In a stunning rebuke to Washington and administration ally Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, voters in Bogota, Colombia's capital and largest city, elected former communist union leader, harsh critic of US policy toward Colombia, and avowed drug legalization advocate Luis Eduardo "Lucho" Garzon as their mayor. The Sunday vote came a day after voters nationwide handed Uribe another defeat by rejecting his referendum on a package of "reforms" -- which initially included re-criminalization of drug possession until that provision was struck by the Supreme Court -- and austerity measures designed to raise money to further prosecute his policy of unrelenting war against guerrilla armies, drug traffickers, and coca-growing farmers.
Garzon, the son of a cleaning woman who climbed through the ranks of the leftist trade unions to come in third in the 2001 election that brought Uribe to power, garnered 46% of the vote against 40% for his chief rival, Uribe ally Juan Lozano. Running as head of the Independent Democratic Pole (PDI -- Polo Democratico Independiente), Garzon has orchestrated the most significant political victory for the Colombian left ever; this is the first time the Colombian left has controlled the capital city. As mayor of Bogota, a city of seven million, Garzon is now uniquely poised to challenge Uribe politically -- and has vowed to do just that.
But Garzon's victory was part of a broader rejection of traditional parties, as voters in most of Colombia's largest cities voted for the PDI and its allies or for other independent political formations. In Barrancabermeja, PDI candidate Edgar Cote won the mayoralty, while in Bucarmaranga, PDI-linked candidate Honorio Galvis won. In Medellin, the mayoralty went to Sergio Fajardo, candidate of the Indigenous Social Alliance, while in Cali, Apolinar Salcedo of the Yes Colombia movement won city hall. Likewise, in Barranquilla, Guillermo Hoenigsberg of the Civic Movement won the mayoralty. Uribe's Liberals and the opposition Conservatives were shut out.
As a presidential candidate in 2001, Garzon openly called for drug legalization as the only means of ending the bloodshed in Colombia. "The best way to end this problem and the war it has brought us is to legalize drugs," he said at the time (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/201/groundswell.shtml). While Garzon did not talk openly about legalization in the mayor's race, the focus of his campaign was a scathing attack on Uribe's overall approach to Colombia's 40-year-old civil war -- inextricably intertwined with the country's multi-billion dollar black market cocaine industry -- and his increasingly authoritarian security measures designed to defeat the leftist FARC and the drug traffickers.
The message resonated with voters. One man, a 35-year-old anthropologist, told Canada's National Post he voted for Garzon to to give Uribe a slap in the face. "With Uribe you're either on his side or you're a terrorist," he said. "Lucho represents a new alternative."
"We do not like the economic direction that has been given to the country," Garzon told a cheering crowd on Saturday, referring to Uribe's reducing social welfare and infrastructure spending to finance more war. "We believe that security policies must be based on the premise that the citizens are above the military." Garzon also appealed to the millions of impoverished Colombians living in the slums of the capital. "We have places here that look like Versailles," he said. "But many people in Bogota still live in conditions that resemble those in Calcutta."
Garzon's platform calls above all for negotiating an end to the civil war -- the path resolutely not taken by Uribe and his US backers -- fighting corruption, more democratic and transparent government, and improvements in public health and education services. And then there is drugs. Garzon is blunt: "Until now, Colombia has not had a national drug policy, but has been limited to accepting in an uncritical and automatic fashion the American prohibitionist policy, which equally criminalizes production, traffic, and use. No other country in the world is a better witness to its stupendous failure and its human, institutional, and environmental costs," says the platform.
Garzon calls for a new, national drug policy that would: