Colombian elections: a vote for the peace negotiations

In the 14 June presidential run-off election, Juan Manuel Santos (leader of the Social Party of National Unity or ‘Party of the U’), who stood as the candidate for the three party National Unity Coalition, won Colombia's presidential contest. He took nearly 51% of the votes against the Democratic Centre party candidate Oscar Zuluaga’s who polled 45%. Zuluaga was the narrow winner of the first round in May by 29.3% to 25.7% of the vote. The final outcome depended on the swing votes of those who had voted for the other three main parties, the Colombian Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Colombiano), the Alternative Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático Alternativo) and the Colombian Green Party. The mass of the workers and peasants had no candidate to represent their interests and did not vote. Santos will be inaugurated as President in August for another four years.

Scandals linked to drug funding of campaigns and e-mail hacking erupted around the two contenders’ camps during the campaigns. Only 43.6% of the 32.8 million registered Colombians voted, a similar percentage to 2010. As a class-conscious protest by working class voters against the ‘choice’ in the final contest, 1.07 million voters (15.6% of the total) intentionally spoiled their ballots. This included 400,000 votes that were written for Jose Pekerman, Colombia’s world cup coach - who was not standing for office - while the rest were deliberately left blank.

The campaign focused on the peace negotiations with the FARC agreed to by Santos in November 2012 and now taking place in Havana, Cuba. On 16 May, the FARC revolutionaries (formed in 1965 and presently with 110 armed operational units across the country) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) (formed 1963) announced that they would observe a ceasefire from 20 May to 28 May, over the first poll period, and extended this during the run off. Santos’s victory was a vote for the ongoing peace talks with the FARC revolutionaries which Zuluaga had threatened to halt if he was elected.

After Santos’ victory, ex-president Uribe, Zuluaga’s backer, angrily accused Santos on TV of ‘the biggest corruption in history’, alleging Santos had bought votes and that ‘leftists’ had intimidated voters. Vote buying and miscounting have been common in Colombia for years, and the novelty of this election was the hypocritical protests from the defeated ‘right-wing’. The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation claimed that 131 electoral candidates for the March Congressional electionswere suspected of having links to armed anti-working-class drug dealing and other criminal groups.

Peace negotiations

In January 2013 Álvaro Uribe had left his ‘Party of the U’ to form the Democratic Centre movement with his former vice-president Francisco Santos, cousin of the now re-elected president, and other close allies. In this reorganisation two bickering gangs were formed by the same social and political class, which between them have threatened Colombia’s workers and peasants with different intensities of US-funded warfare. This was calculated to create maximum pressure on the FARC and the ELN to make concessions to Santos’s demands at the negotiating table.

The Havana agenda covers six issues; land reform, political participation, drug trafficking, rights of victims, disarmament of the rebels, and the implementation of the peace deal. On 26 May 2013, negotiators reached an agreement on land reform. In November 2013 they agreed on a political future including guarantees, conditions and support for the creation of new political parties. On 16 May 2014, the two sides agreed on a plan to deal with the illegal drug trade. The 2007 UN World Drug Report states that the bulk of drug trafficking in Colombia is controlled by professional drug smuggling groups, not the FARC, and the mass of profits involved go to foreigners.

The remaining points to be dealt with on the Havana agenda – are the rights of the victims, disarmament of the rebels and the implementation of the agreement. In June 2014, FARC and government negotiators in Havana announced they would set up a truth commission to investigate deaths and human rights violations during the last 50 years of conflict. They thus agreed to hear the demands of the victims, who will travel to the Cuban capital.

On 28 August 2013, Santos said that he was also ready to talk to the ELN, the second biggest guerrilla group in Colombia. The ELN like FARC remains undefeated and it is particularly concerned with the national control of natural resources in Colombia, and had been excluded from talks as these resources were sold off to international corporations. In June 2014 the government and the ELN announced that they had been holding exploratory peace talks since January and had agreed on some points of an agenda. These are the issues of victims and participation of civil society. Now that Santos has won the election the negotiations are expected to begin once all the points to be discussed are agreed.

The economic plans of the ruling class

The ruling class consists of a wealthy 3.4% of the population in a country with one of the strictest ‘social stratification’ systems in the world: 89% of the population lives at below the average income, including 34% below the poverty line; 31% say they have not had enough to eat at some point in 2013; 46% say they have had no money for food.

The ruling class’s current push for further enrichment rests on a $12bn infrastructure plan that needs the country to be ‘pacified’ as soon as possible. The discussions with FARC may lead to the opening up of the country for privately-constructed road projects, with contracts worth $6bn starting in 2015 and another $6bn of tenders expected to be submitted by the summer of 2015.

Colombia is less affected by portfolio investment and the usual wave of dollar outflows when better financial returns arise elsewhere in the world. Instead it has concentrated on selling its natural reserves. Oil, coal and nickel make up 65% of exports. Lloyds has invested over £3.4bn in companies involved in the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia – the largest open-cast mine in Latin America. The mine has already destroyed local villages, including those of the indigenous Wayuu people and local farmers. Furthermore most of the coal it produces is exported to rich countries and does not help local people access the energy they need. The Colombian peso rate fell 7% over January and February as the Chinese economy slowed down and the government is anxious to push ahead with its free-trade agreements with the EU and the USA, anddevelop its alliances with the new Pacific Alliance (Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru), built as a counterweight to ALBA, and which is lifting tariffs on 92% of all goods.

The challenge that faces the workers and poor peasants in Colombia today is to continue to build their own political parties despite the shocking violence directed against them by the ruling class. The Patriotic March, founded in 2010, is supporting the current peace negotiations and demanding a resolution to the grievances of the small farmers and landless peasants, as well as extensive changes in the social conditions of all workers. It is made up of some 2,000 local and functional organisations and put over a million demonstrators on the streets in April 2013. The Patriotic March did not put forward candidates for the recent elections both because of its rejection of the current official political process and the intimidation of its members including the murder of 30 of its leaders in less than two years. Nevertheless the sudden and effective rise of this organisation demonstrates the capacity of poor workers to break the hold that the existing political classes have on political life. What is necessary now is for the discipline and ideological coherence of the revolutionary movements now struggling in negotiations with the government to throw their weight into the urban struggle and to dispossess the arrogant, wealthy and abusive ruling class.

Alvaro Michaels


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