A little noticed detail in Colombia’s recent local elections was the fact that leftist parties inspired by Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution have started to emerge on the political scene.
The Corriente Bolivariano de Colombia, or Colombian Bolivarian Current, that organises on the Caribbean coast — and the Movimiento Bolivariano de Colombia S A (sin armas), or Colombian Bolivarian Movement (without arms), that organises on the Venezuelan frontier — stood almost 50 candidates in 6 states in the October elections.
Stirring up an excitable and often irrational response from Colombia’s rightist press and Uribista politicians, these Chávista parties won almost 12,000 votes on the Caribbean coast and in states on the frontier with Venezuela.
As it takes as little as 6,000 votes to elect a governor in some Colombian states, and often less than one thousand votes to elect a representative to a state asamblea, these parties total vote is ‘a respectable figure for Chávista politics in conservative Colombia,’ according to political journalist Cristina Acevedo, ‘and an indication that a Bolivarian candidate could be elected to Congress in the next elections.’
The best results were on the Caribbean coast. One candidate in Atlántico, Óscar Manduca, took 4,000 votes. Other candidates, Ramiro Chamorro in Sucre, Orlando Carrascal in Norte de Santander and Luis Acuña in Cartagena took a thousand votes each. Still more Bolivarian candidates stood for local juntas in La Guajira and other states on the frontier, and support was given to the victorious leftist opposition Polo Democrático in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.
‘Despite the press attacks and pressure, we have achieved a representative vote,’ Jorge Urueta, Corriente Bolivariano de Colombia leader, said, ‘I think with what we have achieved we will go far.’ ‘Despite the persecution against us,’ adds Carlos Felipe Flórez, Movimiento Bolivariano de Colombia leader, ‘Colombians are taking the first steps towards a Bolivarian revolution.’
The ‘press attacks and pressure’ and the ‘persecution’ that these leaders refer to include newspaper articles that claimed prominent candidates had criminal records, unsigned leaflets that claimed the parties were promising Venezuelan cédulas (identification cards), so Colombians could claim free medical care across the border, and even deportation threats from Colombia’s DAS intelligence service.
‘There was no attempt at combating our arguments,’ said Flórez, ‘instead, the press just lied, but despite the dirty war against us, our candidates on the frontier, Carlos Delgado and Esperanza Contreras, won almost 3,000 votes.’
The more serious threats to deport ‘Venezuelans who interfere in Colombia’s politics,’ as Santiago Vásquez, DAS’s local director on the frontier put it, had an effect because many Colombians have dual nationality with their Bolivarian neighbour.
As several Venezuelan Congressional representatives have recently visited elected mayors and local asamblea deputies in Colombia, the intelligence service’s deliberate attempt to blur the distinctions between these politicians, and Colombian citizens who might support the Bolivarian parties, raised tensions during the election campaign.
Vásquez claimed that Venezuelans were ‘infiltrating Colombia, keeping a low profile’ and were ‘illegally interfering in politics.’ Jorge Urueta, on the Caribbean coast, dismissed the allegations, and related how Venezuelan politicians often made commercial agreements at a local level in Colombia, and also brought opportunities for the children of poor workers to study in Caracas.
Constitutional and legal experts stated that even if Venezuelans were attending political meetings or talking about politics while in Colombia, this did not amount to ‘conspiracy or sedition, which are obviously against the law,’ as lawyer Francisco José Sintura explained. ‘There is a law against foreigners financing election campaigns, but that is not what is happening here.’
In response to Vásquez, Corriente Bolivariano organiser, Ángela Contreras, pointed out that ‘Americans come to Colombia all the time; US politicians come here and impose their opinions on us, American businessmen write articles in our press praising the president’s pro business policies, and this is fine. But when Venezuelan workers talk to Colombian workers, this is ‘political interference’.’
Even helping poor Colombians receive medical treatment in Venezuela comes under suspicion. While Vásquez claims that the Colombian Bolivarian movements ‘exploit the poor, and use visits to hospitals across the frontier to disguise their politics,’ Flórez counters that thousands of poor Colombians have benefited from the free medical attention of Cuban and Venezuelan doctors because Colombia’s privatized health care is too expensive. ‘It’s solidarity, not partisan politics,’ he says.
However, far right Uribista parties, attempting to capitalise on the intelligence service’s over reaction to the Bolivarian movements and the hostility in the press towards Venezuela, are now discussing drawing up a proposal to strip the almost 5 million Colombians with dual nationality of their right to vote.
‘Illegal and unconstitutional,’ is how Constitutional judge Eduardo Cifuentes described the proposal, ‘It is not possible to legislate against Colombians’ political rights like this, and it is senseless, just as Latin America is coming closer together, to attempt to divide us. This is parochial politics.’
In contrast to the Uribistas’ prejudice, thousands of Colombians organised in the Bolivarian parties recently signed cards to President Chávez, requesting Venezuela allow Colombians with dual nationality to cross the frontier without a visa or passport.
An estimated 2 million Colombians are in Venezuela, most having fled the rightist paramilitaries who have dominated the frontier, controlling lucrative contraband trades, and who still control politics in the border states. Exile has split families and has further impoverished Colombians struggling against an almost 50 per cent poverty rate.
One worker wrote to Chávez that he wanted to visit his daughter in Venezuela, but had ‘no money to open a bank account, and so I can’t even apply for a visa at Venezuela’s Consulate, nor can I get a passport from the Colombian government.’
Óscar Manduca, a Corriente Bolivariano leader, says that ‘one of the Bolivarian principles is cooperation, solidarity between peoples.’ Colombia and Venezuela may have presidents far from each other politically, but the people should be as one.’
‘Venezuelan workers have their revolution,’ says Jorge Urueta, ‘but the Uribistas shouldn’t be concerned about Chávez – he doesn’t have anything to do with us and he’s not going to take over Colombia. If in Colombia we elect a leftist president, a Polo Democrático or a Bolivarian president, it will be because Colombians do it, not because of Chávez.’