Picardía en Acción: The Juan Manuel Santos Campaign

In the Colombian presidential election campaign, the Uribe-heir designate Juan Manual Santos who just two months ago was presumed by most political observers on his way to an easy victory now finds himself fighting for his political life in this his first run for an elective office. The latest polls show a tight race with no candidate securing the 50 percent plus one required to win the presidency in a first round. As such a run-off is likely to be held on June 20th.

The Santos campaign was perhaps hindered by the uncertainty of whether Alvaro Uribe would be allowed to stand for a third term, with a definitive judgment not rendered by the Colombian Constitutional Court until late February. Even so in mid-March Santos held a sixteen point lead in the polls over his nearest rival but with that lead now evaporated given the rise of the Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus, the Santos campaign has turned to dirty campaign tactics as well as begun to mobilize its political machinery in an effort to stave off defeat.

While the Mockus campaign has, at times, been erratic. Mockus' language has been imprecise, or alternatively too precise, and that's gotten him into some trouble. Over the past fortnight, Mockus has had to fend off accusations that he is an atheist (he said he was a Catholic but at times prone to skepticism), that he is another Hugo Chávez or at least an admirer (he said he respected the fact that Chávez is the elected president of Venezuela), that he would extradite Uribe (he said that he would follow the law), that he would close the Congress if elected and govern by decree (a complete fabrication). The net effect of this has been to halt the upward momentum Mockus had been enjoying in the polls.

The Santos campaign also retained Ravi Singh's ElectionMall Technologies which powered the Obama website in 2008 and more controversarily J.J. Rendón, a Venezuelan born but Miami-based political consultant who has worked for right wing candidates across Latin America. Rendón is a master in negative campaigning. The decision to hire him, however, was not without consequences with a number of high profile Santos campaign officials resigning in protest. In announcing the shake-up, Santos promised to bring "picardía, pimienta y alegría" to his campaign. Pimienta translates as pepper and in the English context it means to spice things up. Alegría means happiness but the word picardía is an odd choice of words for a man running for President. It translates as mischievous, deceitful, a naughty craftiness, a malicious intent, knavery.

On Thursday, the Colombian blog La Silla Vacía published a series of photographs originally uploaded to Facebook by a group called Córdoba con Santos. Córdoba is a small province on Colombia's Atlantic coast just to the south west of Cartagena and for two decades a bitter and bloody battleground between FARC guerrillas and paramilitary forces. This Santos campaign event was held in a small city of 100,000 called Sahagún, a town that is effectively the bastion of two powerful families that control the economic and political life of the area. It was to these families, known as caciques regionales, that Juan Manuel Santos came to pay homage, the rest was just for show. It is picardía en acción.

Descalzados por Juan Manuel

As the heir to Uribe, the Santos campaign is based on continuity. Its slogan runs "para seguir avanzando" or "let's keep on advancing." This first picture encapsulates Colombia's class and urban/rural divide perfectly. Here we have a group of campesinos, most of whom are desclazados or shoeless at best semi-literate holding up Juan Manual Santos posters and off to the side is a rather stiff upper class Colombian in an orange shirt, likely a campaign worker (orange is the official color of the Santos campaign). It is noteworthy that he can't step into the group for a moment to get his picture taken or even fake a smile. He'd just rather not be in god-forsaken Córdoba.

Under Uribe, Colombia experienced one of its most dynamic periods of economic growth averaging over 5 percent per annum. Exports doubled and foreign direct investment tripled but like with much of the neo-liberal economic agenda that growth failed to lift the poorest of the poor. Under Uribe, Colombia was the only country in South America where social inequality increased over the past decade. Colombia's GINI coefficient went from 0.53 in 2002 to 0.58 last year. 

In terms of land tenure, Colombia boasts the third most concentrated land holding pattern in the Americas - just 1.4 percent of Colombians own 65.4 percent of the land. Only Haiti and Bolivia have more unequal metrics. Nor did Uribe's economic boom translate into jobs, Colombia's unemployment rate is the highest in the region. The official rate is 12.3 percent but that belies the fact that nearly half of all Colombians are marginally employed in the informal sector. So much for the theory that uribismo has meant progress. Like its Republican counterpart in the United States, urbismo has brought tangible economic benefits if you are part of an elite. If you're poor, urbismo has delivered few benefits and in places like Sahagún not even shoes.

Vote-buying is a long established fact in Colombia and it is places like Córdoba where it is most rampnant. These people were treated to a lunch of tamales, roast suckling pig, given t-shirts and a cash stipend perhaps a few kilos of rice. In all, some 10 to 15 percent of the Colombian electorate will sell their votes with the going rate somewhere between $50 and $70 USD. This is, of course, what the Mockus campaign must overcome. Two polls will be out later today and I suspect the race is, as of now, a dead heat.


De Rojas a Mockus

Seeing the picture above of children attending a rally in Cucutá for Antanas Mockus, the Green Party candidate for President in Colombia, brought back memories of my own first foray into a political campaign rally. The year was 1970 and Colombia was then as now gripped in an intense political campaign though to be frank what was at stake was beyond me at the time. But my grandfather, then aged 96, thought it of the utmost importance that all his grandchildren be taken to a campaign stop for General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. There my grandfather simply pointed to the stage and said "That's what a dictator sounds like. Remember it well."

And remember it well I have, for all my life I have been skeptical of populists and their empty promises. My grandfather had good reason to distrust General Rojas Pinilla. In 1953, Rojas led the first successful military coup in Colombian history overthrowing the Conservative Laureano Gómez. Being Liberals, we were no fans of Gómez whose rule had degenerated into a period of intense bloodletting. Those years in Colombia are simply known as "La Violencia", the violence. La Violencia, an undeclared civil war between Liberals and Conservatives, claimed 300,000 lives. Among those killed was my grandfather's older brother José Lemos.

But Rojas proved little different than Gómez seeking to perpetuate himself in power declaring himself President for Life. In 1957, the second and last military coup in Colombian history overthrew him and sent him packing into exile. By 1970, Rojas had reinvented himself as a populist and sought the presidency via the ballot box. The April 19, 1970 election was certainly a pivotal one in Colombia. There are those who believe that the election was stolen from Rojas and the M-19 guerrilla movement took its name from the date. The established order held the day, however, and Colombia narrowly elected the Conservative Misael Pastrana Borrero President.

For members of my family including my grandfather, voting for Pastrana was the first time they had ever voted for a Conservative. Even then one of my aunts refused to vote saying that she wouldn't dip her finger in ink for a Conservative. The 1970 election was the last of four elections in which the Liberals and Conservatives had agreed to rotate power between them. The period from 1958 to 1974 were the National Front years, a period of confidence-building meant to overcome the breakdown in trust that the violence of the 1940s and 1950s had engendered. 

That all now seems like ancient history. In the years since the end of the National Front, Colombia has elected eight men to the Presidency, five of them Liberals, two Conservatives and Alvaro Uribe, who hailed from the Liberal party but was elected as an independent and who later formed his own party bridging the Liberal-Conservative divide around a national security agenda. 

What's clear in this election is how much Colombia's traditional two party system has collapsed. The Conservative party, a party founded in 1830, is running Noemí Sanín, a former Foreign Minister, as its candidate. She's polling now 9 percent. The Liberal party, founded in 1848, is running Rafael Pardo, another former Foreign Minister. He's polling 3 percent. And though I think highly of Rafael Pardo, who is a true Social Democrat, a friend and a former colleague, the idea of voting for him was never even under consideration. But it is noteworthy how two long established parties have simply lost their way and are perhaps now destined for extinction. 

Until mid-March, I was a card-carrying member of the Liberal party. I now belong to the Green party and wholeheartedly believe in it. Until a year ago or so ago, I might have happily voted for Juan Manuel Santos believing that the continuation of Uribe's security policies were paramount but over the past 18 months the steady drip of scandals beyond belief eroded my confidence in Uribe's security model. I went from thinking Santos a competent technocrat into seeing him as a ruthless assassin for whom the ends justify the means. And I suspect given the enthusiasm I am witnessing with the polling to support it that many if not most Colombians think I do that now is the time for a complete and radical departure even if it's not really radical what Antanas Mockus is proposing. At the core of his message is really a call to honesty and living inside the law.

Honesty isn't really a radical notion but in a world where politicians lie as a matter of course, Antanas Mockus stands out. And when I look at that picture above and I see those young kids with hope in their eyes recalling my own fear from that day long ago when I went to my first campaign rally, I think that we as country in Colombia are on the cusp of a profound transformation. Mockus' message resonates because it is so simple. Life is sacred. Public funds are sacred. To change the country, we must clearly delineate what is acceptable and what is not. It's about values, seemingly lost but in truth only misplaced for such values are indeed eternal. 

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In Colombia, An Unmistakable Green Trend

Polling Continues To Show a Green Surge

With Colombia's presidential now less than four weeks away, the Green party candidate Antanas Mockus continues to surge ahead of Juan Manuel Santos, the candidate of the pro-Uribe National Union party better known as el Partido de la U. In the latest poll released on Friday by Datexco showed Mockus now with a 12 point advantage, 39 percent to 27 percent, over Santos.

Still, these results point to a second round run-off three weeks later on June 20th. All polling over the past ten days has been consistently giving Mockus a clear advantage in the second round. There are, however, some caveats to keep mind. Polling in Colombia tends to overemphasize urban areas at the expense of rural areas where the Greens have less of presence and where vote-buying and other electoral irregularities are commonplace. Perhaps some ten percent of the Colombian electorate sells their votes. 

However somewhat counteracting this is the tremendous support that Antanas Mockus and the Greens have among members of the Colombian diaspora. While the period for Colombians living abroad to register had expired in December, a class-action lawsuit is seeking to reopen the registration period. It is expected that this will add another 500,000 Colombians to the voting rolls, or doubling the number currently registered. 

The last caveat is that no one really knows how many Colombians will turn out to vote. 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, only about 15 to 16 million were expected to vote but electoral officials are bracing now for a slightly higher tally. Perhaps 18 to 20 million may now turn out to vote. Of note, Colombian election officials have estimated that one-third of all registered voters are under 30 years of age. 

Creativity Unleashed

There's little doubt that the Mockus candidacy has caught a spark but one of the more interesting aspects of the campaign is the unbelievable amount of campaign materials being produced by volunteers. As I noted earlier, the Mockus campaign felt no need to retain an ad agency given the quality of the print ads being created. Most noteworthy is a Facebook group called Creativos Con Antanas Mockus or Creatives with Antanas Mockus. Their work is not only vast but unbelievably high quality with effective messaging. The video below shows off some of their work.

While the above highlights the print ads being produced, here's a short campaign spot, again created by a volunteer:

How important is Facebook to the Mockus campaign? In a word, indespensible. The entire campaign is being run on the site. It's become the gathering point for a half million Colombians to exchange information and plan events. I pulled this comment from one of the users as it testifies to what's going on:

William Delgado: Nadie imaginaria que la sociedad y la economia digital aplastarian la organización politiquera convencional !!!!! Gracias Facebook!!!!!

It translates as: "No one could have imagined that society and the digital economy could have flatten conventional political organization. Thank you Facebook!" Mr. Delgado's point is well taken, Facebook has allowed half a million Colombians to connect and run an intense grass roots campaign. Here's a Flash Mob, again organized on Facebook, held this past Sunday in Bogotá:

Santos Reshuffles Campaign and Goes Negative

On Monday, Juan Manual Santos reshuffled his campaign staff most notably hiring the Venezuelan campaign strategist Juan José Rendón, the Karl Rove of Latin America, who specializes in negative attacks ads. Rendón who was worked previously on campaigns for right-wing candidates in México, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and most recently in Honduras is a controversial figure. He admits to having few boundaries having once boasted that "if it's legal then I have no scruples." The hiring, however, was not without consequences for the Santos campaign as it led to three officials to resign in protest.

Hired yesterday, Rendón has been quick to release new ads attempting to tie Mockus to Hugo Chávez, a hugely unpopular figure in Colombia. Rendón has set up a website Colombia Digna and released a number of videos including the one below.

If anything this proves that the right wing whether in the United States or in Latin America are birds of a feather. When you run out of ideas, all you have left is fear-mongering.

The Makings of a Green Revolution

Every Sunday Bogotá, Colombia's capital city, holds its weekly ciclovía where major streets are closed to vehicular traffic from 7AM to 2PM so citizens can enjoy biking or walking without worry from cars. This Sunday, the Partido Verde, the Green Party, held its first major political rally of the campaign using the ciclovía. As you can see, the turnout was extraordinary and the enthusiasm boundless.

The international press tends to portray Colombia as completely enthralled with Alvaro Uribe. Certainly, Uribe remains popular with an approval rating of about 60 percent as most Colombians, including myself, are deeply appreciative of the gains in the security situation. But many Colombians are also acutely aware of the limits of Uribe's policies and the serious lapses in human rights that have occurred under his watch. During Uribe's tenure, 2.5 million Colombians became refugees in their own country, displaced either by the guerrillas or paramilitarism. The false positive scandal in which the army lured innocent young men to their deaths in order to pass them off as FARC rebels and thus collect bounties remains for too many Colombians an unacceptable violation of the trust Colombians have placed in their armed forces. 

On the economic front, Colombia enjoyed record economic growth under Uribe but it was uneven. In the past decade, Colombia was the only country in South America where income inequality actually widened. The country's GINI coefficient went 0.51 in 2001 to 0.56 in 2008. Thirty-seven percent of Colombians still live below the poverty line with nearly a fifth of the population living in endemic poverty classified as living on $2.00 or less a day. Whatever the progress under Uribe, the reality is that the country still is not living up to its potential and leaving too many Colombians further and further behind.

And then there is that nagging corruption that has continued to plague the country. As of last year, 48,000 government officials, including 800 mayors and 30 governors, were being investigated for corruption. One third of the members of the Colombian Congress during the Uribe Administration were expelled for having ties to paramilitary groups or nacro-trafficking cartels. Scandals have touched politicians across the political spectrum. It's not just those in the Uribe Administration but also members of the far left Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA) who have been implicated. The current leftist mayor of Bogotá, Samuel Moreno Rojas, the leading PDA official in the country, is running one of the country’s most corrupt and dysfunctional municipal administrations. 

In the above, you have the makings of the green revolution that simply states that every life is sacred and every peso in the public treasury is also sacred. Colombia is a country fed up with politics as usual and if the above is any indication a country ready to embark on a different path, perhaps on a bike.

A Green Tsunami Gathers Steam in Colombia

Colombia's Presidential election campaign is now well under way and with 50 days to go before the first round election day, the race is becoming a two person race between Juan Manuel Santos, the former Defense Minister under President Uribe and Antanas Mockus, the twice former progressive mayor of Bogotá who is running as the candidate of the newly formed Partido Verde, a Green party. It's been a meteoric rise for the Green party over the past month. In its primary, the party leadership had hoped to garner some 500,000 votes. Instead, 1,822,865 Colombians voted in the three person race choosing between three former mayors of Bogotá. Additionally, the Greens won 5 Senate seats in their first electoral outing.

Early polls back in March showed a wide open race though the pro-Uribe candidates were clearly in front. In mid-March, Santos polled near 40 percent with Noemí Sanín, a former Foreign Minister and the narrow winner of the Conservative party primary just above 20 percent with the rest of the seven person field in single digits. The biggest loser in the Congressional election was Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellín, who had been mounting an independent civic campaign. His lists fail to win a single seat in either the Senate or the House. Mockus immediately after the Congressional elections on March 13 polled 9 percent.

The race has dramatically altered in the last month. To begin with Mockus selected Fajardo as his running mate bringing together a wider spectrum of pro-reform forces. And with more Colombians beginning to tune in to the race, the Greens have honed their message to one based on the redemption of morality in politics. Our message is simple: every life is sacred, every peso in the public treasury is sacred. In a country where homicide is again on the rise and where numerous minor corruption scandals have occurred under Uribe, that message has resonated.

The latest poll conducted by Datexco released just yesterday shows Juan Manuel Santos still leading with 29 percent of the vote but with Mockus surging to 24 percent. Meanwhile Sanín has fallen back to 16 percent after numerous gaffes including her botching the national anthem. Even the revelation that Mockus has early stages of Parkinson's has been turned into a positive. "We'd rather have a President whose hands shake but not have his morals waver" came back the refrain. And as one noted Colombian observer noted, Mockus may have Parkinson's but it's the Uribe camp that's shaking.

This is a campaign unlike other in our history. Never before has a race been conducted in this manner. In the primary, all appearance by Antanas Mockus, Enrique Peñalosa and Lucho Garzón were joint appearances to underscore that this was a campaign of ideas, not of personalities. To show their commitment to prudent financial management of public monies, the party returned 4,500 million pesos that it was entitled to but did not spend. The message is clear, corruption will not be tolerated.

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