Colombia's Deep Divide
Despite Uribe's popularity, he faces a new yet robust democratic left party, the Polo Alternativa Democrático. Formed in 2003, the Polo has done surprisingly well in recent elections--winning more than twenty seats in the Colombian legislature, and controlling the mayoral offices of several cities, including Bogotá, and ruling one provincial government.
The party's program is a sensible mix of social democratic policies that aim to contain and reform Colombian capitalism's worst features. The Polo wants better protection of civil rights, workers' rights and the environment; land reform and an end to privatization of state industries; tighter regulation of foreign capital and big business; and a less Washington-influenced foreign policy. And despite its urban origins, the Polo has strong support among peasants and Colombia's well-organized indigenous movements.
In the late 1980s and early '90s Colombia had a similarly mass-based social democratic party, the Patriotic Union (UP), with links to the FARC. But the UP was wiped out in an assassination campaign that saw 3,000 of its activists, including three presidential candidates, murdered by paramilitaries. The Polo has no links to the guerrillas. But Polo activists fear that Uribe's campaign-trail redbaiting will effectively associate the Polo with the FARC in the minds of many Colombians and thus clear the way for a violent onslaught from the right.
"In Colombia, if you run for office from the left you have to be willing to die," says a young Polo activist named Daniel.
The head of the Polo, Senator Samuel Rojas, is somewhat more understated about the threat. "We must insist on the rule of law," says Rojas as we ride with his bodyguards through the rainy Bogotá night toward a rally of striking bus drivers who want Rojas to mediate their dispute. "Our task now is to consolidate the Polo. We have to prove that we can govern in places like Bogotá so we can survive and build for the long term."
But in recent months several high-profile political figures have been murdered. One victim was Jaime Gomez, an aide to a Liberal Party senator critical of Uribe. Gomez disappeared in late March and showed up a month later, dismembered in a Bogotá park. Liliana Gaviria, sister of a former Colombian president from the Liberal Party who now attacks Uribe, was assassinated in April. And an aide to Polo Senator Gustavo Petro was recently killed in what the police say was a fall but what forensic specialists called a bludgeoning. Several weeks ago the brother of a Polo campaign manager was murdered after huge left-wing rallies in a paramilitary-controlled city. Uribe's critics say the murders are the work of the president's paramilitary allies.