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Colombian Elections draw nearer

May 27, 2010

The upcoming election in Colombia on May 30th has been surrounding by an expectation of change in the country.  This atmosphere has been growing over the past few months as current president Alvaro Uribe was denied the possibility to run for a third term in office due to a ruling by the constitutional court.  His annointed successor and former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos seemed assured of an easy victory,  but has slipped considerably in the polls as of late due to recent scandals and a growing sense of a need for a break from the status quo.  Santos’ fall in the polls has corresponded with a rise for the Green Party candidate, Antanas Mockus, whose campaign has captured the imagination of a large segement of the Colombian urban population.  The attitude in the vast rural sectors of the country, where the decades long civil war is still taking place, is less well understood.  As the election date draws nearer the Colombian people are potentially bracing themselves for a change of political leadership that is a departure from the regional isolationism of the Uribe years.  Reproachment with Venezuela and Ecuador (which was experienced a cross border military raid by the Colombian Armed Forces in 2008) figures to be significant possible outcome in the event of a Mockus victory.

The following is from an interview conducted by Gabriel Elizondo:

Question: What is at stake in this election in Colombia?

Natalia Springer: What is at stake is the transition to avoid another cycle of violence. Either we go to a transition to a real, sustainable peace where not only violence but the structural reasons that have provoked this violence are addressed. Or we are into a new wave of violence. This is what is at stake.

Question: Some of the violence is down in Colombia but you have said the violence numbers don’t tell the whole story. What do you mean by that?

Natalia Springer: Reality is very complex in Colombia. On one hand it’s true, for example, that violence we experienced in the past in Bogota is down. There was a fight against violence and that fight has rendered some very good numbers. But the war in other regions of the country is not over and you have the impression it’s getting worse. In the south and in the pacific regions, around the area of Buenaventura, for example, violence is still very bad. So the impression we have is that certain numbers have went down, for example kidnappings and the big impact violence is down. But on the other hand, displacement has been growing a lot, poverty and extreme poverty, too. Seventeen per cent of Colombians live in the streets. It’s extreme poverty. Forty-six  per cent of Colombians are poor or extremely poor. And inequality has grown dramatically in our country.

Question: But the current Colombian government has implemented some aid programmes for the poorest people. How do you view those programmes?

Natalia Springer: The government really went hard for granting some sort of help to very poor people, familias guardabosques is one example. These efforts were supported by much of the international community. It’s a kind of programme that gives help to poor people in the form of money. But it has not helped poverty, it has made poverty worse. Because people were getting money from the state, but it was not helping them get out of poverty or get work. So labour conditions did not improve. And foreign investors were given incentives to invest in Colombia, but that investment had no impact in the quality of labour for the people.

Question: Let’s switch back to Sunday’s election. What are people voting for?

Natalia Springer: Change. The country has reached a point where we cannot stand another scandal. Especially since the amount of scandals in this government have gone over the reasonable limits. Every government has a scandal; politics is the exercise of reality. However it’s very difficult to stand the scandals that have hit this country. We cannot stand this anymore. You can feel it all around. People might feel some certain sympathies for the efforts of our president, President Uribe, but we are all fed up with all those scandals. We don’t see truth, we don’t see transparency, we do not see justice acting but being obstructed. So I think this campaign has been very much influenced by the sense of outrage.

Question: You speak with a positive tone about Antanas Mockus – candidate for president. He has sky-rocketed in the polls in recent weeks to where he and Juan Manuel Santos are the clear front runners. What is it about Mockus that so many people, especially the youth, are gravitating to all of a sudden? How do you explain his fast rise in the polls?

Natalia Springer: Mockus has talked a lot about education and his plan of legality, institutionalisation, and revolution of education and this is what has caught so much attention. It’s a sense of love of country. What is so new about him is that he is not making a campaign on money, or friends, or the usual elites that controlled the politics in the regions. He is just going alone – with the best brains of this country – around Colombia talking about legality, education, health, poverty and telling the truth. And that is what has made him so attractive to many people.

Question: What is different about this election from others in Colombia?

Natalia Springer: We are not afraid anymore. Violence is not commanding this election. And I am not talking about the last two elections. I am talking about last 5 or 6 elections Candidates were killed systematically by guerillas or the paramilitary in the past. We didn’t have peaceful elections; we could not decide freely.

And this is the first time we are really deciding over matters of national interest and not matters of fear. Issues such as health, education, international affairs. These are the central points of this election.

Question: Finally, you said this could be one of Colombia’s most interesting elections ever. How so?

Natalia Springer: Four months ago if you asked me how I see this election I would say it was really boring. At the time we thought the re-election (third term) of President Uribe would happen. He would be allowed to run again for another term. But once the Constitutional Court decided this is no longer an option, the entire country suffered a revolution. And we started one of the most interesting campaigns ever. We have seven or eight candidates with wonderful qualities. But just four months ago people were saying, ‘It has to be Uribe, we have no other leader.’ And Uribe was seen for many as the savior, a maximum leader, a figure that represented everything for us and if he left we would be left in fear. But right now, the discussion is very different. In this campaign we are being allowed to make a critical, transparent evaluation of these past two terms and now we are able to see the past eight years critically. And see what he really achieved and really represents, and what is the vision for the Colombia we really want to have.

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