Putumayo

 

If you've heard of the Putumayo, it's likely because you listen to world music and thus familiar with the Putumayo record label that is named after the isolated, rugged and jungle covered Colombian province on the Ecuadorian border. Otherwise, the Putumayo rarely makes news. It is a forgotten province though it is at the epicenter of the world drug trade. On Sunday, Putumayo did something no other Colombian province did, it voted for Antanas Mockus, the Green party candidate. Not only that, but in second place came Gustavo Petro, the candidate of the leftist Polo Democrático Alternativo. Juan Manuel Santos finished a distant third.

So why did Putumayo go green while the rest of the country succumbed to an orange, orange being the colour of the Santos campaign, landslide? Well as Carlos Hernán Castro, a Colombian political analyst noted in Semana, no other region of the country has so adversely affected by Uribe's economic policies. The Putumayo is an area rich in natural resources. It borders Ecuador's oil producing region and the area has ample oil resources which the Uribe government has begun to open up to foreign investment. Given the environmental disaster next door in Ecuador's Lago Agrio region, the inhabitants of the Putumayo are hardly enthusiastic about the prospects of having oil and logging companies drive them off their land. For the myriad people of the Putumayo, outsiders generally mean trouble.

And while Uribe's "Seguridad Democrática" policies have made road travel safe throughout the Putumayo, the only real investment in area has been in the military installations. Hospitals, clinics, schools remain on the do list. Nearly a decade after Plan Colombia began in Putumayo, even the main road between its capital, Mocoa, and its largest city, Puerto Asís – a stretch of less than 100 miles – has not been paved.

But there's another reason for a Green Putumayo and that's a direct result of the $1.3 billion US drug eradication programme that is part of an overall $7 billion in mostly military aid. It's called Plan Colombia but in terms of the so called war on drugs, it's really Plan Putumayo. Since 2001, Colombian army and police aircraft have begun spraying US supplied herbicides, Monsanto's glyphosate-based industrial strength Roundup Ultra (a 26% concentration of glyphosate, compared to 1% as recommended in the US for weed control in crops), on small farms in western Putumayo, an area that accounts for about half the country's coca production. In the United States the glyphosate-based herbicides are sold with warning labels advising users to "not apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift," but in the Putumayo it has been sprayed indiscriminately killing all crops -not just coca- and even livestock. Perhaps a third of the province has been subjected to the intense aerial fumigation now going on a decade. No other region of the country has been so bombarded and yet the results are meager. Perhaps fleeting is a better word. While aerial fumigation programme had early successes between 2001 and 2005 halving the number of hectares under production to just 4,400, by 2007 area under cultivation had again topped 9,000 hectares. Moreover, the intense focus on the Putumayo simply spread coca production to other parts of Colombia. Putumayo is still the largest coca growing area in Colombia but neighboring Nariño and Caquetá have caught up.

Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Washington-based Latin American Working Group (LAWG) finds that "at best, fumigation has caused a temporary dip in coca cultivation levels in Colombia, but the fact remains that fumigation has failed at its main goal – reducing cocaine availability and use here at home – and has devastated small Colombian farming communities in the process. The entire policy needs to be reconsidered."

The human toll has been harder to measure but even the US State Department that the spraying has had an adverse health effect on thousands of people in the Putumayo. A 2007 study of Ecuadorians living on the border found that those exposed to glyosphate-based herbicides suffered a variety of ailments immediately following the spraying, including intestinal pain and vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, dizziness, numbness, burning of eyes or skin, blurred vision, difficulty in breathing and rashes. But it is not just humans suffering. Colombia's rich biodiversity is being impacted beyond repair. While the government has been quick to blame the environmental damage on coca production itself, the reality is that for the average campesino in the Putumayo it's the aerial fumigation that is the cause of so much misery and destruction.

On Sunday, the Putumayo voted Green really as cry for help. Putumayans want an end to aerial spraying and they certainly don't want their lands sold off to international conglomerates.

 

In Colombia, A Second Round but a Disappointing Finish

With 99.1 percent of the results in and no candidate achieving the required 50 percent plus one to claim the presidency, Colombia will head to a second round run off on June 20th. Juan Manuel Santos of the pro-Uribe Partido de la U came in first with a surprisingly strong 46.57 percent of the vote. The Green party candidate Antanas Mockus finished second but disappointingly won only 21.47 percent of the vote.

Candidate Party Vote Total     Pct
Juan Manuel Santos Partido de la U 6,740,944   46.57%
Antanas Mockus Partido Verde 3,108,873   21.47%
Germán Vargas Lleras Cambio Radical 1,469,540   10.15%
Gustavo Petro Polo Democrático 1,326,756     9.16%
Noemí Sanín Conservador    889,756     6.14%
Rafael Pardo Liberal    632,955     4.37%

I'm still digesting the news feed but at first glance a few observations. Only 14,722,186 Colombians voted out of 29,938,279 eligible. Once again indifference seems the big winner. Mockus finished poorly, the question is why did he underperform polling by some 15 points. Vargas Lleras, a dissident Liberal, did much better than expected more than doubling his expected vote tally. While he performed well in the debates, so did the leftist Gustavo Petro who finished a disappointing fourth. For the long dominant Conservatives and the Liberals, these results confirm a longer-term trend of political decline.

More Thoughts and Numbers

In looking at the results, and there is no exit polling to speak of so by results I mean what the Colombian electoral board releases, there are some striking numbers. Santos won all but two provincial capitals and most surprisingly Santos won in Bogotá by a 13 point margin (40 to 27 percent). Bogotá had been expected to go heavily for Mockus. Mockus won in Tunja where the Green party has its strongest organizational base and in Mocoa, the capital of the Putumayo department, on the Ecuadorian border. These were expected. Surprisingly the Greens failed to carry the Pacific coast where Mockus had campaigned heavily. Mockus came close in a number of departmental capitals such as Manizales and my hometown of Cali but he fared poorly on the Atlantic coast where Santos and Vargas Lleras did exceptionally well.

Mockus did well with the overseas vote winning across Europe and the Asia-Pacific. However Santos took 70 percent of the vote from Colombians living in the US. Still the number of expat Colombians who vote represents a small fraction of the electorate. Only 88,737 Colombians living abroad voted even though 415,000 were registered.

The number that jumps out is the abstention rate of 51 percent, a slight improvement over 2006 when 55 percent failed to vote but nonetheless a major disappointment. We were really expecting 16 million to vote out of 29 million eligible voters. Less than 15 million turned out to vote. Without hard data to pour over, it's difficult to draw definitive conclusions but I suspect that the number of first time voters failed to materialize. Indifference is the enemy of democracy in Colombia.

As per voting buying, that's a fact of life in Colombia and a practice that goes back decades. The reports that I have seen so far suggest massive voting buying in the rural parts of Cauca, Antioquia and the rural outskirts of Bogotá. I haven't seen any reports as yet but the Atlantic coast is another area where vote buying is prevalent. If this election followed previous ones then perhaps one in five votes was bought. The going rate is around $50 USD with lunch and other sundries included.

Looking at the Second Round

For Mockus, it is going to be a tough haul to overcome a 25 point deficit but the second round is a first past the post run off and many, if not most, of those who voted for Vargas Lleras, Petro and Pardo will gravitate towards Mockus. For Mockus, the imperative is to focus on what propelled him into the hearts of millions, his message of sanctity of life, an uncompromising adherence to legality and an unyielding intolerance of corruption. Mockus did not do well in the debates in part because he comes off as too thoughtful and perhaps meandering. He'll need to sharpen his answers but beyond this Mockus just needs to be Mockus the philosophical and moralizing agent of Colombian rejuvenation.

[UPDATE] I was pouring over the data from the overseas vote and I'm dumbfounded by the wide divergence in the vote of the Colombian diaspora. Mockus won the vote in Australia, in Japan, in China, in South Africa, in every single European country and in most of the Americas with three exceptions: Bolivia, Venezuela and the United States. Santos took 70 percent of the vote from Colombians living in the US. It must be the water.

Green Party Campaign Ads

In the realm of that you can teach an old dog new tricks, my first uploaded video to YouTube highlights just a fraction of the best political campaign ads created largely by average citizens on behalf of the Mockus campaign. The Mockus campaign was so overwhelmed by the creative talent that the campaign did not retain an ad agency for print media. All the media in the video below was donated to the campaign.

Beyond the print media ads the campaign had several videos. This first one is not from an agency but again the work of a volunteer.

This next ad is an agency-created ad. The day is entitled "Llegó el día" or "the day has arrived." The Mockus campaign is encouraging Colombians to wake up and vote in part because a record number of voters are expected but also to send a message against vote-buying and vote-rigging.

 

Scenes from a Green Revolution

With the Colombian presidential campaign now officially ended awaiting the verdict of the electorate come Sunday, I'd like to take a moment to share some of the dramatic events that have occurred the past few months in that Andean country, a recipient of more than $5 billion in US military aid since 2000. 

To begin with, I think the most salient point to be made is that the Green party campaign is unlike any other in the history of Colombia and for that matter the world. We're talking about a party that didn't even exist until October of last year and now is perhaps poised to capture the presidency. So how did they do it?

Well, the Partido Verde de Colombia is certainly lucky that three independent progressive and successful mayors of Bogotá - Antanas Mockus, Enrique Peñalosa and Lucho Garzón - banded together to form the nucleus of the Green Party. But the other key factor was their decision to hold all their primary events together as a team even though they were competing for the nomination of the nascent party. Imagine Clinton, Edwards and Obama holding every event collectively and saying that it's not about us but our ideas. The early message was that the Greens had a team based approached and that contest was not just about personalities.

And once Mockus emerged triumphant in the primary, the Greens continued their team-based approach and moreover reached out to Sergio Fajardo, the former independent mayor of Medellín who had been mounting his own run at the presidency but faring poorly. Fajardo was given the Vice Presidential slot and the move solidified the independent center-left into the Green camp.

There's also no question that the Greens were ahead of the curve in using new forms of social media. That move was savvy bringing in heretofore dormant youth vote. At least 30 percent of the Colombian electorate is expected to be either first time voters or lapsed voters who haven't voted in recent elections. My own 88 year old mother, who hasn't voted in a Colombian election since 1974, will be voting and voting for Mockus. Clearly Mockus' message has resonated in the young and young at heart.

This election is certainly a generational one and should Mockus win I suspect that we in Colombia will be talking about the generation of 2010 for quite some time to come. The innovative tactics that the young have brought are indeed something to behold. Nothing captures this like this event below held in Bogotá on April 30th. Then a group of Mockus supporters, pretty much all under 30, formed a human chain around the Banco de la República, the Colombian central bank, and chanted "los recursos públicos son sagrados" or "public funds are sacred." This, of course, is one of the central themes of the Mockus campaign. But to form a human chain around the Central Bank and to chant the message certainly brought home the anti-corruption theme. It was sheer brillance.

Nor are we Colombians especially nationalistic. Not to suggest that Colombians don't love their country, we do, but we are not prone to overt displays of nationalism like the Argentines or like the Chileans who are nationalistic beyond belief, so to witness a human chain in the Plaza Bolívar, which is the political epicenter of the country, and the running of the flag well this too is a departure from the past. It is, as if, the country is awakening all at once. I can't watch the above without breaking down into tears. And that's another point that has to be made, while my vote for Mockus is reason based, I can't deny the emotional component of the race. For many Colombians, this is the first time in a long time that we have good reason to be proud of the country and what we are achieving. That Colombia is now on the verge of electing the first Green to run a country is something that should not be lost on the rest of the planet. This is not happening in Germany or the Netherlands or even Denmark or Sweden but in Colombia, a country not normally associated with progressive politics. 

Flash Mobs

The use of flash mobs was another innovative tactic and again points to the key takeaway - political change requires an energized grass roots. These flash mobs were held not just across Colombia but across the world. Colombians, average but now politically engaged Colombians, used Facebook and Twitter to organize flash mobs in Sydney, Brisbane, Paris, New York, Washington, Miami, Buenos Aires, London, Zürich, Geneva, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Berlin and Oslo.

Going Where No Candidate Has Gone Before

While most candidates campaign in the large cities and even hit smaller ones, I can't ever recall a Colombian presidential candidate going to Quibdó, the capital of the Chocó. The Chocó is one of Colombia's forgotten provinces and only one of two Afro-Colombian majority provinces. This scene here is noteworthy on this score alone. And if you watch the video, you can see the affection is genuine.

The Close in Bogotá

On Sunday, the Greens held their closing in the historic Plaza Bolívar in Bogotá drawing 21,000 in the pouring rain. It was the largest closing event among all the candidates. Santos, by comparison, drew just 5,000 people to his close in Cartagena though to be fair, he held his indoors.

Mockus isn't what I would term a dynamic speaker, frankly his allure is a moral one. Not to wax hyperbole but it is as if we are watching Gandhi or Mandela. This whole campaign has been about teaching values. This was brought home during the event in Bogotá when the crowd began chanting "Mockus salve usted la patria" or "Mockus, save the country." Antanas quickly told the crowd no that the correct chant was "Verdes, salvemos la patria," or "Greens let's save the country." Pretty much said it all right there. Change is incumbent upon us whether that be in Colombia or here in the United States.

The Colombian Presidential Campaign Draws to a Close

The Colombian presidential campaign ends on Sunday and voters will go to the polls a week from Sunday in an election that is likely headed to a second round run-off in mid June. The three final polls, released over the past 48 hours, indicate that the pro-Uribe candidate Juan Manual Santos and the Green party candidate Antanas Mockus are running neck and neck with neither candidate close to the fifty percent plus one required to claim victory in the first round.

Released on Thursday, a poll by CM& News finds that Santos would get 39 percent in the first round compared with 34 percent for Mockus. A larger more comprehensive poll from the Universidad de Medellín (pdf) released on Friday gives Mockus 37 percent to 33 percent advantage while a poll released Saturday conducted by Napoleon Franco found a slight edge for Santos 34 to 32 percent.

While there are seven other candidates running, none are polling above single digits. Still there has been some movement in their numbers. The Conservative party candidate Noemí Sanín has continued to lose ground and is now down 6 percent in at least one poll. Meanwhile Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla and the candidate of the leftist Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA), has gained two percentages points on the strength of solid performances in the debates. Petro may yet finish in third place. Still for the PDA which gained nearly a quarter of the votes cast, these results represent a severe erosion in support. The same be said for the Liberal party, the country's largest political force for the past 80 years, whose candidate is floundering at just 3 percent. No poll had more than nine percent as undecided.

Two of the three polls point to a Mockus win in the second round by five percentage points but the CM& News poll gave Santos a narrow 47 percent to 46 percent edge though that is well within the margin of error. The CM& poll is the first such poll to show a competitive close election in the second round in over a month.

These are the last polls before the election. Colombian electoral prohibits any further polling nor are candidates allowed to hold any further rallies after Sunday. On Friday, the country will end sale of alcohol before voting on Sunday.

A High Turnout Expected

Colombia is a country where the abstention rate is historically high, generally only about half of eligible voters turn out to vote. Of the 29.8 million Colombians eligible to vote in this election, officials are predicting some 16 million will actually cast a ballot. That translates to a 53.7 percent turnout rate which would be the highest since 1958 when a 61 percent turnout was achieved and ten points higher than the 43.1 percent turnout in 2006 that gave Alvaro Uribe a second term. Colombian election officials are estimating that perhaps 30 percent of the electorate will be either first time voters or lapsed voters who haven't voted in recent elections.

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