Not since Colombian vice president, Francisco de Paula Santander, conspired to assassinate Caracas born Simón Bolívar in Bogotá in 1828, has a Venezuelan so stirred political opinions and passions in its neighbour.
Not since his Colombian vice president, Francisco de Paula Santander, conspired to assassinate Caracas born Simón Bolívar in Bogotá in 1828, has a Venezuelan so stirred political opinions and passions in its neighbour as President Hugo Chávez has done.
Bolívar survived the infamous ‘Black September Night’ attempt against his life, but Colombia’s continued opposition to his united Latin America dream disillusioned him, until, dispirited and disheartened, he resigned as president a short time after.
In 2007, Colombians are once again contesting and debating a Venezuelan leader’s ideas – this time, President Chávez’s ‘Bolívarian revolution’ and his hope to reprise the Liberator’s ‘one America’ dream.
That these ideas come replete with new inspiration drawn from Marx, Lenin, and even Trotsky, have sharpened the debate in conservative Colombia and heightened the elite’s fear that Chávez’s influence could upset their closed, privileged political order.
In several Colombian states, particularly on the Caribbean coast, Bolivarian circles have been organised, taking after the barrio and union organising committees in Venezuela, and Colombia’s leftist opposition Polo Democrático coalition organises amongst the 2 million Colombian immigrants in Venezuela, ensuring that the revolution’s ideas are brought back into Colombia.
In Barranquilla, Colombia’s principal Caribbean port, barrio and social activists, union organizers and some Polo Democrático members have united in the Corriente Bolivariana Colombiana (Colombian Bolivarian Current), a political organisation that claims almost 5,000 members and has 50 candidates standing in the October local elections.
Jorge Urueta, one of the Bolivarian candidates, explains that the movement began among Colombian immigrants in Caracas, "at first in response to President Álvaro Uribe’s reelection" in 2006. Returning immigrants then continued to organise in Colombia itself, "increasing gradually in numbers," says Urueta, "until there are now Bolivarian movements in at least 5 states."
"This is a social movement against poverty in Colombia," says Oscar Manduca, a Bolivarian organiser and candidate in Atlántico state on the Caribbean coast. "Venezuela’s revolution can help change things here through solidarity and cooperation across the frontier."
In some communities near Bogotá, where Colombians have elected leftist activists to local consejos and juntas, cooperation agreements have been signed with Venezuela that grant scholarships to allow workers’ children to study in Caracas, and offer free medical care to the poorest who cannot afford Colombia’s privatised health care.
Carlos Felipe Flórez organizes the Movimiento Bolivariano de Colombia S A (sin armas) – the Bolivarian Movement of Colombia (without arms) – that is presenting an electoral challenge to the rightist caudillos that control politics on the Colombia frontier in Santander state. He explains that no Bolivarian activist "receives even one peso from Venezuela. Agreements are made to benefit workers and the poorest, not politicians."
In the October elections, Colombia’s Bolivarian candidates hope to gain at least 20,000 votes, and more positions on local consejos and juntas. A national congress is planned to take place in December to decide on issues such as the Bolivarian movement’s relation to the Polo Democrático, and to elect candidates to contest future Senate and Congressional elections.
These small steps taken to bring Venezuela’s Bolivarian ideas to Colombia have now received encouragement from an extremely unlikely source – far right Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who recently invited President Chávez himself to negotiate with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc), and try to make progress towards ending their war against the state.
Colombia’s elite are incensed at the invitation to Chávez – editorials and columnists have devoted unprecedented space to criticising their own president, and to their fears about Chávez’s "intervention" in Colombia’s politics.
"The president has given Chávez a golden opportunity to interfere in our affairs," wrote columnist Rafael Nieto in the pre-eminent political affairs magazine, Semana. "Now Chávez doesn’t need to explain if he wants to say something about Colombia, and intervention in our politics will be difficult to manage Polo Democrático leaders going to Caracas and Bolivarian officials in Bogotá could become a daily occurrence."
Saúl Hernández, writing in the pro government newspaper, El Tiempo, agrees. "Chávez will install himself in the heart of Colombian politics," he wrote, questioning why "Uribe has invited him when there exists such an abysmal ideological difference this inconceivable act is the equivalent of the intervention of a Soviet leader in the affairs of the United States during the Cold War.’
Even the liberal El Espectador complains that the invitation "gives Chávez an opportunity on a silver plate to intervene in politics he could obtain leadership in Colombia that hasn’t been possible until now.’
Colombia’s media has been implacably hostile to Venezuela and its Bolivarian revolution since Chávez was first elected president in 1998. It is standard to use terms such as "dictator", "caudillo" and "communist" in news coverage, and there is little attempt to learn what is actually happening in Venezuela, or to try to understand why Chávez is so popular.
Venezuelan commentator Gabriel Bustamante believes that Colombia’s journalists "don’t know, and don’t want to know, anything positive" about the changes in his country. "Revolutions threaten their privileges, so there is a need to create ‘Chávezphobia’ – an excessive and irrational fear about Chávez and even Bolívar to try to stop Colombians being influenced."
"Chávez is a traditional, dictatorial caudillo, and he intends to export his revolution with aggressive diplomacy," comments El Tiempo, to prove Bustamante’s point. Curiously neglecting to mention any far right military dictatorships, the editorial continues, "Caudillos like Chávez have historically impeded the consolidation of liberal democracy in Latin America."
Further comments in Colombia’s limited media have been even more extreme, indicating that the elite would prefer that the war continues rather than Chávez gain influence in Colombia through his efforts to end it.
"Don’t forget that Chávez is an extremely active politician with aspirations to unite the Americas," writes Alfredo Rangel in the business magazine Cambio. "Peace in Colombia will advance his ideas, and that would threaten our institutional stability and our conservative political culture."
Álvaro Forero Tascón, in El Espectador, is more explicit:
"Now Chávez is invited he won’t leave. It has been difficult for Chávez to have influence in Colombia because it is a conservative country, but he has been patiently waiting and his interference was just a matter of time, but it is preferable that the war continues than Chávez be involved in Colombia’s affairs."
This critical reception to the invitation to Chávez has had some effect – Uribe curtailed Chávez’s visit to Colombia in August, and forced the Venezuelan president to meet him at an isolated hacienda rather than allow his presidential motorcade to travel through the capital. A meeting with opposition Polo Democrático leaders had to be held after midnight, in private at the Venezuelan Embassy, and even Chávez’s request to visit Bolívar’s historic hacienda in central Bogotá was denied lest he came into contact with ordinary Colombians.
The government has also responded to increasing cooperation between the Colombian opposition and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. A Corriente Bolivariana Colombiana political meeting in Baranoa on the Caribbean coast was raided by the president’s DAS intelligence service in May.
Fifteen agents arrested visiting Venezuelan Congressional deputy José Luis Pirela, who had come to finalise an agreement offering scholarships to children to study in Caracas, and forced him into a military helicopter. Pirela was then unceremoniously deported on the La Guajira desert frontier between the two countries.
A short time later Baranoa’s mayor, Carlos Zambrano, began to receive death threats from the far right paramilitaries, but remained defiant.
"It is normal for movements with similar politics to have contact across frontiers," said, Zambrano. "No one can deny that America is involved in Colombia’s politics even to the point that the US sends helicopters and guns to fuel the war. All that we are doing is arranging scholarships for poor children to study."
"Colombia does not accept foreign interference from any country," a DAS statement said after this incident, apparently without irony. "Colombia does not accept attempts at destabilizing our democracy that respects liberties," while El Tiempo justified the raid, claiming that contacts between Colombians and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution were "contrary to the free determination of the people."
Constitutional experts disagreed. Lawyer Juan Manuel Charry said there was no crime that an elected deputy from Venezuela visited an elected mayor in Colombia, and legal expert Francisco José Sintura pointed out that Colombia’s constitutional law "only prohibits rebellion, sedition, asonada and conspiracy. A law prohibits foreigners from participating in election campaigns, but that is not what is happening here."
However, as Colombia is a highly militarised state, the Armed Forces Commander, Freddy Padilla, thought it appropriate to comment too.
"I don’t think there is interference from the Venezuelan government on the Caribbean coast," he stated, apparently disagreeing with the intelligence service’s assessment. But he then said, "Bolivarian circles are spreading all over Latin America, and particularly here in Colombia we want to prevent this from happening."
This statement raises the question as to how the Colombian military, while accepting that there is no "foreign interference", will then "prevent" Colombians from organising political movements influenced by Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution – particularly as the intelligence service states that Colombia "respects liberties."
Colombia’s elite has never been so isolated in Latin America as they are now – just Perú, México and some Central American states still share their rightist economic liberalism and deference to the United States. But now ordinary Colombians are beginning to gain confidence and inspiration from President Chávez and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution.
La última esperanza, report in Semana, Bogotá, 3 de septiembre de 2007
Latinoamérica, en la mira chavista, Eduardo Posada Carbó, El Tiempo, Bogotá, 1 de junio de 2007
Amenazas de muerte para alcalde, Alfonso Cervantes, El Tiempo, Bogotá, junio de 2007
¿Qué sucede en Colombia y por qué su importancia para Venezuela?, David Javier Medina, Aporrea.org, Caracas, 9 de septiembre de 2007
Diputado chavista habló de plan para ‘Presidencia bolivariana’ en Colombia, Roberto Llanos Rodado, El Tiempo, Bogotá, 29 de mayo de 2007
Por el liderazgo en América Latina, Simón Consalvi, El Nacional, Caracas, 2 de septiembre de 2007
¿Qué está cocinando Chávez?, Saúl Hernández, El Tiempo, Bogotá, 4 de septiembre de 2007
Ingreso inusual de funcionarios venezolanos a Colombia viene desde el 2005, según el DAS, report in El Tiempo, Bogotá, 29 de mayo de 2007
Contribución a la paz en Colombia, Vladimir Villegas, Aporrea.org, Caracas, 7 de septiembre de 2007
El fenómeno Chávez en América Latina, report in El Tiempo, Bogotá, 20 de mayo de 2007
Chávez, el nuevo protagonista, editorial in El Espectador, Bogotá, 19 de agosto de 2007
La caja de Pandora, Rafael Nieto, Semana, 27 de agosto de 2007
La sin salida de Chávez, Álvaro Forero Tascón, El Espectador, Bogotá, 27 de agosto de 2007
Lógicas Paradójicas, Alfredo Rangel, Cambio, Bogotá, 25 de agosto de 2007