Another Colombia Is Possible

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.

Paul Haste is a union organizer from London who is currently living in Bogotá to improve his Spanish. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Manuel Morales said on June 30th, 2007 at 10:30am #

    I think this is a very poor view of the history and the present circumstances of Colombia low intensity civil war. This is a very complex country and we as Colombians are “sleep” this is the land where “nothing happens” and will stay this way a lot of time. Uribe´s regime is a dictatorship.

  2. Robert Wiles said on July 1st, 2007 at 12:49pm #

    I don’t agree also with this view. The BIG PROBLEM of Colombia’s endless problems is exactly this; a misunderstanding of political [historical] and social problems in Colombia, which Europe and Democrats in the United States tend to not understand at all. Europe believes that Colombia’s war is one of the State against FARC and ELN rebels that are trying to overthrow a “corrupt dictatorship”, which is not. Colombia is not like its neighbours, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru, where Presidents are simply overthrown by the people. And not even as Panama, where US troops can come and arrest the crooked President. Colombia’s leftist guerrillas (they were leftist, not anymore) had really admirable ideological grounds and goals to pursuit in terms of social wealthfare and equity as they begun; but as soon as the drug business appeared, they left their original basis for drug trafficking and killing. Advanced countries as Denmark and Sweden might support FARC’s cause for what it was, but not what it REALLY is today. In Colombia, there’s FREE PRESS and FREE opposition. People don’t like or sympathize with paramilitary thugs, not even less with guerrilla bands. Colombians want to be rid from them. Colombians also wish for social progress, yes, we all know that a large chunk of the national budget should be spent in Education, Health and Housing rather than in the spoiled inner war against FARC-ELN-AUC terrorism. But the country simply can’t. Right now. The country must be pacified in order that there’s no argument on behalf of the Bogota government to deny social investment. Colombia’s budget is eaten up by the war effort, and many do criticize this, but how else would you invest money in poverty if there’s always the threaten of terrorist groups aiming to overthrow the democratic system? Colombia is taken steps (not Uribe, but society as a whole as it approves his initatives) in bringing peace accords with such terrorist organizations as ELN and AUC to reality. That they have their flaws, there’s no doubt. But there can’t be comparison with South Africa or Central America; in the latter, peace processes were long and difficult, if one remembers.
    Colombia’s left gained a large historic number of votes because the country is changing, Colombia’s neighbours have changed. Colombia is standing alone with US policy in a continent that has given its back to US foreign policy. But Colombia, unfortunately, is yes, a conservative country. There is no chance even in left senators and representatives to discuss gay rights and all that other stuff so thriving in quarters as Europe or Massachusetts. When Colombia functioned in a bipartisan political basis, liberals representing the left were elected, and commentators used to say: “a president chosen by a conservative country who this time voted left”.
    I say that the time for the left is not this; Colombia would had to exterminate terrorism before people can get interested in any social program. The left has is flaws there: sometimes, even in the worst moments, when a whole country is mourning for example an act of terrorism committed by FARC, because of them and only their fault, left leaders turn to pick up on the government and it’s institutions. If the left had a different position towards the “supposed, but no longer leftist” FARC, for instance, I’m sure it would gain greater support from the people. Is not a matter of left-right, is not a matter of people rejecting leftism and modern socialism: it is Colombians rejecting terrorism and anything that supports or sympathizes with it. Colombians are fed up with violence; the consecuence is that they have become an indifferent and indolent nation, even they have lost some of their patriotism. But it is the strong and deep belief in their ground national structures that they had kept adrift. I will not dare to say that Colombia is blind and deaf to social problems and inequalities, thus poverty. It is not how reality looks like. But they have the terrorism problem, that must be finished, in order that they can advance into a moderate and constructive socialism. For that, the disponibility of the budget is needed. But not expecting the government, the State, or people, to fall into the arms of killers and thugs as FARC, ELN and AUC members had been.

    People can’t speculate or write mere lies about such a difficult country to understand. Paul Haste completely misunderstands the whole Colombian problem, siding blindly with the left and attacking greatly the right, exactly the roots of Colombia’s 50 year’s struggles. You don’t talk of possibilities of coup d’etats or dictatorships in Colombia nowadays. That’s not possible there, as in such other countries, eg, Venezuela, can happen. You don’t speak of leftist parties being harrassed or silenced by official authorities, in a country with the best and most sophisticated system of speech of all South America. Private channels, magazines and newspapers are a proof of that. As long as the Colombian left sides with the people and not sympathizes with the “false left” that is FARC or ELN, no chance they’ll have on winning the elections, or even to contribute with the end of its internal war. So, my question is: With whom are they really and ideologically sided?

  3. Paul said on July 3rd, 2007 at 9:03am #

    Colombians have never been ‘asleep’, Manuel. From the Thirties, progressive Colombians participated in President López Pumarejo’s ‘revolución en marcha’ and demonstrated and went on strike in his support when the right attempted a coup against him.

    After Gaitán’s assassination, sectarian violence and the elitist ‘bipartisan’ National Front governments either suppressed or forced to the margins any further expression of progressive politics until the Unión Patriótica organised in the Eighties – only for their activists to be massacred in their thousands by the narcos and the paramilitaries.

    The Polo is just the latest organised political expression of Colombians’ desire for progressive social change, but the millions of votes they have achieved, and the thousands of activists that they have, are just one aspect of how people here are organising for ‘another Colombia’.

    For much more information on the indigenous, civil rights and community and barrio organising movements, go to:


  4. Paul said on July 3rd, 2007 at 12:00pm #

    Robert Wiles’ comment is evidence once again of how political debate concerning Colombia is often reduced to a black and white, guerrilla/president polarization. The clue was in the title ‘Another Colombia is possible’, Robert.

    It is clear that the Farc has lost any political credibility and ideological justification – not that pursuing an elitist guerrilla strategy was anything to be supported in the first place – but it is undeniable that the Farc still have some influence among those Colombians who have never seen any social investment by Liberal and Conservative (and much less Uribista) administrations.

    Progressive social programs that redistribute wealth and land, and that also involve the democratisation of Colombian society and the participation of those excluded from it – particularly the 3 million desterrados and potentially the 4 million who have emigrated or fled the country – would be a start in ending poverty and inequality, and hopefully, any remaining attraction the guerrillas have.

    Military offensives have consistently failed, and as the US is finding out in Iraq, are likely to perpetuate violent resistance. The Polo Democrático offer an alternative to the state’s violence, to the paramilitaries’ violence (which, despite your claims to the contrary, receive the support of 25 per cent of Colombians, while only 6 per cent think their massacres and murders are a ‘problem’), and to the guerrilla’s violence.

    It is President Uribe’s favourite tactic to associate any opposition to his authoritarian militarisation policies with the guerrillas, but this intolerant attitude is having less and less effect. You say that it is not the right time for the left, but fortunately Uribistas don’t get to choose what the right time is – Colombians are starting to decide that for themselves.

    The constant attempts of the Colombian right to divert attention to Venezuela don’t work either – it was the Venezuelan right who tried a coup – and it is the left who are winning elections after elections in Latin America. As to your claims about ‘freedoms’ in Colombia, I assume what happened to the Unión Patriótica, or the attempted assassinations of Polo Senators mean nothing to you. I have already written on Colombia’s ‘free press’ here:

    The ‘Another Colombia is possible’ article is a comment on the possibility that this country could finally turn away from violence, dismiss the failed imported policies of the United States and join the rest of the continent in the 21st Century, and it is this possibility that has the Uribistas desperately trying, as your one dimensional comment shows, to associate with terrorists a democratic, progressive and rising political movement.

  5. B. Sterling said on September 13th, 2007 at 8:45pm #

    I am a long lost relative of Robert Wiles, if it is the same R.Wiles from Pgh. I have been looking for him for several years. I would like for you to forward my e-mail to him! If it is him he will respond by email, I hope! I know this is an awkward position to put you in but I would really need your help and again send this person my email. The common denominator is Pittsburgh if he has an attachment to that city he is my uncle.


  6. Ramsefall said on August 2nd, 2008 at 7:40am #

    Mr. Wiles — Since when is there free press and free opposition in Colombia? The most powerful and pervasive newspapers, radio and television are all controlled by the oligarchy and have been for decades. Because the right is represented by wealthy business owners, free press in the form of opposition from the left is tolerated by suppression, at best. As for political opposition from the left, if 4,000+ members of the UP being assassinated over the course of a few years in the 1980’s indicates free opposition, looks like we’ve got a long way to go.

    The quasi-democratic system in Colombia has not prioritized investment for the impoverished in any form, in fact, nearly 80% of its funding through Plan Colombia is directly earmarked for fumigation, advanced training for its special forces and continued anti-Farc/Eln operations. Like Central America, the peace process in Colombia has also been long and difficult, yielding ineffective results since Pastrana left office. Uribe hasn’t sought open channels of negotiation with either the Farc or Eln to the same extent as he has directed open aggession against both groups and citizens of the countryside through his official military and his paramilitary AUC.

    Good point on identifying the indolence felt in the country, hence the plummeting voter turnout rates of the past two elections, falling below 46% in 2006. This, however, is not an indication of strong belief in national structures, as low voter turnout is directly proportionate to a waning confidence in their state establishments. People don’t vote when they loss hope in a flawed system, hence a continued decrease in polling stats, just like the US or anywhere else where democracy is failing the people while strengthening corporate allegiance.

    The problem with terrorism and violence in Colombia will not come to an end if the Farc and Eln are eliminated. State oppression was a regular occurrence long before the Farc rose from the blood-stained soils through the 1950’s and officially entered the socio-political spectrum in1966. If the Farc are eliminated from the equation, the state will once again have regained complete hegemony over the people.

    Have you forgotten your history? Insurgent groups are a product of state oppression, which is why we don’t see these entities in countries like Switzerland and Norway which have governments that take care of the people. However, once you look at the long list of insurgent groups in Latin America, and why they made a stand to begin with, one can only deduce state neglegence as the primary culprit.

    It seems that you completely misunderstand the conflict in Colombia, or at least you’ve established your opinion based on what the oligarchic-controlled press has released to the international public.