Perfectly timed to generate the most impact as Colombians go to the polls to vote in elections for members of Congress and the Senate on March 9, protestors have been creating chaos in the streets of Bogota and around the city’s limping mass transport system the Transmilenio.
Troubles peaked on Tuesday with scuffles between masked and organized agitators and the riot police as commuters reported journeys of under a kilometre taking the better part of two hours all of which led to Bogota’s harrowed mayor Gustavo Petro to confront embittered parties in the northern district of Suba where the protests were at their most potent.
Away from the capital, in the oil rich department of Arauca located on the Venezuelan border, the news is no less worrying with a presumed guerrilla attack on leftist candidate Aida Avella of the Union Patriotica – a party with strong links to unions, workers groups and formerly made up of demobilized FARC guerrillas. Avella narrowly escaped certain death from a volley of bullets on her convoy.
And in the Palacio de Nariño, the traditional seat of power, President Juan Manuel Santos has managed to evade prying questions regarding the recent scandals accusing the military of having embezzled state funds and the wiretapping – chuzadas – of both sides of the negotiating table in Havana, Cuba where peace dialogues are continuing between top ranking leaders of the FARC guerrilla group and the government’s mediators. Watergate seems pithy alongside such controversies.
Given the aforementioned blemishes on the democratic process in Colombia – a country which often proudly claims to be cultured in that she possesses the longest running and most stable democracy in the Americas – it perhaps comes as no surprise that the figures for a voto en blanco literally referring to blank votes and abstentions is increasing and official polls (Cifras y Conceptos, Ipso-Napoleón Franco, Gallup) have it ranging from anywhere from 20 to 24 per cent for Sunday. More informal polls are suggesting it to be higher given the grave levels of disenchantment with the Colombian political class.
So why now is there such unrest in Colombia when there should be a distinct feel good factor? The Colombian economy continues to strengthen with figures from the Banco de la Republica showing foreign direct investment to the country in 2013 increasing 0.87 per cent on the previous year to a total of US$16.8 billion. The FARC rebels who have been at war with the state for over 50 years are at least involved in peace dialogues, tourism reached an all-time high peaking at over 2 million foreign visitors and the national soccer team have reached the World Cup Finals for the first time since 2008. There is much to be happy about in Colombia.
While we can laud Colombia’s progress over the last decade, if you were to travel around Colombia and take a straw poll of Colombians, much of the country’s mood would be revealed and this in turn reflects on the political and emotional climate here. There is a resounding feeling that ordinary Colombians are being priced out of the cities where they work with property prices increasing – largely due to investors from neighboring Venezuela keen to move their money out – a staggering paucity of rural and urban infrastructure and a continual feeling of insecurity. Colombians are not themselves experiencing the benefits of this rapid growth and rural and urban Colombia are more divided than ever as demonstrated by the nationwide agricultural strikes of 2013.
So each time the increasingly out of touch and technocratic President Juan Manuel Santos declares the potential gains for Colombian businesses as he signs another high profile international free trade agreement there is a ready bandwagon of support in his contra. Masks are donned, paint is flung and buildings are left smarting from graffiti as hardworking citizens try and make their way to and from work through tear gas. The national electorate feels abandoned to the whimsy of Bogota and disenfranchised from the political class accused of being embroiled in a mermelada of votes – corruption and kickbacks. To date some 60 per cent of those running this weekend have not disclosed the origins of their campaign funds.
That increased marches are planned to protest Bogota’s lack of infrastructure by an underclass of unrepresented citizens should come as no shock to anyone. The left has its hands tied with the continuing problems of Mayor Gustavo Petro and his apparently inevitable ousting from power and the right seems content to be the spoilers with former president Alvaro Uribe at the helm leading the charge by lambasting any action or utterance made by his former ally and protégé President Santos.
Worryingly herein lays the problem, the average Colombian feels that their vote will not result in any transformation that may deliver the necessary change in the country. With such a disconnection between the ruling elite and the Colombian everyman, what reason is there to vote? The ugly reality of a feudal society inherited from Spanish colonial rule is once again raising its fearsome head in Latin America and there is no clear solution.