Congressional Elections Are This Sunday
Colombians go to the polls on March 11 to elect new members of a 108-person Senate and a 172-person House of Representatives. All will serve four-year terms. Regardless of the result, at least five from each house will be members of the political party formed by the former FARC guerrillas. The peace accord gives the FARC ten automatic congressional seats for the next two four-year terms, until 2026.
Polling indicates that rightist parties, and traditional political families, will do well. The “Democratic Center” party of former President Álvaro Uribe led in a Guarumo/EcoAnalitica poll with 20.1 percent of intended Senate votes. (Despite its name, this party is the farthest to the right politically.) Of the next five parties, four are big political machines with blurred, but mostly conservative-leaning, political views (the Liberals, Cambio Radical, the Conservatives, and the “U” or Unity party). The fifth, the Green Party, trends center-left.
Much coverage of the campaign’s last stage focuses on the continued power of local family dynasties, whose members keep getting re-elected despite allegations of corruption or collusion with organized crime and paramilitarism.
In the Wall Street Journal, John Otis profiles Sucre Department candidate Juliana Escalante García.
“[I]t hasn’t hurt Ms. Escalante that her uncle, former senator Álvaro García, is now serving a 40-year prison term for murder or that other politically active relatives have been convicted or investigated for graft and allying with death squads. What ensures loyalty from voters in this impoverished state of Sucre are the personal favors the candidates dispense.”
Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation tells Otis that “about a third of Colombia’s incoming 280-member Congress will be made up of politicians from 11 political clans.”
El Espectador mapped out the dominant political clans in Valle del Cauca (Toro), Santander (Aguilar), and the Atlantic (Char) and Pacific (Martínez Sinisterra) coastal regions. El Tiempo profiled 17 political families throughout the country. La Silla Vacía looked at how jailed politicians continue to manage their electoral machinery from their comfortable prison cells.
“Timochenko” Drops Out of Presidential Race
The former FARC are performing poorly in polls: the Guarumo/EcoAnalitica survey showed its 74 Senate and House candidates sharing the support of 0.6 percent of respondents. And the former guerrillas’ presidential campaign suffered a knockout blow this week as its candidate, former paramount FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño alias “Timochenko,” suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery.
The 59-year-old Timochenko has been plagued by health problems. Following this medical event, he pulled out of the campaign completely. The FARC will not run a presidential candidate in the May 27 elections.
Timochenko’s campaign had not been going well. Most polls had him in the 1 percent range. And some of his campaign appearances had been met with angry mobs throwing objects at him. “Nothing has gone well for the party,” León Valencia of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation told the New York Times. “The implementation of the peace accords going ahead will depend on their presence and political influence in the country and this is in question.”
Former FARC members continue to face attacks and threats around the country. Vice-President Óscar Naranjo told Verdad Abierta that since the November 2016 signing of the peace accord, 56 people tied to the FARC have been murdered, among them 42 ex-combatants, some relatives, and “a very small number, two or three people, tied to the new FARC political party who weren’t ex-combatants or relatives.”
Presidential Candidate Petro Claims He Was Shot At
Leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, who narrowly leads polls for May’s first-round presidential vote, visited Washington to consult with the OAS about an attack that took place in Cúcuta on March 2. As his motorcade drove through the city, it was hit with a projectile so hard that it cracked the thick glass of Petro’s armored car. Petro claims it was a bullet. The investigative arm of Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (the CTI) said the damage did not result from a bullet, but did not suggest an alternative.
Petro blamed the attack on the machine that dominates local politics in Cúcuta. The city’s current mayor is a close associate of former mayor Ramiro Suárez, who is currently imprisoned in Bogotá for working with paramilitary groups.
U.S. Senate Holds Nomination Hearing for Next U.S. Ambassador
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met March 7 to hear testimony from four ambassadorial nominees, including Joseph MacManus, the State Department’s pick for Colombia.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) raised concerns with MacManus about whether human rights would be upheld in the FARC peace agreement, or would be sacrificed. MacManus replied that “the key word is accountability,” and human rights are a part of that. He added that while Colombia has made advances in protecting labor leaders and human rights defenders, there is a long way to go, and institutions need strengthening.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) called Colombia a “success story,” and endorsed the country’s bid to join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). MacManus said that the OECD bid was helping Colombia to make progress on standards, but cited child labor as one of a few areas where Colombia still needs to do more.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) brought up what he characterized as “record supplies of cocaine,” along with a drop in prices and an increase in U.S. consumption. The timing of increased coca, Rubio said, “coincided with the peace deal,” which he says included a program “paying growers to stop growing coca,” which encouraged people to grow coca to qualify. Rubio said that MacManus would be ambassador at a time when cocaine may compete with opiates as the worst illegal drug plague in the United States. “I see it becoming a major irritant in the relationship.” MacManus replied, “That irritation is already there. It’s beyond an irritation,” citing President Trump’s September near-decertification of Colombia as a partner in the drug war. MacManus assured that the Colombian government is also concerned about coca: it interdicted about 500 tons in 2017, a record, and registered its highest numbers for manual and voluntary eradication in years. MacManus noted that the peace accords call for both rural reform and addressing illicit drugs. He recalled that, at an early March High Level Dialogue, Colombia committed to eradicating to 50 percent of the current area planted with coca within five years.
Sen. Rubio noted that the territorial space, and the role in the cocaine trade, that the FARC once occupied have been taken up by “cartels and the ELN.” He added that “It is indisputable that distribution of cocaine is assisted actively by elements in the Venezuelan government.” Rubio said that Venezuela is supportive of the ELN, and that aerial trafficking routes almost all begin in Venezuelan territory. MacManus did not dispute Rubio’s assessment.
Rubio concluded that between the unstable border and a flood of migrants, “Venezuela poses a national security threat to our strongest ally, Colombia.” McManus concurred that Venezuela is “a principal threat, a threat to Colombia” and “the principal problem of today, of right now,” in Latin America. He noted that Colombia is prepared to seek international assistance to attend to Venezuelan migrants, and that there have been discussions within U.S. agencies about how to provide that.
The Committee has not yet scheduled a vote on MacManus’s nomination. Conservative media outlets had attacked MacManus last year: though he is a career Foreign Service officer, they, and some far-right senators, perceive him as being too close to Hillary Clinton, on whose staff MacManus served when she was secretary of state. Sen. Rubio’s first line of questioning dealt with MacManus’s role in dealing with the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, which U.S. conservatives contend that Clinton mishandled.
Crop Substitution Plan is Lagging
The National Coordinator of Cultivators of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana (COCCAM) held a press conference to warn that the government’s crop substitution program, part of Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord, is not going well.
COCCAM members throughout the country have signed agreements with the Colombian government to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for a package of aid—mainly a stipend and help with productive projects and technical support—valued at about US$12,000 over two years. This National Integral Illicit Crop Substitution Program (PNIS), the growers warn, is on the brink of failure. Payments are arriving very late. Productive projects and technical support have not begun anywhere.
“The National government included 1 trillion pesos (about US$360 million) for the PNIS,” said COCCAM spokeswoman Luz Perly Córdoba. “If we count up how much it costs to attend to the 54,000 families signed up just for this year, the budget rises to 1.5 trillion pesos.”
Cristian Delgado, who manages human rights for COCCAM, counted 27 of its members killed since January 2017. Participants in crop-substitution efforts have been among a growing wave of social leaders killed in post-conflict Colombia.
10 ELN Killed in Bombing Raid
Colombia’s air force and army bombed a column of ELN fighters in Cáceres, in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department, on March 6. The raid killed 10 ELN members, and troops captured 3 more. It was the deadliest military attack on the ELN since January 9, when the government and guerrillas failed to renew a 100-day bilateral ceasefire.
Among the dead was alias “Cachaco,” whom Medellín’s El Colombiano called “the ELN’s second most important man in Antioquia and southern Bolívar.” The military was able to locate him because “Cachaco” was attending a meeting at the site of the bombing raid to discuss logistics for transporting him to Quito, Ecuador, where he was to join the ELN’s negotiating team for peace talks with the government.
These peace talks remain suspended. After the ceasefire ended and the ELN carried out a wave of attacks, including a bombing at a Barranquilla police station, President Santos pulled back the government’s negotiating team and demanded a signal of goodwill from the guerrillas. The ELN have declared a unilateral ceasefire from March 9-13 to coincide with congressional elections.
- “En Ituango Hay un Profundo Desencanto Con el Proceso de Paz” (Verdad Abierta (Colombia), March 9, 2018).
- Eduardo Alvarez Vanegas, “¿Como se Mueven el Eln y las Disidencias de las Farc?” (La Silla Vacía (Colombia), March 9, 2018).
- Dylan Baddour, “Colombia Fails to Cope With Venezuela’s Refugee Crisis” (Pacific Standard, March 9, 2018).
- “La Carcel: El Drama Oculto de las Mujeres en Putumayo” (Verdad Abierta (Colombia), March 8, 2018).
- Juanita Velez, “La Accidentada Campana de la Farc” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), March 7, 2018).