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 26

Constitutional Court President Mauricio Gonzalez Cuervo announces its 7-2 decision: the constitutional reform referendum bill was unconstitutional because of the way it was approved. President Álvaro Uribe cannot run for a third term on May 30.

President Uribe accepts the court’s decision.

This is a very good step for Colombia. Its institutions, especially the balance between democratic powers, showed real strength today. Mature and stable democracies do not change their constitutions to benefit one individual, no matter how popular. Colombia is to be congratulated.

The court’s decision is also good news for the Obama administration, which certainly had no desire to work with an “ally” governed by a third-term president who proved unable to leave power voluntarily.

Feb 24

Update as of 2:45PM Thursday: The “La Silla Vacía” website, which practices serious journalism and is unlikely to blow its credibility on a story likely to be quickly proven incorrect, is reporting that the referendum does not have the votes in the Constitutional Court and that “Uribe will not be able to run for re-election.”

Update as of 5:15PM: Rumor is that the court will announce its decision on Friday. No new information about what they might decide.

El Tiempo reports that Colombia’s Constitutional Court, in session right now, is near a decision on the legality of a referendum to allow President Álvaro Uribe to run for a third term. That decision could come today.

Sources in the Constitutional Court confirmed to El Tiempo that yesterday, in what was the fifth hearing about the referendum, a majority trend was revealed in favor of the position of Judge Humberto Sierra Porto, which proposes to reject the initiative.

The same sources even said that the court’s decision, which will resolve the greatest political crossroads of recent years, could come in today’s session, or next Friday’s at the latest.

If the court finds against the referendum, somebody other than Álvaro Uribe will be elected president on May 30 (or in a subsequent second round). Stay tuned.

Jan 27

Note as of 1:00 AM January 28: After 13 hours of deliberation today, El Tiempo reports, Colombia’s National Electoral Council decided to suspend the ADN party, citing the active role played by imprisoned politicians.

(This post was composed with research assistance from CIP Intern Cristina Salas.)

As Colombia inches closer to its March 14 legislative elections, it is growing ever clearer that the country has not left “para-politics” behind.

The last time Colombia reelected its Congress, in March 2006, about a third of the winners ended up under investigation, on trial or in prison for ties to mass-murdering, drug-trafficking paramilitary groups who were politically powerful in many regions. (Download a recent list here.) The resulting scandal raised public awareness of organized crime’s infiltration of Colombia’s government, and spurred Colombia’s Supreme Court to attempt an ambitious housecleaning in the legislature. But the phenomenon continues in the current election cycle.

Since the 2006 cycle, three parties all but ceased to exist because of the huge number of office-holders who ended up in trouble for sponsoring, aiding and abetting, or otherwise making deals with the right-wing militias. But “Colombia Viva,” “Colombia Democrática” and “Convergencia Ciudadana” are back in new guises, running candidates for the March vote.

The three parties have undergone a makeover, reemerging as Alianza Democrática Nacional (National Democratic Alliance) and Partido de Integración Nacional (National Integration Party), but maintaining the legal registrations of Convergencia Ciudadana and Colombia Democrática, respectively. (This El Tiempo editorial asserts that they maintain the legal registrations of Convergencia and Colombia Viva.)

Alianza Democrática Nacional, or “ADN” (the Spanish initials of DNA, as in genetic code), was created in early December by former members of Colombia Viva, Convergencia Ciudadana and Colombia Democrática, the latter party founded by President Álvaro Uribe’s second cousin Mario Uribe, who is currently under investigation for paramilitary ties. Colombia Viva included Senator Vicente Blel, sentenced this week to seven years in prison, and Álvaro García, accused of conspiring with paramilitaries who carried out a notoriously horrific string of massacres in the Montes de María region during the early 2000s. Juan Carlos Martínez, a Convergencia Ciudadana senator from Valle del Cauca, is accused of helping to organize the ADN party from his prison cell.

Former members of Convergencia Ciudadana created the Partido de Integración Nacional, or “PIN”, after the earlier party ceased to exist because its founder, ex-senator Luis Alberto Gil, was jailed and another one of its leaders, ex-governor of Santander Hugo Aguilar, came under judicial investigation.

Colombian analysts say that these political parties exist in part to support the campaigns of political heirs of the “para-politicians,” thus guaranteeing their continued influence and local political power. As the scandal leaves voids in local political leadership structures, the parties aim to fill them with the scandal-tarred bosses’ friends, relatives or allies. In the candidates list for the upcoming elections, for instance, ex-senator Gil has been replaced by his wife, and ex-governor Aguilar by his son. (More examples of family members serving as substitutes can be found in this piece in the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio.)

The head of the largest “mainstream” pro-Uribe party, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos of the “Partido Social de la Unidad” or “U”, claims that the party is doing its utmost to avoid paramilitary influence. (Several “U” party legislators have been embroiled in the para-politics scandal, though the party was not hit as hard as the three parties being re-packaged today.) Santos announced that all “U” candidates for the upcoming Congress elections will be investigated for ties with illegal groups, including the signing of sworn statements and verification by an “ethics committee.”

Left-of-center Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán says that those who do not pass muster in La U will end up in the ADN or PIN parties, “enchanted creations conceived at the last minute by the Palace of Nariño [Colombian 'White House'] to house the scum of the paramilitary mafia that the ‘U’ no longer has the luxury of admitting.”

Meanwhile, ADN and PIN, their campaigns flush with cash, are blanketing several regions of Colombia with advertisements professing their support for President Uribe, hoping to ride his coat-tails back into office, four years after the “para-politics” scandal first broke.

Jan 20

With legislative elections scheduled for March 14 and presidential elections slated for May 30, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is running out of time to change Colombia’s constitution and run for a third consecutive term in office.

The timetable is tight, but not impossible, Colombia’s Semana magazine explains.

Starting last week, when Inspector-General (Procurador) Alejandro Ordóñez submitted to the Constitutional Court his finding in favor of the referendum, the time period of 30 workdays began for Magistrate Humberto Sierra Porto to submit to the full tribunal his finding about its constitutionality. After these 30 days, which would end on February 22, the Constitutional Court’s nine magistrates could take another 60 to make their definitive decision. If this is positive, and Registrar Carlos Ariel Sánchez takes the full three months that he originally announced that organizing the referendum vote would require, the voting could take place in mid-August, by which time Álvaro Uribe would have no possibility of running for his second re-election.

But these procedures’ speed still breathes life into the possibility that the referendum could be approved and the President might run without having to change the electoral calendar. [Colombia's media is abuzz with speculation that pro-Uribe legislators might take the drastic step of trying to delay Colombia's election day.] These are the counts made in the majority of the political world’s circles: if Magistrate Sierra Porto presents his finding to the court’s full chamber in less than 20 days, as several sources in the high tribunal attest, the court could be issuing its finding by the end of February.

Then the ball would be in the hands of Registrar Sánchez, who over the past few months has been reducing the time he says he needs to arrange the referendum vote logistics. While in the middle of last year he told Semana he needed four months, in August he spoke of three and in November of two. As a result, and recalling his frequent changes of opinion, it would not be odd for Sánchez to accept that the referendum be voted a day before the legislative elections scheduled for March 14, using the same infrastructure for both votes. In theory, this would not require seeking a new list of guarantors, setting up new ballots, or organizing new voting precincts. In this case, the elections could be organized in less than two months.

However Sánchez, the registrar, said Monday that he would still need two months to organize the referendum vote. He cited “logistical and legal terms that would mean at least two months,” as well as contracting procedures. According to Semana magazine’s shortest timeline, that would place the referendum in mid-April, a mere month and a half before the presidential election in which Uribe might or might not be a candidate.

Oct 08

In an interview with BBC Mundo published today, Colombian Vice President makes a novel argument. The main reason Álvaro Uribe should be re-elected to a third term, Santos says, is because Colombia faces “generic” threats from outside its borders. Excerpt:

BBC: “And you, as vice-president of Colombia. Are you in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election?”

Vice-President Francisco Santos: “Look, I am in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election, given the situation of the continent. A very complex situation in which the threat to Colombia has become ‘trans-border.’ The threat to Colombia is outside its borders. There is an urgent need to continue and put an end to criminal and terrorist organizations. I believe we are in a moment in which it is needed simply to keep pressuring. And I don’t believe Colombia should now be experimenting, making a change and having learning processes (…). A third term for the president would not affect democracy. Those who say it would do not believe in democracy (…).”

BBC: “You say that the threat to Colombia comes from outside its borders. What are you referring to?”

Santos: “The Colombian problem today has some connotations that generate complexities that you know well, you have seen them and reported on them. I don’t want to be specific in this sense so as not to generate diplomatic complications, but it is a reality that the world recognizes and that, for Colombia, brings about some political and, above all, diplomatic challenges to which it is urgent to begin to attend.”

BBC: “Might this concrete case [this week's Colombian Defense Ministry allegation that the FARC has encampments inside Ecuador] be what is being referred to when you spoke of trans-border threats against Colombia?”

Santos: “Essentially, no.”

BBC: “Then, what were you talking about concretely?”

Santos: “I’ll repeat. I prefer to leave that in generic terms, which is the best way to manage an issue as complicated as that (…), which is ever more clear about, that represents a threat to the continent, but for Colombia represents a challenge that is, above all, diplomatic (…).”

BBC: “You give the impression that you are making an indefinite accusation, like someone who throws a stone then conceals his hand, to say it flatly.”

Santos: “Well, this is what many do, and I believe that in diplomacy sometimes one has to talk to Juan so that Pedro understands. So I think it is important in that sense. But I believe that you as journalists who cover the world and reality, you know how things are.”

BBC: “You’re not willing to be more concrete.”

Santos: “No, no.”

Aug 28

Greetings from my couch – I’ve been out sick the last two days. But this morning I took lots of ibuprofen and wrote this analysis of the Colombia base agreement dispute and the UNASUR meeting for the Huffington Post.

Also to update on the re-election referendum debate in Colombia’s Congress: the process of reviewing all 92 legislators’ recusal requests has proven to be too time-consuming, and the House adjourned Wednesday night, postponing further deliberations for as many as eight days. Some Colombian press has been speculating that the pro-reelection camp is still uncertain about whether they have the votes, and may need a few extra days to twist arms outside the spotlight.

Aug 26

Following up on yesterday’s post: Colombia’s House of Representatives did not vote last night on the re-election referendum bill. They adjourned near midnight after 92 of the body’s 166 members recused themselves from the vote.

The main reason was that 86 of them were already under investigation by Colombia’s Supreme Court for the crime of “prevaricato” – roughly, acting against legal procedure. Several months ago, these 86 voted in favor of the referendum before they were legally allowed to do so, as Colombia’s governmental Registry had not yet approved the signatures on the public petitions that made the vote legally possible.

As a result, the chamber spent its session yesterday considering each recusal request individually, and the vote never occurred. It may occur tonight, as the House is convening again this afternoon.

El Tiempo indicates that when the vote does occur, the referendum to allow President Uribe to seek immediate re-election is likely to be approved.

While it was not possible to pass the law, from the first moments it was more or less clear that the necessary votes were in place.

The first sign was the body’s refusal to approve a request from Rep. Guillermo Rivera to exclude the issue from the day’s agenda. The request was denied by a 93-42 vote.

One way to interpret this, as several congresspeople said, is that it indicated that the 93 representatives who refused to approve Rivera’s proposal are the same ones who want to vote in favor of the referendum.

Aug 25

Today may be the most important day for Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s bid to run for a third straight term in office. The lower house of the country’s Congress, the Chamber of Representatives, is to vote on legislation to hold a referendum this fall. In that vote, Colombians will decide whether to change their constitution – for the second time in four years – to allow Uribe to compete in the May 2010 presidential vote and remain in power for twelve straight years.

A month ago, after opposition figures took over the presidencies of Colombia’s House and Senate, most Colombian analysts were arguing that the re-election referendum was as good as dead. But late last week, some hard-nosed behind-the-scenes politicking convinced Colombia’s Senate to pass a bill.

This legislation, allowing a referendum for a third consecutive re-election, closely resembles what the Senate had already passed. The House, however, had months ago passed a bill interpreted only as allowing a referendum to give Uribe the right to run in 2014, leaving the Congress deadlocked.

It is not clear whether, when it votes tonight, the lower house will change its position and approve a referendum for 2010 reelection. The pro-reelection camp first needs a quorum: 84 of 166 representatives must be present for the vote. Those who do show up are almost certain to vote yes, with the rest boycotting to prevent the possibility of a quorum. (This is what happened in the Senate, when 58 of 102 senators reported for a 56-2 vote in favor of the referendum.)

Whether that 84-member threshold will be reached is the subject of feverish speculation in Colombia’s media. The pro-Uribe camp claims to have more than 85, or as many as 92 or 94 votes, already locked up. Opposition figures, meanwhile, are denouncing that legislators are being offered favors, or otherwise pressured, to vote “yes” to allow the referendum.

If the bill passes the House this evening, its next step is Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which must guarantee that the referendum law meets with several procedural and constitutional requirements (explained in a Flash animation, in Spanish, on the La Silla Vacía website).

The outlook is completely uncertain.

Oct 29

The parties in President Uribe’s coalition won governorships in less than half the country, and in only a few of the most populous departments. (Source: votebien.com, adding candidates from the Alas Equipo and “La ‘U’“parties.)

Colombia held municipal and departmental elections yesterday. The voting was mostly peaceful, though the past few months’ campaigning was quite violent, with dozens of attacks on candidates, the majority carried out by the FARC.

Here are a few notes about yesterday’s election results.

  • President Álvaro Uribe and his supporters cannot be happy about the outcome.

Candidates from the pro-Uribe coalition got more votes than any other single party, but failed to win the mayorships of Colombia’s three largest cities. Pro-Uribe party candidates won about 15 of 32 governorships, and the mayor’s offices of about 14 of 32 departmental capitals.

  • Independent candidates did well.

The term refers to candidates from neither the Uribista coalition nor either of the two main opposition parties (the Liberals and the Alternative Democratic Pole). Candidates from small, usually locally focused, political movements – many of them from the left – scored some key victories.

In Medellín Alonso Salazar, an expert on violence and gang activity who served as Secretario del Gobierno (similar to deputy mayor) under popular Mayor Sergio Fajardo, came from behind in the polls to defeat former mayor Luis Pérez by a comfortable margin. Salazar, from the same small independent left-of-center political movement as Fajardo, was polling in the single digits a few months ago, while Pérez had locked up the support of Medellín’s traditional politicians and much of its business community. Though not the most charismatic campaigner, Salazar was helped by his association with Fajardo and by a wide range of endorsements – from the pop singer Juanes to President Uribe’s wife Lina Moreno.

In Cali Jorge Iván Ospina, another candidate from a small left-of-center political group, surprised many by beating Francisco Lloreda, scion of one of the city’s oldest and wealthiest families. The 39-year-old mayor-elect is the son of an M-19 leader killed in combat in the mid-1980s.

Colombia’s traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, had a hard time in Colombia’s cities. They remain quite strong in rural areas, though, judging from mayoral results in rural municipalities and gubernatorial results in more rural departments. The Liberals won nine departmental governorships (out of 32) and about 200 mostly rural municipalities (out of about 1,100); the Conservatives – part of the pro-Uribe coalition – took three governorships and about 200 mostly” rural municipalities.

  • The “united left” did reasonably well, but showed its weaknesses.

Colombia’s united left opposition party, the Alternative Democratic Pole, held onto the Bogotá mayor’s seat, which is often referred to as the second-most powerful position in the country. Samuel Moreno, with a come-from behind victory, beat former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who was President Uribe’s choice. Moreno succeeds popular Alternative Democratic Pole mayor Luis Eduardo Garzón. Though Garzón did not support Moreno in their party’s primary election – the outgoing mayor is more politically moderate than Moreno – his high approval ratings (consistently over 60 percent) gave the candidate a boost.

In the days before the election, President Uribe gave Moreno a great political gift. On several occasions the president urged voters not to support Moreno and the Alternative Democratic Pole by implying that the party was tied to the FARC. On a visit to the Caribbean coast town of Algarrobo, Magdalena last Thursday, Uribe said, “Today Algarrobo speaks to Bogotá. May they not make the mistake there … of electing mayors supported by the guerrillas who also buy votes.” Uribe made similar statements on Friday and Saturday, and had his ministers of interior and defense do the same.

Continue reading »

Oct 16

Last week the largest party in the coalition backing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe approved a resolution calling on Uribe to run for an unprecedented third consecutive term in 2010. The “Party of the ‘U’” promised to gather the 1.3 millionsignatures necessary for a petition to amend Colombia’s constitution to allow Uribe to run again.

If Uribe’s popularity rating continues to hover at around 60-70 percent, as it has for five years, he very well could win again and serve until 2014. Though he hinted in September that he might not seek re-election in 2010, Uribe has been curiously silent about the “U” Party’s latest move.

There are many in Washington, CIP included, who believe that the United States has pursued an unbalanced, reckless, exceedingly militarized and ineffective strategy in Colombia. Most of us believe that as part of that strategy, the U.S. government has been too warm, unquestioning and uncritical in its public embrace of Álvaro Uribe.

If President Uribe wants to do us a great favor, if he wants to make our work in Washington far easier, he should absolutely run for a third term.

  • If he stays for a third term, Álvaro Uribe’s stock would drop dramatically in U.S. public opinion. By laying bare Uribe’s inability to loosen his grip on power, by highlighting his refusal to let Colombia’s institutions develop and do their jobs, a new re-election effort would leave a terrible taste here. Even if Uribe continued to position himself as a close U.S. ally, those in Washington who have been concerned about his authoritarian tendencies would have their suspicions confirmed.
  • Members of Colombia’s political class who have been waiting for Uribe to step aside and give them a turn would drop out of the president’s coalition – and become vocal critics with access to Washington opinionmakers.
  • Surely, some in Washington would continue to back Uribe, if only because he isn’t Hugo Chávez. But Uribe’s remaining U.S. backers would no longer be able to argue that the United States must support “Colombia’s Winston Churchill.” The more accurate analogy would become, perhaps, “Colombia’s Alberto Fujimori” – or in words attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, “an S.O.B., but our S.O.B.”
  • Should a third term become a serious possibility, continued U.S. assistance to Colombia – even economic aid – would become a much tougher sell. By 2010, the United States will probably have given Colombia $7 billion since Plan Colombia’s inception a decade earlier. After so much investment in “South America’s oldest democracy,” such strong evidence of that democracy’s degradation would place the entire policy in doubt. Future aid near today’s generous levels would be unlikely.
  • And of course, if Washington is still considering a free-trade agreement at the same time Colombia is debating a constitutional re-election amendment, Uribe’s ambitions would only foster doubts about Colombia’s democratic credentials, working to the advantage of the agreement’s opponents here.

This scenario is still hypothetical – but the “U” Party certainly set it in motion last week. Let’s see where it goes.

Jul 02

Here, with English subtitles, is a brief (3:42) conversation with Wilson Borja, a Colombian congressman from the opposition Alternative Democratic Pole party. It was recorded in Brussels last Thursday, a few hours after we learned of the murder of eleven Valle del Cauca legislators.

Rep. Borja, a labor leader who has represented Bogotá in the Congress since 2002, talks about the necessity of a humanitarian exchange accord to free the remaining hostages. He argues that the Colombian government should be the most subject to international pressure because it is the only legal, institutional party involved. That is a compelling argument, but I don’t give it a full endorsement. In my view, both sides should be pressured to make the compromises necessary to get to the table.

I do, however, share Rep. Borja’s confusion at the Uribe government’s recent release of guerrilla prisoners, which has yielded no results. And I strongly share his concern for the safety of members of Rep. Borja’s political party; an Alternative Democratic Pole leader was murdered in Antioquia department early last week.