The president’s supporters in Congress, whose election rightist paramilitaries claim to have bought or ensured through threats, intimidation and terror, proposed a ‘presidential coup’ recently — closing Congress to avoid the opposition taking control as more Uribista delegates are jailed in Colombia’s parapolítica scandal.
It is an indication as to how far to the right political debate is in Colombia that journalists and politicians considered this as a serious proposal — the Interior and Justice Minister thought it ‘interesting’ — but the proposal also reflects a concern among this elite that for the first time since 1948, a leftist opposition is rising.
The Polo Democrático Alternativo, a coalition that unites all the significant leftist political parties and factions in Colombia, has dramatically realigned politics and displaced the traditional, clientilist Liberal Party as the principal opposition to President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and the right.
Carlos Gaviria, the Polo’s presidential candidate, achieved an unprecedented 2.5 million votes in the 2006 elections, despite President Uribe demanding that Colombians choose between his militarization and authoritarian policies or ‘los comunistas disfrazados’ — ‘the disguised Communists’ in the opposition.
And this despite the fact that these elections are now known to have been fraudulent on the Caribbean coast, where paramilitaries bought votes, and in Colombia’s heartland where the President’s 98% vote totals in some districts recalled presidential ‘elections’ in Batista’s Cuba or Stroessner’s Paraguay.
Against increasing state paramilitarization, Uribista congress representatives, senators and military generals collaborating with the narcoparamilitaries in assassinating union workers and leftist opposition, the Polo has courageously continued to fight for a different Colombia that prioritises the poor, workers and desterrados.
Liberal Senator Jorge Eliecer Gaitan attempted to do this in the Forties, proposing policies that could have made him Colombia’s Franklin Roosevelt. His almost certain election as president was denied when he was assassinated in 1948, and the Bogotazo riots that followed, with Gaitan’s supporters burning downtown Bogotá and threatening an insurrection, demonstrated the fervent desire for such change.
The leftist Unión Patriótica tried to organise union workers and communist activists against the traditional Conservative and Liberal parties’ patronage and corruption in the late Eighties, but rightist paramilitaries and narco terrorists assassinated UP presidential candidates, Congress representatives and almost 4,000 UP members to avoid this progressive challenge to the state.
In 2007, the political realignment that has taken place all over Latin America has isolated Colombia on the right — just Perú, México and some Central American republics still adhere to the imported United States ‘consensus’ that favours corporate interests over social policies.
The leftist politics that are now dominant on the continent have closed down space for the right in Colombia to suppress opposition, and it is in part due to this favourable international scene that the Polo Democrático has risen to challenge President Uribe and the paramilitaries.
The Polo’s success has been evident in uniting the splintered left opposition into a coherent political force that even Colombia’s most influential newspaper, El Tiempo, considers a ‘credible option with the possibility to take power.’ The coalition has overcome the left’s historical sectarianism to include the Communists, Movimiento 19 and organised workers in the Confederación Unitaria de Trabajadores union confederation. The communist Voz newspaper commented that the dissident Liberals attracted to the coalition meant the Polo represented ‘the first time in Colombia that the revolutionary left and the social democratic left have united together.’
Originally organised as a loose coalition in 2005, the Polo achieved 708,000 votes in the March 2006 Congressional elections to elect 9 senators and 8 representatives. 380,000 coalition members voted in the Polo’s election to choose Carlos Gaviria as the presidential candidate, and despite a virtual media blackout and the paramilitaries’ bought votes, 2.5 million Colombians voted for ‘un país para todos.’
Proposing similar social policies to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Bolívarian revolution, the Polo is organising amongst Colombians who have never participated in politics. ‘The Polo should not be just an electoral party,’ Senator Antonio Navarro insists, ‘it must have a presence in all Colombia,’ and reach workers in Ciudad Bolívar in Bogotá, the desterrados in Medellín’s comunas, the desperate poor in Chocó’s Pacific coast shanty towns and the indigenous.
Organising at a local level, on the streets in the barrios, proposing redistributive policies that favour the poor, the Polo has encouraged democratic participation to avoid association with the patronage and clientilism that has discredited the traditional parties. Candidates are chosen in open consultations, and 555,000 members chose the delegates to the party’s first united congress in December 2006 to reiterate the Polo’s commitment to progressive social change.
‘No-one in the Polo is to accept an Ambassador or Minister position,’ Carlos Gaviria declared, citing a favourite tactic Colombia’s political elite has often used to co-opt opposition, ‘our party is not opportunist and cannot be bought.’ And in Congress, Polo representatives such as Wilson Borja, a union organiser who has survived an assassination attempt, and Senators Alexander López and Gustavo Petro have proved to be the most effective opposition to the Uribistas.
President Uribe has also contributed to the left’s resurgence; originally a Liberal, he continued the Liberal’s opportunistic tradition, standing as a Conservative supported independent in the 2002 presidential elections. The president’s ‘undisciplined coalition,’ according to El Tiempo, has since had an unintended effect: scattering and splintering the right, leaving no clear successor once Uribe’s second term ends in three years.
Further to this, the traditional Conservative and Liberal parties have been co-opted, more than 20 Uribista representatives in paramilitary front parties have so far been jailed in the parapolítica scandal, and Colombian politics have been polarised leaving little choice for the president’s opponents but to support the left. ‘The elites’ traditional parties, their similar policies and patrician leaders have been replaced,’ commented one writer, ‘Colombian politics are now like Bolivia or Venezuela — left and right oppose each other and could never compromise.’
‘In Colombia exists the most arrogant opulence together with the most shameful poverty,’ Carlos Gaviria said in the election campaign. ‘Disguised communists,’ responded the intemperate president, and referring to the Polo’s campaign colour, said the opposition were ‘like papaya: yellow on the outside but red on the inside.’
Ever more increasing political polarisation in Colombia since the election has made the Polo’s challenge clearer. It has started to organise and mobilise the millions who did not vote at all in 2006 — 55% abstained in the presidential elections — and policies prioritising the poor, indigenous and workers reflect Latin America’s political realignment, echoing Méxican presidential candidate Manuel López Obrador’s 2006 ‘First the poor’ campaign and Venezuela’s Bolívarian revolution.
These threats to Colombia’s complacent elite have led the president’s Uribista representatives in Congress to propose the ‘coup’ in an attempt to avoid further opposition advances. But should that happen, the Polo’s organising amongst Colombia’s poor and in the barrios has ensured that it will not need Congress to be heard; the opposition will be in the streets, and Colombia will be a step nearer to joining Latin America’s left turn.