Colombia's elections: the regional exception

About the author
Ana Carrigan is author of The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy. Her reports from Colombia have appeared in various papers including the New York Times.

They were dancing in the streets in Chile on 15 January 2006, the night that Michelle Bachelet's election as president was confirmed. For Chileans, Bachelet's triumph felt like a cultural and spiritual homecoming, almost another velvet revolution, seen through a Latin prism. But in neighbouring Colombia, where the parliamentary elections on 12 March take place in a political arena that is bloodstained and mired in sleaze, the scenes of exuberance exploding off the television screens in Bogotá could have come from another planet.

Dramatic changes are sweeping across the Latin American continent. Ever since Luis Inácio Lula de Silva led the way in Brazil's presidential elections of October 2002, countries as demographically and culturally different as Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile, and Uruguay have all elected left-of-centre governments. Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua and Ecuador may also follow suit when they go to the polls later in 2006. Apart from Venezuela, none of these countries are particularly radical, but they all share a common experience: for the past twenty years no Latin country has been spared the painful consequence of Washington's neo-liberal economic policies, namely the most accelerated concentration of wealth and the greatest expansion of poverty and inequality since the 1930s.

Ultimately, this crisis of social injustice galvanised new political forces, led by a new kind of Latin leader. Brazil's Lula, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez were all born poor; Lula, Bachelet and Uruguayan leader Tabaré Vázquez were all persecuted for their opposition to military dictatorships. Now they are in power with a mandate to free their countries from the dictates of the International Monetary Fund just when China is knocking on the door with a shopping list in one hand and a chequebook in the other. At long last it is possible to imagine how an emancipated Latin America, freed from the overpowering colonialism of the north might begin to develop.

Colombia too is preparing to hold elections. The concentration of wealth and the statistics of poverty are even more extreme in Colombia than among its neighbours. The World Bank reported recently that the gap between rich and poor in Colombia is exactly as it was in 1938. But although they have powerful motives to be inspired by recent developments beyond their borders, Colombians also have demons of their own to cope with.

The politics of homicide

When the historian Eric Hobsbawm visited Colombia in 1963, he wrote that he had discovered a country where the avoidance of a social revolution had made violence the constant, universal, and omnipresent centre of public life. Hobsbawm's visit predated the birth of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc) guerrillas by a year; since then, a fratricidal war has blocked and distorted the development of rational, modern politics.

The leftwing violence of the guerrillas, which has terrorised the middle and upper classes, and driven them to seek refuge with an even more violent extreme right, has also co-opted all the space that a non-violent democratic left needs to develop. The violence of the extreme right, meanwhile, has systematically eliminated successive generations of leaders of the non-violent left.

Also on Colombian politics on openDemocracy:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (November 2005)

Only those Colombians who have lived inside this history, who have trekked to the serial funerals to bury their friends and colleagues, understand it. They know how it functions and they have learnt to keep silent. Especially now, when the present government has recruited a network of a million or more informants to report "evidence" of suspicious views and behaviour to the nearest army barracks. Only occasionally, in a rare unguarded moment between friends, a visitor who suggests that a specific candidate in the coming presidential elections might have the potential to unseat the incumbent will be told: "Please don't say that. The worst thing that could happen to "X" would be to do well in the polls. They will kill him."

This reliance on the politics of homicide to perpetuate a failed status quo is Colombia's version of the military dictatorships that used to erupt periodically around the region. But whereas in other countries where the generals seized power to impose their versions of "order", such violent ruptures of the constitutional norms were eventually discredited and rejected, Colombia's dirty war – protected by a 90% impunity rate for political murder and the silent, collective complicity of a frightened society – operates virtually unchallenged and unacknowledged.

The war is waged secretly against journalists, community leaders, human-rights defenders, trade-union leaders, progressive politicians, honest members of the judiciary, and anyone perceived to be a threat to the perpetuation of the power of criminal elements within the political establishment. This clandestine campaign is the reason why Colombia's democratic left has never reached power. It also explains why Colombia's chances of following the current trend across its borders are fairly remote.

For the past four years, Colombian politics have been dominated by the personality of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a tough, rightwing authoritarian, and a ruthless and brilliant campaigner with an unparalleled mastery of the media. Uribe came to power in 2002, at a moment of greater than usual turmoil, with a mandate to restore order and security and crush the guerrillas. He also had an agenda that the country only found out about later, to demobilise and grant political status to the right wing, drug trafficking paramilitaries.

The Pentagon was happy to give Uribe, a friend and unconditional ally of George Bush, everything he wanted for the war on the Farc: the weapons systems, the intelligence, the trainers and advisors, the helicopters, the dollars to add another 100,000 recruits to the army's payroll. The guerrillas retreated, away from the towns and villages where they had been causing havoc, back to the mountains. Kidnapping dropped precipitously; so did attacks on infrastructure; the police returned to the small towns and villages; suddenly the main roads were safe again, and Uribe captured the fanatical loyalty of Colombia's middle and upper classes as no other Colombian leader has done since the end of the second world war.

In October 2005, Uribe twisted enough arms and dispensed sufficient presidential largesse to convince a majority of the Colombian congress to see the future his way. With the enthusiastic support of the American ambassador, the establishment media, and a submissive judiciary, the legislators duly amended the constitution to permit him to run for a second term. These elections will be the first in over fifty years with an incumbent president running for re-election.

A democracy under pressure

In Bogota, on the morning after Michelle Bachelet's victory, Roberto Pombo, editor-in-chief of El Tiempo, interrupted an interview on Caracol radio's morning show. The interviewer wanted to talk about a story El Tiempo had run at the weekend that identified the names of several congressional candidates supporting President Uribe's re-election bid who were allegedly linked to drug trafficking paramilitaries. "Please don't ask me any questions about that", Pombo said, "I already have two journalists who have been threatened and the attorney-general's office tells me the threats are serious."

Threats or no threats, El Tiempo's story had lifted the lid off the Pandora's box where all the dark stories of the frightening expansion of paramilitary political power on Uribe's watch were stored. By midweek, the furore was such that the chiefs of the two main Uribista parties held a hurried press conference to announce the expulsion from their lists of the five senators and congressmen whose names had been published in El Tiempo.

Also on openDemocrcay about Latin America's swing to the left:

Justin Vogler, "Michelle Bachelet's triumph" (January 2006)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (July 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, "Michelle Bachelet: Chile's next president? " (December 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era" (January 2006)

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One week later, President Uribe's cousin, Mario Uribe, chief of the third largest Uribista grouping, Colombia Democratica, reluctantly removed two young congresswomen from his list because of their support for two senior paramilitary commanders wanted in extradition for drug trafficking by American courts. The young women refused to go silently. They summoned the press to denounce American meddling. Mario Uribe, they said, had thrown them out of the party because the American embassy had threatened to revoke his visa. Complete with tears, accusations of presidential desertion, and headlines that read: "My mistake was to fall in love with Uribe", this second, mini-purge in the Uribista lists played out like a soap opera, more than a serious attempt to cleanse the congressional lists of criminals and their influence.

And indeed, within days, all the evicted candidates had been recycled onto the lists of other, smaller Uribista parties, and were presumably headed back to their old congressional seats. Pandora's box was, at least temporarily, closed again.

Nevertheless, the events of those two weeks in January raised many questions, not least about the American role. What took the United States so long to react? Why provoke a crisis that was too little and came too late to be effective?

Myles Frechette was President Clinton's ambassador to Colombia. Horrified by the paramilitary demobilisation process ("an abomination"), fearful that the current elections will result "in a congress full of crooks", he is extremely critical of his own government for tolerating the encroachment of the Colombian mafia inside the core institutions of the Colombian state for four years. Why did they not react? Because, he says, "President Bush likes President Uribe, and Bush is a loyal guy. Uribe is the most effective Colombian head of state since the second world war, and the most faithful ally in the war on drugs."

Washington's current team making United States policy in Latin America has forgotten that democracy depends on the rule of law, which never has existed in Colombia. In their delight with Uribe, and their dislike for Hugo Chávez, it praises Uribe on the same grounds it accuses Chávez. "If it is wrong for Chávez to pack the congress and the judiciary with his friends and supporters", Frechette asks, "then what about Uribe?"

The Colombian opposition has denounced the presence of paramilitaries in congress ever since, after the May 2002 elections, a leading paramilitary commander boasted to the press that the paramilitaries now controlled 35% of congress. It held congressional debates; issued requests for investigations to the supreme court and the attorney-general's office; on a September weekend in 2004, every national print media outlet published an extraordinary coordinated reportage on the extent of the paramilitarisation of the country; this journalistic onslaught included maps, names, and methods used by the paramilitaries to infiltrate local governments, take over town halls and state houses, and gain control of entire regions.

Yet every effort to raise the alarm dropped into a bottomless void. No one, not a single government or judicial official whose duty it was to investigate the accusations that assassins and mafiosi or their associates were making laws in the national congress, had ever responded.

As Colombians go to the polls on 12 March, their decisions will shape the future of their country for a long time. At stake is whether Colombia will continue its inexorable drift towards the consolidation of an extreme rightwing "para" state, or can the combined forces of the democratic opposition manage to win a congressional majority and so live to fight another day.

In the latest polls there have been more hopeful indications that the old Liberal Party may yet rise like Phoenix from the ashes of its forty-year decline, while, for the same reasons that the democratic left has triumphed around the region, Colombia's small yet talented and gutsy leftwing could conceivably surprise. Until the fat lady sings, the battle for Colombia's democracy is not over.