It was a Sunday when I discovered that I had been declared dead. The dead have been known to vote in Colombia to ensure victory at the urns, but alas, by being very much alive I was excluded from this ghoulish political game.
In the months leading up to the national elections in Bogotá I had grown increasingly excited about my right to cast a vote and hopefully have some say in local issues in the city in which I had been living since February 2007. Months previously I had paid a visit to the Registradura Nacional office (National Civil Registry) nearest to my apartment was informed that my documents were up to date and I complied with the five requirements needed of me to be a voting foreigner in Colombia. My visa was in order, I had lived in this country continuously for five years or longer, I am in possession of a Colombian ID card, I had registered and finally, I was not in breach of any legal or constitutional norms.
It was so straightforward. I should have known then that misfortune was looming large.
In my mind I was a now a foreigner with a political voice, if only for the local elections, but a step up from the status of a wandering expat.
The big day arrived and I felt a tingle of excitement as I followed the handwritten signs of “Extranjeros” hastily pinned to the ground floor walls of my designated voting station at the Sergio Arboleda University. I repeated the numbers of my chosen political candidates in my head. My choice for Mayor of Bogotá was clear but for other local representatives it wasn’t plain sailing.
Leaving my emotions and personal politics to one side I was ready to cast my vote according to what I felt the city needed and those people best suited to do the job.
Four flights of stairs later and I was at the back of a line of foreigners presenting their ID cards to have them checked alongside the list provided by the registry office.
My name was absent.
But, I was not alone, an American gentleman furiously filled out a complaints form. And next in line, an irate Argentine lady was berating the attendant manning the complaints desk.
“I registered to vote in 2011 and in 2015 and on both occasions my data is missing! It’s clear now that you say that we are entitled a vote, but, in the end you don’t want us to vote. It’s farcical, it’s a flawed system.”
The group of disgruntled foreigners grew to a handful and now I was amongst them. For some reason unknown to us we had been scratched from the list of voting internationals.
Preparing myself for a screaming match with someone regarding the inefficiencies of Colombian bureaucracy and get to the bottom of my death I strolled back to the registry office. I suspect that it was not by chance that the public servant manning the complaints desk here was several months pregnant. Upon seeing her advanced state of gravidity, and being a new father myself, my anger passed. It was hopeless anyway; she could not provide me with anything more profound than standard holding pattern answers.
While it’s true that the dead have been known to vote in Colombia and on all too frequent a basis, it appeared that my luck had run out. Four million deceased Colombians were removed from the official voter registers in 2011 to prevent fraudulent voting on behalf of the dead. And in 2013 the electoral register underwent a major cleanup in which six million deceased Colombians were removed from the electoral register who up until this moment, in spite of their deaths, were miraculously still able to vote resulting in questionably high voter turnouts in relative ghost towns in the country’s interior.
Back in the office and determined to crack the case regarding my untimely passing, an online search revealed an official page which registered me as having passed away in 2008.
It appeared that since the registry updates were so infrequently overhauled that perhaps I never got my name on the list despite receiving an email confirmation of the fact.
Colombian bureaucracy, if you hadn’t already guessed is an experience of Heath Robinson proportions and an exercise in unbridled patience. Expats routinely gripe about it and locals themselves seem to be somewhat embarrassed but accepting.
Latterly I found out that at the central registry office, once they have the information of the foreigner applying to vote, they will send the details of the individual in question to Migracion Colombia, an entity which could be loosely described as the Colombian Immigration office. If, once Migracion Colombia has reviewed your paperwork, and they feel entitled – and it can be on a whim – you can be removed from the voting list and they are not obliged to provide a reason for this action.
I suppose my position of that as a critically thinking journalist perhaps places me in jeopardy but I am not quite ready to sign up to the conspiracy theory that we too here in Colombia are subject to an Orwellian Ministry of Information managed via a psychopathic control grid.
20 plus phone-calls later to Migracion Colombia and the central Registry Office and after being pinballed from office to office telephonically not one sole person could furnish me with any satisfying information and neither do I know the cause of my death.
Five months later, I received a formal letter from the central Registry Office informing me that they had forwarded my query to Migracion Colombia.
The long-awaited letter from the immigration department arrived. The text within was disheartening. Migracion Colombia had seen fit to disregard a period of seven years, as in their mind, my residency in Colombia, could be “interpreted literally as having begun in 2014.”
Bizarrely, there was no mention of my death in the correspondence. I suppose it’s not something they wish to dwell on. My death neither prevented me from requesting a bank loan nor registering for University. You’d think that the bitter end would be more final?
In this funny old world and dwelling on the situation of my untimely and ultimately bureaucratically instigated demise, I find myself pondering the existentially unsound question of “who showed up at my wake, not, will I be able to vote in 2019?”
I won’t be voting in the Colombian referendum on Sunday October 2 since I am not permitted to do so. But, I urge all of you to cast your vote if you can, whether it is SI or NO.