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Change Colombians Can Believe In?

Given the unprecedented wave of corruption scandals that have marked Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s second term in office (2006-10), it is fitting that his appointed successor and former minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos, is in trouble with the law. Wanted on charges in Ecuador for his role in ordering air strikes on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory on March 1, 2008, as part of “Operation Phoenix,” which killed 22 people, including Raul Reyes, the FARC’s top hostage negotiator, and Franklin Aisalla, a locksmith and Ecuadorian citizen, the key theme in the presidential debate on May 19 was whether candidates would protect Santos from Ecuadorian justice in the event it became necessary to do so. The candidates, including the Polo Democrático’s Gustavo Petro on the Left, closed ranks behind Santos, who is tied with former two-time mayor of Bogota (1995-7, 2001-3), Antanus Mockus, in opinion polls for the week ending May 23.

With Mockus running on a campaign slogan of “Democratic Legality,” nothing less than the legacy of Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policies—and his two terms in office—is at stake in the first round of voting on May 30. Mockus has harbored presidential ambitions since 1998, when he ran for the first time (only to wind up as Noemí Sanín’s running mate), but has never had any traction: with 1.2 per cent of the vote, his showing in 2006 was dismal, and his movement picked up no seats in either the Senate or the House that year. At 1.9 per cent, Mockus was a nonentity in the polls as recently as January 2010, and following legislative elections in March, in which his candidates did poorly, winning 5 per cent of the vote for Senate and 3 per cent for the House, and Uribe retained a two-thirds majority, Mockus was still polling less than 10 per cent.

What brought Mockus back from the dead was support from former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, who in April announced his willingness to drop out of the presidential race in order to take a backseat to Mockus on the Green Party ticket. Although neither Fajardo’s nor Mockus’s followers did well in the March Senate elections, taking a total of six seats out of 102, together they have capitalized on their image as progressive centrist mayors outside the orbit of the Liberal-Conservative diarchy and the many rightwing parties that circle, vulture-like, around Uribe-Santos. Both Mockus and Fajardo are well-educated neoliberal technocrats: before becoming mayor of Bogotá, Mockus was rector of the Universidad Nacional, and has an M.A. in philosophy, while Fajardo has a Ph.D. in math and worked as a professor before running Medellín. Both moved Colombia’s two leading cities in a neoliberal direction, and Mockus-Fajardo are perhaps more green than the Clintons and the DLC, but not by much.

Mockus-Fajardo have run a campaign modeled on Obama’s, and with their emphasis on overwhelming media presence and slick public relations, they should be selected as the best brand of 2010 if they win, just as Obama was in 2008.  Their media impact to date is no small achievement: until the Santos family sold its majority stake to the Spanish publishing conglomerate Planeta in 2007, it controlled the country’s leading daily newspaper, and Juan Manuel Santos, who hired Venezuelan consultant J.J. Rendón—fresh from Porfirio Lobo’s campaign in Honduras—to help him “go negative” against Mockus, worked as an editor and journalist for decades before taking up politics.

The key to Santos’s power within the second Uribe administration was precisely his ability to manipulate the media, in Colombia as well as the U.S., through effective disinformation campaigns, as in March-April 2008, in which the scandal of Colombia’s violation of international law in Ecuador was disappeared from the headlines by the alleged contents of Raul Reyes’ confiscated laptop. Santos was the darling of officials at both State and the Pentagon, especially after Operation Jaque, which freed Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. mercenaries in July 2008, and has cultivated high-level contacts in Washington for years.

Everything worked brilliantly for Uribe-Santos until the “false positives” scandal broke in late 2008: throughout 2009-10 it emerged that the Colombian Army—the one Plan Colombia had strengthened technologically and organizationally—had been given incentives to inflate body counts when Santos was Minister of Defense. An estimated 2,200 poor, unemployed young men from the countryside and Bogotá’s urban periphery were disappeared, flown to regions far from home, murdered, and dressed in guerrilla uniforms to make it look as though the Colombian Army was winning against the FARC. Then the Ecuadorian request for Santos’s extradition was announced in late April, 2010.

If anything, Santos’s personality is even more repugnant than that of George W. Bush, and Santos has many enemies, not only on the Left. Even on the right, he is a divisive rather than a unifying figure—here the contrast with Uribe is remarkable—and his unflappable arrogance makes him unpopular in a country in which President Uribe’s false, country-bumpkin humility plays well. Indeed, Santos appeared to have taken it for granted that he would glide into the Palacio de Nariño in the same manner Uribe had done, which is to say illegally and without a serious challenger, such that Mockus’s ascent caught Santos and his team, which includes James Carville, flat-footed. Having lost the initiative in April, they were unable to regain it in May. Not even J.J. Rendón could bring Santos back from the dead.

Like Obama, Mockus has not only mobilized youth netroots and middle-class intellectuals and professionals of all stripes, but has persuaded many of the country’s key economic groups—agro-business (SAC), industrialists (ANDI), coffee growers (Fedecafe), Sindicato Antioqueno, Empresas Públicas de Medellín—to back him. Mockus-Fajardo have made the issues of jobs, education, and healthcare, not to mention corruption, the rhetorical centerpieces of their campaign. Although fulminating against corruption is a perennial aspect of Colombian electoral politics, a sense of exhaustion and revulsion seems to have moved a strategically important sector of the urban middle class to mobilize behind Mockus. The energy of Mockus’s campaign is similar to Obama’s, whereas except on TV, Santos’s campaign remains moribund. In spite of his best efforts, Santos has not been able to make Chávez and Venezuela the focal point of the campaign. If Mockus were to win by a hair in the second round, as most polls have it, it would be because economic issues have eclipsed issues of national security, and because he has solid backing from the Colombian establishment.

Yet there are larger issues at stake: is Colombia a democracy, in which citizens-voters decide the outcomes of elections, or is it what Barrington Moore, Jr., called a “semi-authoritarian parliamentary formation,” in which overlapping networks of businesspeople, professional politicians, and regionally-rooted mafias determine said outcomes? Here Colombia’s murderous process of urbanization—first spurred by La Violencia in the mid-twentieth century and again by counter-agrarian reform at the end of the twentieth century—may prove decisive, for Mockus is likely to take the major cities (Cali, Medellín, Barranquilla, and most importantly, Bogotá), as well as many departmental capitals in the regions. Though peripheral areas of most regional cities, not to mention Bogotá, are controlled by paramilitary mafias, it is by no means clear that they can or will deliver the vote for Santos.

As recently as the March legislative elections, the narco-paramilitary rightwing parties maintained their hold on the regions and Uribe kept his parliamentary majority, so what makes the 2010 election so important—aside from the fact that the Constitutional Court ruled that Uribe could not run again—is the possibility that not even regional machine politics and organized crime will be able to deliver enough captive votes from the countryside and the departmental capitals to stop what is being called the “green wave.” The odds that Mockus will win in the second round are long, but gamblers will be betting on him as well as Santos on June 20.

FORREST HYLTON teaches history and politics at the Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá). He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He can be reached at forresthylton@yahoo.com.

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