By Rob Packer
At the end of February, Colombia’s Constitutional Court made what some said was the most important decision in its 20-year history: it said that the way that the circumstances surrounding a proposed referendum to allow re-election for President Álvaro Uribe Vélez were “substantial violations of democratic principles” of the constitution. For a country where the president wields an enormous amount of power—enough to issue decrees about the national healthcare system, for example—this was quite a spectacular result: at the start of my time in Colombia I doubt that most of the people I know in Colombia would have expected this turn of events and when I asked at work, the general consensus was that before the president and the court would have made a backroom deal. Suddenly it seemed Colombia had institutions and a system of checks and balances.
Unfortunately, one decision in the constitutional court does not change the system entirely as last Sunday’s Congressional elections showed. This is by no means a full rundown of the elections or of Colombian politics at the moment, but rather some observations from the weekend’s elections.
Sunday’s elections were the first real change since the parapolítica scandal (see an excellent four-part YouTube video from 2008 with political analyst, Claudia López and Wikipedia in English and Spanish) which began to make waves in 2006 when agreements between politicians of all parties and paramilitary groups first came to light. At times since then, around a third of senators have been in prison, either convicted or awaiting trial, leaving their seats empty and meaning that some departments of Colombia were left almost without lawmakers in the House of Deputies—the Senate does not have constituencies and is a single national list. Rather than the modernized face of New Colombia that Uribe’s government likes to show to the outside world, the parapolítica scandal revealed the deep roots of Old Colombia where links with paramilitary groups infiltrate the political system on all sides, including several people close to the president. One of the curiosities of the election is that two thirds of senators are new to the Senate, partly due to a lack of politicians available for re-election but also due to a large number of politicians who have moved from the Chamber of Deputies to the Senate. Unlike what you might expect, according to Semana, a news magazine, this doesn’t mean a change in direction. In fact, in a number of cases there will be very little change in direction where a relative of an incarcerated senator has taken their place, as often in Colombia, politicians are members of political dynasties with networks of interests and patronage. Evidence of this can be seen in the “handing over” of a Senate seat to Arleth Casado, wife of Juan Manuel López Cabrales, a former Liberal senator from Córdoba department on Colombia’s Caribbean coast who was sentenced to six years in prison for signing the Ralito Pact between politicians of various parties and paramilitary groups (see terra.com.co for more details). One of the most memorable parts of my short political education in Colombia happened in a puerta a puerta (a door-to-door minivan somewhere between a bus and a taxi) running between Montería, the capital of Córdoba and Barranquilla, which I picked up in San Juan, Bolívar: the consensus among the monterianas was that “Juancho” was the innocent victim of a corrupt judicial system. The wide-reach of parapolítica did not convince me that they were right.
The level of vested interest can also be seen in the apparently widespread vote-buying, which was denounced by OAS observers, that seems to happen in Colombia: it seems to be taken as read that a vote is worth $50,000 (around US$ 25) or is payable in merchandise of some kind (cement is one of the more common things that I heard). In addition, friends told me about companies where employees are forced to vote for a politician with links to the family who owns the company. This tendency appears to be most developed on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, considered to be one of the more corrupt areas of the country, where there was a concurrent straw poll on whether to create an autonomous region in the Caribbean. On the one hand, this would mean that an often neglected region would have more power and money to make its own decisions, an opinion that most people I speak to in Barranquilla share; however, according to one commentator—and some friends—would also increase the amount of power that the same corrupt politicians and/or paramilitary groups already have. In the context of political caciques (chiefs), it’s easy to say that both sides are right.
In an article on the BBC News website, before the elections, Colombia was described as having “one of the most solid democracies in Latin America”. I am in a no position to judge Colombia against other Latin American countries where I haven’t lived: however, if true, there is a long way to go for democracy throughout Latin America, as there is more to democracy than holding elections and maintaining the independence of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Along with the obvious need to resolve the armed conflict in the country and demobilize all parties (guerrilla, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers and the army), an important part of developing democracy in Colombia is to build faith in the political system. Compared to accusations of parapolítica it can seem trivial, but as I write this, there are recriminations in large parts of the Colombian press that the results of the Conservative primary are still not known, that the elections for the Andean Parliament may be annulled due to a large number of blank ballot papers (shades of Saramago’s Seeing) or that the National Registrar may have been drunk on a (supposedly) dry weekend. But the roots of trust and the cure to the cynicism widespread among people here and parts of the press go a lot deeper than the electoral process: fixing the electoral process is only the start and faith in the politicians is most important. The fact that there has been little change to the legislature since the parapolítica scandal—and with the parties most linked to the scandal now the largest in Congress—makes me agree with these opinion columns (El Tiempo, El Espectador and Semana): that the Colombian electorate hasn’t learnt from the past.