Election Preview: Colombia 2014

Map of Colombia (source: ezilon)

Legislative elections will be held in Colombia on March 9, 2014. All 167 seats in the Chamber of Representative (Cámara de Representantes) and all 102 seats in the Senate of the Republic (Senado de la República), the two houses which make up the National Congress (Congreso Nacional) were up for reelection. The five Colombian members of the Andean Parliament (Parlamento Andino) were also up for reelection. Member of Congress and of the Andean Parliament are elected for four-year terms.

These congressional elections will be followed by presidential elections on May 25, 2014. The President, who is the head of state and government, is elected to a four-year term, renewable once, using a two round system.

Electoral and political system

The Chamber of Representatives, the lower house, is made up of 162 seats elected in 33 multi-member circunscripciones territoriales – that is, Colombia’s 32 departments and the capital district of Bogotá. Each department has at least two seats, with an additional seat for every 365,000 inhabitants or fraction greater than 182,500 inhabitants in excess of the first 365,000 inhabitants. The capital district of Bogotá has the most seats, 18, followed by the departments of Antioquia (17) and Valle del Cauca (13). The distribution of seats between the departments is detailed in this presidential decree from 2013 setting the number of seats. The remaining five seats in the Chamber are split between two seats elected by Afro-Colombians, one seat elected by native indigenous Colombians and two seats elected by Colombian citizens living outside the country.

The Senate, the upper house, is made up of 102 seats. 100 of these seats are elected at-large, in a nationwide constituency (circunscripción nacional), while the remaining two seats are elected in a nationwide constituency for indigenous native Colombians.

Congress is elected by party-list proportional representation, with seats distributed according to the largest remainders method. The two houses of Congress and the Andean Parliament are elected on separate ballots. When voting for the Senate and Chamber, voters must choose whether they will vote in the national/territorial constituencies or if they will vote in one of the special constituencies (for the Senate, the indigenous seats; for the Chamber, the Afro-Colombian seats or the indigenous seats) – they may only vote in one constituency. The vote may be preferential or non-preferential – the choice is up to the political parties, who either decide to present a closed list of ranked candidates or an open list. If the party run a closed list, voters only mark the logo of the party. If the party runs an open list, voters must vote for a single candidate (marking the box with their chosen candidate’s number, or marking both the party logo box and the candidate number box). On all ballots for all constituencies, there is also an option to officially cast a blank/white vote (voto en blanco).

Colombia is an electoral democracy, although the presence of guerrilla and neo-paramilitary criminal groups in more isolated areas have an incidence on the electoral process and there are publicized cases of vote buying and intimidation. Freedom House considers Colombia a ‘partly free’ country, notably because of threats to journalists by criminal groups (guerrilla, neo-paramilitary, drug cartels etc), restrictions of constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and association (because of violence), judicial corruption, limited civilian oversight of the military, human rights abuses by the military and impunity for crime. Land rights associations, social movements, labour unions and NGOs are often killed by criminal groups.

Political history

Colombia’s history is sometimes described as ‘paradoxical’ because it mixes a long tradition of democratic rule with free and fair elections and respect for political and civil rights with a long history as a fractured and polarized society where democratic competition exists alongside political violence. Colombia is also peculiar on several counts, most notably as being the only South American country in which the Liberal and Conservative parties have survived into the twentieth country and by the continued existence of guerrilla groups which challenge the Colombian state’s authority within its own territory. Colombia, finally, is the third most populous country in Latin America with a population of over 47 million, but it often seems as if its history isn’t as well known or popularized as that of Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and even Venezuela.

The roots of modern Colombia’s political history were sown during Gran Colombia (1819-1832), the state which included modern-day Colombia (then known as New Granada, present-day Colombia’s name under Spanish colonial rule), Venezuela and Ecuador. Early conflicts in the fractious and weak country related to the territorial organization of the state, with the familiar debates between federalists and centralists. Gran Colombia’s 1821 Cúcuta constitution adopted a highly centralized form of government, with powerless provincial assemblies and local governors appointed by Bogotá. The 1821 constitution otherwise revealed the US influence, with a traditional presidential system of government and separation of powers. The legendary libertador, Simón Bolívar was Gran Colombia’s first President, with his fellow liberator general Francisco de Paula Santander as Vice President (and de facto ruler during Bolívar’s campaigns against the Spanish crown in Peru). When Bolívar returned from Peru in 1826, he came to favour a more autocratic form of rule, with a president serving for life and appointing his successor. In August 1828, Bolívar took power as dictator, with the backing of military officers and the Catholic Church. While clearly elitist, Bolívar, a free-mason and opponent of slavery, was probably not a true conservative. Yet, he felt that some of the early anticlerical reforms were going too fast, and favoured a more gradual pace in the adoption of various reforms. Bolívar’s autocratic rule was backed by the military and aristocratic families. He ran into the opposition of his Vice President, Santander, who was forced into exile in the US. Santander’s liberals were mostly from the emerging upper-classes of hitherto peripheral provinces in New Granada. Venezuela and Ecuador seceded from Gran Colombia in 1829-1830, and a sickly Bolívar resigned in May 1830, a few months before he died.

Gran Colombia’s short-lived conflict between Bolívar and Santander’s supporters informed the formation of the Liberal and Conservative parties in nineteenth century Colombia. Santanderismo supported federalism, separation of Church and State, equal rights and responsibilities, public education, civilian government and free trade; bolivarianismo – in Colombia – came to be associated with centralized government, support for the Catholic Church’s privileges and a more elitist and autocratic conception of government. However, Bolívar, because of his stature as the libertador and the contradictions in his political career, has been used across Latin America by both the left and right to legitimize their own political agenda. It is fairly telling that, in Colombia, bolivarianismo has tended to be associated with Conservatives, while in neighboring Venezuela, bolivarianismo has been widely used by Chávez’s socialist government as some kind of ‘ideological foundation’.

Gran Colombia, a rump state by 1830, adopted a new constitution in 1830 similar to the 1821 Cúcuta constitution. In 1832, the country reconstituted itself as the Republic of New Granada, with a new constitution which expanded provincial autonomy somewhat and abolished military (but not ecclesiastical) legal privileges. The military had suffered from its association to Bolívar’s dictatorship and most of its officers were lost to Venezuela following the collapse of Gran Colombia. The new state was weakened by the country’s broken topography and primitive infrastructure, which made asserting control over the entire territory rather difficult. The economy was equally as weak: most of the population were farmers or raised livestock for domestic consumption, foreign trade was very low, gold mining employed few people and was disconnected from the rest of the economy. Santander became the country’s president in 1832, ruling as a moderate liberal (promoting education, holding down military spending) until 1837. Uncharacteristically for the era, Santander accepted the defeat of his favourite candidate, general José María Obando, by a more conservative man, José Ignacio de Márquez.

The very Catholic region of Pasto rose in rebellion in 1839, after Congress closed small convents. They were backed, in an unholy alliance, by federalist liberals and the Ecuadorian president. José María Obando became the leader of the opposition after Santander’s death in 1840 and began a civil war. While Obando’s liberal federalist rebels had early successes, by the end of the year 1840, they were soundly defeated by the government forces. Márquez completed his term and he was succeeded by the two distinguished government commanders during the War of the Supremes: Pedro Alcántara Herrán (1841-1845) and Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera (1845-1849). The dominant conservatives adopted a new constitution in 1843, which centralized powers in the central government and allowed the Jesuits, expelled by the Spanish, to return to play a key role in education. However, President Mosquera’s policies alienated some conservatives and the conservatives’ divisions allowed a liberal, José Hilario López, to win the presidency in 1849. The 1849 election marked the formation of Colombia’s two major political parties, which exist to this day, the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Colombiano) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Colombiano). The Liberals came from the santanderista tradition, while the Conservatives took their ideological influences from Bolivarianism. Both parties differed on some important issues (notably the Church), but both were elitist and opportunist. For example, the Liberal victory in 1849 owed partly to the backing of protectionist artisans, who opposed Mosquera’s low tariff policies – even if the Liberals, like many Conservatives, were no protectionists.

The new Liberal administration began to challenge the Church’s predominant position and favour federalism. The Jesuits, who returned in 1843, were again expelled in 1850. The Liberals abolished the last vestiges of slavery, Amerindian communal land, reduced the size of the army and proclaimed the freedom of the press. Conservative landowners and slaveholders were defeated by the Liberals in a brief civil war in 1851. In 1853, the Liberals adopted a new constitution, which introduced unqualified freedom of religion, universal male suffrage, devolved powers to the provinces and made provincial governors directly elected. The new constitution did not settle matter, and the fairly rapid pace of reforms worried some moderate Liberals. In 1854, one of them, General José María Melo, overthrew President Obando’s government in a coup in April 1854. The Liberal and Conservative elites united against Melo, backed by artisans, both to restore constitutional legality and thwart social change from below. Melo was run out of town in December 1854; the 1854 civil war allowed the Conservatives to reenter government, increasingly gaining the upper hand. Mariano Ospina Rodríguez, a Conservative, was elected President in the first direct election in 1857, defeating a radical Liberal candidate and former President Mosquera. The election demonstrated to what extent the population had become aligned with the two parties: local priests (for the Conservatives) or potentates (for both parties) recruited their people to vote for one party, local and individual partisan affiliation was handed down over generations and inherited party affiliations became important.

The 1853 constitution was not a federalist document per se, but it led various parts of the country to demand autonomy. In 1855, Panamá, which never had much affinity with the rest of New Granada, obtained self-government. Other states (Antioquia, Santander) followed suit in 1856 and 1857, before Congress granted self-government to five states in June 1857. Ironically, it was a Conservative administration which adopted the first federalist constitution, in 1858. The country was renamed as the Granadine Confederation.

Nevertheless, the Conservatives, as far as the Liberals were concerned, still leaned towards centralism and Ospina’s government was accused of not faithfully observing the intent of the federal constitution. Another civil war between Liberals – federalists – and Conservatives – centralists – broke out in 1860. In 1861, Liberal leader Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera declared the independence of the state of Cauca, the largest federated state, and his Liberal forces attacked the government (Conservative) forces. In July 1861, Bogotá fell and Mosquera proclaimed himself as President of the United States of New Granada, renamed later that year as the United States of Colombia.

Map of Colombia in 1863 (source: wikipedia)

With the federalist Liberals back in power, a new constitution – even more federalist in orientation – was adopted for the new country in 1863. Under the new constitution, the federal states could exercise power over all matters not explicitly reserved to the central government; they could raise their own militias and determine voting rights (some states used this to retreat from universal male suffrage). The constitution could only be amended by unanimous consent from all states. Finally, the President was no longer directly elected – to weaken the office, the President would be elected by the states (one state, one vote) for a single two-year term. The constitution granted wide individual rights, with the right to bear arms, no limits on the spoken word and freedom of religion. Nevertheless, the Liberals remained very much anticlerical. Mosquera expelled the Jesuits (again), who had been allowed to return under Opsina’s Conservative government. He also seized most Church property and legally abolished the religious orders of monks and nuns. The Liberals’ harsh anti-clericalism drove a further wedge of bitterness between the two parties.

Mosquera lost reelection in 1864, when the Liberals preferred the less megalomaniac Manuel Murillo Toro, a radical Liberal. In 1864, Murillo signed a law banning ecclesiastical orders who had not sworn loyalty to the constitution, further increasing tensions with the clerical Conservatives. The central government’s authority was weakened by power struggles between caciques in the various federal states. When Mosquera, reelected in 1866, moved to bar states from raising their own militias, he faced armed opposition from Panamá, Antioquia and Santander. Congress allowed states to raise their own militias again in 1867. However, that same year, facing a civil war in Magdalena, Mosquera sought to amend the constitution to grant the President discretionary powers in times of crisis. He arrested Murillo, tried to strongarm Congress into approving his measures and finally resorted to a coup d’état in April 1867 and dissolved Congress. States coalesced against him and Mosquera was overthrown a month after his coup by the president of the state of Boyacá.

Stability returned and prevailed until 1876. Railroads, mostly short and foreign-built, were developed in present-day Colombia. The Liberals paid significant attention to the neglected field of education, promoting public secular education through foreign assistance. However, unlike in Argentina, the push for public education was less successful because cooperation from state governments was not always forthcoming and ecclesiastical backlash. Conflict over religion and Church-State relations (especially in education) led to the outbreak of another civil war between Liberals and Conservatives in 1876. In a short but bloody conflict, the Liberals defeated the Conservatives and the leading Liberal general, Julián Trujillo, was elected President in 1878. The 1876-1877 civil war was a rare nationwide conflict, but there were several civil wars within the states between competing Liberal and Conservative (or even only Liberal) factions.

The pitiful state of public order in Colombia led some Liberal dissidents, led by distinguished intellectual and diplomat Rafael Núñez, to argue that anarchic federalism was hindering Colombian development. Instead, they sought a more centralized form of government, which would be able to lead Colombia’s regeneración (as Rafael Núñez’s movement came to be known). This position brought them closer to the Conservatives, who allied with Núñez to elect him to the presidency in 1880. During his first term in office, Núñez, constrained by the 1863 constitution, moved to increase central powers by creating a central bank and overseeing the opening of works on the Panamá Canal by France’s Ferdinand de Lesseps. A proxy candidate for Núñez was elected in 1882 (but died in office). In 1884, Rafael Núñez returned to the presidency, defeating the radical Liberals. In his second term, Núñez put his program of regeneración into action, but he first had to defeat opposition from the radical, federalist Liberals – especially in the radical Liberal stronghold of Santander. In yet another civil war, the central government defeated various radical Liberal caudillos in November 1885.

Federalism had not changed social relations in Colombia, which remained a very class-stratified society – a legacy of Spanish colonial rule. Penetrating the upper strata was made even harder by the weakness of the military as an institution – the generals of civil wars were part-time fighters, full-time politicians, landowners or lawyers. Living conditions were harsh for most Colombians, who were illiterate, poorly housed and victims of early mortality. Even rural upper and middle-classes did not live lavish or impressive lifestyles, even if they were of lighter skin tone and better educated. The poor state of infrastructure and the country’s terrain made trade, transportation and internal commerce very difficult.

Opposition having been defeated, a new constitution was adopted in 1886. The country became the Republic of Colombia, a centralized state with a strong central government. The President was indirectly elected by an electoral college, serving a six-year term with possibility for immediate reelection. The President named the governors of each department (as the states became known), and the governors named all mayors in their departments. The directly-elected departmental and local councils were powerless. The broad array of individual rights and the secular, humanist orientation of the 1863 constitution was dropped: the death penalty, abolished in 1863, returned; Catholicism became the official religion; and literacy was required to vote in national elections. A more autocratic, conservative, clerical and ultra-centralist state replaced Colombia’s last experiment with federalism.

Rafael Núñez was a religious freethinker, but was convinced that the Catholic Church – as a powerful institution controlling much of the population – needed to play a key role to support law and order in Colombia. In 1887, Bogotá signed a Concordat with the Vatican, under which the Church was compensated for seized property, religious orders allowed to return and the Church’s legal privileges were restored. Public education was entrusted to the Church, divorce (legalized by the Liberals) was forbidden and remarriages of divorced persons were retroactively annulled.

Núñez’s positivist regeneración saw the state take a more active role in the economy with the adoption of protectionist measures. In an effort to break the bitter partisan rivalries, Rafael Núñez created his own party, the National Party (Partido Nacional), made up of like-minded Conservatives and moderate Liberals. But the National Party quickly became more of a Conservative faction, as Liberals became displeased with the government’s clericalism, conservatism and authoritarianism. Some Conservatives, the so-called ‘históricos‘, opposed Núñez’s government and decried its economic policies (issuing paper money, new export tax on coffee).

Rafael Núñez, President of Colombia and leader of the regeneración (source: Wikipedia)

Rafael Núñez was reelected in 1892, but he was in poor health and he died in September 1894. In 1895, the Liberals, excluded from political representation and persecuted by an autocratic government, took up arms in a brief civil war, which was crushed by the government within a few months. Although the National Party, with Manuel Antonio Sanclemente, held the presidency in 1898, the government was weakened by rebellious Liberals and disgruntled Conservatives.

In October 1899, the Liberals launched another, stronger and more coordinated, uprising against the government. The Liberals were most successful in Santander and Panamá – and Cauca to a lesser extent – but their forces remained in a consistent position of inferiority to government/Conservative troops. Nevertheless, the Liberals could count on the assistance of foreign Liberal governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The Thousand Days’ War, as the bloody conflict came to be known, lasted longer and was far bloodier than any of the previous civil wars in Colombia. In July 1900, politicians and military officers overthrew Sanclemente’s government in favour of his Conservative Vice President, José Manuel Marroquín. The war ended with a Liberal defeat in 1902, with the signature of a treaty (the Treaty of Wisconsin) mediated by the US, which was taking an active interest in Colombian politics to defend American interests in the Panama Canal zone. The war is estimated to have killed 100,000 people (3.5% of the population), devastated the economy and bankrupted the country.

As a result, Bogotá was powerless to face the Panama situation. The Americans, who already controlled the railway line crossing the isthmus, had acquired the rest of the bankrupted French canal company and in 1903 signed a treat with Marroquín’s government in which Colombia ceded a Canal Zone in exchange for monetary indemnity. However, the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty. The Americans gave their support to the existing Panamanian revolutionary movement, and in November 1903 the Americans orchestrated Panama’s secession from Colombia (and made clear to Bogotá that it would oppose Colombian moves to regain the territory).

Rafael Reyes, a Conservative, won the presidency in 1904. His goals were reconstruction and reconciliation; in the spirit of the latter, Reyes welcomed Liberals in his cabinets and allowed them to gain some degree of political representation, to the dismay of intransigent Conservatives. But he was also rather autocratic: he dissolved Congress and convened a new constituent assembly in its stead, extended his term of office from 6 to 10 years and took heavy-handed measures against opponents. At the same time, Reyes successfully professionalized the military, reached an agreement with foreign creditors, promoted public works and offered tariff protection to industries. But Colombia still lagged behind in terms of railroad infrastructure and corruption was rampant. In 1909, Reyes’ one-man rule displeased the elites and a treaty he signed with Washington recognizing Panamanian independence (in return for monetary compensation) incensed public opinion. Reyes was forced out of office in July 1909.

A constituent assembly was convened in 1910, with the goal of reforming the 1886 constitution. Carlos Eugenio Restrepo, a Conservative backed by Liberals and Conservatives who had overthrown Reyes in 1909, was elected President by the assembly. Under the 1910 reforms, immediate presidential reelection was banned, the term of office reduced to 4 years and the President would henceforth be elected directly (but literacy and income requirements still conditioned the franchise, obviously limited to males).

Until 1930, an era of stability and growth prevailed under Conservative presidents. Coffee took off as the country’s main export crop, especially in the 1920s when Colombia accounted for 11% of the world market, making it the second largest producer after Brazil. Fruits (bananas, grown by the United Fruit), petroleum (in the Magdalena valley, with Standard Oil’s Barrancabermeja refinery) and textiles for domestic markets (in Medellín). Unlike other Latin American countries, foreign investment remained low – although governments were favourably disposed towards foreign investors – and coffee, Colombia’s main crop, remained in Colombian hands.

Relations with the US were normalized in 1921, largely thanks to president Marco Fidel Suárez, although the issue did not come without problems – the president was compelled to resign the presidency in order to facilitate passage of the treaty, under which Colombia recognized Panamanian independence in return for a $25 million indemnity from the US. The US indemnity was huge for Colombian standards, and led to a huge of influx of foreign loans for Colombia and government splurges on public works projects. The economy and infrastructures grew rapidly, but at the cost of rising indebtedness and suspicions of government corruption.

The Conservative hegemony, as the era is commonly called, was generally peaceful – in the sense that there were no civil wars and violence was limited to election time or isolated regional uprisings. Elections were not wholly free and fair, but they had some legitimacy. Furthermore, unlike in the early years of the centralized republic, the Liberals were represented in legislative bodies and sometimes ran candidates in presidential elections (notably in 1922, officially taking 38.3%). However, social unrest mounted during the later years of Conservative rule and ultimately undid the Conservative hegemony. The first strikes erupted in 1918-1919, famously with a tailor’s demonstration in Bogotá which led to the death of several workers. In rural areas, some tenants and sharecroppers rebelled against landowners. Tropical Oil, a local subsidiary of Standard Oil, faced major strikes at Barrancabermeja in 1924 and 1927. The worst conflict was the ‘banana massacre’ in December 1928, when the military opened fire on striking workers at a United Fruit banana plantation in the northern Magdalena department. A young Liberal politician, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, investigated the massacre and claimed that over 100 people were killed.

The banana massacre and the Liberals’ handling the issue, combined with the Great Depression which hit in 1929, led to the collapse of Conservative rule. The Conservatives were unable to resolve their divisions and the party had two candidates in the 1930 election, one moderate and one radical. The Conservative division allowed the Liberal candidate, Enrique Olaya Herrera to win the presidency with 44.6%. It was the first peaceful transfer of power between the old rivals.

The new Liberal government needed to deal with the Great Depression, which took a heavy toll on Colombia as the price of vital exports – coffee, oil and bananas – collapsed. The government, a coalition cabinet led by a moderate, took little bold measures but industrial production and internal demand nevertheless increased. By 1932, Colombia’s economy was out of recession. Colombia briefly went to war with Peru over the disputed Amazonian town of Leticia, in the Colombian Amazonian ‘trapezoid’. In May 1934, the League of Nations confirmed the border between the two countries, which was set in 1922 (and remains unchanged today, following the Putumayo river except for the Amazonian trapezoid, which allows Colombia an opening on the Amazon river).

Olaya’s successor, Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-1938), a Liberal, was more progressive and took bold moves. Unlike previous administrations, he proved friendlier to labour and even received sympathy from the Communist Party, founded in 1930. Under the name revolución en marcha (revolution on the march), the Liberal government amended the constitution to restore universal male suffrage (women were still not allowed to vote, but under Olaya they had gained equal rights to men to dispose of property), condition property rights to social rights and obligations, guarantee the freedom of religion and eliminate the previous requirement that public education be in accord with Catholic doctrine. The educational reform reopened the old clerical issue, which had generally been put to the sleep by the Conservatives. The government also passed an agrarian reform law, largely symbolic in the end, for sharecroppers. A fiscal reform made the income tax, adopted in 1918, more progressive.

In 1935, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a left-wing populist, abandoned the Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria (UNIR) which he had founded in 1933 to rejoin the Liberal Party. As a Liberal, Gaitán became mayor of Bogotá in 1936. As mayor, Gaitán beautified the city, improved public amenities, sent homeless children to shelters, promoted public health and sought to help poorer residents. But Gaitán’s policies, and the reformist policies in general, unnerved Conservatives and many Liberals. In 1937, the president compelled Gaitán to resign and the administration became less friendly with workers. His Liberal successor, Eduardo Santos (1938-1942), was a moderate and ‘paused’ the revolución en marcha. 

López regained the presidency in 1942, winning with some 58.7% against Carlos Arango Vélez, a moderate Liberal dissident backed by the outgoing president and the Conservatives. López took office in a time of crisis: after Pearl Harbor, Colombia became a close ally of the US and declared war on the Axis in November 1943; at home, the war badly hurt the economy, with foreign trade dropping, the United Fruit ending banana production after a disease ravaged crop and stagnating oil production. López tried to make further reforms, for example with a labour law to protect workers, but he faced the unrelenting opposition of the Conservatives, led by the vitriolic Laureano Gómez, a fascist sympathizer who admired Hitler and Franco. López was shaken by a failed coup attempt in the summer of 1944 and the combination of wartime economic woes, family issues and the strength of opposition demotivated him. He resigned the presidency in August 1945.

The Liberals were divided in the 1946 presidential election. The Liberal Party nominated Gabriel Turbay, a moderate. But Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, leader of the Liberal Party’s left-wing faction, had been focusing on a 1946 candidacy since 1944. Gaitán, who had since served as education minister (1940-1941, falling due to Liberal and Conservative opposition to centralize public education) and labour minister (1943-1944), led a populist campaign which appealed to the disgruntled urban middle-classes, the working-class, rural radicals and a progressive bourgeoisie. Gaitán attacked both parties, but some Conservatives, including Gómez, openly sympathized with Gaitán’s criticism of capitalism and the ‘political and economic oligarchy’. The Conservatives, who briefly tried to woo Gaitán to their side, ultimately nominated Mariano Ospina Pérez, a more moderate leader from Antioquia. With the Liberal vote divided, Ospina won the presidency with 40.5%, against 32.3% for Turbay and 27.2% for Gaitán, who won most urban areas.

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, assassinated Liberal politician (source: Wikipedia)

Like Olaya in 1930, Ospina tried to bridge opposites in a politically polarized country, forming a coalition government (albeit one dominated by his own Conservatives). However, re-empowered Conservatives took matters into their own hands and violently attacked Liberals to seek revenge. In the 1947 congressional elections, the Liberals held a majority in both houses; within the Liberal Party, the gaitanistas now held the upper hand over the moderate leadership (22 senators and 44 representatives, against 13 and 30). The Liberals were now reunited, if only in appearance, behind Gaitán, who was proclaimed at the party’s new leader and already openly campaigning for the 1950 presidential election. On April 9, 1948, Gaitán was assassinated by a young man who was lynched to death by an angry mob within hours. It is therefore unclear what the assassin’s motivations were, and whether Gaitán was the victim of a Conservative conspiracy (or perhaps even the CIA) as his devoted followers claimed.

Gaitán’s assassination unleashed bloody and destructive riots in Bogotá and around Colombia, riots which are known as the Bogotazo. Gaitán’s followers did not heed their fallen leader’s opposition to armed struggle, and crowds attacked major government buildings and looted stores in Bogotá. Ospina’s government did not fall, and quickly regained control of Bogotá. Liberal leaders s reluctantly rejoined the government. However, violence continued – opening a chaotic and very violent period known as La Violencia (the violence). The Liberals did not contest the 1950 election, citing the climate of extreme violence which existed, so the more extremist Conservative leader, Laureano Gómez won the presidency unopposed. Under Gómez’s presidency, La Violencia became a disorderly civil war opposing the conservative and Catholic right to a more progressive and populist left. He suspended Congress and cracked down on Liberals and Communists. Gómez wanted to replace democracy with a corporatist system inspired by Franco’s Spain. After suffering a health attack, Gómez resigned the presidency in November 1951, but ensured that his successor was a sycophant.

La Violencia was predominantly rural: in the countryside, both Conservative government troops and police and Liberal/Communist guerrillas were violent and thuggish. Some of the elements of that conflict in the 1950s influenced later forms of violence in Colombia: in lawless rural areas, vicious pro-government conservative paramilitaries – Los Chulavitas and the pájaros – attacked bandoleros, groups of poor peasants (unaffiliated with either party) who attacked landowners.

In June 1953, the government was overthrown in a military coup led by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a distinguished military officer backed by former Conservative president Ospina. Rojas’ coup was welcomed by most politicians in Colombia, and some Liberals joined the government and accepted Rojas’ offers of amnesty. Violence declined somewhat in 1953, but picked up again because Rojas, who quickly became a repressive dictator, showed little interest in actually ending the conflict. However, La Violencia degenerated into economic competition and banditry (rather than partisan wars). By 1958, about 200,000-300,000 people had died in the violence and La Violencia directly affected about 20% of the country’s population in one way or another.

Despite chaos, however, the economy grew steadily in the early 1950s, buoyed by high coffee prices on the world market. Economically, the Conservatives were pro-business but also intervened in the economy and industry: in 1951, they created a Colombian-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, to take over production at Tropical Oil’s wells when Tropical Oil’s lease expired. Tariffs increased, benefiting the Medellín textile industry and industry in general. Under the Conservatives and Rojas, there was some innovation in social policies to help the working-classes. It was also under Rojas that women finally gained the right to vote.

Rojas, originally elected with Conservative and Liberal backing, quickly broke with the two parties and created his own movement, a corporatist-type movement which initially could count on the support of the Church and industrialists. Rojas’ movement threatened both Liberal and Conservative elites, who feared that Rojas would become akin to Argentina’s Juan Perón or Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas. Therefore, the threat to their power prompted to the old enemies to put aside old conflicts to protect their political hegemony: Liberal leader Alberto Lleras Camargo and Conservative leaders Laureano Gómez and Mariano Ospina Pérez signed two agreements in 1956 and 1957, creating the National Front (Frente Nacional), an agreement to share power for 16 years and alternate the presidency between the two parties every four years. In May 1957, Rojas was overthrown in a coup backed by the two parties and an interim junta prepared the transition to civilian National Front rule.

The National Front agreement was ratified by 95% of voters in a 1957 referendum, followed by a presidential election in which Alberto Lleras Camargo, backed by the Liberals and Conservatives, handily defeated a Conservative dissident. In an odd congressional election held in 1958, both parties were guaranteed equal representation in both houses of Congress. The more radical laureanista Conservatives won more seats than the ospinista Conservatives. Under the National Front agreement, both parties were guaranteed equal representation in law-making bodies (Congress, departmental assemblies etc), cabinet and appointed offices. Although the National Front could be seen as restricting political participation by other parties, those parties – weak to begin with – got around the deal by running as Liberals or Conservatives. The National Front’s biggest success was ending the violence between the two old enemies – political violence therefore diminished sharply, with the elimination of old antagonisms but also military action and social assistance in rural areas.

Under the National Front agreement, the presidents were the Liberal Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962), the Conservative Guillermo León Valencia (1962-1966), the Liberal Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-1970) and the Conservative Misael Pastrana Borrero (1970-1974). Political opposition existed within the two parties. The Liberal Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal, MRL), led by Alfonso López Michelsen (the son of former President Alfredo López Pumarejo), united left-wing Liberals and socialists/Communists opposed to the National Front. More importantly, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla returned to Colombia to create the Popular National Alliance (Alianza Nacional Popular, ANAPO), which ran both Liberal and Conservative candidates. Alfonso López Michelsen won 23.8% as an (illegal) candidate in the 1962 elections, while ANAPO’s popular support increased over the 1960s. In 1970, ANAPO won 38 senators and 71 deputies, becoming the second largest bloc in Congress behind the Liberal Party leadership (oficialistas). That same year, Rojas ran for president against the official Conservative-Liberal candidate (Misael Pastrana) and two other Conservative dissidents. Rojas narrowly lost, according to official results, winning 39.6% against 41.2% for the official candidate. Rojas denounced fraud and vote rigging, and there is indeed pretty serious evidence to indicate that Rojas probably won but the government tampered with the results to give the victory to the National Front candidate.

The National Front governments intervened in the economy, making important investments in healthcare, education and infrastructure. President Lleras Camargo’s government passed an agrarian reform law in 1961, which aimed to resettle landless workers and very small landowners (subsistence farmers) on public land. On the whole, while the government followed the ISI economic model, it was a fairly ‘responsible’ government (controlling inflation) and did not neglect exports. The result of substantial government investments in education was a spectacular fall in illiteracy from 40% to 15% in the space of two decades. Socially, the National Front era was marked by rapid urbanization, very high annual population growth in the 1960s (later checked by government family planning policies) and the declining influence of the Catholic Church. The declining power of the Church allowed for the legalization of divorce (but only for those married in a civil ceremony) and an end to rabid anti-Protestantism from the Catholic clergy (during La Violencia, the clergy urged Catholics to attack Protestants). Yet, change did not meet expectations and there remained several problems: poor education, inadequate infrastructure, high income inequality and far too many Colombians still living in poverty.

The National Front ended La Violencia, but it did not end armed conflict in Colombia. Fed by social inequalities and the radicalization of old guerrilla leaders who had refused to surrender their arms after the end of La Violencia, guerrilla activity – influenced by agrarian struggles, the Cuban Revolution, Marxism and Maoism – continued in rural, isolated areas of the country where the Colombian state had long struggled to impose its authority. The Communists organized ‘self-defense communities’ in which mobilized peasants united to resist the military and landowners, the most famous of which was the ‘Republic of Marquetalia’ in a remote mountainous region in the departments of Huila and Tolima. Bogotá could not tolerate the existence of ‘autonomous republics’ within its territory where the state had no authority; even if the Communist leaders of the ‘republics’ sought pacific coexistence. In 1964, with American logistical and material assistance, the Colombian military launched a vast counterinsurgency operation against the guerrilla hotspots and Marquetalia fell in June 1964.

Several men escaped from Marquetalia, including the community’s leader, Manuel Marulanda. In 1966, these men formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), the armed wing of the Communist Party. Two years earlier, leftist radicals influenced by the Cuban Revolution and Liberation Theology founded the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN). The ELN was influenced early on by Camilo Torres Restrepo, a radical ‘revolutionary-priest’ who was killed in 1966. In 1967, a Maoist splinter from the Communist Party founded the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL). Finally, the allegedly rigged 1970 election led several left-wing ANAPO members to take up arms and create the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril, M-19).

Initially, the FARC, which was crushed by a military offensive on their bases in Quindío and Caldas in 1967, retreated to their traditional bases (Huila and Tolima) to regroup. The ELN, influenced by Castro’s ‘foco’ strategy of revolution through guerrilla warfare, won attention for several spectacular attacks and bombings. The FARC, controlled by the Communists, grew silently but the Communists felt that the conditions for an armed revolution were not there and privileged urban struggles. The ELN was nearly crushed by a Colombian military operation, Operación Anorí, in 1973, but again a small group of fighters managed to escape, allowing the ELN to regroup. By the end of the National Front, therefore, all had been contained in large but remote areas where the state had never had much footing and where the guerrillas were out of sight and out of mind.

The 1974 elections were the first elections free from the legal constraints of the National Front, allowing a clear contest between Liberals and Conservatives. In the event, the Liberal candidate, Alfonso López Michelsen, the former leader of the anti-National Front MRL, was elected with 56.3% against 31.4% for Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, the son of former President Laureano Gómez (who died in 1965). María Eugenia Rojas, the daughter of former President Gustavo Rojas, won 9.5% as ANAPO’s candidate. The Liberals won a majority in both houses of Congress, with ANAPO suffering major loses. However, the National Front’s agreement on the equal distribution of government positions lasted one more term, until 1978. López Michelsen’s presidency was generally calm, but it was during his presidency that the infamous Medellín and Cali drug cartels grew, something which the government turned a blind eye to. Despite good returns on coffee (and cocaine) exports, the rest of the economy was sluggish and dragged down by high inflation. The government brutally suppressed a general strike in 1977, killing 22, and thereby strengthening the appeal of guerrilla groups, especially M-19. The guerrilla groups could continue to claim that the Liberals and Conservatives were two sides of the same coin, a claim reinforced by the little ideological differences between both now that clericalism was off the table and that both parties supported relatively orthodox economic policies.

Areas of coca cultivation, 2000-2004 (source: UNODC, UNEP)

The Liberals, with Julio César Turbay, held the presidency in 1978, winning 49.3% against 46.6% for Belisario Betancur, the Conservative candidate backed by the majority of ANAPO and some Liberal dissidents. But in a sign of growing public dissatisfaction with politics, turnout was only 45%. Turbay’s government, despite being under no legal obligation to do so, continued power sharing with the opposition – under a slightly modified form which represented the opposition Conservatives in public sector jobs in proportion to their share of the vote in the election. Under Turbay’s presidency, a controversial state security statute was adopted, which is often cited as laying the groundwork for the later proliferation of right-wing paramilitary groups and covering up gross human rights abuses by the military. While the government tolerated and supported paramilitary groups, it continued to tolerate the rapid growth of drug trafficking and the drug cartels.

As a geographical crossroads, diverse geography and landscape, strong entrepreneurial culture and networks allowed Colombia to become the key location in drug trafficking in the Americas. The Medellín and Cali cartels grew in the mid-1970s and, by the early 1980s, cocaine had surpassed coffee as Colombia’s top export, creating a new class of wealthy and powerful drug lords – owning large tracts of land, laundering money, eliminating rivals and those peeking their noses into their business, and gaining social status to join the ranks of the elite. Pablo Escobar, the famous boss of the Medellín cartel, was not only an international drug smuggler and drug lord, he was also a businessman, local philanthropist, employer of death squads to kill rivals and even a second-string Liberal politician (elected to Congress in 1982). Drug lords, led by the Medellín cartel, teamed up with the military, Texaco, politicians, local industrialists and cattle ranchers to form a paramilitary organization in the 1980s, Muerte a Secuestradores (MAS), supported by an active legal front. MAS killed opponents, protected local elites from extortion and kidnappings by the guerrillas and employed counterinsurgency tactics against the guerrillas. MAS also terrorized community organizers and brutally murdered innocent civilians. In the mid-1980s, the MAS had amassed a weapons arsenal equal to that of a military.

At the same time, the leftist guerrillas increased their activities. In 1980, the M-19, the most moderate and middle-class of the groups, seized the embassy of the Dominican Republic in Bogotá and took a number of foreign ambassadors hostage. The standoff ended when the M-19 guerrillas were paid a ransom and offered safe-passage to Cuba. The FARC picked up steam, with an attack on an army column in 1980. In 1982, at the FARC conference, the movement decided to expand its armed ‘fronts’ and adopted the name FARC-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). The ELN regrouped under a Spanish-born priest and focused on kidnappings and extortion. In 1980-1981, the M-19 launched a number of offensives against the government, but all failed in the face of the military’s superiority. However, there was growing demand for peace and negotiations, so that in the 1982 elections, both the Liberal and Conservative candidates supported peace.

The Liberal Party entered the 1982 elections divided between former President Alfonso López Michelsen and Santander department senator (and former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo’s protégé) Luis Carlos Galán, who founded the New Liberalism movement. Galán attacked corruption, drug trafficking and politicking. The divisions of the Liberals allowed Belisario Betancur, the Conservative, to win with 46.6% against 41% for López Michelsen and 10.9% for Galán. In power, Betancur continued to honour the unofficial power sharing agreement, splitting jobs equally between both parties.

Betancur opened negotiations with guerrilla movements, beginning with a cease-fire by the FARC and two other groups in February 1984. In March 1984, the Colombian governments and the FARC signed the La Uribe agreements, which included a bilateral cease-fire and the creation of the Unión Patriótica (UP), a leftist party backed by the FARC. In August 1984, a similar deal was signed with M-19 and the EPL. But the M-19 broke the deal in November 1985, when a M-19 guerrilla commando seized the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, holding over 300 people – including Supreme Court judges – hostage. The army stormed the building, killing over 100 people, including almost all the M-19 guerrillas. At the same time, the government was unable to check the power of the paramilitaries, dedicated to exterminating the guerrillas. Paramilitaries, drug lords and law enforcement were responsible for the assassinations of thousands of UP members between 1985 and 1994. The FARC also used the peace deal as a cover to regroup. By 1987, the truce with the FARC had collapsed, with the army and FARC rebels engaged in isolated battles. There was little willpower and interest in peace from either politicians and the guerrillas, while powerful radical forces on both sides continued fighting.

On the other side of the crisis, the drug cartels began turning against the government, after the signature of an extradition treaty with the US in 1979 – the drug lords feared being extradited to the US. In April 1984, the pro-extradition justice minister (a member of Galán’s New Liberalism) was assassinated by drug cartels; the assassination marked the end of the pacific relations between drug lords and politicians. Escobar briefly allied with the M-19, leading to some questions over the drug cartel’s role in the 1985 attack on the Palace of Justice. Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and other cities became the terrain of urban warfare between cartels and authorities, with the cartels effectively controlling major neighborhoods in each city – especially Escobar’s base of Medellín.

Liberal candidate Virgilio Barco, a unity candidate backed by the Liberal establishment and Galán’s New Liberalism, easily defeated Álvaro Gómez Hurtado in the 1986 presidential election. The Liberals won 58.3% of the vote, against 35.8% for the Conservatives and 4.5% for the FARC-backed UP. Barco inaugurated a Liberal government, finally breaking the National Front tradition of power sharing with the opposition. But that was his only ‘achievement’ – violence continued, with little hope for the President’s peace initiatives or constitutional reforms (decentralization, direct election of mayors, human rights watchdogs). The situation worsened beginning in 1987, as the M-19, ELN, EPL and FARC increased their armed struggle with offensives, counter-offensives, assassinations and kidnappings. The military responded in kind, and the size and resources of the Colombian military expanded under Barco’s administration, with US assistance. At the same time, Barco’s government was able to negotiate a lasting settlement with M-19, crushed militarily, in which the M-19 agreed to lay down arms and compete electorally, with the Democratic Alliance M-19 (AD-M19). The FARC and ELN continued their obstinate armed struggle.

The paramilitary and drug wars expanded simultaneously. The Castaño family, wealthy ranchers in Antioquia, organized deadly paramilitary groups which savagely murdered civilians and attacked leftist politicians and guerrillas. The government tried to limit the paramilitaries’ power by a number of anti-paramilitary decrees, finally outlawing them in 1989 (a 1968 law had actually made the existence of ‘autodefensas‘ legal); but its efforts were constantly undercut by close links between politicians/law enforcement and the paramilitaries and widespread corruption in the police and military.

Closely tied to the paramilitaries, the drug lords, led by the Medellín cartel, organized powerful and well-armed private armies, which targeted UP politicians and the government in general. Prominent cabinet ministers, left-wing politicians, presidential candidates and journalists were all assassinated by the paramilitaries or the cartels. The cartels also begun fighting amongst themselves, as Escobar tried to dominate the whole drug trafficking operation in Colombia.

In August 1989, Liberal presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, the favourite to win the 1990 election, was assassinated – most likely by Escobar and his military lieutenant José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, with the involvement of a rival Liberal politician. President Barco declared an all-out war against the cartels – to which the Medellín cartel responded by a savage terrorist bombing campaign in the fall of 1989, killing about 300 people in nearly 300 attacks. In November 1989, a Avianca domestic flight from Bogotá to Cali exploded in mid-air, killing 110 people. Escobar was behind the bombing, hoping to kill César Gaviria, the new Liberal presidential candidate. In December 1989, a truck bomb destroyed the HQs of the Administrative Department of Security. José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha was killed in mid-December 1989, but the war continued unabated.

It was in this dramatic context that the 1990 presidential elections took place. César Gaviria, a young former cabinet minister, took the Liberal nod with the backing of Galán’s supporters after Galán’s death in August 1989. The Conservatives split between a right-wing faction led by Álvaro Gómez Hurtado (the leader of the Movimiento de Salvación Nacional) and a moderate faction supported by former President Misael Pastrana which put forward a little known contender, Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo. The M-19’s presidential candidate was assassinated in April 1990 and replaced by Antonio Navarro Wolff, while the pro-FARC UP’s two candidates were both assassinated, pushing the UP out of the race entirely. Gaviria easily won, with 47.8% against 23.7% for Gómez, 12.5% for the M-19 candidate and 12.2% for Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo.

On the political and constitutional front, an increase in demands for social change (expressed peacefully, by demobilized guerrillas from M-19 or by students). A grassroots movement during the 1990 elections, asking voters to drop an additional blank ballot paper to express support for a constituent assembly, was ultimately successful and led to the election of a constituent assembly in 1991. The Liberals remained the largest party, in good part due to the Conservatives’ divisions, but the AD-M19 became the second largest party with 26.7% of the vote and 19 seats, against 31.2% and 25 seats for the Liberals. The new 1991 constitution, promulgated in June 1991, included strong guarantees for fundamental human rights, declared Colombia to be a ‘social state of law’, recognized ethnic and religious diversity (full legalization of divorce, removing references to Catholicism as the official religion), replaced the state of siege with a more restrictive state of emergency and decentralized powers to departments (and governors, along with mayors, were now directly elected).

The reality was significantly harsher: if the new constitution, social reforms and reinsertion programs pushed more guerrillas from the EPL and other groups to demobilize, the FARC and ELN remained locked in their obstinate views and continued their bloody terrorist campaigns. The ELN successfully regained a presence by extorting a German firm building a pipeline, and other oil industry suppliers, contractors or private citizens.

In 1990, Jacobo Arenas, the ideological and theoretical brain of the FARC, died, leaving Manuel Marulanda, a hardened guerrilla fighter since Marquetalia in the 1960s, as the only man in charge. That same year, Gaviria ordered a military offensive on a FARC base (Casa Verde), completely breaking off the intermittent negotiations between the two parties which had continued since 1987. In 1991, the FARC under Marulanda broke with the Communists and UP, and decided on a total war strategy. The FARC remained the largest guerrilla organization and gained a foothold in the drug underworld, selling protection to coca farmers or entering drug trafficking on its own account. Drug trafficking has allowed the FARC to maintain a hefty war chest and large arsenal. According to the UNDP in the early 2000s, $204 million of the FARC’s $342 million average annual income derived from drug business. In 1991 and 1992, negotiations between the government and the guerrillas (FARC, ELN) in Caracas and Tlaxcala both failed.

In an attempt to reduce tensions with the cartels, the government promised domestic trials and lesser sentences for narcos who turned themselves in and confessed to crimes, and the 1991 constitution banned extradition. Escobar ultimately turned himself in, but he continued operating his drug empire and extortion business from behind bars, and escaped from prison in July 1992 before the government could transfer him to another location. The US JSOC joined a Colombian military manhunt for Escobar; at the same time, rivals of the drug lord – the Cali cartel, Medellín cartel dissidents and the Castaño family’s paramilitaries – formed a vigilante group, Los Pepes, to hunt him down. The official US-Colombian manhunt often colluded or directly associated with the Los Pepes death squads to track him down. Escobar was killed in Medellín in December 1993. Escobar’s death signaled the demise of the Medellín cartel, to be supplanted by the Cali and Norte del Valle cartels. The Cali cartel, no less violent, gained the upper hand in Colombian drug trafficking. Gaviria’s presidency also saw the US take an active role in the drug war, collaborating with Colombian authorities and eradicating coca crops. The narcotics problem did not go away, and the situation was complicated by an increase of coca cultivation in Colombia itself, and by the growing involvement of the paramilitaries and guerrillas in the drug trafficking business.

Economically, the Gaviria administration followed neoliberal policies – loosening restrictions on foreign trade and investment, increasing the flow of foreign goods and capital, reducing tariffs although privatization was rather limited. While these reforms had some beneficial effects, like elsewhere it increased inequalities and favoured capital at the expense of labour, especially unskilled workers. Indigenous and Afro-Colombians were particularly hurt and protested the economic reforms. The social changes and protests also provided a favourable terrain for the FARC, although during the 1990s, the FARC’s violence meant that popular support for the guerrillas became extremely low.

Liberal candidate Ernesto Samper, a candidate from the party’s left who had defeated a candidate backed by President Gaviria in Liberal primaries, won the 1994 presidential elections against Conservative candidate Andrés Pastrana, a former mayor of Bogotá. Samper and Pastrana took the vast majority of the vote in a first round in which only 34% of voters participated; Samper defeated Pastrana with 50.6% in the runoff. The M-19, which had done so well in 1990 and 1991, lost most of its seats in Congress and won only 3.8% of the presidential vote.

Samper’s presidency saw little change in the conflict. Once again, the government initially sought dialogue with the FARC and ELN, and the guerrillas invariably refused and continued their ever-grower offensives. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, the FARC was able to mobilize between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters across Colombia and the rebels demonstrated their military might with a series of major offensives between 1996 and 1998. In August 1996, the FARC overran a Colombian army base at Las Delicias (Caquetá). Much of southeastern Colombia had turned into a lawless zone (outside departmental capitals) controlled by the FARC or constantly threatened by FARC/ELN violence (kidnappings, assassinations etc). The state had little choice but to abandon large swathes of its own territory to the guerrillas, leading to strong criticism from the US and hawks.

The Castaño brothers expanding their paramilitary operations, forming the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU). The government fed the paramilitary phenomenon by authorizing the creation of legal paramilitary groups, or CONVIVIR groups, as private militias in recently pacified areas. Far-right paramilitaries took advantage of the CONVIVIR laws to gain legality; in the field, FARC/ELN attacks were met with retaliations from the paramilitaries, violence feeding off violence. Álvaro Uribe, the governor of Antioquia, gained notoriety as a strong supporter of the CONVIVIR scheme in his department.

In April 1997, the ACCU and other paramilitaries united to form the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a nationwide counterinsurgency/paramilitary organization. In November, the Constitutional Court ruled the CONVIVIR plans unconstitutional, but it changed little to nothing: the AUC now united the paramilitaries, and the AUC counted on the covert support of members of the military and politicians. The AUC was largely financed through drug trafficking, in which the paramilitaries were directly involved in themselves. According to the UNDP, some $190 million of the AUC’s average annual income of $286 million came from drugs. In many cases, the AUC and FARC, both active in zones of coca cultivation, fought for control of drug-growing regions. The AUC was responsible for a large number of massacres (oftentimes civilians not tied to the FARC), horrible acts of savagery (dismembering living persons with chainsaws and machetes) and the displacement thousands of Colombians from their homes by the mid-2000s. The paramilitaries, rather than the FARC/ELN, are generally agreed to be responsible for the majority of political assassinations and human rights violations in Colombia – with figures ranging from 60% to 85% of crimes being committed by the paramilitaries.

Ernesto Samper’s presidency rapidly ran into a huge scandal: shortly after taking office, Samper was accused of having accepted over $6 million in campaign donations from the Cali cartel. Samper denied any involvement or knowledge of dirty money in his campaign. An investigation was opened after incriminating tapes were leaked, and the investigation revealed the existence of a network of narcotics-linked corruption involving high-level politicians, judges, law enforcement and so forth. However, only scapegoats were convicted and Congress rejected the indictment of Samper, with the Liberal bench siding with their President. The case led to diplomatic crisis with the US, which limited its cooperation with Colombia in drug war operations and revoked Samper’s visa.

Samper tried to regain Washington’s favours by legalizing extradition (in 1996) and focusing his security policy on the drug war (ignoring paramilitarism and the guerrillas). Bogotá moved to eradicate coca crops, provoking a peasant protest movement – organized by the FARC, which forced peasants to join in – against the coca spraying policy. In 1995, the government managed to capture major leaders from the Cali cartel, gradually signaling the demise of the Cali cartel and its replacement by smaller, less hierarchic regional cartels which have been harder to counter. By the time Samper left office, the US had normalized relations with Colombia and its involvement in the drug war increased significantly.

The Liberals continued to be haunted by internal divisions bred by the Samper corruption case (the Proceso 8000) in the 1998 election. The Liberals chose Horacio Serpa, Samper’s loyal interior minister who had defended the President during the corruption case. However, Liberals hostile to the President, led by former Attorney General Alfonso Valdivieso, who had led the investigation in the Proceso 8000, joined forces with Andrés Pastrana, the Conservative candidate. Noemí Sanín, a former communications minister under Betancur, ran as an independent. In the first round, Serpa won 34.6% against 34.3% for Pastrana and 26.9% for Sanín. In the second round, Pastrana was elected with 50.4%.

Pastrana’s strategy against the conflict had two parts: a peace process with the FARC/ELN through negotiations and détente, and enlisting American support in the drug wars (although not necessarily using a militarist strategy). Prior to taking office, Pastrana met with Marulanda, the FARC leader. Just as he took office, however, the ELN and FARC launched offensives against Colombian military targets; in November 1998, in one of their most memorable actions, the FARC successfully seized the departmental capital of Mitú (Vaupés). At the same time, however, as part of the first step in the peace process, Bogotá ordered the military to withdraw from a 42,000km² zone (La Caguán), creating a DMZ to facilitate talks with the FARC (and, separately, the ELN). In January 1999, talks between the government the FARC began at La Caguán, although with the noted absence of Marulanda. But there was no truce: while the talks dragged on with no perceptible results, the FARC/ELN, who lacked commitment to actual peace, continued attacks, kidnappings, killings and extortion.

On the drug front, the Colombian government sought American assistance in the drug war, originally by focusing on aid and substitution of coca crops. However, under US influence, the Plan Colombia which was released focused heavily on a military solution to the drug crisis (but also the guerrilla war), with military aid to Colombia and the aerial spraying of coca crops. The Plan Colombia has been controversial in the US and in South America, criticized on a number of fronts: the excessive drug-focused analysis, ignoring serious human rights issues, ignoring the real causes of the conflict, the limited attention paid to humanitarian assistance and social development, supporting Colombia’s military and law enforcement forces despite records of human rights abuses and ties to illegal paramilitaries and the social/environmental impacts of aerial spraying.

Under Pastrana’s presidency, military spending increased significantly, expanding the size of the military. Applying the Plan Colombia policy, Colombia and the US extensively sprayed coca crops in southeastern Colombia, especially the department of Putumayo, destroying hundreds of thouands of hectares of coca crops.

Negotiations with the FARC dragged on with little result. The two parties failed to reach agreement on major issues; the FARC and ELN strongly opposed the government’s anti-narcotics policy, and they also accused Bogotá of not doing enough to fight the AUC, which strongly opposed the talks with the FARC and committed themselves to disturbing the negotiations with attacks and assassinations. Some progress was made on prisoner exchange, with the FARC releasing over 300 hostages in exchange for a handful of guerrillas.

The smaller ELN eventually withdrew from negotiations in 2001. In their DMZ, the FARC were setting up training camps, expelling government officials (judges, public servants) from the territory, abducting people (including foreigners), assassinating hostages and using it as a safe haven from which to launch attacks and continue drug trafficking operations. Hawkish public opinion felt that the government was conceding too much to terrorists, and the government itself grew impatient with the FARC. In 2000, military pressures forced the FARC to limit large-scale attacks to focus on kidnappings (mostly politicians) and urban bombings. An exasperated Pastrana suspended talks with the FARC in January 2002, and in February 2002, the President ordered the military to retake control of the DMZ. While the military was deploying to retake the DMZ, the FARC kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen running for president as the candidate of the small Oxygen Green Party. Betancourt, a former senator who had gained some popularity for her tireless fight against political corruption in the Senate, was kidnapped as she was going to San Vincente del Caguán, the main town in the former DMZ which Bogotá now affirmed was firmly in government hands. Betancourt’s kidnapping and her captivity until 2008 garnered international attention and sympathy, especially in France. She was not the only high-profile politician to be kidnapped and, in fact, by managing to survive captivity, she was a ‘lucky’ one – the FARC kidnapped and killed many other politicians, including Guillermo Gaviria, the governor of Antioquia.

In 2002, Colombia was in a sad state. Under Pastrana’s presidency, the homicide rate, which had dropped from 72 in 1996 to 60 in 1998, increased to 70.2 in 2002. After the talks with the FARC were broken off in early 2002, the FARC unleashed a bloody campaign against the government which cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers and civilians. Since 1998, AUC paramilitary activity, designed to sabotage the negotiations, grew in scope while the AUC, thanks to drug trafficking, also saw their resources increase nicely. This came despite much disunity in AUC ranks: the fronts of the AUC operated independently from one another, with little coordination. However, the government’s policies, the AUC’s image as a popular response to FARC terrorism and the AUC’s close ties to the army and politicians gave the AUC significant popular support and a large base of (non-narcotics) resources to tap into.

Álvaro Uribe, a Liberal politician who had served in the Senate (1986-1994) and as governor of Antioquia (1995-1997), broke with the Liberals (who nominated Horacio Serpa again) to run as an independent on the hastily assembled Primera Colombia (Colombia First) label. Uribe, who had supported the CONVIVIR policy as governor of Antioquia, took a hawkish anti-FARC stance – under the slogan mano firme, corazón grande (firm hand, big heart), conditioning peace negotiations to military victory over the FARC. Uribe won a huge victory, taking 54.5% of the vote in the first round. Horacio Serpa won only 32.7%; leftist trade unionist Luis Eduardo Garzón, running for the new leftist Polo Democrático Independiente, won 6.3% and Noemí Sanín won 6%.

Álvaro Uribe’s Presidency (2002-2010)

Álvaro Uribe, President of Colombia

Álvaro Uribe has become modern Colombia’s most famous President, attracting strong popular support and admiration in Colombia and abroad but also significant criticism. He took a hard line against guerrillas, which had clear success as far as weakening the FARC’s power and reducing Colombia’s dramatically high homicide rate. However, his presidency was marred by numerous allegations of ties between politicians and paramilitaries, concerns over human rights abuses by the military and significant domestic and regional opposition to Uribe’s close security cooperation with the US government.

Upon taking office, Uribe took the offensive against the guerrillas, under the guises of the seguridad democrática (democratic security) doctrine. The aim of the the Uribe doctrine was to rout, militarily, the guerrillas (designated as terrorist organizations by the EU, US and Canada), combat the illegal use of arms, drug trafficking and reestablishing state control over the entire country. The Uribe government clearly conditioned negotiations with the guerrillas to demobilization and laying down their arms; a condition strongly rejected by the FARC, tentatively accepted by the ELN and (officially) accepted by the AUC.

Under Uribe’s presidency, the US, under George W. Bush, significantly expanded its contribution to Plan Colombia and explicitly linked the war on drugs to the post-9/11 war on terror (FARC, ELN, AUC). The lines between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency became blurred, as the US provided military training and assistance to Colombian troops in operations against the FARC, ELN and paramilitaries. Uribe became one of the Bush’s administrations strongest Latin American allies and an eager supporter of the ‘war on terror’ (which provided Bogotá with millions in additional military aid and expanded direct US military training and assistance). In Washington, the White House’s proximity to Uribe drew congressional criticism, because of concerns over the impact of aerial spraying, Uribe’s leniency with paramilitaries and corruption. Colombia also extradited a growing number of its citizens to the US; over 850 Colombians were extradited to the US between 1997 and 2010, including 789 under Uribe and 208 in 2008. There was some domestic backlash against the extraditions; in 2009, the Supreme Court blocked the extradition of FARC kidnappers of three American hostages.

The effectiveness of US-Colombian aerial spraying of coca plants has been called into questions by numerous statistics which show no reduction in coca cultivation and even perhaps an increase in coca-leaf cultivation; coca growing has simply been redistributed into smaller, harder-to-reach crops in border regions and along the Pacific. Colombia remains the world’s leading coca cultivator and supplier of refined cocaine; cocaine trafficking accounts for more $5 billion a year, or 2-2.5% of the GDP.

The Uribe government engaged in demobilization and reinsertion negotiations with the AUC, who had been pushed towards negotiations because of concerns over their 2001 classification as a terrorist organization by the US and growing disunity in the AUC. Negotiations with the AUC began in 2003 and progressed fairly well, with a preliminary agreement on demobilization in July 2003 and agreement in 2004 to set up a zone to relocate demobilized paramilitaries and conduct talks. However, the talks were fraught with controversy. The government’s apparent lenient stance towards the paramilitaries in the talks was quite controversial; there was no talk of reparation for victims or justice for crimes, but instead talks of reduced jail terms and even amnesties for paramilitaries who surrendered their weapons. At the same time, many questioned the AUC’s commitment to demobilization, because violence continued during the talks, result of increasing tensions in the AUC which culminated in the 2004 assassination of Carlos Castaño, one of the AUC’s founders.

In June 2005, Congress, after much legislative battling and negotiations with the US (demanding extradition of several AUC leaders to the US for drug trafficking charges), passed a ‘justice and peace’ law which set 5-8 year jail sentences for those charged with serious crimes (if those demobilized freely confessed to them). The law was not without controversy: the New York Times called it a ‘law of impunity for assassins, terrorist and drug traffickers’; the UN and human rights organizations said the law was too lenient on demobilized paramilitaries. Again, the law failed to provide justice and compensation to the victims; however, a 2006 decision by the Constitutional Court ordered full confessions, asset seizures and reparations to victims.

The government insisted it had reached a fair balance between justice and peace. Between 2003 and 2006, the government reported that 30,994 paramilitaries were demobilized and 17,564 weapons handed over. The Uribe administration’s counterinsurgency policies were also criticized, notably by the EU and UN, fearing that some of Bogotá’s policies may be incompatible with humanitarian law and fundamental rights guaranteed in the 1991 constitution.

According to critics of the demobilization of the AUC, many former paramilitaries have recycled themselves in criminal gangs or in new paramilitary organizations; which have been said to include as much as 6,000 members in 2010. Other sources have said that the AUC’s old drug trafficking networks have remained intact, and again law enforcement has been accused of tolerating or even being linked to these neo-paramilitary groups.

Militarily, however, the government’s tough strategy against the FARC and increased military successes after the disastrous 1990s did much to improve public perceptions of the military as an institution and also boosted Uribe’s popularity. In the war against the FARC, the military sought to improve their professionalism, compliance with human rights standards and their mobility, intelligence and readiness capabilities. Between 2002 and 2005, military operations against the FARC successfully destroyed a number of FARC fronts, killed thousands of fighters and forced the FARC to change their military centre of gravity to the Nariño, Putumayo and Cauca departments. During the same period, intermittent dialogue between the government the FARC on prisoner exchange and the release of hostages had limited success; the government refused to acquiesce to the FARC’s demand of creating a DMZ for prisoner exchange, but the government also released some prisoners in a sign of goodwill. In 2006 and 2007, some hostages held by the FARC were released or managed to escape.

In May 2005, Congress approved a constitutional amendment allowing for one consecutive presidential reelection. In May 2006, Uribe was reelected by a landslide in the first round, winning 62.4% of the vote against 22% for Carlos Gaviria Díaz, the candidate of the leftist Polo Democrático Alternativo (Democratic Alternative Pole, PDA) and only 11.8% for Horacio Serpa, the Liberal candidate. A few months prior, in March 2006, the uribistas won a majority in Congress; albeit the uribista forces were dispersed between several parties: the Conservatives backed Uribe but were intent on maintaining their independence and identity in a context marked by the decrepitude of the old parties, Liberal dissidents led by Juan Manuel Santos and Óscar Iván Zuluaga founded the Social Party of National Unity (Partido Social de la Unidad Nacional, PSUN) or ‘Partido de la U‘ in 2005 (no cookies for guessing what the U might refer to) while other Liberal dissidents grouped in the centre-right Radical Change (Cambio Radical, CR) party around Germán Vargas Lleras also backed Uribe. In the Senate, the Party of the U won 20 seats against 18 apiece for the Conservatives and Liberals, 15 for CR and 10 for the PDA; in the Chamber, the Liberals, in opposition, won 31 seats against 28 for the U, 26 for the Conservatives, 18 for CR and 8 for the Polo.

Around the time of Uribe’s reelection, one of the largest political scandals in recent Colombian political history took shape: the parapolítica (parapolitics) scandal, when several PDA politicians began denouncing links between politicians and the paramilitaries, confirmed by former AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso’s admission that 35% of legislators elected in 2002 were ‘friends’ of the AUC. In 2006, after the Constitutional Court conditioned the benefits of the ‘justice and peace’ law to a full confession of crimes committed, several paramilitary leaders began spilling the beans. The debate was taken up in Congress by PDA Senator Gustavo Petro, who revealed more information and directly named several congressmen and high-ranking politicians for their ties to paramilitaries and involvements in plotting the assassination of rivals. In early 2007, a bombshell came with the Pacto de Ralito, a 2001 document signed by representatives of the AUC high command and several politicians (sitting governors, mayors, congressmen, former office holders); the document detailed a strategy for the AUC to consolidate power and command over drug trafficking and later to seize power (perhaps establishing a military dictatorship). In May 2007, courts ordered the arrest of most political signatories of the document for conspiracy. Thus far, a number of those signatories have been sentenced to prison terms, including 40 years for the then-governor of Sucre (who later served as ambassador to Chile).

The scandal also involved the DAS, Colombia’s FBI, whose former leader (Jorge Noguera Cotes, who was then serving as consul in Milan) was accused of placing the DAS at the service of the AUC in northern Colombia and had assisted in the assassination of leftist trade union leaders. Although Uribe vigorously defended Noguera, he was nevertheless forced to give up his diplomatic job to face judicial accusations back home and arrested in February 2007. In 2011, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

By 2008, nearly 70 congressmen/women were involved in the parapolitics scandal (most of them from Uribe’s coalition), including several presiding officers. Some 30 of them were arrested and some later sentenced. The trials were highly controversial, marked by Uribe’s attempts to intervene in the judicial process; firstly by mulling the idea of amnesties or reduced sentences for those who confessed, and later a confrontation with the Supreme Court over an alleged judicial conspiracy against Uribe (probably fabricated by the President). Adding to the tense situation between Uribe and the courts, in June 2008 a former legislator was convicted of accepting bribes in 2004 in exchange for supporting the amendment on reelection; Uribe angrily responded by accusing the judges of political bias.

In May 2008, the government surprisingly ordered the extradition of AUC paramilitaries, including Salvatore Mancuso and “Jorge 40” (whose laptop’s files had started the whole scandal) to the US, where they were wanted for drug trafficking; some critics of the government thought that extradition would hamper investigation into the parapolitics case.

The parapolitics scandal had a deleterious effect on Colombia’s relations with Washington. Coinciding with the Democrats’ victory in the 2006 US midterm elections, the US Congress was increasingly opposed to military cooperation and the signature of a free trade agreement with Colombia. The US Congress voted to cut funding for Plan Colombia and delayed consideration of a free trade agreement strongly supported by Uribe until after Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

In 2008, the military’s credibility took a major hit with the ‘false positives’ scandal, in which the army was accused of assassinating innocent civilians and presenting them as guerrillas who were killed in action (to embellish the army’s results). The practice had existed in the past, and declassified CIA documents showed that the US had been aware of government ties to paramilitaries and of ‘false positives’ since 1994. In October 2008, Uribe dismissed 25 military officers, including army commander General Mario Montoya. The case was a black eye for Uribe’s democratic security policy, raising more concerns about human rights violations by the Colombian military.

The democratic security’s tough militarist strategy against the FARC began to take its toll on the FARC. In June 2007, the FARC killed 11 out of 12 departmental deputies whom the FARC had kidnapped in 2002, increasing domestic and international condemnation of the FARC’s terrorist methods. Around the same time, Uribe allowed his rival, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who Bogotá often accused of harbouring or assisting the FARC, to mediate a humanitarian exchange of prisoners with the FARC, but Uribe then blocked Chávez’s mediation efforts in November 2007, claiming that Chávez reneged on his agreement. However, in January 2008, Venezuela spearheaded an operation to release two hostages held by the FARC – a former senator and Clara Rojas, Ingrid Betancourt’s campaign manager (who had a son, born in captivity, whom the FARC had sent to Bogotá). In February 2008, three other hostages were released to Chávez as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ by the FARC.

Militarily, 2008 marked a sea change in the FARC’s fortunes. On March 1, the Colombian army raided a camp, located in Ecuador, killing Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s second-in-command and spokesperson. Naturally, the cross-border raid by the Colombians incensed Ecuador’s leftist President, Rafael Correa, and led to a brief diplomatic crisis with Ecuador and Venezuela. In March, the FARC’s septuagenarian leader, Manuel Marulanda, also died, of ‘natural causes’ according to the FARC. The files on laptops seized from Raúl Reyes’ headquarters added to Colombian concerns of Venezuelan meddling in the conflict, with documents detailing meetings between FARC leaders and Venezuelan military officers or the existence of ‘safe areas’ in Venezuela.

In July 2008, defense minister Juan Manuel Santos announced the success of Operation Jaque, a remarkably well orchestrated infiltration of FARC ranks leading to a quick raid to release 11 Colombian policemen and soldiers, three American military contractors and Ingrid Betancourt. It was a major blow to the FARC and a major success for the Colombian military.

Military operations against the FARC, 2007-2013 (source: WaPo)

The government continued making military progress in the conflict against the FARC in 2008 – a 40% drop in FARC-held territory, a considerable human toll on the FARC (thousands of guerrillas killed in 2007 and 2008), a drop in morale, an increase in desertions and a sharp drop in FARC membership – from about 18,000 to 9-10,000. After Operation Jaque, more hostages were released or escaped from captivity. In an increasingly perilous position, the FARC, now led by the dogmatic Alfonso Cano, resorted to indiscriminate acts of terrorism and enrollment of child soldiers.

Despite military and political scandals involving Uribe and his government, security cooperation with the US was not compromised. In 2010, Colombia still received $434 million in US military/security aid. In August 2009, Colombia and the US signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) which allows the US to lease access to seven Colombian military bases for logistical support in counter-narcotics operations. The DCA required ratification by the Colombian Senate and consultative advice of the judiciary’s Council of State.  The DCA met with strong criticism from the Colombian left and left-wing leaders in the region, notably Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who considered the DCA an ‘imperialist’ threat to his country. The DCA further strained already tense relations between Colombia and Venezuela; Chávez announced a freeze in bilateral trade between the two countries.

Uribe’s high levels of popularity rested not only on his democratic security policies, but also on the country’s robust economic growth during his two terms – the economy grew by as much as 7% in 2007 and, unlike Brazil and Venezuela, did not go in recession in 2009. In office, Uribe generally favoured neoliberal and free-market policies, with a focus on improving public finances, reforming government and reducing inflation. The government claimed to have made progress in reducing poverty and income inequality in one of the region’s most unequal and class stratified countries. In 2010, 37% of Colombians still lived under the national poverty line and 39.5% lived on less than $4 a day.

Uribe and his allies, notably in the Party of the U, sought to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third consecutive term in office in 2010. In October 2008, the Chamber of Representatives rejected a constitutional amendment allowing Uribe to run for reelection, but in May 2009, the Senate approved a measure allowing for a referendum to be held on the issue. Before anything could go ahead, both houses of Congress needed to reconcile their bills and the Constitutional Court would need to give a green light on the issue. The contentious topic raised significant opposition in Colombia, with resistance coming from the Church, the media and the business community. Around the world, Uribe was portrayed as an autocrat. In August 2009, both houses of Congress agreed on the referendum bill. In late February 2010, only days before the March 2010 legislative elections, the Constitutional Court voted 7-2 to reject Congress’ referendum bill, declaring both the bill and the legislative process deeply flawed and unconstitutional.

In the March 2010 congressional elections, the Party of the U became the largest party in both houses of Congress, with 28 senators and 48 representatives. The Liberals and Conservatives followed, with 17 and 38 seats and 22 and 36 seats respectively. Overall, the uribista coalition, made up of the PSUN, the Conservatives, the Cambio Radical and small parties linked to the parapolitics scandal (notably the National Integration Party, which won 9 senators and 11 representatives) retained a majority in Congress.

Uribe left office highly popular. The main reason for his popularity was the apparent success of his democratic security policy. As far as numbers are concerned, under Uribe’s eight years in power, Colombia’s homicide rate dropped from 70.2 in 2002 to 33.4 in 2010 (in raw numbers, 28,837 were killed when Uribe took office in 2002 and 15,459 were killed in the year he left office). Under Uribe’s presidency, the FARC lost significant ground and they were significantly weakened; however, by 2010, it appeared as if the situation had reached a stalemate, with the FARC still reigning supreme in many remote areas of the country and could resort to violent terrorist attacks in urban areas. Uribe’s democratic security strategy was associated with significant concerns for human rights, and the parapolitics, a DAS wiretapping case or the false positives scandals highlighted that corruption and human rights remained serious challenges to Colombia’s democracy. Nevertheless, there were some improvements in human rights and press freedom during Uribe’s presidency.

The May-June 2010 presidential election was more contested than either the 2002 or 2006 elections. The PSUN nominated Juan Manuel Santos, a former Liberal politician and heir of a powerful Colombian family (his uncle, Eduardo Santos Montejo, was a Liberal president from 1938 to 1942, and his family owned El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper). Santos, unlike Uribe, entered politics as an American-educated technocrat and held the portfolios of foreign trade under César Gaviria (1991-1994) and finances under Andrés Pastrana (2000-2002). He left the Liberal Party after Uribe’s election to become a leading uribista in Congress, helping to create the PSUN. He served as Minister of Defense between 2006 and 2009, a high-profile portfolio in which Santos was directly responsible for approving the operations which killed Raúl Reyes and freed Ingrid Betancourt. Santos was widely seen as Uribe’s preferred candidate, and his campaign repeatedly emphasized both Uribe’s record and his own record as his defense minister.

Santos was not the only uribista candidate in the race. The Conservatives nominated Noemí Sanín, who had run for president as an independent in 1998 and 2002 and had served as ambassador to the UK under Uribe’s presidency. Sanín, who was backed by former President Andrés Pastrana, was seen as close to Uribe; although perhaps Uribe’s favourite candidate of them all was Andrés Felipe Arias, his loyal Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. Germán Vargas Lleras, grandson of former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1964-1970), a Senator (1998-2008) and leader of the Cambio Radical (CR) party, was also a fairly close supporter of Uribe’s policies earlier on (but opposed Uribe’s reelection in 2010).

The Liberal Party, in opposition to Uribe, nominated the party’s leader and former Senator Rafael Pardo, who briefly supported Uribe during his first term before joining the ranks of the Liberal opposition to Uribe in 2003-2005. Pardo had previously served as Minister of Defense under César Gaviria between 1991 and 1994. The left-wing PDA nominated Gustavo Petro, a former supporter of the M-19 guerrilla movement, for which he was imprisoned and allegedly tortured in 1985. Petro was elected to the Senate for the PDA after two terms as a representative, and gained notoriety for blowing the whistle in the parapolitics scandal (but also a FARC-politics scandal, detailing links between some politicians the FARC). Although Petro was more hawkish and centrist than his party, his strong opposition to Uribe had lead to nasty shouting matches between Uribe and Petro, the former calling the latter a ‘terrorist in civilian dress’.

The campaign was marked by the rapid rise of Antanas Mockus, a senior politician who had served as mayor of Bogotá from 1995 to 1997 and 2oo1 to 2003. Mockus, a philosopher and academic of Lithuanian origin, gained popularity and notoriety as a successful but outlandish mayor – he dressed up as a superhero to clean up graffiti; already as Rector of the Universidad Nacional, he had been noted for his eccentricity, lowering his pants and showing his butt to a crowd of students blocking him from giving a speech. Mockus, a political independent, joined the new Green Party and selected Sergio Fajardo, a charismatic, innovative, and independent former mayor of Medellín (2004-2007). Mockus surpassed Santos in most first and second round polls, presenting himself as a centrist and neither pro or anti-Uribe.

The campaign was disturbed by Hugo Chávez’s meddling. The Venezuelan president called Santos a ‘real military threat’, a ‘mafioso’ and a pawn of the ‘Yankee imperialists’. He warned that he would not meet with Santos if elected and threatened that ‘there would be war’ if Santos won. Uribe, Santos and most candidates strongly criticized Chávez’s intervention in the campaign.

Despite polls indicating a close contest, Santos dominated the first round on May 30 with 46.7% against only 21.5% for Antanas Mockus, whose grassroots and internet-based campaign collapsed. Vargas Lleras placed a distant third with 10.1%, followed by Petro on 9.1%, Sanín at 6.1% and Rafael Pardo with 4.4%. A month later, Santos was handily elected President with 69.1% against 27.5% for Mockus.

Juan Manuel Santos’ Presidency (2010-2014)

In the immediate, Santos took office (in August) facing a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela. In early July 2010, the Minister of Defense had revealed proof of the presence of FARC and ELN guerrillas in Venezuela (among them was Iván Marquez, a leading FARC member), and Uribe announced that he would take the matter to the OAS. Venezuela denied Colombia’s allegations and responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with Colombia and moving troops to border regions; Chávez claimed, as he had following the 2009 DCA, that Colombia – with US assistance and backing – was planning to invade Venezuela. Upon taking office, Santos organized to meet Chávez in Santa Marta (Magdalena), and the two Presidents resolved the crisis and diplomatic relations were restored.

Juan Manuel Santos has turned out to be his own man, much to Uribe’s dismay.

Upon taking office, Santos continued the military strategy against the FARC, but he also said that the door to peace talks with the FARC was not closed. However, in 2010, the FARC’s answer to Santos’ more conciliatory attitude was a wave of attacks and ambushes. In September 2010, the military scored a major success in a large-scale and well-orchestrated operation which killed ‘Mono Jojoy’, one of the FARC’s top military leaders. His death was hailed by both the government and the media as a significant blow to the FARC, given that Mono Jojoy was considered as one of the FARC’s leading military commanders and a key person in the organization. In November 2011, in another major blow to the FARC, the military killed Alfonso Cano, Marulanda’s successor as the political leader of the FARC.

Nevertheless, the FARC remained a potent – if reduced (and radicalized) force. The FARC retained a strong offensive capability and the government found that the FARC had turned to illegal gold mining (in addition to drug trafficking) to finance their terrorism. 2011 was one of the most violent years on record, with the FARC (and ELN) desperate to show their muscle with new kidnappings, attacks and car bombings.

Soon after taking office, Santos’ government proposed legislation to address the issue of land ownership – restoring land stolen or purchased under duress by paramilitaries and guerrillas. Unequal land distribution has been both a cause and consequence of the conflict, with some 16,000 people in 2005 owning over 62% of the land and about 6 million hectares illegally or violently seized. The government’s law proposed to return the land to their original owners, placing the burden of proof on owners. The law was passed in 2011, but application has been slow and claimants have lived in fear of neo-paramilitary groups, which have killed or threatened those claiming land.

The law was part of a wider landmark ‘Victims and Land Restitution Law’. The law was welcomed because, for the first time, the government recognized the existence of an ‘armed conflict’ and its legal, humanitarian implications. Secondly, the law also allowed for compensation to those who had been victims of abuses by state forces – not only the FARC and paramilitaries. An Amnesty International report, however, cited major concerns with the law including: definition of victims (excluding those who continue to suffer abuses from neo-paramilitaries, unrecognized as such by the government), the exclusion of many displaced persons from the process and playing down state responsibility. The analysis also looked into barriers to the restitution of land, clauses which may legitimize land theft and inadequate support for victims.

Santos has taken a more diplomatic demeanor in his relations with his neighbors; under Uribe, relations with Chávez’s Venezuela and Correa’s Ecuador were often strained while relations with left-wing governments in Brazil and Argentina were barely any better. In office, Santos restored diplomatic ties with Ecuador and Venezuela, effecting an unofficial truce with Venezuela. In exchange for Venezuela extraditing Colombian guerrillas, Bogotá extradited a Venezuelan accused of drug trafficking to Venezuela instead of the US. In August 2010, after the Constitutional Court struck down the 2009 DCA as unconstitutional, Santos did nothing to revive the contentious agreement which had soured Bogotá’s regional ties.

Santos’ foreign policy has been only one issue which has soured relations with Uribe. Santos has never been Uribe’s puppet, even when he was his ostensibly loyal defense minister, but relations between the two men started going south in 2011. Uribe faulted Santos for his cordial ties with Chávez, claiming that Colombia could not have diplomatic relations with a country which harboured terrorists. On domestic policies, Uribe also began criticizing his successor’s policies – he found Santos’ security policy ineffective and soft, he opposed the land restitution law, he opposed amending a bill to remove responsibility for judging abuses by security forces from military courts and strongly opposed any talks of negotiations with the FARC. The government’s tax reform in 2012 was seen as an attack on Uribe, given that it sought to remove tax breaks and incentives for companies created by Uribe. Finally, Santos welcomed two 2010 presidential candidates known as critics of Uribe into his cabinet: Germán Vargas Lleras became Minister of the Interior (until May 2012, he is now Minister of Housing) and Rafael Pardo, the Liberal candidate, is Minister of Labour.

Several high-ranking allies of Uribe have also been prosecuted in corruption cases. Andrés Felipe Arias, Uribe’s agriculture minister, was arrested in 2011 for his role in the Agro Ingreso Seguro, an agricultural subsidy which ended up in the hands of powerful landowners and even a beauty queen. An arrest warrant, since dropped, was issued against Luis Carlos Restrepo, accused of staging a fake demobilization of a FARC unit. Uribe’s former chief of staff was also arrested for his role in a DAS wiretapping scandal. Uribe has stood by his allies, claiming they were victims of political persecution.

In June 2012, Santos ran into controversy over a proposed judicial reform which started out with fairly good intentions but turned, thanks to Congress, into a disaster for the government. The judiciary opposed the government’s early projects, but the situation became chaotic when Congress approved the bill including various advantages for corrupt congressmen/ex-congressmen: notably stripping the Supreme Court of its power to investigate corruption cases involving legislators. The Minister of Justice announced his resignation in disgust, there were several opposition protests against the bill and the PDA clamored for a referendum on the bill. Bowing to the enormous pressure, Santos convened Congress to repeal the law only a few days after it was passed.

Santos’ government has felt that, to secure peace, it needed to offer the guerrillas incentives to negotiate. In May 2012, Congress passed a law giving itself the power to decide the criteria determining which crimes would be investigated by prosecutors and which would be investigated by others. The bill was opposed by both Uribe and human rights groups, the latter claiming that it guaranteed impunity for those who committed crimes against humanity. Now that Colombia is a full member of the ICC, crimes against humanity and war crimes are the full jurisdiction of the ICC and amnesty could be challenged there.

In September 2012, Santos publicly confirmed that Colombian officials had been engaged in secret negotiations with the FARC in Cuba and Norway. The talks, in secret, likely began in January and by October, the two parties reached agreement on a framework for those talks. Santos claimed that they had learned the mistakes of the past and they would not be repeated; notably, the talks are being held abroad, and there is no concession of a DMZ to the FARC within Colombian territory. The talks were accompanied with a two-month ceasefire from the FARC, which they generally respected; but in 2013, the FARC returned to kidnappings (albeit many hostages were quickly released) and killing police officers. Some saw the attacks as a way for the FARC to prove that they remain a potent threat, without undermining the peace talks

In May 2013, agreement was reached on the first topic under discussion: rural development. The agreement talked of loans and technical help for small farmers, but nothing will be implemented until there is a final agreement on all matters. Other issues on the list are political participation (allowing the FARC to participate in the political process, while guaranteeing their safety, after drug lords and paramilitaries mowed down UP leaders and members in the 1980s), ending the conflict (the FARC surrendering their weapons and demobilizing), the issue of drugs and drug trafficking (Santos has come out in favour of considering the legalization of soft drugs) and finally victims (both of FARC and government atrocities).

In August, talks were hiccuped when the FARC felt that the government was rushing the talks forward in a (failed) attempt to reach a final deal before the March 2014 elections. But after a three-day walkout, the FARC returned to the table. In November, after reaching tentative agreement on political participation, the talks were rocked by revelations of a FARC plot to assassinate Uribe and other politicians (although it wasn’t clear if they were current plans). The issue of justice and the future of FARC leaders, who may face charges of crimes against humanity, will be very difficult.

Uribe has strongly opposed negotiations with the FARC, viewing it as akin to surrendering to terrorists. He used his Twitter account to publicize, on one occasion with a graphic picture, the FARC’s guerrilla attacks and their victims.

In February 2014, Semana, a popular magazine, reported that a military intelligence unit had been spying on the government’s negotiating team in the FARC peace talks for over a year. Uribe denied being on the receiving end of confidential information; his disclosure of confidential information (in August 2012, announcing the secret negotiations; in 2013, tweeting the coordinates of where an helicopter was picking up negotiators in a jungle clearing) in the past had raised questions. Two weeks after the revelations, Santos fired General Leonardo Barrero, the commander of the military; this time in links to Semana publicizing a transcript of a conversation the general had with a colonel facing charges for the extrajudicial killing of civilians.

Santos has been considerably less popular than his predecessor. There were student protests against a controversial education reform in 2011. In August 2013, large protests including miners, truckers, coffee growers, milk producers, public healthcare workers, students and others erupted in several departments. Both Uribe and the FARC, opportunistically, threw their support behind the protests. The protesters had different gripes: coffee growers demanding government assistance to counter dropping prices, truckers demanding investment in infrastructure to fix Colombia’s bad roads, others opposing the terms of the FTA with the US which was finally ratified in 2011. In the wake of the protests, Santos’ approval rating in September 2013 tumbled to the low 20s (from about 50%), with voters citing disapproval of the way Santos had handled the protests.

Political developments

Juan Manuel Santos’ government is backed by the National Unity (Unidad Nacional) coalition, which is made up of the PSUN (Party of the U), the Radical Change party and the Liberal Party. The Conservatives appear very divided between santistas, uribistas and independents; according to La Silla Vacia‘s electoral guide for the legislative elections, most Conservative senatorial candidates are pro-Santos but in February 2014, the Conservatives nominated the pro-Uribe Marta Lucía Ramírez as their presidential candidate.

Former President Álvaro Uribe created his own party in January 2013, the Centro Democrático (Democratic Centre, CD). Uribe is the party’s obvious leader and in many ways it is a personalist party based around him, notably taking up Uribe’s famous mano firme, corazón grande (firm hand, big heart) slogan. The ranks of the CD include uribistas from other parties, notably the PSUN, the Conservatives and even the PDA. Prominent members of the CD include Uribe’s Minister of Finance and Public Credit Óscar Iván Zuluaga (the CD’s 2014 presidential candidate), Uribe’s Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón and the former governor of Antioquia Luis Alfredo Ramos. All three men have been linked to the parapolitics scandal: Santos Calderón is under investigation for a meeting with AUC leaders in which he allegedly suggested that the AUC creates a front in Bogotá; in August 2013, Ramos was arrested on orders of the Attorney General for his presumed ties to paramilitaries; Zuluaga was investigated by the Attorney General in 2007 for a 2003 picture of him at an event for a former paramilitary running for mayor.

On the left, the PDA has run into a series of crises. The PDA mayor of Bogotá, Samuel Moreno, elected in 2007 with 43.7%, got mixed up in a large corruption scandal involving corruption contractors, who claimed that the mayor had demanded kickbacks for him and his brother (a PDA senator). In May 2011, the Inspector General (a body overseeing the conduct of those in public office, with the power to dismiss them from office) suspended him from his job as mayor for three months. In September, he was expelled from the PDA and the Attorney General ordered his detention. The PDA’s steadfast defense of the corrupt mayor until the last minute divided and weakened the party; Gustavo Petro, the PDA’s 2010 presidential candidate, left the party in 2010 and became a vocal critic of Moreno’s administration. In October 2011, Petro, running for his new social democratic Movimiento Progresistas, was elected mayor with 32.2% against 25% for former mayor Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2000), a uribista Green who was strongly supported by Uribe.

Petro’s administration was very controversial. Although he was able to reduce the city’s murder rate by 24%, various management problems and controversial decisions hurt his standing in public opinion. Especially contentious was his ill-advised 2012 decision to not renew private contracts for trash collection, placing responsibility for waste management in the municipal government’s hands. For three days, trash piled up on Bogotá’s streets, forcing Petro to allow private contractors to temporarily collect trash. The local government is accused of wasting millions of pesos and doubling the costs for trash collection as a result of its policy. On April 6, 2014, Petro will face a recall referendum.

In early December 2013, the Inspector General’s office removed him from office and banned him from holding public office for a period of 15 years. The decision, which has since been temporarily suspended by a court awaiting judgement from a higher court, reeked of political persecution (as Petro claims): the decision was unexpectedly severe (especially the long ban from holding office; Moreno faced only a year-long ban from office), the Inspector General, Alejandro Ordóñez, is a conservative supporter of Uribe and opponent of the peace talks.

The specific posts on the congressional elections (in March) and the presidential elections (in May) will include details on the parties, candidates, dynamics and – naturally – results themselves.


Posted on March 10, 2014, in Colombia, Election Preview, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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