Polo Democrático’s Challenge to Colombia

Polo Democrático rally

The Polo Democrático is a party that organizes all over Colombia, in barrios that no traditional politician visits, and among workers whose unions offer it their support.

Polo Democrático rally

"The Polo is the only option that Colombia has to leave the nightmare… our alternative to the old traditional bosses will end this long night, and the Uribista’s attempts to force us against the wall and deligitimize us will not bear fruit." – Rodrigo Córdoba, Polo Democrático activist, Bogotá

There is no doubt that the leftist Polo Democrático coalition has become a decisive movement in Colombia’s politics. Political commentators and newspaper editorials have devoted much space to this rising challenge to Colombia’s closed, elitist politics, the first organised democratic and leftist opposition since the Unión Patriótica had its activists and candidates massacred by paramilitaries in the late Eighties.

Literacy is not total in Colombia, and even the government concedes that almost 50 per cent of all its citizens live in poverty, struggling to survive on less than 4 US dollars a day. Newspapers that cost a dollar or political magazines that cost almost five dollars are clearly not a priority for most Colombians, and so the debate in the press over the Polo Democrático is more a discussion amongst the elite about how to deal with this threat to their privileges.

Far right Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has set the tone, intemperately calling the opposition ‘disguised communists’, while Uribista politicians resort to the standard McCarthyite tactic of our times – ‘you are either with the President or with the terrorists’ – and demand the Polo expel all activists and candidates who suggest that Colombia’s war might be connected to the country’s inequality, inequity and poverty.

Although rightist politicians attempt to either dismiss the Polo as ‘communists’, or continue to have faith that a conservative Colombia will be sceptical towards a leftist party, more intelligent observers amongst the elite have realised that the left has a real chance to win the next presidential elections.

At a recent ‘closed seminar’, political strategists, advisors and newspaper editors concluded that the Polo Democrático appeared to be the strongest and most coherent political force, and could in all probability force the 2010 elections into a second round. This prospect concerned those present, who believed the right were not as united or as organised, and who were still uncertain about the possibility that Uribe could change Colombia’s Constitution again to allow a third presidential term.

Armando Montenegro, the reporter who revealed the seminar’s discussions, wrote that the political strategists advised the right to organise a ‘scare the rich’ campaign, in order to create a fear amongst the elite that could force the Supreme Court to allow Uribe to run again.

At the same time, editorialists and political columnists have voiced despair that the traditional parties are no longer considered a credible option in Colombia’s political scene. In part, this is due to Uribe’s own political opportunism – originally a Liberal, he stood as an independent supported by the Conservatives, and has, as an unintended consequence, decimated traditional politics.

The right is now scattered, dispersed amongst personalist, caudillo parties that have no clear principles but instead dispense favours and patronage to obtain votes. Almost 50 Senators and Congress representatives in these parties are either in jail or under investigation for their ties to the far right paramilitaries.

That the Liberals have lost respect and are considered irrelevant, has been demonstrated by ex President and current party boss César Gaviria, who said that the party could not oppose the government’s policies because it might ‘lose points’, while the old Conservatives are struggling to recover their independence after being co-opted and marginalised by the far right Uribe.

This has led some commentators to believe it is inevitable that the left will win the next presidential elections, and as a result, their columns and opinion articles have sought to influence the Polo Democrático’s politics, attempting to favour perceived ‘moderates’ over more leftist or even Chavista leaders in the party.

Semana, Colombia’s most prestigious political magazine, and the rightist newspaper El Tiempo, have made the greatest efforts to intervene in the Polo’s political debates, printing speculative articles suggesting that prominent leftist leaders are considering resignation, or patronising editorials that advise the party to be ‘responsible’.

‘The elite demands a decaffeinated opposition party,’ comments Polo activist Carlos Castillo, ‘one that is extremely similar to the right.’ A party in the right’s image seems to be all that the Polo Democrático’s critics understand. Accustomed to the patronage practised by the old traditional parties and the new, Uribista caudillo parties, some columnists interpret the Polo’s advance in terms familiar to them.

‘A clientilist threat,’ writes Alejandro Gaviria in El Espectador, claiming that the left’s emphasis on ending poverty, ‘is old politics, handing out favours to gain votes,’ while El Tiempo believes that the party’s open, combative and democratic debates on policies – unheard of in Colombia’s traditional politics where policies are quietly agreed upon in elite clubs – demonstrates ‘immaturity and irresponsibility.’

‘The proof that the Polo is a new and honourable movement is that it doesn’t have tired old politicians,’ points out Colombian poet and writer William Ospina, rebutting the media’s attacks, ‘Colombia needs a true democracy, and the Polo lacks the malice and shrewdness that characterize the old parties and politicians, and with ease it has provoked some in the elite and confused others.’

The Polo Democrático has not just ‘provoked and confused’ the elite through its emphasis on workers, the poor and the displaced. Contrary to the localised caudillo party bosses, the Polo is a national party that organises all over Colombia – in barrios that no traditional politician visits, and amongst workers whose unions offer it their unequivocal support.

The fact that several different leftist political parties overcame their historical sectarianism to unite in the Polo Democrático, including the influential Partido Comunista Colombiano, has raised more McCarthyite fears in the press. ‘Communists in the Polo raises suspicions,’ states Semana, ‘and the question that has to be asked is whether the party can avoid their influence increasing, which it must do if the Polo wants to maintain the moral authority to criticise paramilitaries in politics.’

This astonishing attempt to equate communist participation in a democratic leftist opposition party, with far right terrorist paramilitaries that have killed Colombians – including communists and leftist political activists – in their thousands, has rightly been greeted with complete contempt.

‘This tactic, ever more frequently used by the press and the Presidential Palace, intends to polarize Colombia,’ retorts Felipe Zuleta in El Espectador, ‘To dirty the name of the left is far easier than attempting to show the president is not connected to narco bosses or paramilitaries disguised as politicians.’

‘The régime sees the Polo as an enemy to contain and has unleashed the narco paramilitary dogs,’ adds Jaime Caicedo, a communist activist in the Polo, ‘each day, the president and his ministers make up all kinds of lies to discredit it as they try to make us adopt a conciliatory attitude acceptable to the régime… the blackmail consists in saying: be a tame opposition or your destiny will be that of the Unión Patriótica, while others demand the Polo becomes a moderate party, and the press gives lessons in how to be ‘sensible’.

The latest attempts to ‘moderate’ the Polo Democrático have reflected the old opportunistic tradition in Colombia’s politics that permits individual politicians to change parties as it suits them. ‘To be more attractive to Colombian voters,’ Semana condescendingly advises, ‘independent politicians’, ‘respected Liberals’ and even ‘dissident Uribistas’ should not just be potential Polo members, but become Polo leaders.

Completely failing to understand that the Polo is a democratic party with its own elections, primaries and activists – more than 500,000 party members voted for delegates to the first Polo Congress in 2006 that then elected the party’s leadership – Semana’s spectacular ignorance reveals just how used the elite are to assuming that everyone is as opportunist as them.

Arrogantly taking for granted that individuals without principles, convictions or even affinity with the Polo’s aims, could usurp its democratic processes and simply assume or be handed a leadership position, indicates the contempt Colombia’s rulers have for those ordinary citizens who are now organising and participating in politics on their own terms.

Polo Democrático President, Carlos Gaviria Díaz, spelt out the irreconcilable difference between the left and Colombia’s elite: ‘I think that in Colombia there are two proposals: one of the right, that supports, strengthens and consolidates the current inequity, and another of the left, where we want to change this state of affairs.’

Criticising the attempts to pressure the party to move to the right, he reiterated: ‘Our party is a leftist party. Many people ask why we don’t call it a ‘centre left’ party and I tell them; because I don’t know what the centre is… in a polarized Colombia, the centre shamelessly flirts with the right.’

‘I want the term ‘leftist’ to be used without fear in Colombia, without demonizing this position,’ Gaviria continued, ‘I don’t speak of an armed left, but a democratic left, where we propose to make substantial changes and reforms in Colombian society through electoral politics.’

It is this determination that has caused such fear amongst Colombia’s more far sighted political strategists and commentators, and has them attempting to curtail the party’s independence, radicalism and the challenge it represents to the elite – but it is almost certainly too late.

‘The Polo has become the sole democratic opposition in Colombia in the eyes of the people,’ as Jaime Caicedo says, and the poet William Ospina agrees, emphasising that the Polo must ‘maintain its presence, its vigorous and pluralist character… it must not get worn down in opposition, but must usurp the traditional clientilism, scepticism and violence of this country and continue advancing policies of change to offer an alternative.’



¡No a otra reelección! ¡Sí a la competencia! Carlos Caballero Argáez, El Tiempo, Bogotá, 1 de septiembre de 2007

En defensa de la unidad, Jaime Caicedo, Voz, Bogotá, 18 de septiembre de 2007

Carlos Gaviria Díaz interview in El Tiempo, Bogotá, 23 de septiembre de 2007

Un fantasma recorre el Polo, article in Semana, Bogotá, 3 de septiembre de 2007

¿Todas las formas de lucha? Hugo García Segura, El Espectador, Bogotá, 2 de septiembre de 2007

2010, Armando Montenegro, El Espectador, Bogotá, 26 de agosto de 2007

Polo Democrático: unido, Patricia Lara Salive, ¿Qué Qué? Bogotá, 20 de septiembre de 2007

La amenaza clientelista, Alejandro Gaviria, El Espectador, Bogotá, 23 de septiembre de 2007

¡Vaya paradoja! Carlos A Lozano, editorial in Voz, Bogotá, septiembre de 2007

Un partido descremado, Carlos Castillo Cardona, El Tiempo, 19 de septiembre de 2007

Declaración del comité ejecutivo nacional del Polo Democrático, statement on Polo Democrático internet site, Colombia,

Nuestros gobernantes, Felipe Zuleta, El Espectador, Bogotá, 2 de septiembre de 2007

El fortalecimiento del Polo es nuestra tarea fundamental, Partido Comunista Colombiano statement in Voz, Bogotá, 17 de septiembre de 2007

Aprender de la democracía, William Ospina, Cromos, Bogotá, 22 de septiembre de 2007

Polos opuestos, editorial in El Espectador, Bogotá, 16 de septiembre de 2007

¿Hacía una nueva izquierda? article in Semana, Bogotá, 17 de septiembre de 2007

Fuerte división en el Polo Democrático por posición frente a las Farc, article in El Tiempo, 11 de septiembre de 2007

La razones de la unidad del Polo, Senador Jorge Robledo, Polo Democrático internet site, Colombia, 24 de septiembre de 2007