Colombian President Alvaro Uribe cruised to an easy reelection victory with 62% of the vote Sunday, but more than half the electorate stayed home and a drug-legalizing former Supreme Court justice running as head of left-leaning ticket polled a surprising 22%. Uribe ran as a law-and-order candidate and gained the support of urban voters who applauded his tough stance against the country's massive drug trade and the long-running leftist insurgency of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC).
The level of support for pro-legalization Senator Carlos Gaviria Diaz, presidential candidate for the Alternative Democratic Pole, is the strongest showing for Colombia's electoral left since it was massacred (literally) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a Supreme Court justice in the early 1990s, Gaviria crafted the decision that legalized drug possession for personal use in Colombia.
Last week, Gaviria -- who was a keynote speaker at DRCNet's 2003 "Out from the Shadows" conference in Mexico, said he still supports drug legalization, but that as a practical matter it was not something Colombia could do in isolation. "I'm in favor of legalizing drugs, but I'm also aware that a government cannot do this," he told a Bogota press conference last Friday. Legalizing the drug trade would mean the state could control it, he said. "But Colombia would become a pariah country."
But it is the growth of the democratic left in Colombia that is the big story. For decades, Colombia has been a two-party system, with Liberals and Conservatives vying for control of the state, but between Conservative support for Uribe and a rising tide on the left, the Liberals appear increasingly irrelevant. Liberal candidate Horacio Serpa came in third, with under 12% of the popular vote.
In the last presidential election, Democratic Pole candidate and legalization advocate Luis Eduardo "Lucho" Garzon gained only 6% of the vote. But in a sign of increasing disillusionment with the status quo, the following year Garzon won the race to be mayor of Bogota, the country's capital and largest city. Now, the Democratic Pole has overtaken the Liberals to become the second party.
"We're very happy with the results," Gaviria told Caracol Radio Sunday night after recognizing his defeat. "For the first time in the country's history, the main opposition party will be comprised of the democratic left."
13. Latin America:
As Venezuela and Bolivia Draw Nearer, Chavez Ponies Up $1 Million for Coca
It's a trio that gives the Bush administration nightmares, and they were all together in Bolivia last weekend. Bolivian President Evo Morales hosted Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in what he called an "axis of good" during a visit to Bolivia's coca-growing Chapare region, and Chavez announced he would support Morales' call to legalize and industrialize the coca leaf by providing $1 million in funding for research into coca's uses and factories to turn it into coca flour or tea.
The weekend meeting came as tensions are increasing between Washington and Bolivia and Venezuela. Among the Morales policies the administration clearly doesn't like is his determination to expand his country's coca industry and win legal status for the plant long sacred in the Andes. While Morales has vowed to fight cocaine trafficking, he is also seeking voluntary -- not forced -- limits on coca production, a move that makes the US uneasy as Bolivian coca production continues to rise.
Ironically, Morales and his guests flew into the region at the US-built Chimore air base, once a hangout of US DEA agents attempting to enforce the "zero coca" policies their government imposed on Bolivia. Upon his arrival, Morales gave thanks "to the government of the United States for building that airport," although he added that the effort had led to conflict and loss of life. "From those days of sadness, we come to a day of celebration," Morales said. "Before the governments made us weep with their repression and now we weep with joy."