Colombia’s imperfect dictatorship

Colombia is heralded as one of the few Latin American countries not plagued by dictatorship. But how close is she to what Mario Vargas Llosa called a perfect dictatorship? Has the governing elite managed to hold on to power by convincing people they have a democratic choice while simultaneously and systematically dismantling all opposition and threat to their permanence in power? Read more…

Colombia`s elections, what to look out for


Colombians go to the polls on Sunday to elect the most important congress in a generation.

What should you look out for, and what will happen?

First, some stats.

33 million Colombians are eligible to vote, 17 million women and just under 16 million men. There are 97,000 tables and 11,000 polling booths. Half a million Colombians living abroad will vote across 63 countries.

Over 2,400 candidates are fighting three elections, the senate, the house of representatives and the Andean Parliament.

In addition, Colombia`s Green Alliance has an open primary to choose its presidential candidate.

Now, here are my 10 predictions:

1. A new party, ex-president Alvaro Uribe’s Centro Democratico could win the highest number of senate seats. They have over 20% of the vote, with only the Liberal Party close. Expect the CD to win up to 25 seats.

2. Corruption will reach historic levels. Top Green Alliance hopeful Antonio Navarro says vote buying is “ferocious”, while reports claim candidates are pumping up to 5 billion pesos into their campaigns. Votes are changing hands for as little as $24 USD in some areas but rise to $150 USD in others. These will be the most expensive elections on record.

3. Left-winger Jorge Enrique Robledo could emerge as the senator with the highest number of votes. Robledo has been the most visible opposition parliamentarian of the last four years and is charismatic, forensic and indefatigable. A politician of some real conviction. You may not agree with his politics but it’s hard not to admire the man.

4. Apathy and protest will rule. The voto en blanco – literally blank vote – could emerge with the highest share of the vote. Polls suggests that north of 20% of Colombians will register their antipathy towards to the political class by refusing to vote for any of the candidates available. Sadly, abstention will also be high; over 50%.

5. The Conservatives and the U Party will see their vote collapse. The U won 28 senate seats in 2010 as the party of Alvaro Uribe, but Uribe has ditched them. The U are currently the largest party in the senate, but will lose around 50% of their seats tomorrow. The Conservatives have been particularly hit by corruption charges and are divided between those who support Santos and those who side with Uribe. Once the largest political force in the land, the blues will be reduced to fewer than 15 senators.

6. Left Wing Polo Democrats will continue to struggle to make an electoral impact, perhaps falling behind the newly formed left grouping, the Green Alliance. Robledo will of course be there, but he will be joined by fewer than a handful of senators.

7. Over 100 candidates are alleged to have links with paramilitaries. In some cases politicians already convicted of working or being financed by these brutal far right militias have simply passed their candidacy and their “votes” to family members. Verdad Abierta have also revealed that 35 candidates are themselves under investigation for parapolitics. The parapolitics scandal will come back into focus as later this year hundreds of demobilized paramilitaries will be released from jail.

8. Enrique Peñalosa by a mile will win the Green Alliance presidential primary. Over night Peñalosa will be transformed into the main challenger to President Santos in the May presidential elections.

9. 20% of those elected will be entering congress for the first time. Hardly the “renovation” politicians have been calling for, but a start. About the same percentage of winners will be women.

10. Although FARC guerrillas have threatened to terrorize the vote across 181 municipal areas, they will be largely thwarted by Defence Minister Pinzon’s action to put 266,000 members of the armed forces on the streets to monitor 99.9% of the voting booths. Pinzon claims these elections will be the safest in recent history. They must be.

These elections will change the way politics is conducted over the next four years. President Santos has enjoyed a coalition of over 90% of congress, meaning the legislature has been, well, a bit of a patsy in recent years.

If Santos is re-elected he will face major opposition from within the new parliament. He may even struggle to establish a majority. It will depend on how many seats Uribe`s CD wins and how many of the Conservatives will sit and vote with Uribe`s group.

With the return to the arena of Colombia`s political big beasts like Antonio Navarro (Green), Horacio Serpa (Liberal), and Alvaro Uribe (Centro Democratico), the next parliament is set to be a lively place. On paper this should be good for democracy. Whether the polarized nature of debate will help the governing of country is quite another thing, however.

This is the congress that will implement the peace accords with the FARC and prepare Colombia for post-conflict; it is the most important in a generation.

What should – but probably won`t – worry politicians is the level of distrust and contempt the electorate have for their elected representatives.

As abstention and protest votes emerge as the real winners on Sunday, the mandates of those elected to the 2014-18 parliament will be weaker than ever.

Politicians’ failure to represent the will of the people will undermine their ability to deliver the urgent reforms the nation needs. Or perhaps someone will get the message and change the way politics are done in Colombia. Perhaps…

Photo, Vanguardia

Colombian left; human rights hypocrites?


Many on Colombia`s left have made their name defending human rights.

So why is it that some of these very same politicians cannot bring themselves to stand up for the human rights of Venezuelans?

Why is it that they either remain silent, or worse still take the side of the government that oppresses and crushes dissent?

Why is it that not only in Colombia but across Latin America there are politicians unwilling to fight for human rights when “their side” is in power?

Are human rights not human rights if protesters are rebelling against left wing governments?

Imagine this.

A left wing politician is taken prisoner by a far right government.  His crime? To organize a march in protest at the government`s hardline policies.

The government`s secret service and hit squads fire live bullets into the crowds who`ve come out to support their leader. Reports say protestors were raped by the butt of a gun, beaten and tortured. The prisons minister tweets that her opponents are “shit scared” of her armed mobs. And the media reporting on this are threaten, harassed or taken off air.

So what happens next?

Neighbouring countries pressure for the prisoner`s release. Diplomatic ties are cut off with the right wing government. Across the continent they condemn the action and label the government a fascist dictatorship. And human rights NGOs campaign day and night for the release of the prisoner.

Change the left wing prisoner for right winger Leopoldo Lopez and the right wing government for Maduro`s administration.

Do you hear the condemnation from Presidents Correa, Kirchner or Morales? Have the Colombian human rights activists in the Polo Democratic party stood up to Maduro or campaigned for the release of Lopez?

No. Absolutely not.

Instead, look at this from Clara Lopez, the presidential candidate for the Polo Democrats.


“Polo rejects the attempted coup in Venezuela”.

Now I like Clara, she ordinarily strikes me as a democrat. Check out her twitter background, it`s a photo of students marching. She believes in direct action, and protest. Clara, do you support only those who march against governments you disagree with?

And this from former Liberal Party Senator and now Marcha Patriotica Leader, Piedad Cordoba a “defender of human rights” according to her profile.


“President Maduro we support you with all our love and friendship. Onwards!!”

Hang on Piedad. Your political movement is called “March” you organize protests across Colombia and yet you support a leader whose troops fire live bullets into student protestors?

Alongside this there are people like Ivan Cepeda who has carved himself a career as a “defender of human rights” as he boasts on his twitter account.  Standing up for those oppressed or threatened by overbearing governments or by hit squads is what he does 24 hours a day. So any tweet from him on the political prisoner or on the reports of torture in Venezuela? You guessed it, diddly squat. I guess he wants the Polo press release about the “attempted coup” to express his view.

I`m sure some of you are saying, well, maybe they don`t want to get involved in the business of a foreign country.  Fine but Cordoba and Lopez are actively supporting Maduro – they are already involved.

And I`m sure you`re asking why I`m picking on what the left are or are not saying. Look, I`m not suggesting it`s everyone on the left – far from it. There are sensible moderate left wingers, of course.

What I find hypocritical is that the left are supposed to be champions of human rights and can be great campaigners for those who have their rights ignored or violated. That is what they do, what they fight on in Colombia day and night.

So not to join forces with those protesting against an authoritarian government is not only hypocritical, but seems to me is also a fundamental betrayal of left wing values.

If you`re a left winger how can you support a government that oppresses its people?

State violence is state violence. Oppression is oppression. Censorship is censorship. Torture is torture.

Human rights are universal.

Ex-President Uribe on course to win 2 million votes


Colombia`s Ex-President Alvaro Uribe is set to win over 2 million votes in next year`s congressional elections says poll.

Based on the findings of canvassers Datexco, Colombia`s three main political parties will all see their vote share reduced by hundreds of thousands when ballots are cast in March.

Leaders are staring down the barrel of a gun as President Santos supporting U Party is on course to lose over 900,000 votes, while some 660,000 will desert the Conservatives. And although Liberal Party boss, Simon Gaviria denies his collective will be affected, they are projected to shed 474,000 supporters.

Despite never having fought an election in the past, Uribe`s Centro Democratico (CD) movement is threatening to emerge as the largest party in congress, dealing a heavy blow to President Santos` hopes of a successful second period in office.

It is far too early to tell how soft the support for Uribe is; Senate and Representative lists for the CD were only announced last month and candidates face a long and brutal campaign.  And while the former president himself remains hugely popular in certain sections of Colombian society, his running mates are largely invisible figures.

What ever the result next year, however, it looks certain that an incoming president will face a very different congress to that enjoyed by President Santos these past three years. Santos has ruled over a coalition government that controls over 90% of the legislature. Record numbers of laws have been passed, and opposition to the executive has been feeble, almost non-existent.

A congress with Uribe leading a pack of new and hungry senators is a prospect that has some political commentators salivating. Should Santos run for president again (he has until 25 November to announce his decision) and win, he would struggle to pull together a majority coalition in congress.

Colombia Politics expects the Conservatives will eventually join forces with the Uribistas of the CD. Santos must also face the reality that a number of supposed colleagues elected as U Party members remain loyal to their old boss, Uribe (rather than their current boss, Santos) and will link up with the Conservatives CD grouping.

If all remains to play for in the presidential elections, the same can also be said of the congressional vote.

Santos in dock over bumper $4,000 congress pay deal


Colombia´s Congressmen have won a whopping $4,000 (dollar) increase in take home pay.

Last night Santos used the presidential decree to deliver this eye-watering pay rise, caving into pressure caused by a week-long strike that crippled the legislature.

Vital government business was sidelined as senators and house representatives refused to turn up to work, enacting what is known as the “tortoise plan”, a form of filibustering based on absenteeism.

Politicians are exploiting weakness at the heart of a regime that over the summer months has struggled to contain civil unrest, and has seen a recent collapse in its public support.

Nationwide strikes, scepticism at the peace talks with the FARC in Havana, and a gloomy economic outlook, have combined in a perfect storm for Santos, who must next month announce whether he intends to run for re-election next May.

Scenting blood, congressmen are playing a game of chicken with the government, determined to back Santos into a corner. Rebels sense they now have leverage over the government´s political agenda.

But Santos´authority is being challenged not only politically but on technical and administrative issues. Yesterday`s decision to award the bumper 8 million peso pay out is a major u-turn for Santos, having been forced to go back on a decision to cut pay he had made just days earlier – and to great fanfare in the media.

Commentators are beginning to express concern for Santos’ future, with former President Andres Pastrana´s claiming his successor is now a “lame duck”.

Pastrana might be exaggerating, but Santos is certain now damaged goods.

Until recent months Santos`three years in charge had been characterised by a weak and virtually unanimous (in his favour) congress. Santos´national coalition government in theory controls over 90% of parliament, but as elections approach, the unity of the group looks increasingly fractured.

Conservatives are said to want out, but are waiting to see whether Santos decides to run again.

Meanwhile Santos`capitulation is being widely condemned by Colombians who see a congress increasingly out of touch with the realities of life in a nation in which average pay is little more than $700.  Social media users have rounded on what they see as greed, and incompetence on the Capitolio.

The protest group, the Tomato Party have called a “cacerolazo” – a protest where pots and pans are bashed loudly – against the congress tonight, while others make the case for the impeachment of the entire legislature.

But Colombians´anger is not just restricted to the issue of pay. The nation`s wrath has been stoked by their representatives refusal to debate new health laws.

Last week the government tabled a bill designed to deliver major reform of Colombia´s ailing health service. Health is said to be one of the voters`top issues as discontent with a corrupt and inefficient current system is high.

Failure to give the bill its first reading in parliament last week is being seen by voters as a sign of congress´egotisim and detachment from the rest of the country.

Today, with their pockets bulging, politicians made their way back to parliament to begin work on the bill.

Colombia Politics view

President Santos looks weaker by the day as he loses control of parliament and public opinion. The commander in chief appears to be following rather than leading the agenda.

Public opinion of congress has been low for years. This congress is seen as more inept than the previous group which was plagued by paramilitary scandals.

Colombians unhappy with their representatives have the opportunity to kick them out of power next March. The question is, however, whether a usually apathetic electorate will finally react.

Sadly, corruption and vote-buying will help ensure at least some of the discredited politicians will survive this public outcry.

A high turn out – something uncharacteristic in national or local votes – may help send a message to those at the top. We`re not holding our breath.

Picture, Calinet.

3 years with Colombia`s President Juan Manuel Santos

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos

Colombia´s President, Juan Manuel Santos celebrates his third anniversary in the Casa de Nariño amid increasing scepticism of his government´s flagship peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, plummeting popularity, and growing pessimism on the economy.

Just a third of Colombians support the idea of Santos´possible re-election next year, while 60 per cent oppose it outright. Support for the talks in Havana is also trending downwards; nearly 70% were behind the negotiations as recently as March, while polls this week show the figure dropping to 59%.  Worse still, the influential IPSOS “Colombia Opina” (quarterly national navel-gazer) shows 62% of Colombians believe the country is on the “wrong path”.

All this is a far cry from the halcyon days of Santos´ first twelve months in power when he basked in the glory of approval ratings in the 80s, the economy was booming, and the president was the darling of the international community; Time Magazine even devoted its front cover to “The Colombian Comeback” under Santos´ stewardship.

So what has gone wrong? Is this to be expected three years into a government?

Things are not as bad as Santos´opponents would seek to paint. Although the majority don´t back his re-election, 49% of Colombians still have a positive view of the president. Sure, he´s far less popular than Uribe who left office with support in the 70s, but in a country where the executive has such bureaucratic clout (and capacity to mobilize troops), 50% broad acceptance from voters is a strong base from which to win elections.

So if there is reason to take solace in the current figures, there should be no reason for complacency. There is much to applaud in Santos´time in office, but there is much to improve on, and much left undone.

The good

Despite rough economic winds internationally, growth has remained strong (plus 4%) and inflation has kept low. Foreign investment has been down in recent months, but Colombia is recording year on year record-breaking levels of FDI. How this translates into the pockets of ordinary Colombians is another thing, of course.

Colombia´s place on the world stage continues to improve. Free-trade agreements with the US and the EU have been signed sealed and delivered, and new economic blocs like the Pacific Alliance (with Chile, Peru, and Mexico) have begun. Colombia remains the US´top ally in the region but without alienating itself from his radically left-wing neighbours. Even the OECD has come knocking at Colombia´s door.

The armed forces have delivered a series of historic strikes against the FARC guerrillas during the past three years, taking out the military chief Mono Jojoy and the supreme leader Alfonso Cano under Santos´watch.

Santos´social policy (at least on paper) looks to be moving the gap between rich and poor in the right direction. Colombia is one of the most unequal nations on earth, but official figures at least show positive news in this area. Unemployment has fallen and hovers around 10%, two million jobs have been created, and 1,700,000 Colombians have been lifted out of poverty. The government is also handing over 100,000 new houses for the poorest. We are far from Santos`slogan “Prosperity for all” becoming a reality, but steps are being made.

Yet Santos´crowning achievement – even if it all ends in tears – must be his bold move to enter into peace talks with the FARC. Effectively he is betting his presidency, his place in history on securing an end to the 50 years of conflict that has ravished Colombia. He faces interests on both sides, but has brought together an international coalition and established a rigorous process and agenda for reaching an accord with the nation´s largest terrorist organization to demobilize. He must be applauded for this.

The bad

Where to start? It is the nature of government that there is more to criticize than to applaud. There will always be promises unmet, or broken, crises unanticipated and moments of total incompetence. But there are certain features of Santos`administration that do require castigation.

Security – perception or otherwise, Colombians complain that their cities are less safe than three years ago. Despite being in peace talks, the FARC’s attacks haven´t relented, and the neo-paramilitary BACRIM groups and others have made this year the worst for murders of human rights workers.  In the cities, the paseo millionario is on the up, with Bogota alone seeing 200 victims in the last two and a half years.

Infrastructure – 40 billion has been promised for major infrastructure works. A new vetting office has been set up with a bureaucratic budget and the order to start handing out contracts has been received. But despite Santos’ fine words about building a modern and connected Colombia, despite throwing heaps of cash at the problem, all we have to show for the hard work so far is an extra layer of bureaucracy. NOT A SINGLE project has started.

Corruption – Santos has created new government positions, corruption czars have come and gone, and he has talked big on cleaning the country up. What has changed? Has Colombia started to kick out corruption? No. Transparancy International´s 2013 Corruption Index was damning:

“The new institutional reforms promoted by the government of President Santos—the new Anti-corruption Act of 2011, and the creation of a new Anti-corruption office in the Presidency—have not contributed to curbing corruption. To the contrary, in Transparency International´s 2012 Corruption Perception Index, the country received the worse score in ten years, going from 57 in 2002 to 94 in 2012.”

Bureaucracy, centralization and elitism

Colombians accuse their president of promising the world and delivering precious little.

Santos heralded the first two years of his government as the most reforming on record. Perhaps they were, and God knows, Colombia needs real institutional change so we should welcome this, yes?

Absolutely, but there is a difference between making a law and making that law work. Colombia is a country of “mucha norma poco contenido”. There´s a law for everything but there is a real disconnect between the law makers in the capitolio and those in the regions and localities that have to implement these paper reforms.

Roy Barreras, outgoing Senate President spoke glowingly in July of 2012-2013 as the Congress`most succesful year ever. What was his justification? That it had passed a record number of new laws. Frankly Roy, that is not something to be proud of. More laws means more centralization less flexibility and greater bureaucracy. Exactly the reverse of what Colombia needs.

President Juan Manuel Santos was born into one of the richest families in Colombia, a silver spoon in his mouth and media empire to inherit. The presidency was his before he was out of short trousers. The first ever election Santos faced was that to become president. It was handed to him on a plate.

This elitism shows and in a strongly regionalized nation, this just doesn´t work.

The Santos administration feels too Bogotano, too posh, too out of touch and too restricted to the traditional political class.

Santos has floundered when he has ventured outside the confines of the capital (unless he is on a diplomatic mission to another country where he feels instantly at home). The coffee protests earlier this year were handled so poorly that the whole agriculture industry is threatening to go on strike next week. And peasant farmer protests in Catatumbo lasted nearly two months before Santos could put out the flames.

We also saw this lack of comprehension from those at the top in the reaction to the decision by the international court of justice to hand over to Nicaragua, Colombia`s San Andres maritime territory. We are waiting a year and the foreign ministry is yet to make a decision on what to do. All the while the livelihoods of the fishermen on the archipelago are being compromised. Bogota appears to have forgotten about the islands its politicians visit only on holiday.

So, what of Santos` overall performance? 

Colombia Politics finds the Santos regime frustrating. The past three years have, contrary to detractors, not been an unmitigated failure. There is much to cheer in the way Colombia is emerging on the world stage, and Santos himself has proven a shrewd diplomat when dealing with his noisy neighbours. If the peace talks end well, Santos`place in history is secured, and rightly so.

But away from the headlines, away from the eye-catching announcements, there is a  real sense that more could and should be done. How much is this Santos` fault and how much is it the result of less than stellar ministers and bureaucrats?

What´s clear is the Colombian state remains inefficient, corrupted and often incompetent. Santos cannot take all the blame for this.

Our view is that with a good team surrounding him, with competent and public facing ministers, the Santos administration would score highly for its first three years in power. Without that team Santos will continue to flatter to deceive over the next year and into a possible second term.

Photo, EFE.