|English | Español||November 17, 2017 | Issue #41|
Weak Mandate for Uribe in Colombia as Most Citizens Skip Vote
The Real Story is Marginalization of the Poor and the Growth of the Left
By Dan Feder
View of homes on hillside in the poor neighbourhood of La Isla, part of Soacha’s Comuna 4, south of Bogotá
Photos: D.R. 2006 Caleb Harris
In the last few decades, Colombia has become one of the most urbanized countries in the world. The number of people displaced annually first passed 100,000 in the year 1996, the year that Camacho fled his farm for the city, and hasn’t gone back down below that mark since. The worst year of all was 2002, the year of Uribe’s first election, when the ranks of the refugees swelled by 413,000, according to the human rights group CODHES. The figure has dropped since then, but still shows no real improvement over pre-Uribe years.
As Sean Donahue reported last year, the mid-nineties began a decade of massacres in Camacho’s homeland of Chocó, as powerful economic interests began grabbing up land. When Plan Colombia kicked off in 2000 and an intense campaign of fumigation pushed much of the small-scale coca industry out of the southern departments, the virgin land of the Chocó attracted many of the displaced coca farmers and the brutal U.S.-imposed drug war followed them. Now, Camacho and other Chocoanos in the barrio say, people are beginning to arrive from the jungles of Chocó fleeing fumigations and other manifestations of the drug war as well.
These people displaced by the war join those displaced by poverty, forced to the cities to look for work like their brethren all across Latin America as the economic policies of Uribe and his predecessors make it harder and harder to survive as a small-scale farmer. In the city the displacement often does not end, as paramilitary violence exists there too, combined with the illegal status of the houses they are forced to live in; once arriving to refugee hubs like Bogotá and Medellín, slum-dwellers often still flee from barrio to barrio.
In the midst of such marginalization, more and more people see Colombia’s “democracy” as irrelevant. What does it matter, asks Camacho, if ten years after the government’s war forced him from his land he still can’t return without being murdered? No presidential candidate has ever come to Comuna 4 to speak to the people, Camacho says. We walk by a voting station just a few doors down from his house. Indeed, few seem interested; the long lines to vote shown on live TV newscasts from downtown and in middle and upper-class neighborhoods are nowhere to be seen.
Many have said that although voter turnout was low, public opinion polls have shown consistently for the last four years that more than half the country supports Uribe, and thus Sunday’s results do reflect popular will. Certainly, an enormous part of the population supports the president. The political violence continues unabated in the countryside, with more individual paramilitary attacks last year than ever, but crime, especially murder and kidnapping, is down in most parts of the country. Several major highways that were once targets for guerrilla and bandit attacks have been lined with soldiers and artillery and are perceived as safe to travel again. Uribe has convinced many that if they give him a “second chance,” four more years, he can rid the country of guerrilla insurgencies and drug trafficking once and for all.
But the polls don’t tell the whole story. The same marginalization that discourages people from voting keeps their thoughts invisible to pollsters as well. Alfredo Molano, one of Colombia’s leading journalists and intellectuals, told Narco News in 2004:
In terms of public opinion polls, he (Uribe) has a very high level of support. But the the opinion polls in Colombia are telephone surveys of a thousand or fifteen hundred people in a few cities – big cities like Bogotá, and medium-sized cities like Villavicencio. But they’re all done by telephone. So, in the first place you know there is a large part of the population left out of these surveys. There are seven million telephone lines in Colombia, and, let’s say, forty million people. So there is a very large percentage, maybe seventy percent, that does not participate in those polls; they have never been asked, and they will never be asked.
…There is something else that makes one think that there is a great statistical bias in the polls. When they ask people, they call anonymously. People do not know who is asking them questions. So, you ask someone, do you like Uribe? People are scared, they are not going to say, no, I don’t like him, because it could turn out to be a trap. The same thing happens with the army. If, knowing what I know, I get a phone call and they ask me, do you support with army – that is pretty tough, and I’m afraid to answer. These factors are, naturally, never taken into account.
Across the street from that polling station, the words “Bloque Capital” (Capital Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia or AUC, the paramilitary coalition that reached a “peace” deal with the Uribe government) are scrawled on a wall.
One of Uribe’s great selling points has been the sweetheart deal he signed with rightwing paramilitary groups, essentially pardoning their crimes (the groups are by far the leading perpetrators of civilian massacres and political assassinations) in exchange for their “turning over their weapons.” Camacho in his daily life as a community leader sees the reality behind this charade. While it is true, he says, that violence in has gone down in the neighborhood, the paramilitaries are still there, and still have their guns. “Things are really still the same. They threatened my family, my sons had to leave the barrio or they would be killed. They can’t return home now.”
Intimidation from the right had been widespread in the lead-up to the election. Four days before the election, a group calling itself “Colombia Free of Communists: Armed Wing of the Former AUC,” released a communiqué which read, in part:
This is the moment to really choose the present and future of our sacred homeland. We, the Colombia Libre group (“Colombia Free of Communists”) are attentive to any step you may take in favor of authentic democracy. The only path that remains for all of us Colombians is to support unconditionally the policy of democratic security of our candidate-President, Doctor Alvaro Uribe Velez.
In no way are we going to permit any other result in the election which draws near, on next Sunday, than the election of President Uribe and his very select group of collaborators. They know very well that they have our complete support. In this respect, we wish to warn you for the last time that: Given the present circumstances in which the country finds itself, we are on an all-out war footing against any interest which is other than the continuity of the Presidential term of our legitimate leader…
We will not permit any other result, and, if it appears on Sunday that the majority are wearing yellow shirts (the color of the leftwing Alternative Democratic Pole), we will dye them another color, the same color that the insurgency and kneeling Liberalism use without any respect: blood red!
Similar letters, threatening violence and proclaiming loyalty to President Uribe, have been sent to specific social groups and organizations. Last month’s murder of veteran leftist political activist Hinigio Baquero Mahencha — a survivor of the 1980s violence against the now defunct Patriotic Union party — along with other mysterious recent deaths and disappearances in and around Bogotá have driven such threats home.
“We are very concerned,” Alternative Democratic Pole president and senator Samuel Moreno told Narco News the day before the election, “that many people here have shown that they are willing to give up civil liberties in return for peace.” This is a good description of the 62 percent of voters who threw their lot in again with Uribe. But what happens when people begin to realize that Uribe cannot deliver peace, only more repression?
The myths that the media have sustained, taking advantage of a war-weary populace eager for good news, cannot last for long. The guerrilla insurgency is too strong, too sophisticated, too battle-hardened to be “defeated” in the military victory Uibe has promised. As a representative of the most conservative sectors of the elite land-owning classes, with a past full of connections to paramilitarism and drug trafficking, Uribe will never be able to negotiate credibly with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The scandals over narco and paramilitary infiltration of the state security forces have been thus far overshadowed by the presidential campaigns, but now that those are over Uribe’s disgraced functionaries will begin to hurt his image. The “Free Trade Agreement” (called the TLC in its Spanish initials) Uribe is negotiating with the United States is already widely unpopular, even among the president’s poorer supporters. The economic growth he boasts of has yet to make a dent in the level of poverty, and if the recent history of other Latin American countries is any guide, the masses’ patience for the neoliberal model will begin to run thin.
During the month of May we have already begun to see what the next four years may hold. Last week we reported on the popular mobilizations around the country against the undemocratic policies of the government, for land reform, against the TLC, and in many areas against the chemical warfare of fumigations that U.S. and Colombian governments wage against their farmlands. (One of the two departments that Gaviria actually carried was Nariño, the country’s most heavily fumigated.) Despite the repression the Uribe administration unleashed, treating these unarmed protesters as enemy combatants, social leaders have declared themselves more determined than ever to keep organizing, keep resisting.
During Uribe’s time in office, the United States has pumped $3.5 billion in into his government. U.S. officials have given him a free pass on potentially disastrous scandals involving drug corruption and human rights atrocities. Uribe proved that, with this support from Washington, he could repeal the article of the constitution limiting a president to one term and could win that reelection. But with the collapse of Colombia’s longstanding two-party system, the national emergence of an electoral left, and the ever-looming possibility that, one day, the majority might turn out to vote, he’s going to have his hands full trying to govern in the next term as easily as it came in his first.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism