Picardía en Acción: The Juan Manuel Santos Campaign

In the Colombian presidential election campaign, the Uribe-heir designate Juan Manual Santos who just two months ago was presumed by most political observers on his way to an easy victory now finds himself fighting for his political life in this his first run for an elective office. The latest polls show a tight race with no candidate securing the 50 percent plus one required to win the presidency in a first round. As such a run-off is likely to be held on June 20th.

The Santos campaign was perhaps hindered by the uncertainty of whether Alvaro Uribe would be allowed to stand for a third term, with a definitive judgment not rendered by the Colombian Constitutional Court until late February. Even so in mid-March Santos held a sixteen point lead in the polls over his nearest rival but with that lead now evaporated given the rise of the Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus, the Santos campaign has turned to dirty campaign tactics as well as begun to mobilize its political machinery in an effort to stave off defeat.

While the Mockus campaign has, at times, been erratic. Mockus' language has been imprecise, or alternatively too precise, and that's gotten him into some trouble. Over the past fortnight, Mockus has had to fend off accusations that he is an atheist (he said he was a Catholic but at times prone to skepticism), that he is another Hugo Chávez or at least an admirer (he said he respected the fact that Chávez is the elected president of Venezuela), that he would extradite Uribe (he said that he would follow the law), that he would close the Congress if elected and govern by decree (a complete fabrication). The net effect of this has been to halt the upward momentum Mockus had been enjoying in the polls.

The Santos campaign also retained Ravi Singh's ElectionMall Technologies which powered the Obama website in 2008 and more controversarily J.J. Rendón, a Venezuelan born but Miami-based political consultant who has worked for right wing candidates across Latin America. Rendón is a master in negative campaigning. The decision to hire him, however, was not without consequences with a number of high profile Santos campaign officials resigning in protest. In announcing the shake-up, Santos promised to bring "picardía, pimienta y alegría" to his campaign. Pimienta translates as pepper and in the English context it means to spice things up. Alegría means happiness but the word picardía is an odd choice of words for a man running for President. It translates as mischievous, deceitful, a naughty craftiness, a malicious intent, knavery.

On Thursday, the Colombian blog La Silla Vacía published a series of photographs originally uploaded to Facebook by a group called Córdoba con Santos. Córdoba is a small province on Colombia's Atlantic coast just to the south west of Cartagena and for two decades a bitter and bloody battleground between FARC guerrillas and paramilitary forces. This Santos campaign event was held in a small city of 100,000 called Sahagún, a town that is effectively the bastion of two powerful families that control the economic and political life of the area. It was to these families, known as caciques regionales, that Juan Manuel Santos came to pay homage, the rest was just for show. It is picardía en acción.

Descalzados por Juan Manuel

As the heir to Uribe, the Santos campaign is based on continuity. Its slogan runs "para seguir avanzando" or "let's keep on advancing." This first picture encapsulates Colombia's class and urban/rural divide perfectly. Here we have a group of campesinos, most of whom are desclazados or shoeless at best semi-literate holding up Juan Manual Santos posters and off to the side is a rather stiff upper class Colombian in an orange shirt, likely a campaign worker (orange is the official color of the Santos campaign). It is noteworthy that he can't step into the group for a moment to get his picture taken or even fake a smile. He'd just rather not be in god-forsaken Córdoba.

Under Uribe, Colombia experienced one of its most dynamic periods of economic growth averaging over 5 percent per annum. Exports doubled and foreign direct investment tripled but like with much of the neo-liberal economic agenda that growth failed to lift the poorest of the poor. Under Uribe, Colombia was the only country in South America where social inequality increased over the past decade. Colombia's GINI coefficient went from 0.53 in 2002 to 0.58 last year. 

In terms of land tenure, Colombia boasts the third most concentrated land holding pattern in the Americas - just 1.4 percent of Colombians own 65.4 percent of the land. Only Haiti and Bolivia have more unequal metrics. Nor did Uribe's economic boom translate into jobs, Colombia's unemployment rate is the highest in the region. The official rate is 12.3 percent but that belies the fact that nearly half of all Colombians are marginally employed in the informal sector. So much for the theory that uribismo has meant progress. Like its Republican counterpart in the United States, urbismo has brought tangible economic benefits if you are part of an elite. If you're poor, urbismo has delivered few benefits and in places like Sahagún not even shoes.

Vote-buying is a long established fact in Colombia and it is places like Córdoba where it is most rampnant. These people were treated to a lunch of tamales, roast suckling pig, given t-shirts and a cash stipend perhaps a few kilos of rice. In all, some 10 to 15 percent of the Colombian electorate will sell their votes with the going rate somewhere between $50 and $70 USD. This is, of course, what the Mockus campaign must overcome. Two polls will be out later today and I suspect the race is, as of now, a dead heat.


Tags: Colombia, Colombia 2010, Antanas Mockus, Green Party Movements, Juan Manual Santos (all tags)


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