On Sunday, Colombia’s president Alvaro Uribe was re-elected to a second term by winning 62 percent of the vote. For the Bush administration Uribe’s victory marks a rare bright moment in Latin America where a series of left-wing candidates have won recent elections. We speak with journalist and author Mario Murillo. [includes rush transcript]
We end today’s show looking at the recent elections in Colombian. On Sunday, Colombia’s president Alvaro Uribe was re-elected to a second term by winning 62 percent of the vote.
For the Bush administration Uribe’s re-election marks a rare bright moment in Latin America wwhere a series of left-wing candidates have won recent elections in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
Uribe is seen as one of Bush’s only close allies in the region. Since Uribe’s election in 2002 the United States has poured over three billion dollars into Colombia in the form of military and anti-drug aid. No Latin American country has received more financial support. The U.S. support has come even though Uribe has been accused of widespread human rights abuses. Shortly before the election, a former senior official at Colombia’s executive intelligence agency, the DAS, revealed the agency provided right-wing paramilitary groups with the names of union leaders and academics, many of whom were subsequently threatened or killed. According to the official, Rafael Garcia, the paramilitaries also helped Uribe win an extra 300,000 fraudulent votes during the 2002 presidential elections.
- Mario Murillo, journalist and author of the book "Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destablization." He teaches media and communications and is a producer at Pacifica radio station WBAI in New York.
AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the re-election of Alvaro Uribe, we’re joined by Mario Murillo, who is an independent journalist, author of the book, Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization. He teaches media and communications at Hofstra University and is a producer at Pacifica radio station WBAI here in New York. Welcome, Mario.
MARIO MURILLO: Good to be with both of you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the election?
MARIO MURILLO: Well, the election has a lot of different factors, and obviously if you’ve been watching it closely over the last several months, it’s really not a surprise what happened. The 62% of the vote as presented here is an overwhelming mandate that President Uribe has. It’s unprecedented, but not only the re-election, because it is the first time in over a hundred years that a Colombian government president has been re-elected. But I think it’s also unprecedented that a Colombian president has that kind of support in the population, even after one year in office, so to get re-elected, it’s a major victory, at least superficially. What it is is the consolidation of a program that he began and that his team began since he was in the campaign in 2001 up until 2002. So he’s been campaigning since 2002 for this day, and now basically has another four years to consolidate a very rightward militarist, pro-U.S. government that has consolidated in many different sectors within the Colombian society.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, didn’t he have to actually change the constitution to be able to run again? He had to have a referendum first on that?
MARIO MURILLO: Yeah. The referendum was more of a process of consolidating his control in the legislature. And so, right now the Colombian legislature has 70% support towards Uribe’s political program. Of those 70% — of those 70 members, the estimate’s that up to 60 of those come with the support directly of paramilitary influence in those different regions where they represent. So he had the congress. The congress passed legislation that was eventually approved by the court, the constitutional court, that allowed for the re-election. And then ultimately he campaigned. But he’s been campaigning since 2002. The formality of the constitutional revision was really just a formality, and the re-election ultimately comes as no surprise.
AMY GOODMAN: Mario, can you talk about the candidate he beat, the one next up in votes?
MARIO MURILLO: Well, I think one of the interesting things is how in the U.S. press — I’ve been scouring through all the different news accounts of the last week, and almost in every account they look at it as a surprise that Carlos Gaviria, who was a former constitutional court judge, who was also a scholar, an academic, not a political person at all, definitely progressive in his approach towards the U.S. intervention, in terms of the free trade agreements, a very, very strong candidate — the press seems to be surprised that he came in second place, superseding the traditional Liberal Party candidate, Horacio Serpa. But if you’ve been watching it closely, it should not come as a surprise because there has been a coalescing of the left movement, of progressive sectors, indigenous communities, the Afro-Colombian movement, labor, very important sectors of the trade union movement, all coalescing over the last several years around Gaviria.
And now some people will paint it as, "Wow, he got his butt kicked because he only won 22% of the vote." It’s the first time that a left candidate has actually received over 2.6 million votes in an election of this nature. And it’s really only after a month and a half — not even, about five weeks of campaigning when the left finally chose their candidate, Carlos Gaviria. So it was a major triumph, and now they’re looking ahead over the next four years to see how they can move on this momentum that was started in this election.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And how do you explain how Colombia seems to be bucking the overall trend in Latin America of more populous and left-oriented political leaders coming to power, yet the country seems to be, or at least the voters, those who are voting, seem to be so overwhelmingly favorable to Uribe?
MARIO MURILLO: Well, I think there is a lot of discontent with Uribe. I think, again, Uribe winning 62% of the vote, we have to take into consideration that there was 54% abstention, so really there was less than 12 million voters who actually participated in the elections. And that’s traditional in Colombia. A lot of it also has to do with —
JUAN GONZALEZ: So fewer than half of the eligible voters.
MARIO MURILLO: Absolutely, yeah. Fewer than half of the eligible voters participated. That’s traditional. Again, there’s a lot of factors for lack of participation. One of them, of course, is the intimidation and the threats that very often happen in regions, including regions that have been controlled in recent years by paramilitaries who are in dialogue or in negotiations with the Colombian president.
JUAN GONZALEZ: So that’s a far worse participation, right, than even in the United States.
MARIO MURILLO: Absolutely. Absolutely. So that’s one factor that must be considered. I think also Uribe has been very successful in a number of fronts, certainly in terms of politics. He is a brilliant politician. He has been able to really utilize the media to promote certain half-truths, if you will. So, for example — and they’re totally echoed in the U.S. press. So, for example, almost in every account that I saw in the U.S., in the L.A. Times to the New York Times to the Houston Chronicle, almost every one of those reports about the elections pointed out that Uribe has been successful in demobilizing 30,000 rightwing paramilitaries in these negotiations that he’s been having since about 2003.
Now, if you look at the math, 30,000 —- first of all, four years ago there weren’t even 30,000 paramilitaries. But that’s been the thing he’s been hammering out on a daily basis to the major media in Colombia, so obviously the U.S. press picks up on it. Even if that was true that 30,000 paramilitaries had been demobilized, the fact of the matter is even in today’s El Tiempo, in today’s—- the major newspaper in Colombia, there’s reports that there are new paramilitaries emerging and threats of different groups emerging, the Nueva Generacion, as they’re calling it, the new generation of paramilitaries who are consolidating their control in this process of legitimization. So there’s a lot of mythmaking that’s been very successful.
The other very general myth that’s been very successful is that the guerrillas have been defeated, that the guerillas have been set back, have been pushed back in their war against the state. And the fact of the matter is, and I point this out in my book — and, you know, I’m not the only one who said it, but it’s nice to say "I told you so" — but basically the guerrillas have been kind of, not in retreat, but they’ve been kind of chilling out, if you will, kind of staying back and waiting and watching this unfold, and carrying out direct military attacks, not carrying out the kind of sweeping attacks that they were doing before Uribe, but kind of standing by and waiting to see what happens. That’s what’s going to be interesting to see what’s going happen in the next few years, where they go with the guerrillas, because they have by no means been defeated.
AMY GOODMAN: Mario, where does the U.S. fit in in the whole framing of the so-called war on terror?
MARIO MURILLO: Well, the war on terror has replaced the war on drugs, and perhaps that’s a good thing for the U.S., because even by the U.S. numbers, their own statistics point that despite the $3.5 billion of military assistance, primarily military assistance, that’s gone in the name of the war on drugs as part of Plan Colombia, in the past four years alone under Uribe, the amount of coca cultivation in Colombia has increased by 26%, despite the promises that he was going to reduce it by half by the time 2006 came along, by the time he turned over his mandate. So the numbers increased. There’s no real evidence that they’ve really curtailed the drug issue.
And the question is now what does it mean militarily? Are they going to continue going towards a military approach to try and resolve the problems of Colombia, or are they going to try to bring the guerrillas in, the FARC in particular, for a more long-term dialogue, more comprehensive dialogue, that will not only be a dialogue between Uribe and the leadership of the FARC, but a dialogue that will incorporate all the sectors of civil society, the progressive movement, including those who made a good showing in this last election, indigenous sectors, etc., and that they would be incorporated into some kind of national dialogue?
My fear, and a lot of people that I’ve been speaking to in Colombia, our fear is that what’s going to happen is now that Uribe has been consolidated and confirmed and christened for another four years in office, the rightwing project that he started back in 2002, with the support of the paramilitaries and the military, is going to get more intransigent. Now the protection that the left, like Carlos Gaviria and other leaders of the left have had over the last four years, because it wouldn’t have looked good for Uribe to have top-level people getting knocked off, like they did in the past in Colombia, that protection has kind of been lifted. He’s been re-elected, and now that protection is lifted, so there’s a concern that there’s going to be a major counterattack against the progressive sectors of the left.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Mario, we have about 30 seconds. I just wanted to ask you about the role of the press. Before the Iraq war, Colombia was the most dangerous place in the world for reporters, and many were driven out, but what’s happened with the press under Uribe?
MARIO MURILLO: That’s a very good point. And I think the press has been attacked. There’s been especially sectors of independent media. There’s one friend, Hollman Morris, who has won a number of prestigious international press awards, and he was contracted by the BBC to do a report on the paramilitaries. And Uribe, the president, just re-elected with 62% of the vote, said on national television, "It’s unfortunate that foreign news agencies are hiring terrorists to carry out news programming in our country." And that was done basically with impunity, and it forced a person like Hollman Morris to leave the country for a while. And those kinds of attacks have been commonplace in Colombia since Uribe’s been in office.
AMY GOODMAN: Will this have an effect on Mexico and the elections coming up there?
MARIO MURILLO: Well, I’m not sure there are direct connections, but we already see sort of a similar backlash against the left in Mexico that’s been going on there for quite some time.
AMY GOODMAN: Mario, thank you very much for being with us. Mario Murillo is a journalist, author of the book, Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization, teaches at Hofstra University and is a producer at Pacifica radio station WBAI in New York.