FARC peace accords signed by 22 February

Peace with the FARC guerrillas must be signed by 22 February to be put to a referendum on 25 October; the day of Colombia’s local and regional elections.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that President Santos must present any peace agreement with the Marxist rebels to Congress no later than 24 February, and that the public must be told in advance of this date.

Read more…

Vote for peace, vote for Santos?


If Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has his way May’s election will be a referendum on one issue; peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas.

One of Santos’ campaign slogans is “together for peace”, while his logo reminds me of a dove draped in the LGBT rainbow flag. The “president-candidate” as he is now called, even claimed this week that “changing the captain” at half-time would lead to an untimely and unsuccessful end to the Havana talks. 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

More women in Colombian politics, please


Women make up only 25% of the candidates in this year`s elections.  Sadly, most stand little chance of being elected, and are way down on the ballot paper.

The law says 30% of senate and congress hopefuls must be women, but many complain this is largely irrelevant if these candidates are mere also-rans.

The news is not all doom and gloom, however. Former President Alvaro Uribe`s right-wing Centro Democratico party, has women in 4 of its top 5 senate spots, while the Conservatives have Marta Lucia Ramirez and Polo Democrats Clara Lopez, as their presidential candidates.

Equally, there are high profile candidates in the Alianza Verde like Claudia Lopez (senate), and Angelica Lozano and Angela Robledo (house of representatives).

Despite this, Colombia`s politics remain a largely male preserve.

Now don`t get me wrong, I`m no politically correct ideologue, nor do I subscribe to the “if only women ruled the world…” club. There`s nothing intrinsically better about women rather than men in power.

However, I do think that balance in politics is healthy. Just as there is a problem that Colombia`s political class is overwhelmingly Bogotano and overwhelmingly white and rich, there is also a problem that it is distinctly machista.

Democracy is dependent on pluralism of ideas and ideologies. If it is to be truly representative, democracy must also have space for different genders, different classes, and different races.

What can be done?

Under-representation is an historic problem for Colombianas. Colombia was one of the last countries in the Americas to give women the vote (1957 the first time they could go to the polls), and although for example the law now establishes a quota for ministerial positions, the rate of progress is slow. Just 16 of the 102 senators and 22 of the 166 house representatives are women; 3 governors and just 10% of mayors are female.

Yet although Colombia is often called a machista society, Colombian women are strong – frankly they are often the ones who “wear the trousers”. Make no mistake, this is no Taleban nation; Colombia rightly celebrates womanhood.

It`s not a case then of radically changing society. Yes, attitudes in some are outdated and discriminatory, but the country as a whole is more modern in this respect than it is given credit for.

Perhaps instead of revolutionary change, we`re talking about subtle but real action. The steps to the top are there, we just need to ease the way for women to climb them.

For starters, how about the next president establishes a powerful Minister for Women, a cabinet position with real power? This need not be a quota, but something and someone of substance. Yes there is a position already in place loosely to promote equality, but let`s beef this up, focus it and put a high profile, hard hitter in the role.

How about we also hold the next president to account over the number of women he has in his cabinet. Santos has struggled to fill these positions. If he wins next time, he must do better.

The political parties themselves must take action too. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) almost half of the parties have no women on the board, and none have quotas for internal elections. A quarter also fail to have an “office” for women`s issues, and a third have no working plan to promote engagement with women.

51% of Colombians are women, but just 12% of the nation`s political posts are filled by women. They are a majority but without political representation.

This must change.

Photo, El Colombiano

Santos to win with VP dream ticket


Colombian President Santos’ VP is a dream ticket that puts him on course for victory in May`s presidential election.

Charismatic German Vargas Lleras will outshine Santos over the coming years, and I suspect will act as a de facto “joint president” doing away with the tradition of a largely ceremonial second in command.

Vargas is the answer to Santos’ poor polling numbers, and as one of Colombia`s most popular politicians (and a shoe-in were he himself to run for president), has been chosen to win over the two thirds of voters currently against the Santos re-election.

Despite knowing he could beat his boss, Vargas has a pact not to stand against Santos. In return he will be given far-reaching powers and will receive the nod in 2018.

One of the very few ministers in the four years of the Santos’ administration with any real successes to point to, Vargas is a fixer, able to work congress and the media with ease. In contrast to Santos, he is a fluent and forceful speaker; something of a good old-fashioned political operator.

Like Santos, Vargas Lleras was born into political power, the grandson of president Carlos Lleras Restrepo. Both men are from Liberal Party families and are cut from the same upper class Bogotano cloth. This is unquestionably the most elitist and traditional ticket in recent history.

Now, Vargas does not share Santos’ view of peace talks with the FARC. He was a fierce opponent of former president Andres Pastrana`s Caguan talks with the FARC that ended in 2002; and although publicly silent on the Havana talks, Vargas is a well-known sceptic. Some attribute this to the two attempts on his life it is expected were made by guerrillas groups.

As vice president, Vargas is expected to be given greater autonomy than previous holders of the post. Normally the VP is a position that comes with very little authority, less power and even fewer things to do. Incumbent Angelino Garzon has spent the last four years complaining of his isolation and irrelevance. Vargas however is rumoured to be in line to lead the delivery of the flagship infrastructure policies at the heart of the Santos second term.

Whatever role Vargas ends up taking on, he will want to be first in line to receive the credit for new projects and investment. A highly visible VP dishing out money to the regions and making governors, mayors and councillors’ pet projects a reality, is a sure-fire way of securing victory in the presidential elections in 2018.

If he has to wait until 2018, that is. Rumours are growing that Santos is set to deliver major constitutional change, using the peace agreement with the FARC as a catalyst for far-reaching reforms of the nation’s institutions in whom trust is at an all time low.

The president is said to favour removing the article that permits a commander in chief’s re-election, instead lengthening the presidential term to a one-off 6 year period. Under this scenario, Santos could step aside in 2016 (having secured peace with the FARC) and hand over the baton to Mr Vargas.

Constitutional change and political reform are set to form a major part of the legislative agenda in the first years of the Santos administration. There is little evidence however that voters are keen on this programme. Education, health, law and order and corruption top the list of concerns for the average Colombian.

Santos has chosen a vice president that is likely to be more popular than him. The price Santos will pay for getting Vargas to agree not to run against him is not yet known. But expect Vargas to be less a vice president and instead a joint president.

And with Vargas’ votes, Santos’ opponents look all but dead in the water.

Read our biography of Vargas Lleras

Colombia at crossroads; show us promised land Mr President


Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos goes to the polls in May promising to bring peace to Colombia if he is re-elected for a second term.

Rumours say the campaign slogan will be “Unidos por la paz” (“United for peace”).

But is peace really enough?

Colombia is at a crossroads. After a decade of record levels of foreign investment, with peace on the horizon, and an economy now bigger than Argentina`s, there is a unique opportunity for Colombia to secure its place at the top table.

But Colombia faces real and structural problems that block the way.

A politician not willing to show us the way to the promised land does not deserve another four years in power.

Time then, Mr President to tell how you will fix:

1. Colombia`s education system which last year was rated among the world`s worst.

2. A health service you promised to reform three years ago but remains unfit for purpose.

3. Infrastructure, for which you promised billions of dollars of investment but have failed to get spades in the ground.

4. Corruption; despite your government passing a host of legislation, Transparency International last year gave Colombia its worst score in 10 years.

5. A sclerotic justice system where – according to the World Bank – it takes four years to enforce a contract.

6. Rural Colombia and the agribusiness on which 50% of the nation is dependent. We`re six months on from the nation-wide rural protests but we still await a plan for a sustainable future for the nation`s farmers.

7. Law and order. You say crime is down and certainly homicides rates are moving in the right direction, but Colombians feel less not more safe since you have come to power.

8. Poverty, you have made progress in some areas but 10 per cent of the nation still live on little more than a dollar a day and 40% of Colombians are poor according to your own figures.

Politics should be about solutions to these and many other problems facing the nation. 2014`s election campaign has avoided this debate.

Yes, Colombia Politics supports Santos` bold efforts to negotiate with FARC guerrillas to end 50 years of conflict. But this election cannot be reduced to a vote on whether to support peace or to continue with the war.

Time to end the demagoguery Mr President and tell us what you`ll do to make Colombia the country its people deserve.

Colombia`s media are wrong; election is up for grabs


Don`t believe the hype or the Santos friendly media; 2014 is an election where anything could happen.

Polls show just 25% of the nation wants Santos to be re-elected. And 50% – yes 50%! – of Colombians can`t decide who to vote for or will spoil their ballot in protest at the poverty of choice.

Odd then that the media go with “Santos; the candidate with the best image” and “Santos; ahead by miles”.

An independent journalist might suggest Santos is as popular as Lady Thatcher in an English mining town. To propose he is already on course to win by a landslide is, well, tosh isn`t it.

I know I bang on about how the media is conveniently cosy with the government (not just this one, but who ever the government of the time is). But for me the media should always be the fourth branch of power, a force holding politicians to account not brown nosing.

You think I`m exaggerating about the relationship between the media and Santos? Tune your dial to Hora 20 on Caracol Radio, or BluRadio`s morning programme and you`ll hear that even journos themselves accept the argument.

So, let`s ignore those who say it`s all a foregone conclusion.

Let`s look at the reality.

Santos is ahead of his rivals? Yes. In fact, add the percentage points of the other candidates together and Santos is still above them.

Santos has the support of the parliament? Yes. He has built a coalition of over 90% of congress and now has the U Party, the Liberals and Cambio Radical officially supporting his candidature. Even some Conservatives will unofficially support him despite having their own candidate. Weird? You bet.

Santos has the media on side? Ave María, of course.

So, yes he`s on course to win. There is no one at the moment that looks ready to take him on. On the right, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, former president Alvaro Uribe`s choice, has sunk without trace, now on 8%, while the affable Clara Lopez on the left struggles to get above 5%.

Conservatives`Marta Lucia Ramirez has only just got going – she has been a candidate for less than a fortnight, and Enrique Peñalosa, a possible for the Greens, won`t formalize his candidature until March.

Santos is the clear favourite? Absolutely.

But…if 50% of the electorate is up for grabs and two thirds are against the president`s re-election, well it`s not as clear cut as the experts would like us to believe.

Think back to the “Green Wave” of Antanas Mockus in 2010. Mockus almost over night surged into what looked like an unassailable lead in the polls. His message of education reform and a crack-down on corruption had Santos pegged back, languishing even.

Mockus bottled it though in a series of painful interviews and debates and Santos – with the help of Uribe and campaign strategist JJ Rendon – went on to win with a record number of votes.

Remember too that in 2002 Alvaro Uribe burst onto the scene, coming from a very lowly position in the polls to win in the first round (which meant he won over 50% of the vote).

To my mind it doesn`t take that much imagination to see something similar this time round. Dissatisfaction with the old style of politics is at record levels, Santos is desperately unpopular in parts of the country, and let`s face it, he`s not the best communicator or campaigner.

A candidate with a clear message representing something slighty different could wipe the floor with him.

I`ve lamented before that there is no such candidate. Well, how about Enrique Peñalosa? He`s not even a candidate yet but registers 10% in some polls. He is well known, has a proven track record of good governance when mayor of Bogota. Ok, so he`s from the capital and is rich, but he`s a little outside of, a little different to the political class so loathed by Colombians.

Peñalosa`s advantage is that he is neither a loony lefty nor a reactionary right-winger. His is an ability to shift between the left and the right depending on the issue. As a consequence he attracts support from across the spectrum – just the sort of thing that becomes incredibly useful in the second round run off.

So if Santos fails to win 50% of the vote and he has to go to a run off with the second placed candidate, say Peñalosa the final result is anyone`s guess.

Santos would have his 25% guaranteed, but Peñalosa might just attract more of the 50% of the electorate up for grabs.

The ABS candidate, “Anyone but Santos” is a powerful ticket.

Am I getting ahead of myself? Of course. And does it have to be Peñalosa? No.

The point is that despite what the editors of some national papers seem to want us to believe. With 50% of the electorate in play, the game is very much afoot.

Picture, Mockus` 2010 “Green Wave”.

Colombia`s next president; a woman


Presidential hopeful Marta Lucia Ramirez was yesterday elected as the Conservative party`s candidate to fight Juan Manuel Santos in May`s elections.

Speculation is already growing that Alvaro Uribe loyalists will join forces with Ramirez making her a real prospect as Colombia`s first woman president.

The race is wide open as Santos languishes on 26%, while the majority of Colombians say they are undecided or will spoil their ballot.

Yes, Ramirez`s own polling figures currently barely register, but Colombia`s politics are a rare beast, and Alvaro Uribe himself won 2002`s presidential race in the first round just months after he had been written off as an also ran.

Santos is an unpopular president but he has the support of 90 per cent of the congress – which his opponents accuse him of buying off with over 1.5 billion dollars of “mermelada”, or jam.

Even with the support of senators, congressmen, governors and the U Party, the Liberals, Cambio Radical and a hotchpotch of others, it is almost impossible to see Santos winning the 50% needed to secure victory in the first round. That means he must face a run off against the second placed candidate.

At this stage – if not before – Uribistas could swing their weight behind Ramirez making her candidature difficult to beat. Uribe`s movement elected Oscar Ivan Zuluaga as their candidate just three months ago, but Colombians have turned up their noses at his uninspiring campaign, and privately many Uribistas have been pitching around for a new face.

Support for Uribe has certainly fallen in recent months, but he remains popular in much of rural Colombia – where the Conservatives are also strong.

Ramirez`s biggest challenge will be to hold together her divided party.

The Conservatives remain part of Santos` national coalition government and many of the parliamentarians still favour joining the Santos re-election campaign.

Ramirez and her allies accuse the parliamentarians of siding with Santos not because of ideological coincidence but because they`ve grown fond of the taste of the jam.

Ramirez alleges senators like Santos supporting Arturo Yepes paid for transport food and board for delegates to attend yesterday`s conference – from which Ramirez emerged victorious – and vote to down Ramirez`s candidature.

The decision by Conservative party activists to go against the wishes of their parliamentary representatives is seen as a rebellion against the political class.

Ramirez announced her candidacy in January 2013 and Colombia Politics argued then that she was the Conservatives` best hope of returning to power after more than a decade on the sidelines.  Since then we`ve met her a few times and have been struck by her clarity. She may remain unknown to large swathes of the nation, but unlike many politicians she has a clear agenda. She has less than four months to sell this to the country.

Is she a realistic hope for Colombia`s first female president?

Picture, Semana