[Marxism] Colombia Update

Anthony Boynton northbogota at yahoo.com
Wed Mar 15 06:33:24 MST 2006

Colombia Update: March 2006

On Sunday March 12 this country held Congressional
elections.  Little changed in terms of who rules
Colombia, but these probably rank among the most
bizarre elections ever held. And, some of the details
are interesting. 

These elections truly bring home the meaning of
Bourgeois Democracy. Because only the bourgeoisie, big
and little, participate. Colombia is a country with a
very small proletariat – proportionally – and a very
large petty bourgeoisie. 

The working class and the poor petty bourgeoisie are
basically the same social class, jumping from working
as a vendor or small shop keeper to working in a
factory or shop and back as required to pay the bills.
Most of the petty bourgeoisie is very oppressed, in
fact frequently more oppressed than the proletariat.

58% of the eligible voters didn’t vote, although
unlike in past elections this does not appear to be
the result of any organized – armed or otherwise –
boycott of the elections. The FARC´s efforts – as
reported in the press – were minor and ineffective – a
few power transmission towers blown up, one polling
station attacked.  The ELN – for the first time in its
history – endorsed voting, although it did not make
any official endorsements. 

About 13% of the ballots cast were annulled because
they were improperly marked – more even than in Jeb
Bush’s home state.

About 3% of the voters cast blank votes – a
traditional form of protest.

Of the 26% of the eligible voters whose votes were
counted, an unknown number of votes were fraudulent.
Another unknown number were cast under threats and
intimidation in areas controlled or influenced by the

Election laws have recently been updated and refined,
and in fact were still being negotiated as the
election was about to happen. No one was even quite
sure how the ballots were going to be counted, or
exactly who was going to count them, as of two days
before the elections (Some people say they had already
been counted!)

Colombia has a kind of proportional representation
system. Voters could not vote for the candidates of
their choice – only for the party or list of their
choice. However, on some lists you could put the
candidates into a different order than that selected
by the party. But on other lists, you could not.

There were dozens of parties and lists, but if you
wanted to support President Alvaro Uribe Velez, you
didn’t need to worry about accidentally picking the
wrong party: 8 of the parties supported Uribe, and
Uribe in turn sort of supported supported six of the
eight parties.

Since you couldn’t vote for candidates, candidates
couldn’t be elected directly. Parties were elected, or
rather, they won seats. Good news for supporters of
proportional representation. There are 102 Senate
seats, but two are reserved for representatives of
indigenous people (seats which have not been assigned
yet because of an electoral boycott among indigenous

 Since there were 100 Senate seats up for grabs in the
general election, a party could receive one seat for
each 1% of the vote it received. A party that received
5% of the vote, got 5 seats. 

The first five candidates at the top of the party’s
list, unless the voters reordered the candidates on
the list to give some lower down candidate more votes,
were elected. Reordering of lists turned out to be an
important detail.

Also you could not vote for a candidate by name. You
punched a number instead of the name.

And, then there were the cases like the party that got
5.7% of the vote for Senate. They got 5 seats, not 6.

Seats in Congress are divided with the same method,
but based on the vote in each department, and in the
special district of Bogotá. Each department, and the
capitol district, is allotted seats in Congress
according to its proportion of the national

However, the recent census, carried out last year, has
been delayed. Its results could not be used to
apportion Congressional seats. The last census, done
in 1990, had to be used instead.

This was very good news for the Uribistas, since the
population of all the cities has mushroomed as a
result of paramilitary violence in the countryside
(and economic deregulation favoring large landowners
against small landowners.)

One political result of this demographic shift has
been the rise of a new social democratic left in
Colombia, the Polo Democratica Alternativa. This
umbrella now includes all of the major non-military
old left groups  (except the social-democratic faction
of the Liberal Party, led by Horacio Serpa.) The Polo
is electoralist, urban reformist, anti-free trade with
the USA, more or less environmentalist, and looks
toward an alliance with Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia and
Chile – and farther afield toward Africa and China -
as an alternative to current dependence on the USA. It
is in favor of a negotiated peace with the FARC and
the ELN.

While this demographic shift has been strongly
reflected in local elections in Bogotá, Medellin, and
Cali, it will not be reflected in the new Congress,
since the 1990 census was used to apportion seats.
Very good news for President Uribe and his friends.
Who, of course, control the census process.

What were the results of the elections?

After all of the above, no one was surprised when the
parties that support Uribe Velez won 61% of the
Senate, and about the same in the Camara (House of
Representatives). The petty bourgeoisie supports Uribe
because they want what he offers: security from
kidnapping and extortion. The sad truth is that the
FARC’s great military success during the Pastrana
years meant that it was able to kidnap thousands, and
spread fear of kidnapping throughout the entire petty
bourgeoisie. At the end of the Pastrana
administration, the military and the paramilitaries
were the two most popular institutions among the
Colombian middle class. Uribe’s election was the

Now, after nearly four years, Uribismo is unraveling.
The Congressional elections show the results.

The breakdown among the Uribistas is a little bit

The Partido de la U got  20 Senate seats,  the
Conservative Party won 18 seats, Cambio Radical won 15
seats,  Alas – Equipo Colombia won 5 seats, and and
Colombia Democratica won 3 seats.  

Two of the three bigger parties reflect the
presidential aspirations of two formerly Liberal Party
political dynasties. 1)the Santos family, which owns
the most important media company and newspaper in
South America. One cousin is currently Vice President,
and another Juan Manuel Santos, heads the Partido de
La U and would like to be president after Uribe. 2)
The Lleras clan. German Vargas Lleras lead Cambio
Radical, wnad would also like to be president after

The Conservative Party is controlled by the Catholic
Church heirarchy, which in Colombia means Opus Dei.
They plan to run their own presidential candidate
after Uribe.

The two smaller parties, Alas and Colombia Democratica
are the most closely associated with the
paramilitaries. They nearly crashed and burned in this
election. and strong ties with the paramilitaries and
the official military hierarchy. The Conservative
Party did make its financial resources public.

It’s worth noting that the preferential voting system,
where voters could reorder the candidates on their
party´s list did play a role in this election. Almost
all the generals and former military officers, and all
of the candidates publicly associated with the
paramilitary groups, all running on Uribista lists,
were voted down.

Within petty bourgeois sentiment there has been a big
shift away from the paramilitary organizations. The
“peace process” with the paramilitaries has not
legalized and legitimized them, but has had the effect
of publicizing their atrocities, their invovlement in
drug dealing, and their corruption. Rather than
feeling that the paramilitaries have been protecting
them, the middle class has come to fear the
paramilitaries almost as much as they fear the FARC.

The Parliamentary Opposition

The parliamentary opposition will consist of the
Partido Liberal, the Polo Democratico Alternativo and
Convergencia Ciudadana. 

The Partido Liberal is really just a shadow of its
former self. The two main oligarchic factions around
the Llleras and Santos families have abandoned the
party to the “social democrats” of Horacio Serpa.
Serpa will again be the Liberal candidate for
president, but he is in a very weak position. The
Liberals won only 17 seats in the Senate, plus Serpa
is seen by everone who pays attention as a spineless
opportunist. After he lost the last election to Uribe,
declared he was leaving politics forever, he took a
nice job from Uribe as Colombian ambassador to the
Organization of American States. Now many Liberals
would like to sneak into the government and serve
coffee for Uribe, rather than go jobless in the

The real opposition will be the Polo Democratico,
which includes the former M19, most of the former MOIR
(once Maoists), most of the Trostkyists, and the
supporters of the Communist Party. The Polo won 11
seats in the Senate. Interestingly, in the Polo’s
internal race to determine its presidential candidate,
Garlos Gaviria defeat Antonio Navaro Wolf. Navaro
Wolf, a former M19 leader, had been expected to win.
Gaviria, a judge, is an indpendent radical who has
long been associated with the Communist Party –
although he is emphatic about not being a communist.

The third current which theoretically will be in the
opposition is Convergencia Ciudadana, led by another
former M19er, but which allowed candidates associated
with the paramilitaries to run on its lists. 

The Paramilitary Organizations

The paramilitary organizations, which are very
publicly demobilizing, have long had an interesting
election tactic, basically the same as organized
crime’s electoral tactic in the United States. They
join all mainstream parties. Their candidates have no
public political program other than that of the group
they belong to. Privately they have an agenda to
support and defend the paramilitaries.

Recently they departed from this tactic during the
“peace process” publicling advertising the ties
between a small number of elected officials, mostly
women, and paramilitary leaders. The results were

Their unofficial capitol is the department of Cordoba,
and its capitol city of Monteria. But most of the
Carribean coast and the northern part of the valley of
the Rio Magdalena are also under their influence or

After the last elections, in which paramilitary
leaders boasted they had won more than 30% of the
seats in the Congress and Senate, the clandestine
influence of the paramilitaries became a political
controversy. The military, the US embassy, and
President Uribe – all with previously known ties to
the paramilitaries – deplored the influence of the

This year there were fewer assasinations of candidates
and elected officials than prior to other elections –
mostly local officials and candidates for local
office. The press routinely blames the FARC for these
killings, although many are in fact the work of
paramilitary organizations.

The most important, and interesting, assasination
attempt this year failed. It was against the German
Vargas Lleras, leader of Cambio Radical. The DAS,
local version of the FBI, immedaitely announced that
the FARC had made the attempt. Vargas Lleras
immediately announced that the FARC had not, and that
political figures associated with the paramilitaries
and the Uribe government had.

Nevertheless Vargas Lleras and his party still are
loyal Uribistas.

The “demobilization of the paramilitaries” is even
more bizarre than the congressional elections. Since
Uribe was first elected as president he has been
negotiating “peace” with the paramilitaries. The
paramilitary organizations are loosely grouped in the
AUC, (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, originalyy de

This is very bizarre, since the paramilitaries never
were at war with the government, and the army has
always maintained close – if not exactly- public,
connections with the paramilitaries. 

Supposedly there were about 20,000 armed members of
these organizations.

Pompous ceremonies with speeches by politicians and
paramiltary leaders have marked the demobilization of
each front. Usually far more people are demobilized
than guns. Often far more people are demobilized than
anyone had thought were members of that particular
front. And as soon as one front demobilizes, and new
front, with a new name, appears in its place. A system
of halfway houses has been set up around the country
where the demobilized are housed, and supposedly “
reinserted” into civil society. This means job
training and grants to start small businesses, in

In reality it has meant armed clashes around the
halfway houses, and a sharp increase in gang violence
in the neighborhoods around the houses. Bogotá’s mayor
kicked the halfway houses out of the city in a highly
publicized confrontation with Uribe Velez.

In short, the paramilitary organizations never were
really military organizations. There is no record of
any armed confrontation between the paramilitaries and
the army. The few aremd confronoations betweent he
paramilitaries and the FARC that have happened have
all been one side routs, with the complete defeat of
the paramilitaries involved. 

The paramilitary organizations appear to be a mix of
different kinds of armed groups. 

Some are the local squads of vigilantes controlled by
landowners organizations. They round up and murder
union activists, cattle thieves, and suspected
communists. Usually the murders take the form of
public executions in the town square. Landowners and
small town businesses pay dues to their local business
associations to make sure that these vigilantes do a
good job of “keeping the peace”.

Others are the armed gangs controlled by drug dealers.
The drug dealers rent them out to others. 

Others are military assasination squads working out of
official uniform.

Increasingly over the years, the three have blended
together, as traditional land owners have decided to
switch from traditional crops to cocaine and heroin
(although some have always been involved in this
economic activity.)

What next?

Next up are the presidential elections. There will be
at least three candidates. Uribe Velez, Serpa for the
Liberals, and Gaviria for the Polo. Uribe is likely to
launch a military offensive against the FARC while he
tries to make a peace deal with the ELN – both at
least in part to polish his credentials for the

What the FARC will do is anybody’s guess. Speculation
is divided between those who think the FARC will also
escalate militarily, and those who think the FARC will
lay low.

What Serpa and Gaviria might do is also a matter of
speculation. But a lot fo people are betting that this
election will be the end of the Liberal Party as its
Senators and members of Congress desert the sinking
ship to sign on with Uribe. 

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