Álvaro Uribe’s party called anti-corruption protests for April 1. But, as Miguel Salazar finds out in central Bogotá, the marchers’ motives were mixed.
Sporting Colombian football jerseys and pro-Uribe paraphernalia, anti-government demonstrators marched on Bogotá’s Plaza Bolívar on Saturday to voice their disapproval of President Juan Manuel Santos. Thousands gathered to protest a variety of issues, including tax reform, widespread political corruption, and, of course, Colombia’s recent peace deal. As the crowd moved along the séptima, they could be heard chanting: “Out with Santos! Out with communism!”
Senator Álvaro Uribe and his political party, the Centro Democrático, primarily organized the event, but other conservative groups across Colombia publically supported the march. Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in cities such as Medellín and Cartagena to demand the resignation of President Santos. A similar rally was also held in downtown Miami.
“I am marching in protest against President Santos and the FARC,” said Ricardo Carrillo, 49, referring to the peace agreement signed in November between the Colombian government and the country’s largest Marxist guerrilla group. “We do not want Colombia to become a socialist or communist country like Venezuela.”
Participants came to protest an array of issues, despite the fact that the demonstrations had been officially designated as anti-corruption protests. This was mainly in response to recent allegations accusing Santos’s 2014 presidential campaign of receiving USD$400,000 from Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, which has been ensnared in corruption scandals across Latin America.
However, many were quick to point out the irony of the “anti-corruption” label, since multiple officials within Uribe’s administration and party have been linked to major corruption scandals, leading some to believe the march to be an April Fool’s joke.
Andrés Felipe Arias, Minister of Agriculture during Uribe’s second term, was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2014 for misallocating government funds to third parties. In early March, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, Uribe’s handpicked successor to challenge Santos in the 2014 presidential elections, announced that he would postpone his candidacy for 2018 after his campaign was accused of receiving 1.6 million US dollars from Odebrecht.
“March against yourselves,” said leftist senator Claudia López on Tuesday. “If you want to save this country, march up to prison.”
Some marchers, such as María Eugenia Losada, were also quick to acknowledge that Colombia’s conservative parties were not entirely innocent. But for most, corruption was not as pressing an issue as the government’s peace deal with the FARC.
“I don’t want to belong to any political sector,” said Losada, 77. “I am simply here because I am tired of this disorder and of the [FARC].”
Opposition to the peace agreement with the FARC has united much of Colombia’s conservative movement, with Álvaro Uribe and the Centro Democráico at its core. In October, after four years of negotiations between government officials and FARC rebels, Colombians narrowly rejected a peace deal in a yes-or-no referendum. Uribe, who had for months campaigned against the agreement on the grounds that it was too lenient on the guerrilla group, hailed the result and called for drastic changes to the accords. Less than two months later, however, Congress ratified a slightly revised version of the agreement.
The move to push the deal through Congress, instead of holding a second referendum, outraged conservatives such as Pedro Correa, 53, a retired military sergeant. He said that Santos had duped Colombians, and accused him of becoming a “tyrant.”
“[Santos] does not work with integrity, with decorum,” he said. “He is giving a lot of encouragement to people who hurt our country, people who have not let our country progress.”
Uribe seems to boast support from a sizeable portion of the Colombian electorate, but his political leverage within Congress has proven to be less formidable. As a result, he has been forced to resort to symbolic gestures and protests to exert pressure on the Santos administration.
Saturday’s anti-corruption protests seemed to be yet another instance of muscle-flexing for the former president. Bogotá’s mayor’s office estimated that around 15,000 to 20,000 people attended the demonstrations, including former President Andrés Pastrana. As protesters continued to pour into Plaza Bolívar, the chants intensified, led by an emcee on a stage, as if at a concert. The protests were meant to denounce the Colombian government, he said, not to support of Uribe or any particular political party. Technically they weren’t, but later that night, as if he were relishing a symbolic victory, Uribe tweeted: “Gracias Bogotá.”