Colombians face a stark choice in next week’s presidential election, writes JOHN HAYLETT
Colombia’s voters will return to the polls next weekend in an exercise that could scupper the government’s peace negotiations with the Farc liberation movement.
Incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos, who is intent on pursuing the talks that began in November 2012, will meet Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a run-off after neither candidate reached 50 per cent in the first round.
Zuluaga led the way on May 29, gaining 29.25 per cent against 25.69 per cent for Santos. Conservative Marta Lucia Ramirez polled 15.52 per cent, marginally beating Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) candidate Clara Lopez’s 15.23 per cent, while Green representative Enrique Penalosa scored 8.28 per cent.
Most notable was the inability of the candidates to enthuse the electorate, with just 40 per cent of voters turning up at polling centres and 6 per cent of them casting a blank paper.
Zuluaga is a close ally of former president and large landowner Alvaro Uribe, whose family has been consistently linked with right-wing death squads responsible for murdering trade unionists, peasant activists, teachers, community leaders and anyone fitting their definition of “communist.”
Santos was Uribe’s defence minister, but since taking over as president he has sought a political solution, despatching negotiators to Havana where talks have borne fruit.
Agreement has been achieved on agrarian reform, political participation by demobilised guerillas and, just last month, a “comprehensive solution to the problem of illegal drugs” was drawn up.
Both sides recognise that the drug trade “financed the conflict” in their country. Its tentacles reach deep into society.
Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro was recently sacked as the city’s mayor by the Attorney General after reforming private refuse disposal services.
He was reinstated in the face of hostility from President Santos following an appeal to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.
Petro believes that the power of drug cartels extends to the highest levels of government, saying: “Drug lords have used violence to control the state and the territory in Colombia. It makes the drugs trade almost indestructible. Drug lords in Colombia have state powers.”
The Bogota mayor is a former guerilla fighter with the M19 group that disarmed 25 years ago, choosing to pursue its goals through the country’s flawed democratic processes.
He was a member of PDA but was expelled after accusing his predecessor as Bogota mayor, the PDA’s Samuel Moreno, of corruption.
In the event he was proved right, since Moreno was later arrested and jailed. Petro has since set up his own Movement of Progressives.
PDA also drummed out the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) from the coalition two years ago on the grounds that the party was working closely with the Patriotic March movement, thereby violating PDA statutes banning dual membership of electoral vehicles.
Leading PCC member Carlos Lozano, the editor of Voz, refused to accept expulsion.
He pointed out that Patriotic March was a social movement composed of 2,000 national and regional groups, as well as the PCC and former senator Piedad Cordoba of the Liberal Party’s left wing, and was concerned with building broader left unity.
“Patriotic March is a social and political project that shouldn’t keep certain Polo leaders up at night,” said Lozano.
“The unity we set forth is much broader and goes beyond the Polo and March, because we don’t have enemies on the left. The key to advancing toward democratic and people’s power is in unity.”
The communist leader distanced himself from the methods used by Farc but could understand their raison d’etre, declaring: “If the Colombian oligarchy had not resorted to violence to maintain its power and preserve the plutocratic regime of privileges, then the Farc would not exist.”
Patriotic March has decided to back Santos in the second round of the presidential election, as has Patriotic Union (UP), the electoral body set up by Farc in 1985 during previous peace talks and drowned in blood by the oligarchy and its army-led death squads.
UP leader Aida Avella, who returned home last year after 17 years in exile following a 1996 assassination attempt, ran for vice president alongside PDA presidential candidate Clara Lopez.
“We think the best thing at this time is to support the candidate who has opened the dialogue and who moves down the path of a political and negotiated solution,” said Avella.
PDA refused to back either candidate, with Senator Jorge Robledo suggesting that neither would end the country’s “horrible night.”
Lopez said that members should vote with their consciences, understanding that PDA would oppose “the agendas of the two competing candidates.”
However, fellow PDA Senator Ivan Cepeda, whose father was a UP Congress member murdered in 1994, urged a “vote on June 15 for peace, which is not Zuluaga.”
Zuluaga had originally pledged to end the Havana peace process but has changed his tune after talks with Conservative leader Ramirez.
His position now is that the dialogue will continue, “but we will establish a specific time frame, clear conditions and limits within which to allow for significant, visible advances that will create trust and credibility.”
Whatever the verbiage, it is inconceivable that those around Uribe would allow Zuluaga to negotiate a just and lasting solution to Colombia’s conflict, making a Santos victory next weekend essential for the peace process.