I took to the streets on April Fools Day to join Colombia’s right wing, anti-government march.
On a stage erected just metres from the Congress building, in Bogota’s Plaza de Bolivar, speech after speech called for an end to the, ‘corrupt’, ‘illegitimate’, ‘Communist-appeasing’, ‘FARC guerrilla-supporting’, Santos administration.
As live pictures of their demigod, former president Alvaro Uribe on walk-about in Medellin, were projected on to the rock-concert screens either side of the stage, vuvuzelas and air horns blew, flags unfurled, and fists pumped the air. Que viva!
Thousands wore the bright yellow jersey of the national football team; men and women, children and dogs. Umbrellas danced, blocking an unfiltered and baking midday sun in an un-Bogotano clear, blue sky. Wide-rimmed Paisa and thinner but higher-peaked Boyacense hats were held aloft. ‘Fuera Santos’, ‘Fuera Santos’, ‘Fuera Santos’, they shouted on the orders of the hard-right ultra-conservative, Alejandro Ordoñez. ‘Uribe, Uribe, Uribe’ they cried as cheerleader-in-chief, senator Paloma Valencia Black Power-punched the sky.
‘The people have shown that enough is enough. Santos must go!’
‘Colombia will not fall to Communism. Santos go! This is not Venezuela.’
‘Criminals. Assassins. Narco-terrorists. Resist the FARC-Santos regime!’
This was not the time for sophisticated, nuanced politics. This was unabashed, tub-thumping, rabble-rousing stuff.
Organisers, Uribe, Ordoñez et al, had billed 1 April as the mother of all anti-corruption marches. It turned out to be a nation-wide pre-election rally; a show of force. An opportunity for hard-right candidates to catch the eye of their patron, the still immensely popular and electorally potent, Alvaro Uribe.
Next year sees Colombia’s first post -FARC-peace-agreement congressional and presidential elections. And the battle-lines are already being drawn. Saturday’s speeches suggest the more hardline Uribista and Conservative candidates will run on an anti-peace accords platform, promising to undo the Havana agreement, stripping away the constitutional changes and returning to the status quo ante.
‘There’s no point being president under this new constitutional agreement’ screeched Ordoñez. If I win, the war against the FARC will resume, he seemed to saying.
A hatred for Santos and the FARC united the crowds. They see one as unadulterated evil and the other as the embodiment of an indolent and kleptocratic political class. For these voters, Alvaro Uribe during his eight years in power brought Colombia back from the brink, pushed back the FARC guerrillas, and turned the national from a failing state into a runaway economic success.
President Santos has undone their hero’s work. And he has capitulated to the narco-terrorists. It’s as simple as that.
In 2014 the right-wing presidential candidate, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga narrowly lost to President Santos. Zuluaga was an un-charismatic, vanilla candidate. A better man would have won.
The 2014 race was the most expensive in history – meaning more votes were bought than ever before. Most expect 2018 to be even uglier and even more corrupt.
It will run even longer too. After the success of the weekend – 50,000 turned out in Medellin and thousands more thronged the streets of 27 cities across the nation – Uribe has vowed that the ‘march will continue’.
The challenge that faces Uribe is immense. President Santos will not be on the ballot paper next year. Yes, he will leave power unpopular, and loathed by a large part of the country. But the election won’t this time be a referendum on Santos. If it’s true that a better candidate than Zuluaga would have beaten Santos, it is also true that a better candidate than Santos would have thrashed Zuluaga.
Whoever Uribe picks as his standard-bearer must appeal not only to those who marched at the weekend, but also to those closer to the political centre. Ordoñez repels more than he enthuses, for example.
For now, Uribe will be emboldened. Despite his controversial legacy he remains, by most measures, more popular than any other politician.
Legislation prohibits Uribe from running himself. Were he able to, he would probably win in a divided and packed field. He would at the very least get through to the run off.
The question is whether Uribe can capitalise on the ire of those marching on Saturday, transforming this into a coherent, less populist, less hard-right programme for government. Judging by the tone of the 1 April speeches, it seems unlikely.
But after 8 years of a hugely unpopular, aloof and elitist government, who says Colombians won’t fall for the facile rhetoric of a right or left-wing populist?
Last time I said Colombia needed a Donald Trump. The more acute among you will hopefully have spotted the irony.
Few of us look forward to months and months of marches and demagoguery. Most of us will be nauseated by the vertiginous race to the bottom.
1 April 2017 confirmed the 2018 presidential election will be fought on visceral irrational politics where feelings trump reason.
Kevin is a political consultant and lobbyist who cut his teeth working in the UK Parliament. He is a regular panelist on Colombian television, a political communication strategist and a university lecturer. Kevin is the founder and editor of Colombia Politics.