As Colombia’s Presidential Campaign Heats Up, Peace Accord Frays

mmurillo0228colombia

Colombia’s former rebel group FARC suspended its presidential campaign because political violence in Colombia continues unabated. Meanwhile, leftist candidate Gustavo Petro is pulling ahead in the crowded presidential race, explains Prof. Mario Murillo

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. In early February, the Colombian political party of the former guerrilla group known as the FARC suspended its presidential campaign. According to the group, death threats and violence at its campaign events made it too dangerous to continue. The campaign suspension deals a blow to Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement with the FARC because it raises the danger that the deal might be falling apart.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign in Colombia is in full swing. The first round vote is scheduled for May 27th and latest polls indicate that the leftist candidate or a leftist candidate, Gustavo Petro, who is also the former mayor of Colombia’s capital Bogotá, is pulling ahead of the crowded race. With 23% support, he is currently six points ahead of his nearest rival, Sergio Fajardo, another left-of-center candidate of the Alternative Democratic Pole Party.

Joining me to take a look at the current situation in Colombia ahead of the presidential election is Mario Murillo. Mario is professor of communications and Latin American Caribbean studies at Hofstra University and he’s also the author of the book, Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. Thanks for joining us today, Mario.

MARIO MURILLO: Always great to be with you. It’s great to be with you, Greg. Thanks.

GREG WILPERT: So, let’s start with the FARC’s suspension of its presidential campaign. Their presidential candidate is Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko. He has led FARC for several years now and is only polling at 1% to 2% in the presidential race. But what does this mean? What does this campaign suspension mean and how seriously would you say does it affect the fragile peace agreement between the FARC and the government?

MARIO MURILLO: Well Greg, in many ways the suspension of the campaign of the FARC in this most recent period is a manifestation of many aspects of the post accord period and the process of implementation of the peace accords that were signed in 2016 failing on many fronts. And this happens to be in the political front, in terms of the elections that are unfolding and that are continuing to draw most of the attention right now in the country. There’s a lot of other areas in the implementation of the peace accords that have fallen through, have not been implemented and have not been followed through on by the government and that is leading to a major concern, as you pointed out in your introduction, as to perhaps a complete collapse of the accords. Hopefully it doesn’t get to that point.

The suspension of their campaign that was announced a few weeks ago by Timochenko, Rodrigo Londoño, the head of the FARC. He was the head of their negotiating team in Havana for the four years during the negotiations. It was the result of everywhere they campaigned, they were being confronted by violent protests. People were throwing eggs and bottles at them. There were threats against them. Not only Timochenko as the presidential candidate, but other candidates who are running in the Senate seats and other campaigns because on March 11th, within a few weeks, we’re gonna see elections for the congressional seats, the Senate and the House of Representatives in Colombia. And that also has FARC candidates, and they’re also being threatened.

So, the FARC announced that they were gonna suspend their campaign because there was no guarantees that were, again, part of the accord that they would have some protections in terms of being able to insert themselves into the political process. Now, this is also the direct result of, first of all there’s a lot of disgruntled voters and a lot of people in the communities that are not happy about the FARC running. So, some of it was brought upon themselves in terms of the overall negative reaction to the FARC running. But the kinds of violence and the kinds of eruptions that have occurred during campaign rallies were alarming. The origins of where they were coming from, there was accusations that much of that was being spearheaded by the democratic center part, the Centro Democratico of the former president, Álvaro Vélez, one of the staunchest right-wing political leaders and perhaps the most visible political leader in the country right now who had been adamantly opposed to any kind of concessions with the FARC. they were totally opposed to the negotiations in Havana and they were against the accords. So, there was accusations that their militance and their leadership were spearheading this sabotage campaign against the FARC as they were doing campaigns around the country.

On Friday last week, the FARC met with Timochenko, and other leaders of the FARC met with president Santos to talk about what guarantees might be put into place, guarantees that essentially were supposed to have been put in place before, to see if they can once again reinitiate their campaign. So, it’s not totally as if they’re boycotting the elections. It’s not as if they’re completely not gonna be a part of the campaign, but it all depends on what happens over the next several days as we lead up to the congressional elections to see whether or not the FARC do indeed return to the campaign trail.

GREG WILPERT: Now, you mentioned that this violence that was disrupting their campaigning was part of a larger pattern that could threaten the entire peace agreement. So, before we look at the details of the rest of the presidential campaign, I just want to focus on that briefly. What other kind of violence has been going on since the peace agreement was signed, and who is behind it, and who are the victims?

MARIO MURILLO: Well I think, I just want to make one point, Greg, if it’s okay before I get into the ongoing violence and very alarming patterns that have been going on since the accords were signed, and certainly over the past year, and certainly even this year in 2018 we’ve seen an escalation of a certain level of violence that is very concerning to a lot of people, human rights organizations, independent political activists, etc. But one of the things about the FARC that they perhaps should have anticipated was that there is considerable dislike of the FARC in the countryside and in other parts of the, you know throughout the country. Timochenko, Londoño initially had said that he wouldn’t run for office and then back in November he announced his candidacy.

And from my standpoint, watching this for a long time, and I can tell you’re talking to a lot of people, progressive activists in Colombia, a lot of people are saying, “Well maybe he should have not ran for office.” He should have expected that there was gonna be a popular backlash against FARC because of the many years in which they carried out acts of violence in the countryside, aggression, kidnapping and all of that. So, in many ways not a surprise that there was gonna be a backlash. What they’ve been concerned about is not the opposition that they may face on the campaign trail, but the kinds of direct acts of sabotage. Again, bottle throwing, throwing of food, and also direct threats of an attempted bomb attack against one of the Senate candidates for the FARC. So, that’s the kind of, those are the concerns that they said that they should have been, the government should have been taking care of.

And in that regard, you can’t disagree with that. I mean, the FARC for decades have been fighting a war, saying that there were no guarantees for the progressive left radical movements in Colombia to participate in the legal political spaces in Colombia, in the so-called democratic spaces. And that’s precisely why they continued their war for so many years.

Now, the other violence that I referred to is direct attacks being carried out against peace activists, people who have been promoting the peace accords between the FARC and the government during the entire negotiation. Human rights activists, people who are struggling for truth in verification, which was also a part of the accord. People who have been struggling around land reform and issues of environmental protections, organizers and social movement organizers, indigenous Afro-Colombian and peasant organizers demanding a restitution of territories that had been stolen essentially from them during the years of the war. And these activists over the last year and a half, we’re talking, I mean, again, depending on the estimates and the reports that you’re looking at, we’re talking anywhere between 150 to 200 activists and organizers who have been killed systematically, many people say, although the government continues to say that these are isolated actions against certain people in different parts of the countryside.

So, that’s one of the concerns that people have, and right now, with the FARC being threatened on the campaign trail and these social movement activists being constantly threatened in the countryside on many levels, you see the ELM, the other armed insurgency that was in the negotiation process with the government, now having second thoughts. Saying that clearly this peace accord with the FARC hasn’t worked. Perhaps we shouldn’t necessarily give up our arms at this stage and it’s not an appropriate time to surrender or to carry out an ongoing dialogue. And that’s a whole other set of questions that’s been complicated over the last few months, certainly since January, which perhaps we can talk about a little later if we have some time.

GREG WILPERT: So, let’s turn to the political campaign. As I mentioned in the introduction, Gustavo Petro is currently ahead in the polls. How solid is his lead, and after all back in 2010, some people who were following the campaign might remember the green party candidate, Thomas Mockus, who was ahead in the polls for a long time, but in the end lost to Juan Manuel Santos. Do you think something like that could happen again?

MARIO MURILLO: It’s really interesting. The campaign is obviously the main focus of attention. I was in Colombia throughout December and up until mid-January. There’s so many other things happening in the country, but almost everybody’s now focusing on the election campaign, and that’s pretty much the top story of the day. Gustavo Petro is an interesting character, and you say he’s leading the polls. There’s a lot of polls coming out, much like in the United States, the circus of the campaign trail. It’s almost on a daily basis new polls are coming out from different institutions, some independent, some leaning a particular faction or a particular political tendency. Others, international polls, all sorts of different polls that are coming out. The most recent one that came out just a few days ago did point for the first time Gustavo Petro leading with about 22% of those intended voters in the electorate. We’re talking about 35, 36 million voters in the Colombian electorate.

And that was the first time that any candidate in the race, and we’re talking about 10, 8 to 9, maybe 10 candidates who are currently running for president. The first time any candidate surpassed the second place voter now, which is the empty ballot. In other words, those people who have indicated they weren’t gonna vote for anybody in the polls. That had been leading the polls up until this most recent one with Joe Petro ahead. But Petro and Sergio Fajardo, who is the former mayor of Medellín, kind of a neoliberal. He’s considered center-left. He’s very favorable to the business class in Colombia but he also has a strong youth component. He’s built a coalition with the green party in the democratic poll, the left-wing democratic poll. He’s kind of the charmer of the campaign, good looks, nice long hair, doesn’t wear a tie, he’s always kind of more friendly. He and Petro have been kind of going back and forth in the polls. And the latest one shows him at about 18%.

And then you start seeing the litany of other candidates creeping in. But Petro’s an interesting character because he’s the one who’s generating the most energy. If you look at social media, if you look at the news reports, you see at every one of his campaign rallies, reminiscent of what we saw in Colombia in the 1980’s with Galán, the liberal reformer who was one of the very vocal candidate who was eventually assassinated. It’s reminiscent of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, going back 70 years, who was another very radical political leader who was also assassinated. The kind of rallies and the energy that’s coming from young people, from indigenous movements, from social and popular sectors in the country for Petro and his rallies is something that I don’t remember seeing in a long time in Colombia, and that is generating a lot of interest, and I would also say a lot of concern from those who are clearly anti any kind of progressive or left change in Colombia.

Colombia has never voted for any left-leaning presidential candidate. It generally moves to the right and everybody now, the focus of attention right now is that Gustavo Petro is going to make Columbia another Venezuela. The erroneous ideological term that really makes no sense, but that was coined by Álvaro Uribe and the right-wing, and it’s been echoed by the media and by other political pundits from the right-wing, using the term Castro Chavismo. This so-called meshing of two political philosophies from the Caribbean and from the neighboring Venezuela that is going to bring socialism to Colombia and that’s going to impoverish the country and that’s going to nationalize all the industries, etc., etc. Complete silly discourse but it’s been accepted and so a lot of people are throwing that at Gustavo Petro. And there’s all sorts of other attempts to derail and to discredit him, but up to now so far it doesn’t seem to have worked.

Meanwhile, you have all the more centrist and right-wing candidates vying for some kind of space within their constituents and that’s another interesting development that perhaps we can discuss as well.

GREG WILPERT: We’re kind of running out of time, so I just want to ask one more question. If Petro now actually does manage to succeed and make the run-off vote in May, do you expect there might be a better chance for the peace agreements to be consolidated, that is with the FARC and then maybe to expect progress to be made in the negotiations with the ELM, the other rebel group?

MARIO MURILLO: Well, there’s a lot of factors that come into play, Greg, that obviously we don’t have time to talk about. But one of the things that we would have to look at is what’s gonna happen in the March 11th congressional elections because right now and what we’ve seen since the accords were signed and since the implementation process began, we’ve basically seen the right-wing majority in the Colombian congress derail any attempt at legislation that would put into practice and put into law some of the measures that were signed between the FARC and the government. And as long as the opposition, well right now they’re considered the opposition, the right-wing against the Santos government, the current neoliberal, US friendly, militarist government of Juan Manuel Santos who did indeed sign a peace accord with the FARC.

If the right-wing wins again in the congress, regardless of who wins the election in May, and then it’s into the second round into June, it’s gonna be very hard to implement the peace accords. Now, if the right-wing wins the elections for the presidency, then it’s sort of like what we have in the United States, the equivalent of having Trump control the White House, and the intransigent republicans control both houses of congress, and then it would be almost impossible. You’ll see a complete rollback and perhaps, I don’t want to be pessimistic, but perhaps a return to direct violence. Because the violence is still there. We’re not in a post conflict period by any stretch. Anybody you talk to in the countryside will tell you that in many ways it’s gotten worse since the FARC demobilized than before and the situation is very tense.

So, it’s gonna be very hard to implement the peace accords regardless of what happens in these coming elections.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’ll definitely have to come back to you after those congressional elections. I was speaking to Mario Murillo, professor of communications and Latin American Caribbean Studies at Hofstra University. Thanks for having joined us today, Mario.

MARIO MURILLO: Greg, thank you. I always appreciate Real News.

GREG WILPERT: And I’m Greg Wilpert. Thank you for joining The Real News Network.