Samuel George talks politics with Colombian Senator Iván Cepeda
Maybe I’m getting old, but I am increasingly convinced of the benefits of moderation in governance—especially in emerging markets. Colombia’s democracy is far from perfect (as are all democracies), but its general moderation has helped create a platform for economic stability. There are rules of the game in Colombia, and many of them are sensible and favor growth.
But hurdles remain. And with a peace agreement between the government and leftist rebels expected in the first quarter of 2016, one critical hurdle rapidly approaches:
Colombia must find a way to incorporate the left into the legitimate political sphere. Yes, Colombia’s recent growth impresses, especially given the backdrop of a slumping Latin America. But it remains a relatively poor country, and the millions still living in poverty require and deserve political representation in order for the system to succeed.
The civil conflict began, of course, because both the urban and rural poor felt excluded from power. Since then, the Colombian left has been politically radioactive due to its association with the violent guerilla. For the peace to be successful, Colombia must relax this preconception. An inability to do so exposes an Achilles heel: Even if a peace can end the violence in the country’s periphery, continued political exclusion could easily lead to a populist movement that destabilizes Colombia’s hard-earned political moderation.
Recall that the political elite’s prolonged neglect of the poor in Venezuela ultimately led to the rise of Hugo Chávez.
But incorporating the Colombian left into the legitimate political sphere is no easy task. One infamous attempt in the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted the assassination of thousands of leftists who had dropped their weapons to pursue legitimate politics.
The 1980s peace negotiations between the Belisario Betancur government (1982-1986) and the FARC gave birth to the Patriotic Union (UP)—a left-wing alternative to the traditional power structure, intended to be the political vehicle of the FARC; a vehicle that would drive the conflict away from the battlefield.
That never happened, and few members of the UP survived to explain why not.
The new party was initially successful in the 1986 and 1988 elections. From the Communist Party to students to the generally disaffected, the UP received immediate and significant support.
That is when the killing started. Shortly after the electoral victories, members and sympathizers of the UP started to be harassed by right-wing paramilitaries linked to the armed forces. One by one, the assassinations continued until more than 3,500 had died, including two presidential candidates. Many others fled their homes in terror.
For democracy to succeed, Colombia must ensure that this does not happen again.
UP Senator Manuel Cepeda Vargas was one of those assassinated, gunned down on the streets of Bogotá in 1994. Today, his son, Senator Iván Cepeda, has emerged as a respected leader of Colombia’s new left.
In late 2015, I caught up with him to discus his perspective on the democratic left in his country: