Colombia: Violence against left reveals nature of system

Aida Avella is the Patriotic Union's presidential candidate.

Since its founding in 1985, the Patriotic Union (UP), a Colombian leftist political party, has been victim of calculated violence from actors across the political spectrum.

Colombia is the only country in the world that includes “political genocide” in its constitution. This is the label given to the violence suffered by the UP ― more than 5000 of whose members and supporters have been assassinated since 1985.

This violence has meant that since 2002, the party has not had enough members to meet the threshold to legally qualify as an officially registered party.

Whether the law complies with true democratic values is debatable, as parties who receive less than 350,000 votes are automatically excluded from the system.

Only in September last year did the UP re-win its legal status, allowing it take part in elections. This a monumentally important moment will occur in May as Aida Avella runs as the UP presidential candidate, the first time the UP has been able to run in more than a decade.

But as resistance to the left continues, and security threats persist, the delicate and fragile nature of Colombian democracy is becoming apparent.

In a country torn apart by a decades-long civil war, groups opposed to the state are treated with immense suspicion. Cold War mentalities have perpetuated a deep mistrust of the left, leaving the various parties representing these voices with little opportunity to engage in public debate.

It is perhaps also true that the parties of the left have struggled to unite and present a coherent alternative to the current system.

The ongoing armed conflict has muddied the waters of reason in Colombian politics. The corruption and violence that has marked recent decades continues to affect the struggle for dissenting voices to challenge the system.

Peace talks

However, Colombia is on the verge of huge change. The economy opened up in recent years, allowing swathes of foreign businesses and investment into virgin territories.

Also, depending on the results of the presidential elections, a political solution to the tired conflict could be found ― and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) welcomed into the political system.

Negotiations between the government and the FARC, hosted in Havana, have already already discussed some of the most controversial and difficult themes, such as land restitution and political participation. The general sentiment in Colombia is one of optimism with regards to the outcomes of peace talks.

However, it is widely recognised that a written agreement between the government and the FARC would be the tip of the iceberg in terms of a peace and reconciliation process.

A deep culture of impunity has been extremely damaging in Colombia. It has left families of victims of the armed conflict with no hope of real justice. Members of both the state and armed groups have escaped punishment for acts of violence. Most attackers have walked free and the long, drawn-out nature of the justice system has meant that cases are slow to conclude and seldom provide adequate reparations.

Many people are keen to see perpetrators of violent crimes brought to justice and will not be satisfied if a negotiated solution to the conflict denies these opportunities.

The UP began as a collaboration between the FARC and the Colombian Communist Party in 1985, after peace talks with the Betancourt administration. Despite considerable success in the 1986 general election, the UP soon became the target of violent attacks from drug lords, paramilitary groups and some members of the government’s armed forces.

As the ceasefire began to collapse in 1987, the violence against the UP grew to such high levels that by 1988 the party announced that more than 500 of its members had been assassinated. Most of these murders have never been investigated, most perpetrators have gone unpunished and the victims not been given adequate reparations.

Given the supposed links to the FARC, the UP has found it hard to distance itself from the armed struggle and crimes committed by the guerrilla group. In new attempts to align the left in Colombia, Avella and others have insisted that the UP is a party of peace.

Speaking in the Congress at the end of last year, Avella said: “The things that we want and that we fight for are very general things ― we want the well being of the population, we want people to have a certain minimum lifestyle. When there are children dying of malnutrition, there is not a democracy.

“When citizens don’t have the right to health care, there is not a democracy. And there is not a democracy when there is not a reliable education system.”

She continues to express the need for inclusion in Colombian politics, not just for ex-guerilla combatants but of those throughout the country who feel poorly represented. Colombia’s topography has traditionally made it particularly difficult to govern, resulting in the growth of nearly autonomous towns and cities throughout the country.

Avella spent 17 years in exile in Switzerland after a period of intense violence against her co-workers and supporters, and several attempts on her life. She dedicated herself to working with Colombian diaspora communities, with her ultimate goal to return to her home country and help build lasting peace.

Defiant symbol

A defiant symbol of strength and resistance, Avella is campaigning tirelessly, representing opposition to the current system and the change many believe is needed in the country.

Holding events decked in the UP’s symbolic yellow roses, where she encourages those present to speak about their experiences and ask questions, Avella presents a very different image to that of her opponents.

At the end of February, Avella’s security convoy of seven cars was intercepted by two gunmen on motorbikes, Her car was hit by 14 bullets. Fortunately no one was hurt.

As yet, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the poisonous accusations flung at various groups have further increased people’s distrust and disillusionment with the system.

Colombia prides itself on its claim to be the oldest liberal democracy in Latin America, holding regular elections. Yet with Colombia ranked 84th out of 140 countries in terms of respecting civil and political rights, and with a mere 42.5% of those registered to vote actually voting, there is clearly a long way to go before Colombia can truly claim to be a functioning and trustworthy democracy.

The “blank vote” is becoming more and more popular, with some predicting it could emerge with the highest share of the vote. This worryingly high abstention rate coupled with the threshold law means that many parties will not achieve 350,000 votes and will lose legal status. This would help perpetuate the two-party system.

With evidence that politicians and presidential candidates bribe voters in rural areas with food handouts and roof tiles, it is easy to see why people are disillusioned with the system and choose not to vote. This is not through apathy so much as conviction their vote will mean nothing.

Democracy has become farcical in Colombia. Politics has become a distant and foreign realm with seemingly little relevance to the daily lives of Colombian citizens.

UP role

In this atmosphere, the plight of the UP becomes even more pronounced. It is well known that political parties in Colombia without money struggle to get anywhere. In the UP's case, despite the reinstatement of their legal status, the party has little funding for a successful campaign.

So despite a facade of inclusion, Colombian politics remains firmly rooted in the past, discouraging the involvement of new voices and maintaining the status quo of traditional power blocks.

Colombian politics are a minefield and the country has a long way to go to ensure true democratic ideals are delivered to its citizens. A healthy democracy must welcome criticism and allow the participation of voices from all ends of the political spectrum.

This theme was discussed at the peace talks in Havana, where the government has guaranteed that with a negotiated end to the armed conflict will come opportunities for the FARC to enter the political system. The reinstating of legal status to the UP has therefore come at a critical time where international eyes will be on the presidential elections to see whether Colombia’s promise to move towards a more inclusive and fairer future be will prove true.