ‘a historic opportunity exists in Colombia to have for the first time a government that is democratic in character, a government of political transition, between the state and the guerillas, which does not correspond to the neoliberal model nor with the fascist model of the State Department’. What has become ‘possible on the basis of a grand unity of will of the patriotic and left sectors’ is the integration of the left’s effective political voice in Colombia today. The ELN is not the only ex-guerilla group that has joined the PDA either; other former revolutionary groups such as the M-19 guerillas are represented by popular Senators such as Gustavo Petro and Antonio Navarro Wolff. However, in many cases, the ex-guerillas are far less subversive minded and much more pragmatic at this point, occasionally to the detriment of their overall popularity. This was the case when Antonio Navarro Wolff, a self-proclaimed ‘center-leftist’ activist lost the PDA primaries in the 2006 elections to Carlos Gaviria, who made a point to distinguish himself as a ‘leftist.’ Perhaps the large number of the people who voted for Gaviria in his bid for the presidency would agree with what he has said since; ‘I don’t know what the center is…in a polarized Colombia, the center shamelessly flirts with the right.’ While the PDA has far to go, the success it has encountered so far in terms of coherently organizing what PDA Senator Jorge Robledo claims amounts to ‘99% of the democratic left in Colombia,’ has been recognized as being a formidable political entity. This may be why El Tiempo has referred to the PDA as a ‘credible option with the possibility to take power.’
The PDA is very clear about what it stands for, just as it is clear about what it is against. One of the central things the party opposes is the concept of free trade, especially with the U.S., because this was being linked to some of the country’s most pressing problems: paramilitary violence, state violence, respect for worker’s rights, the health of the environment, horrendous levels of inequality, and the violation of the population’s right to a decent life. The PDA is also against the pending FTA because of Colombia’s unique circumstances. As Leonard Martin of Trade Justice New York put it, ‘Since the Colombian bourgeoisie is now so linked to foreign capital it forms a reduced segment of the movement’ to proselytize for the FTA in comparison to similar pro-business movements in other Latin American countries. ‘The debate over the Colombia-U.S. FTA is chiefly a battle between the right and the left; or more fundamentally, a battle between rich and poor.’ However, what the PDA presently represents goes far beyond its strong opposition to free trade. In its ‘Ideology of Unity,’ which has been summarized and which anyone can access on its website at ( http://www.polodemocratico.net/), the PDA lays out what it stands for by giving an overview of the party’s position on some of Colombia’s most significant issues.
An Ideology of Unity
1. The PDA stands for Colombia’s national sovereignty and wishes to pursue the ideal of Latin American integration for a more unified and visionary future. To this end, it rejects neoliberal inspired globalization and its manifestation in NAFTA and the FTAA. The party also rejects the imposition of foreign and at times inhospitable institutions such as the WB, IMF and WTO.
2. Polo advocates a political system which respects and which hopes to enshrine its citizens political economic, social, and cultural rights; as well as the right to protest, organize, and strike. They especially want to help the underprivileged to obtain their rights, many of which were engrossed in the 1991 constitution.
3. Polo hopes to create an economy which guarantees economic growth that is democratized and environmentally and culturally sustainable. To this end, the government will play a regulatory role overseeing the economy through the rational utilization of public revenue and taxes, protectionism, land-reform, and the ability to regulate basic public services and strategic sectors. Polo would like to see the country obtain food sovereignty and become much more self-sufficient in general. As PDA Senator Jorge Robledo has explained, the party’s membership doesn’t believe that free trade will allow the country to achieve these goals. ‘The free trade agreement is not to integrate the economies of Colombia and the US, but to annex Colombia’s economy to US monopolies and multinationals. This is easy to demonstrate. It is the same model that the US imposes on all countries…It has practically ruined our agriculture and industry. It is responsible for much of the barbarity, corruption, and horror we have experienced. It is responsible for the deterioration of labor rights, the environment, poverty, and unemployment, for the past 17 years since the economy’s ‘opening’ in 1990.’
4. Similarly to what Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa have done in Venezuela and Ecuador, a PDA government would seek to expand social, economic, cultural, and environmental rights. Included in this scenario would be an effort to end racism and discrimination of any kind, increase worker’s wages and salaries, consider biodiversity a public good and protect it from the voracious global economy, and extend healthcare and education to all Colombians.
5. The party wants to bring peace, justice and security to Colombia. Its members believe that the solution to the internal armed conflict in Colombia must be political and not military. The leadership believes a cease-fire could help foster conditions to restore credibility to the dialogue. Its members will pursue a policy calling for the complete disarmament and dismantling of the paramilitaries, including their financial support networks, criminal activities, political pressure, blackmail, and de facto control over various territories. Along these lines, Polo will define a legal framework for a truth and justice process to begin in order to recover the historical truth concerning the decades of violence, claiming that impunity should not be allowed. Polo rejects all forms of terror, including state terrorism.
A Polo administration will dismantle the repressive and undemocratic elements of the so-called ‘democratic security’ apparatus and will respect international humanitarian law. As PDA Senator Gustavo Petro has described in more detail, its strategy for dealing with the FARC and other insurgents ‘is that this cannot be resolved by spreading the war as Alvaro Uribe has proposed with the support of President Bush…but neither through endless or permanent negotiations that haven’t gone anywhere in terms of diminishing the conflict, kidnapping, or violence. We believe more in the thesis of democratic asphyxiation of the conflict. That is to say, if violence in Colombia in all of its forms has as its ultimate source social inequality, then we need a government that would take specific measures on a day-to-day basis to resolve those grave levels of social inequality in the country, a government that would bring about the democratic forms that are essential.’ The PDA believes what popular historian Forrest Hylton has argued, ‘To blame the bulk of the country’s problems on the insurgency…is to put the cart before the horse. It overlooks the fact that throughout modern history, state terror has provided the ‘oxygen’ without which insurgent terror ‘cannot combust for long.’’
6. National Drug Policy: Polo’s policy against drug abuse and trafficking is aimed at stopping the spraying, developing alternatives for the communities involved, and the ending of pursuing criminal charges against small producers. Colombia will also convene an international conference to assess the effectiveness of drug policies in the world over the last 20 years and explore possible alternatives.
The PDA concludes its vision for a new Colombia by stating that within the overall framework described, it supports and encourages protests by the citizenry, popular mobilizations, civil strife, and various expressions of resistance and discontent against the policies imposed by international capitalism and, at present, against the government of Alvaro Uribe and his re-election strategy. It proposes a process of convergence and unity of all the popular sectors in order to build an alternative force to remove Colombia from the deep and lengthy crisis in which it finds itself, and move towards justice, so that pride and the makings of a good society can be returned to the Colombia people.
2010: Could Colombia go Left?
There are a number of factors must be considered in order to put the current situation in a proper perspective and to understand the PDA’s potential in the 2010 elections. Among these variables are whether or not Uribe will run again for re-election, the vulnerability of his often praised popularity, how the U.S. could influence the situation for better or worse, what role domestic party configurations will play, and the potential for fragmentation within the PDA.
At this point it is unclear whether Uribe will run again. If Uribe’s candidate of choice had won the mayoral race in Bogotá, the chances may have been higher that he would run for re-election, but since this was not the case, what will happen is still uncertain. By running as an independent in 2002 and interrupting the 150-year dominance of Colombia’s Liberal and Conservative parties, Uribe created a degree of disarray that makes it difficult to predict what will occur in the 2010 elections. The Conservatives, who seem desperate to regain their party’s independence, have stated that they plan to run their own candidate even if Uribe chooses to run again. The Liberals, who in the past had been so powerful they successfully fielded 6 of the last 8 presidents before Uribe was elected, seem as if they will ally themselves with whomever appears to have the best chance of winning. This early on it is difficult to tell what will happen with either of the traditional parties. However, it is clear that what they choose to do will profoundly affect Uribe if he runs again, because his support is scattered throughout 6 or so parties that would have to adjust to dynamic new circumstances. Regardless of whether he will run again, his current popularity is vitally important to the outcome of the 2010 elections because in an increasingly polarized country, less support for Uribe’s policies could easily translate into support for the emerging left, represented by the PDA.
The Reality of Uribe’s Popularity
Although Uribe undoubtedly has a strong base of support within Colombia, his popularity could be overstated. To begin with, Uribe was re-elected in 2006 by only about a quarter of the voting population. This is partially due to the fact that the country has no mandatory voting laws, like some other countries in South America, which contributes to the voter apathy brought about by an exclusionary state apparatus seen as mainly representing the wealthy. The PDA acts as if it recognizes how numerically shallow Uribe’s popularity actually is, and will undoubtedly pursue what you could refer to be a ‘chavista-like strategy’ to acquire votes from eligible voters, previously unconcerned with elections. Fortunately, Polo already had begun pursuing this strategy in 2006, so rather than starting from scratch, the PDA will be building on what it already has begun. As union organizer Paul Haste argued at the time of the last elections, ‘contrary to the localized caudillo bosses, the Polo is a national party that organizes all over Colombia: in barrios that no traditional politician visits and among workers whose unions offer it their unequivocal support.’
Along these lines, Uribe’s popularity could also be artificially registered at a level higher level than actually may be the case because of the way in which polls are carried out. Most, if not all, of Colombia’s polls are tabulated over the internet or by landline phones, while in 2007 only 8 million in a country of 45 million people had landline phone lines, much less a computer. They typically carried out in the most populous urban centers, rather than rural areas where poverty runs as high 85 per cent of the population. The bias of these polls was demonstrated during the 2006 elections in urban areas. For example, in Bogotá some polls under-rated the PDA vote by an astonishing 10 points.
Regarding the possible fragility of Uribe’s popularity, it appears that due to his handling of the insurgency, his anti-drug policies, his lax approach to the paramilitaries, charges of corruption and economic issues such as high unemployment, it should not be taken for granted that it will remain as high in the future as it has in the last few years. One of the reasons this may be the case is that scandals continue to surface which link the current administration to the country’s paramilitary groups, who are known for taking payments from multinationals like Chiquita, slaughtering scores of people with chainsaws, torturing and dismembering their victims, and even killing children.
Since the 2006 elections almost 50 senators and congressman associated with Uribe’s far-right coalition have been exposed by the country’s attorney general for having links to the paramilitaries and who later resigned or been ousted from office. It has also become increasingly clear to Colombians both domestically and within the international community, that the Uribe government is not only disinterested in restraining the rise of the paramilitaries, but actually has undermined attempts to do so. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) cautiously observed upon the release of a damning report in October of 2008 of Bogotá’s policies, ‘The government of President Uribe, in our opinion, has become an obstacle for the advancement of justice.’ The HRW report states that within the last 15 months, at least nine prosecutors or investigators working on paramilitary cases (most of whom have received specialized training from the United States) have been fired and 15 others have been forced to resign. Furthermore, at least five prosecutors and investigators looking at ties between the paramilitary groups and Colombian military units have been killed in their search to uncover the truth.
Continued exposés such as these could potentially undermine the Uribe administration which has constantly claimed it was focusing on prosecuting the paramilitaries as much as the country’s leftist insurgents. However, it is not at all clear that the popular will of Colombia’s people will be as decisive a factor in the country’s future as one might like to think. There are numerous scenarios which could inflict an insurmountable handicap on even a popular party, such as the annihilation by means of assassinations of its candidates, as occurred with the Patriotic Union (UP) in the 80’s.
Constant scandals and Uribe’s perceived lack of fundamental respect for democratic institutions could also take a toll on his popularity. Recently, the head of the government’s intelligence agency resigned after admitting that the Administrative Security Department (DAS) had been spying on Senator Gustavo Petro and other leaders of the PDA. This comes just three years after Jorge Noguera, then head of the DAS, was appointed by Uribe to be Colombia’s consul in Milan amid accusations he had provided paramilitary groups with the names of labor and human rights leaders that was later used as a hit list. In April 2008 Uribe was also accused of bribing a number of members of congress to back Uribe’s re-election in the 2006 elections. It is too soon to know the ultimate effect that these types of scandals will have on the president’s long-term popularity. New, even more accusations could still surface between now and the next elections, but even if they didn’t, what is already known could be severely threatening to the reputation of the right. More people might begin to agree with Ramiro Bejarano, former head of the DAS, who stated the case bluntly, ‘President Uribe has made Colombian society one that is professing a culture of paramilitarism… In Colombia, we are headed toward a mafia state.’
The 2010 elections in Colombia could also be influenced by how they would affect relations with the United States. As of this writing, the presidential elections in the U.S. are about to take place, but already it seems more than likely that Obama will emerge victorious. Uribe, who has been quoted as stating ‘I deplore that Senator Obama,’ would not be happy about this development. [Obama has not been a supporter of instituting a free trade agreement with Colombia.] Obama has stated publicly that the violence in Colombia against labor union members would ‘make a mockery of the very labor protections we have insisted be included in these types of agreements.’ If the FTA goes down, since Uribe, and more broadly Colombia’s right, have associated themselves so closely with the free trade agreement this could detract from Uribe’s support if he ran again, making it more likely the country’s financial elite would back a different candidate if need be. Potentially this would benefit the PDA and help its candidates to be elected, since an Obama presidency would surely mean a more hostile Washington. However, even this type of speculation could be meaningless, because geo-political strategizing often trumps an American leader’s personal preferences and as US-Colombian analyst Forrest Hylton has noted ‘After Venezuela and Mexico, Colombia has the third largest source of Latin America oil for the US-(3% in 2006 of US consumption)-even though most of the country’s oil resources have remained uncharted so far…We might add that contrary to popular misconceptions, the US imports more oil for its domestic consumption from Latin America than the Middle East. Colombia also shares with Venezuela and Ecuador the Venezuelan-Orinoco belt which is widely suspected of having perhaps the largest pool of hydrocarbons in the world. Thus, the future of US-Colombia relations are of rising importance to the US’
An Opposition Party of Unity?
The last major factor worth examining and which is of great importance is whether the PDA will remain in-tact. In June of 2008, Garry Leech reported in the Colombia Journal that during a recently held PDA meeting ‘the gathering turned explosive as moderate members—mostly those situated between the center and the center-left—advocated forming a new party. This faction included Lucho Garzon, current Bogotá mayor Samuel Moreno, Angelino Garzon, and Maria Ema Majia. Evidently, the new party would form an alliance with the Liberal Party for the 2010 presidential elections with Lucho Garzon as the proposed candidate.’ The supposed reason for this, according to one PDA member present, was that ‘the breakaway party does not want to include in its ranks current members of the Polo who belong to the Communist Party, the Colombian Communist Youth or those who are former guerillas.’ Indeed, the fact that tensions have existed within the Polo has been known for some time. Lucho Garzon for example, has made comments calling his dedication to the PDA into question and has openly complained that ‘With any divergent opinion I have they make me start saying mass in Latin.’ Comments made by influential PDA leader Carlos Gaviria illustrate the possibility of fragmentation, ‘I think Lucho has a dilemma, he doesn’t know if he should play inside the Polo or outside of it. He is trying to figure out which one would be more convenient for him. It seems like he doesn’t have a political project, just a purpose to get power.’ If the PDA does turn out to split, although a centrist breakaway party allied with the Liberal Party would have a chance of winning, the prospects for the type of substantial progressive change, currently offered by the PDA, as now constituted, would be lost.
In Colombia’s 2006 elections, Uribe faced a new opposition coalition calling itself the Polo Democratico Alternativo. The coalition had managed to unify almost all of the country’s left, and although it lost the election by a rather large margin, some of their candidates were among the country’s most popular. They also managed to cultivate a growing base of support dispersed throughout the country by developing a reputation for honesty, campaigning to the country’s poor, and presenting a radically alternative vision for Colombia’s future. The PDA is trying to instigate change in the country that the left has called for over a century. It has reacted very negatively to neoliberal economic policies, U.S. imperialism, and a highly militarized approach to the country’s problems, all of which Uribe has supported. After shedding some light on what the PDA was reacting against, this paper went on to describe who Polo was and what it stood for. The make-up of the coalition was also discussed as was their ‘Ideology of Unity,’ which was composed of their policy prescriptions for the country. Then the discourse was opened whether there was a possibility the PDA could be voted into power in 2010. Here was detailed the most worthy factors to take into consideration and the conclusion was made that if the PDA managed to avoid extermination, evade fragmentation into two or more parties, and managed to motivate enough of the millions of poor and previously politically uninvolved Colombians to vote its list, it had a chance. If in fact the PDA is able to grasp this historical opportunity and radically alter the country’s current approach to its problems, this would represent a major ideological victory for Latin America’s new left. However, challenges along such a road will be great and it is still too early to know if Polo will remain a party with the necessary coherence and dedication to overcome the forbidding obstacle that awaits it peregrination.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Orion Cruz
October 30th, 2008