Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

History Ready to Repeat Itself? Context for Colombia’s Presidential Election

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It has been a surprising trend that, for the past several years, a number of Latin American countries have voted into power democratically elected left-wing governments of some kind—whereas Colombia has steered toward governments from the right of the political spectrum.

Even in countries in the region where right-wing presidents continue to hold office, like Mexico or Paraguay, there is still a strong Left that disputes elections and gets a considerable amount of legislators elected in the polls. In Colombia, on the other hand, political power has been largely split—at least in the last two decades—between different factions of the conservative Right.

Meanwhile, the emaciated democratic Left is crippled by internal rivalries (like in the case of the Polo Democrático), and has been targeted by death squads whenever it manages to approach a position of real power (like the widespread assassination of Unión Patriótica leaders and of demobilized M-19 fighters-turned-politicians in the 1980s and 90s).

Colombia’s current political trends can be explained by history. Historically, Colombia has been a geographically divided country since colonial times. After independence, no political party managed to unify the different territories that constituted the nation, and instead, the country was governed by strong regional socio-political dynamics.

In the Caribbean region in the north, power was concentrated in the hands of gigantic cattle-raising latifundia owners and wealthy merchants in the ports of Santa Marta and Cartagena. In the south, regional landlords preserved colonial seigniorial privileges over the Indigenous population. In Antioquia, large estate owners consolidated power around the growing city of Medellín, expanding the agricultural frontier but preserving the monopoly over the land for a small regional elite. Finally, in the middle of the country, the only region where industry grew to some extent, a semi-capitalist class formed around economic development in Bogotá, Tunja and Pamplona.

Experts and sociologists like León Zamosc and Carlos Medina have shown how, due to Colombia’s varied geography, scarce resources, and the difficulty of establishing efficient channels of communication, government officials struggled to move around the country and assert control over regional institutions. Thus, seigniorial economic relationships, feudal exploitation, and the dominance of the Catholic Church still remain deeply rooted in every region of Colombia.

This, of course, has shaped the political culture of Colombia. Even after undergoing a long violence-driven urban migration that inverted the demographic ratio and turned the country into a mainly urban nation, Colombia’s cultural values are still loyal to the tradition of an endemically rural society. The effects of this regionally fragmented nationality and centuries-old production-related power dynamics have made most Colombian voters politically conservative, and even reactionary. It should also be mentioned that the level of abstention in Colombian elections has hovered around the 50% mark throughout the last five decades, demonstrating Colombians’ feelings of disenfranchisement towards formal politics.

Today, traditional center-right and right-wing politicians comprise the majority of the newly elected Congress. Opinion polls show that Colombians are unlikely to disrupt the aforementioned trend in the upcoming May 25 elections.

The two leading candidates are: Oscar Iván Zuluaga, backed by former President Álvaro Uribe and the most conservative voters and groups—notably landowners opposed to the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC insurgency; and Juan Manuel Santos, a politician who started out as Uribe’s minister of defense, who carried out an agrarian reform that favored already-powerful interests and was tainted by human rights scandals like the “Falsos Positivos.” Santos is now centering his campaign on the peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba—which constitute the central disagreement between him and Uribe.

This year’s race has been dubbed the “dirtiest” one in Colombia’s republican history, with an abundance of scandals, mud-slinging, and actions of dubious legality. Meanwhile, no truly competitive candidate has offered a coherent plan to address the alarming levels of growing inequality in Colombia, the third most unequal society in Latin America, according to a study of 18 Latin American countries by UN Habitat. Why? Because Colombian voters, in general, don’t seem to support progressive politics, and politicians could risk being dismissed as “Castro-chavismo” supporters if they challenge the status quo.

In Colombia, inequality is the strongest institution of all, and Colombians have been well taught not to question institutions.

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