For many in Colombia, election season is just a continuation of more of the same in politics.
“So, are you going to vote in the elections?” I ask Carlos, the floor guy from La Guajira who’s been guiding an industrial sander over the slats of timber in my flat; thereby scraping off six decades of grime, wax, and desiccated food lodged between the boards and exposing – in a few places where slats are broken through – a gruesome layer of grey detritus that settled on the sub-floor below.
“Vote? No, I won’t vote. No point at all,” he answers, as he steers a full barrel of waxy sawdust towards the door. Seeing it, I realise the revitalised floor must now be several millimetres lower.
“Nothing ever changes, so why bother?” Carlos continues. “Maybe there’s a fresh face to vote for. And the parties change their names. How confusing is that? But underneath, nada nuevo.” He grins, and taps his foot on the grainy timber: “On top, a new floor. Underneath, same old wood.”
I find his answer depressing, I mean Carlos is just the kind of person – smart, hard-working, poor – who should go out and vote.
But I get his point about “old wood”, particularly since I live in an area of the city where many political parties have set up their campaign headquarters. Our streets have been suddenly invaded by elderly politicos in ill-fitting suits, hefting their portly frames from the door of their bullet-proof cars to the entrance of a townhouse now draped in posters with their gnarly mugshot and a cheap slogan.
And the younger candidates seem to be twigs grafted from the same aged trunk. “Not them again,” sighs my wife as up pops another poster of the son or niece of some old senator or congressman who retired under a cloud of corruption and paramilitary links a few years back.
On the street is a motley crew of family, party workers, supporters, fixers and pistol-packing bodyguards, all of whom seem to be vying for attention from the big guy while simultaneously yelling into their cellphones which, for some strange reason, they are all holding at right-angles to their cheekbone.
Worse, they block every inch of public space with their cars, forcing an elderly woman with a cane into the busy road to avoid the wall-to-wall Toyota Prados clogging the pavement, all guarded by a nonchalant cop on a motorbike.
“I would vote for any political party that knows how to park their cars,” I later declare to my friends. Perhaps I should also have added “drive their cars”, having been stuck several times in slow-moving horn-honking desfiles of flag-waving supporters in cars that block roads in the incomprehensible belief that delaying other road users will somehow endear their patron to the electorate.
The logic to these ‘caravans’, suggests a friend, is that they prove a politician’s power to mobilise supporters – even while at the same time demobilising everyone else – and it’s both threatening and attractive at the same time. Like chanting football supporters.
The next generation
What it tells me is that the candidates from these old, traditional, political families – for whom going into congress is like going into the family business – don’t care too much about the electorate. This is down to a time-honoured patronage system that permits a lower caste of leaders from town halls, trade unions, churches, indigenous tribes, ethnic communities etc, to offer up blocks of votes. So why bother with the man in the street?
And for some Colombians, particularly in rural areas, voting comes with threats (‘you’d better believe we know who you vote for’), or bribes, which can be downstream benefits of political patronage (work, contracts) or a more prosaic free lunch with cash bungs, often in the form of a generous ‘transport allowance’ to attend a party rally.
The latter are easier to detect. So far this year one congressional candidate who was caught forking out COP$6 billion to eager voters in Barranquilla is doing jail time. How many more got away with it?
So what about the new kids on the ballot? Unfortunately, the FARC are no green shoots of political hope, but rather an old jungle vine propped up by the same large trees they would like to pull down.
Their political naivety is understandable. Walking around adorned with guns and grenades is a sure way to dull your social antenna, as every local civilian you meet nods their head and agrees with you, careful not to let on that they don’t want you around.
I have first-hand experience of this, having been forced to listen to FARC political lectures delivered at gun-point – usually while sat in some indigenous hut being nibbled by sand-flies. Once, in the presence of some Embera leaders, the moment the FARC commander had left the tambo they came over to complain about the combatants in their village.
“They come here with their guns, camp in our empty huts, wash their clothes in the river where we get drinking water, stay as long as they feel like, and later if the army comes there’ll be a gunfight and we have to flee into the forest,” the cacique moans. A few minutes later the FARC come back, the chief is all smiles again, and the commander is expounding on the popularity of his revolución bolivariana.
Not any more. The FARC’s peacetime political project was firmly rejected by the Colombian voters the first time they went to the ballots, a hard but necessary lesson for the former guerrillas, but not sufficient for some right-wingers who want to figuratively – and perhaps literally – to stamp on their graves.
Hence the irony that, while the peace process is a done deal and the FARC even took part peacefully in the recent senatorial elections, the campaign is again being reduced to a binary ‘For’ or ‘Against’ just like the 2016 plebiscite, as candidates fight over the same issues that have stalled progress for five decades: conflict and security.
The new reality
But anyone with half a brain who is old enough to remember back more than 15 years should realise that the conflict map has changed profoundly, and for the better. Towns I once knew for cross-fire, bombs and midnight massacres are now hotspots for eco-tourism.
Just about every political observer, and even the presidential candidates themselves accept that social issues and inequality underlie the conflict. So now, please can we move on to important issues like education, wages, jobs and tackling corruption?
Not so fast. These issues – which are the touchstone of the centrist politicians – also promise real change to Colombia, a change which most threatens the old monied families (especially the corruption bit). The grand old trees must somehow find ways to squeeze out the upstart saplings. What better way than to shade them out? And what casts the longest shadow in the murky woods of Colombian politics? The conflict.
Then right on cue, the coca-bushed Catatumbo region (which has been mired in violence for 30 years but largely ignored) explodes onto the pages of the national and international press, while the FARC dissidents on the frontier with Ecuador start killing policemen and journalists.
But even given that most voters realise that – terrible though these situations are – they only represent a fraction of the conflict compared to 20 years ago, there is also the unravelling of the Chavez-Maduro socialism across the border. This has given the traditional political lineage its most potent refrain: “we don’t want to end up like Venezuela”.
That leaves the electorate looking backwards, not forwards. And with no real change likely at the polls, once again a large chunk will not vote at all, which is nothing new in Colombia: on average only 50% of potential voters turn out here (voting is not compulsory like in many parts of Latin America), at times dipping to under 30%.
Such abstencionismo seems at odds with a country rift by social problems. But don’t mistake it for apathy. Countless studies show low turnout simply reflects a popular distrust of the electoral machinery with broken electoral promises, all run by the same political clans. The “same old wood”, as Carlos would say. There is a good chance this election won’t end any different.
Gerald Barr first crossed into Colombia at the wheel of a Mercedes truck in 1994 to find himself pelted with flour bags and water-bombs at a local carnival. Despite this he came back regularly for work and travel in many corners of the country and to be constantly amazed and enchanted, but also frequently frustrated by ‘Locombia’: its crazy politics and its cultural quirks. He can’t live without it and now calls Bogotá his home.
This article originally appeared in edition 54 of The Bogotá Post.