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.

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Keep FARC leader Timochenko alive for peace?

Colombia has a loose-tongued president.

Yesterday, Juan Manuel Santos told us he knew where FARC commander alias Timochenko is hiding, but claimed he’d “think twice” before ordering a shoot-to-kill.

Mr Santos believes Timochenko is essential to the peace talks in Havana and that removing him would spell an end to the dialogues.

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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 democracy is mortally wounded”; Petro


Let there be no doubt; Gustavo Petro was a disastrous mayor. Bogota has gone backwards under his ideological administration. Today, many Bogotanos will allow themselves a sigh of relief as he finally leaves his post.

But for all his faults, Petro was elected fairly and squarely. His mandate came direct from Bogota’s 8 million souls, and his removal from office is an affront to us all. 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