Polo Democrático's Challenge
by Paul Haste
The Polo is the only option that Colombia
has to leave the nightmare our alternative to the old traditional
bosses will end this long night, and the Uribista's attempts to
force us against the wall and deligitimize us will not bear fruit.
There is no doubt that the leftist Polo
Democrático coalition has become a decisive movement in
Colombia's politics. Political commentators and newspaper editorials
have devoted much space to this rising challenge to Colombia's
closed, elitist politics, the first organised democratic and leftist
opposition since the Unión Patriótica had its activists
and candidates massacred by paramilitaries in the late Eighties.
Literacy is not total in Colombia, and
even the government concedes that almost 50 per cent of all its
citizens live in poverty, struggling to survive on less than 4
US dollars a day. Newspapers that cost a dollar, or political
magazines that cost almost five dollars are clearly not a priority
for most Colombians, and so the debate in the press over the Polo
Democrático is more a discussion amongst the elite about
how to deal with this threat to their privileges.
Far right Colombian President Álvaro
Uribe has set the tone, intemperately calling the opposition 'disguised
communists', while Uribista politicians resort to the standard
McCarthyite tactic of our times - 'you are either with the President
or with the terrorists' - and demand the Polo expel all activists
and candidates who suggest that Colombia's war might be connected
to the country's inequality, inequity and poverty.
Although rightist politicians attempt
to either dismiss the Polo as 'communists', or continue to have
faith that a conservative Colombia will be sceptical towards a
leftist party, more intelligent observers amongst the elite have
realised that the left has a real chance to win the next presidential
At a recent 'closed seminar', political
strategists, advisors and newspaper editors concluded that the
Polo Democrático appeared to be the strongest and most
coherent political force, and could in all probability force the
2010 elections into a second round. This prospect concerned those
present, who believed the right were not as united or as organised,
and who were still uncertain about the possibility that Uribe
could change Colombia's Constitution again to allow a third presidential
Armando Montenegro, the reporter who revealed
the seminar's discussions, wrote that the political strategists
advised the right to organise a 'scare the rich' campaign, in
order to create a fear amongst the elite that could force the
Supreme Court to allow Uribe to run again.
At the same time, editorialists and political
columnists have voiced despair that the traditional parties are
no longer considered a credible option in Colombia's political
scene. In part, this is due to Uribe's own political opportunism;
originally a Liberal, he stood as an independent supported by
the Conservatives, and has, as an unintended consequence, decimated
The right are now scattered, dispersed
amongst personalist, caudillo parties that have no clear principles
but instead dispense favours and patronage to obtain votes. Almost
50 Senators and Congress representatives in these parties are
either in jail or under investigation for their ties to the far
That the Liberals have lost respect and
are considered irrelevant, has been demonstrated by ex President
and current party boss César Gaviria, who said that the
party could not oppose the government's policies because it might
'lose points', while the old Conservatives are struggling to recover
their independence after being co-opted and marginalised by the
far right Uribe.
This has led some commentators to believe
it is inevitable that the left will win the next presidential
elections, and as a result, their columns and opinion articles
have sought to influence the Polo Democrático's politics,
attempting to favour perceived 'moderates' over more leftist or
even Chavista leaders in the party.
Semana, Colombia's most prestigious political
magazine, and the rightist newspaper El Tiempo, have made
the greatest efforts to intervene in the Polo's political debates,
printing speculative articles suggesting that prominent leftist
leaders are considering resignation, or patronising editorials
that advise the party to be 'responsible'.
'The elite demands a decaffeinated opposition
party,' comments Polo activist Carlos Castillo, 'one that is extremely
similar to the right.' A party in the right's image seems to be
all that the Polo Democrático's critics understand. Accustomed
to the patronage practised by the old traditional parties and
the new, Uribista caudillo parties, some columnists interpret
the Polo's advance in terms familiar to them.
'A clientilist threat,' writes Alejandro
Gaviria in El Espectador, claiming that the left's emphasis
on ending poverty, 'is old politics, handing out favours to gain
votes,' while El Tiempo believes that the party's open,
combative and democratic debates on policies - unheard of in Colombia's
traditional politics where policies are quietly agreed upon in
elite clubs - demonstrates 'immaturity and irresponsibility.'
'The proof that the Polo is a new and
honourable movement is that it doesn't have tired old politicians,'
points out Colombian poet and writer William Ospina, rebutting
the media's attacks, 'Colombia needs a true democracy, and the
Polo lacks the malice and shrewdness that characterize the old
parties and politicians, and with ease it has provoked some in
the elite and confused others.'
The Polo Democrático has not just
'provoked and confused' the elite through its emphasis on workers,
the poor and the displaced. Contrary to the localised caudillo
party bosses, the Polo is a national party that organises all
over Colombia: in barrios that no traditional politician visits,
and amongst workers whose unions offer it their unequivocal support.
The fact that several different leftist
political parties overcame their historical sectarianism to unite
in the Polo Democrático, including the influential Partido
Comunista Colombiano, has raised more McCarthyite fears in the
press. 'Communists in the Polo raises suspicions,' states Semana,
'and the question that has to be asked is whether the party can
avoid their influence increasing, which it must do if the Polo
wants to maintain the moral authority to criticise paramilitaries
This astonishing attempt to equate communist
participation in a democratic leftist opposition party, with far
right terrorist paramilitaries that have killed Colombians - including
communists and leftist political activists - in their thousands,
has rightly been greeted with complete contempt.
'This tactic, ever more frequently used
by the press and the Presidential Palace, intends to polarize
Colombia,' retorts Felipe Zuleta in El Espectador, 'To
dirty the name of the left is far easier than attempting to show
the president is not connected to narco bosses or paramilitaries
disguised as politicians.'
'The régime sees the Polo as an
enemy to contain and has unleashed the narco paramilitary dogs,'
adds Jaime Caicedo, a communist activist in the Polo, 'each day,
the president and his ministers make up all kinds of lies to discredit
it as they try to make us adopt a conciliatory attitude acceptable
to the régime the blackmail consists in saying: be a tame
opposition or your destiny will be that of the Unión Patriótica,
while others demand the Polo becomes a moderate party, and the
press gives lessons in how to be 'sensible'.
The latest attempts to 'moderate' the
Polo Democrático have reflected the old opportunistic tradition
in Colombia's politics that permits individual politicians to
change parties as it suits them. 'To be more attractive to Colombian
voters,' Semana condescendingly advises, 'independent politicians',
'respected Liberals' and even 'dissident Uribistas' should not
just be potential Polo members, but become Polo leaders.
Completely failing to understand that
the Polo is a democratic party with its own elections, primaries
and activists - more than 500,000 party members voted for delegates
to the first Polo Congress in 2006 that then elected the party's
leadership - Semana's spectacular ignorance reveals just how used
the elite are to assuming that everyone is as opportunist as them.
Arrogantly taking for granted that individuals
without principles, convictions or even affinity with the Polo's
aims, could usurp its democratic processes and simply assume or
be handed a leadership position, indicates the contempt Colombia's
rulers have for those ordinary citizens who are now organising
and participating in politics on their own terms.
Polo Democrático President, Carlos
Gaviria Díaz, spelt out the irreconcilable difference between
the left and Colombia's elite: 'I think that in Colombia there
are two proposals: one of the right, that supports, strengthens
and consolidates the current inequity, and another of the left,
where we want to change this state of affairs.'
Criticising the attempts to pressure the
party to move to the right, he reiterated: 'Our party is a leftist
party. Many people ask why we don't call it a 'centre left' party
and I tell them; because I don't know what the centre is in a
polarized Colombia, the centre shamelessly flirts with the right.'
'I want the term 'leftist' to be used
without fear in Colombia, without demonizing this position,' Gaviria
continued, 'I don't speak of an armed left, but a democratic left,
where we propose to make substantial changes and reforms in Colombian
society through electoral politics.'
It is this determination that has caused
such fear amongst Colombia's more far sighted political strategists
and commentators, and has them attempting to curtail the party's
independence, radicalism and the challenge it represents to the
elite - but it is almost certainly too late.
'The Polo has become the sole democratic
opposition in Colombia in the eyes of the people,' as Jaime Caicedo
says, and the poet William Ospina agrees, emphasising that the
Polo must 'maintain its presence, its vigorous and pluralist character
it must not get worn down in opposition, but must usurp the traditional
clientilism, scepticism and violence of this country and continue
advancing policies of change to offer an alternative.'
Paul Haste is a union organizer from
London who is currently living in Bogotá to improve his
Spanish. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read other articles by Paul.