Apr 27

With all the usual caveats about polling in Colombia, just look at this chart of all the polls I’ve seen in the past 30 days or so. They show a steady but mounting momentum in favor of former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus.

The latest Ipsos-Napoleón Franco poll, released late yesterday, gives Mockus the lead for the first time. Mockus overtakes the main “successor” of popular president Álvaro Uribe, Juan Manuel Santos, who a month ago was the untouchable frontrunner.

(Click on the image to see a bigger version.)

The polls show Mockus taking little support from Santos. Instead, the quirky former mayor’s surge began in early April after another popular mayor, Sergio Fajardo of Medellín, abandoned his struggling presidential campaign to join Mockus’ ticket. The unusual display of unity resonated with Colombian public opinion and made Mockus’ campaign far more viable.

Can anyone honestly say they saw this coming a month ago?

Feb 05

The 2009 foreign aid request kept me away from the mid-day FARC protest march. However, Paola Castro, a CIP associate working with our Central America Program, was there. Paola, who is Colombian-American, came back with a very positive impression of the event.

As she notes below, the Washington protestors were careful to stay “on message” – condemning the FARC’s horrific abuses without straying off into more politicized territory (such as supporting government officials, directing ire at Venezuela, or intimidating the peaceful opposition). This deserves praise and congratulations.

Paola writes:

As a Colombian-American citizen I feel really glad that the pro-peace and anti-FARC rally went well today in Washington D.C. Around eight hundred people came together in Freedom Plaza [15th and Pennsylvania Avenues], with Colombian flags and a variety of signs. Interestingly enough, none of the signs were pro-government or pro-Uribe as some people predicted.

Civil pressure is exactly what is needed to confront all illegal armed groups that still exist in Colombia in order to force them to stop the atrocities that day by day they continue to perpetrate in the country, affecting all levels of society. I am 25 years old, I was born almost 30 years after the conflict started, and just in the last two years I have seen that for the first time civil society in Colombia is waking up and it is ready to let their voices be heard. I really hope that in the rest of the world where these rallies took place, the spirit has been the same (apolitical, peaceful and well intentioned.)

She took these pictures:

Jan 28

In a movement apparently spawned by users of Facebook, millions of Colombians are expected to take to the country’s streets on February 4 to protest against the FARC guerrillas.

On its own, this is positive. After so many years of attacks on defenseless civilians in Colombia, the FARC should be made to feel the rejection of a critical mass of organized, energized fellow citizens. Though the guerrilla group is famously impervious to outside pressure or persuasion, perhaps a mass display of disapproval and rejection can have at least some impact on their morale, if not their behavior.

The march will be happening, though, in the midst of a strange, highly charged atmosphere within Colombia. While a display of outrage at the FARC is appropriate and well timed, the marchers and their organizers should avoid unintended consequences.

  • Don’t escalate the possibility of conflict with Venezuela. President Hugo Chávez is dead wrong to have called for giving the FARC political status in return for no change in the group’s atrocious behavior. He is even more wrong to be fanning the flames of conflict with Colombia by claiming that Washington and Bogotá are planning a military “provocation” against Venezuela. Hugo Chávez’s actions over the past two weeks are a key inspiration for the February 4 protest march.Marchers are free to say that Chávez is wrong and should stay out of Colombian affairs. But the march must not devolve into an expression of anti-Venezuelan sentiment. If the protests are filled with bellicose or warlike messages about Colombia’s neighbor, they will heighten tensions, taking both countries further in a disastrous direction in which neither truly wishes to go.
  • Don’t let it turn into a pro-Uribe political rally. With the president’s popularity at 80 percent and his anti-guerrilla policies widely backed, many marchers may use the February 4 rallies for partisan purposes. The message may be that Uribe is the only leader capable of fighting guerrillas and, as a result, he must be re-elected to a third term in 2010.It was only five years ago in the United States – post-9/11 and pre-Iraq – that George W. Bush had a popularity rating similar to Uribe’s. Today, thinking back on that period makes most Americans cringe. President Bush’s 80-percent period was marked by the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, renditions, waterboarding, rampant media self-censorship, “shock and awe,” and “Mission Accomplished.” If the anti-FARC protests become a massive pro-Uribe demonstration, Colombia will be that much more likely to commit similar mistakes.
  • Don’t intimidate the opposition. Many Colombians oppose the FARC but have deep doubts about the Uribe government’s security policies. Many Colombians oppose the FARC but believe that only negotiations offer hope of achieving peace or releasing long-suffering hostages. Many Colombians still recall that key government supporters also have had long histories of supporting paramilitarism, and worry that they may avoid justice.Will there be space at the marches for those who reject the FARC but who believe in finding another way out of Colombia’s conflict, and who are not among the 80 percent who claim to support Uribe? Or will the marchers do their utmost to make them unwelcome? Will they even find themselves subject to unfounded accusations of supporting the guerrillas, if not outright aggression?

In today’s El Tiempo, columnist María Jimena Duzán expressed some of these concerns quite well. Here is a translation.

To the Facebook Marchers
By María Jimena Duzán
El Tiempo, January 28, 2008

Continue reading »

Jul 17

It only surveys Colombians with land-line telephones in four cities. It’s impossible to tell if its findings represent a trend or just a blip. But the results of the latest Invamer-Gallup poll in Colombia are still very striking.

This is Gallup’s first poll since April. (Full results of the April poll are here, as a big powerpoint file.) We haven’t seen the entire results of this new poll, but summaries in Semana, El Tiempo, the AP wire and elsewhere tell us:

President Uribe’s approval rating fell nine points since April, to a still very high 66 percent.

The portion of Colombians ranking security as the country’s number-one problem nearly doubled since April, from 29 to 55 percent. Security knocked the economy out of first place for the first time since the August 2005 poll.

The number of Colombians approving of the government’s management of the guerrillas dropped 12 points, to 53 percent. Last month’s unilateral freeing of guerrilla prisoners, followed by the murder of 11 guerrilla hostages, did not cause Colombians to rally behind the Uribe government’s strategy.

The “para-politics” scandal is finally taking a toll. Approval of the Uribe government’s handling of “the paramilitary problem” fell from 60 percent in April to 48 percent in July. Continue reading »

Jul 08

One out of every nine Colombians took to the streets of the country’s main cities on Thursday. They were called to march by President Uribe himself, though the event wasn’t completely stage-managed: members of the opposition participated as well. In Medellín, they were serenaded by pop star Juanes. In Bogotá and Cali, seas of people dressed in white filled the plazas and the main avenues.

Millions of people gathered to – well, to do what exactly?

  • Certainly, they rejected the practice of kidnapping and called on the FARC guerrillas to release all hostages in their custody. This outcome is unlikely; the FARC’s extreme indifference to public opinion is a key reason why the group has never stood a chance of taking power. Still, it is important that Colombians issue constant, unanimous and public rejections of the brutal tactic of hostage-taking.
  • As President Uribe had requested, many took to the streets to support his government’s hard line. They shouted a resounding “no” to a negotiated exchange of prisoners in a demilitarized zone, refusing to give an inch to the guerrillas. This is a tough, consistent position, though it offers almost no hope of winning freedom for the guerrillas’ hostages. The chance of a successful military rescue of all 47 of the FARC’s so-called “political” hostages is microscopically slim.
  • Some, including the hostages’ relatives, gathered to call for a negotiated “humanitarian exchange,” which would take place in a temporarily demilitarized zone. While it doesn’t show as much “firmness” against the guerrillas and may not even succeed, this option offers the most hope for freeing the FARC hostages.
  • While a minority marched Thursday to try to score political points for “their side,” the vast majority of the participants simply wanted to grieve and to voice their outrage. All directed this outrage at the FARC, who bear the responsibility for this tragedy. Some directed outrage also at the Colombian government, which has made the situation worse with a strange combination of hard-headed stubbornness and occasional displays of willingness to make concessions.

Thursday’s protests showed Colombians unified in their grief and anger. But they also showed extreme polarization. Sociologist Juan Carlos Guerrero Bernal vividly described the division in an online column for Semana magazine.

A close observation of some of the placards in the Plaza de Bolívar [in central Bogotá] was enough to notice this division. Those of the relatives of the policemen and other hostages called for a demilitarized zone and a humanitarian exchange accord, and rejected an all-out rescue attempt. By their sides, clusters of Uribistas carried slogans calling for firmness against the terrorists of the FARC, such as the rejection of any demilitarized zone. As the shouting quieted and the crowd of people in white shirts began to return to their jobs, the difference between both positions became more visible and audible.

Increasingly alone in the middle of the Plaza de Bolívar, in an new attempt to be heard with firmness, pain and desperation, the relatives of the hostages yelled through megaphones: “The people say it and they’re right, a humanitarian accord is the solution.” Not far away, every once in a while, the President’s sympathizers replied: “Uribe, friend, the people are with you.”

Elsewhere, Semana asks some of the big questions left by Thursday’s protests.

The question today is, will this be of any use? What does it mean that more than five million Colombians went out to demonstrate against kidnapping and the FARC? Is this the role that a society should play against the constant whiplashes of violence? Who or what will capitalize on this gigantic collective expression of pain and solidarity? Could this be the beginning of something big that we still have yet to glimpse? Or is is simply an expression of pain, ephemeral and spontaneous, from a society that will soon return to normality, and whose memories will be nothing but headlines in the press?

Right now, with so much polarization and lack of clarity about what to do next, last Thursday looks more like a catharsis than a turning point.

It will be interesting to see whether, as a result of the past few weeks’ events, Colombians’ attitudes about negotiating a humanitarian exchange have shifted at all. In April [big PowerPoint file], the last time Colombia’s Invamer-Gallup polling firm asked urban respondents with telephones whether they supported a “humanitarian exchange” negotiation, 48 percent were in favor and 46 percent were opposed. Opinions have been similarly divided for about 2 1/2 years.

Citing data from a poll taken Friday (numbers that we have not seen elsewhere in Colombia’s press), Semana columnist Guerrero reported that 60 percent of respondents now favor a humanitarian exchange. However, only 27 percent support an exchange if negotiations must take place in a demilitarized zone.

Colombians showed impressive unity this week in their rejection of violence. But they remain bitterly divided about where to go from here.