Local Elections in Colombia: Uribe's Political Movement Treading Water

BOGOTÁ: An intense election cycle has come to an end in Colombia, and the results in so far indicate that the legendary support President Alvaro Uribe enjoys does not run nearly so deep as his cheerleaders might suggest. In fact, despite nearly six years now in power, the formation of numerous new Uribista parties, the adoration of the commercial media and saturation of the airways and streets with his image, the Colombian people have shown that Bush’s best friend in Latin America does not have the last word in this country. The Daily El Tiempo has all the results.

Most notably, the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA in its Spanish initials, the broad left-wing party that, riding the tide of similar currents throughout América, has put the Left on the Colombian electoral map for the first time) held on to power in Bogotá, the country’s capital and home to a sixth of its people. Samuel Moreno, a PDA senator, won overwhelmingly as the city’s new mayor, a post widely considered to be the second-most powerful in the country. After enduring a desperate (and probably illegal) attempt by Uribe to prevent him from reaching that post, Moreno will most likely present an even more aggressive opposition to Uribe’s program of subservience to Washington and Wall Street’s interests. Though still lacking a majority on the Bogotá city council, the PDA won 12 seats, up from 8 in the previous elections.

Despite long lines and heavy rain most of the day, voter participation in the capital was nearly 48 percent, the highest ever in Bogotá and higher than many municipal elections in U.S. cities. This was up from 43 percent in 2003 (the election that first brought the left to power in the city the victory of Luis Eduardo Garzón) and from around 20 in the previous few elections. As tends to be true throughout Latin America, the more people who come out to vote, the worse it seems to go for the right...

In the far southwest of Colombia, the people of Nariño department elected former M19 guerrilla leader Antonio Navarro Wolf, one of the founders of the PDA, as their governor. Navarro will take office in a region more besieged by the drug war than any other. Constant herbicide fumigations for the past 8 years under Plan Colombia have caused major social upheavals, and thousands have been forced to flee their villages to nearby cities or across the border to neighboring Ecuador. While the current governor is also a PDA member, such an outspoken left-wing leader for this embattled department will add a very interesting dynamic to this war, and perhaps a bit of hope to its people, suffering under the double curse of civil war and U.S. intervention.

In the department of Santander – one of the birthplaces of both the National Liberation Army (ELN) and, from around 1997 to 2003, the site of some of the worst paramilitary massacres – perpetual presidential candidate Horacio Serpa won the governorship. Serpa is a leader of the old Liberal party but an outspoken critic of Uribe, and ran with the support of the PDA.

Some of the biggest surprises occurred on the Atlantic coast, where paramilitarism has had its greatest penetration into Colombian society and numerous right-wing politicians have fallen into disgrace in the “para-politics” scandal. In Atlántico, the small department that is home to the huge port city of Barranquilla as well as its suburb Soledad – thought of by many as the power center of the feared new Black Eagles paramilitary/mafia organization, made up mostly of “demobilized” AUC fighters  – Liberal Eduardo Ignacio Verano De La Rosa won. Verano was also supported by the leftist PDA. In nearby Cesar, one of the departments worst-hit by the “para-politics” scandal, the new governor is Cristian Hernando Moreno Panezo, a “Green Party Center Option” candidate supported by the PDA.

In Colombia’s most famous port city, Cartagena, the hated pro-Uribe mayor’s hand-picked successor was beaten in a surprise win for an independent, center-left, feminist candidate named Judith Pinedo. Cartagena’s current mayor, Nicolás Curi, is notorious for representing the worst of the coastal political class. The crime rate and the gap between rich and poor in Cartagena – already Colombia’s most unequal, racist city where a light-skinned elite lives in luxury surrounded by a black majority enduring the country’s most grinding urban poverty – only increased under his administration.

Curi grabbed the national spotlight earlier this year when a TV special by journalist Guillermo “Pirry” Prieto Larrota attempted to show the Cartagena ignored by the tourist industry, of the miserable conditions and neglect by the government. While Mayor Curi threw a tantrum about how Pirry had “insulted” the people of his great city, Pinedo did not shy from recognizing the reality poor Cartageneros live with every day, answering a question from Semana magazine about how real the depiction of Cartagena was by saying, “it came out seeming better, because you can’t smell it.”

Pinedo has made a name for herself with her criticisms of Curi and the traditional parties in the city. She ran her campaign as an exercise in campaign-finance reform, rejecting donations from the big companies used to extracting favors and accepting only small donations of $25 or less, and won support from community organizations. Few thought such an outsider could ever have a chance in this city, but Pinedo won handsomely.

In the southwest metropolis of Cali, the country’s third-largest city, the left-leaning independent Jorge Iván Ospina – who has expressed sympathy for the PDA without actually joining its ranks – took the mayor’s office. Colomnist “D’Artagnan” writing in Colombia’s national daily El Tiempo, commented just before the election:

In Cali, the aristocrat Kiko Lloreda could be defeated by Jorge Iván Ospina, son of one of the main spokesmen and leaders of the M19 guerrilla movement. And, to tell the truth, the resistance Ospina faced was not small  from Cali high society and the newspaper El País, which is owned by the Lloreda family.

And finally, in the country’s second city of Medellín – where Uribe dominated politics for more than a decade, first as mayor then as governor, and where he now enjoys his most passionate support – the winner was journalist Alonso Salazar, of the independent (and mostly unknown) Indigenous Social Alliance. Salazar was the chosen successor for current mayor Sergio Fajardo, who managed to remain extremely popular throughout his term without being an Uribe loyalist.

Interestingly, the new mayor of Medellín was supported by the popular Senator Juan Manuel Galán, son of the martyred presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán (assassinated by the famous drug cartel of the same city).  Senator Galán has valiantly been trying to revive the once-lively discussion of drug legalization in Colombia, now almost invisible after six years of drug warrior Uribe, proposing a new debate on the issue in Congress.

Perhaps Galán and other drug policy reformers will find a new, strong supporter for this discussion in Salazar, who is no stranger to the cause himself. Just read these words (in Spanish)
by Salazar, spoken at a forum on narco-trafficking in Mexico City in October, 2003, in which he refers to himself among “those of us who have proposed” legalization and echos Narco News in recognizing the “visionary” former president Samper, who made the same proposal in the 1980s, before entering politics (and forgetting the issue).

And so we see, the opinion polls so often cited in the U.S. press that show constant support for Uribe don’t tell the full story. Of course, many of these promising leftist and independent politicians may prove to be more cases of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” No one force emerged a clear winner in these elections, least of all Uribe, and the Colombian people showed they may have even more surprises in store for the next national election, in 2010.

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About Dan Feder

I was a member of the Narco News team in various capacities, from webmaster to Editor-in-Chief, from 2002-2008. Since 2006 I have also been a member of the International Peace Observatory, which performs human rights accompaniment for Colombian campesino organizations in conflict zones. I am now living in Boston and working as a website developer for DigitalAid, Inc.