I was surprised during my trip to Colombia last month when my seemingly enlightened Bogotácab driver, who had been telling me about his support for Green Party presidential candidate Antanas Mockus in the upcoming elections, suddenly shifted gears and announced that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was loco.
The mental state of its leader was not the only issue the driver had with the neighboring country, and he added that money for Venezuela’s social programs came not from oil wealth but rather from proceeds Chávez received as part of an international drug smuggling ring. Among the co-conspirators in the ring, I learned, was ex-President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, ousted in a coup last summer which according to the cabbie had been justified based on the fact that Zelaya was also loco.
As Colombians prepare to vote in presidential elections on May 30, opinion polls show former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos of President Alvaro Uribe’s National Unity Party (Partido de la U) with a commanding lead to replace his former boss, who was barred from seeking a third term earlier this year. A poll released by the National Consulting Center on April 8 shows Santos with 37 percent of the vote, Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus with 22 percent—surprising given the party’s formation just last year—and Conservative Party candidate Noemí Sanín with 20 percent.
To boost his campaign, Santos has pointed to government victories over the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during his tenure as Defense Minister, such as the killing of No. 2 commander Raúl Reyes during a cross-border raid into Ecuador in 2008 and the rescue from FARC captivity of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and others the same year. As for the infamous “false positives” scandal in which Colombian soldiers—on possibly thousands of different occasions—murdered innocent civilians and dressed them up as guerrillas, Santos has admitted that the Prosecutor General is currently investigating nearly 1300 such cases. He maintains, however, that “there are people who want to inflate the numbers, make the problem bigger, without taking into account how it is hurting the institutions”, something the military might have taken into account before engaging in the murder of innocents.
Candidates from three right-wing parties allied with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe won a clear majority in both the Senate and lower house in elections held on March 14. The results are considered to be a sign of how Colombians will vote on May 30 when they choose a successor to Uribe, who was recently barred from seeking a third term.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the emergence of the rightist Party of National Integration (PIN), which won 8 out of the 102 Senate seats, displacing the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole as the country’s fourth largest political party. The victorious PIN candidates were mostly relatives of ex-lawmakers now in jail or under investigation for ties to right-wing paramilitary groups. In a scandal that tarnished the previous Congress, 12 pro-Uribe legislators were jailed while another 80 are still under investigation.