Colombia Leans Left

Voters elect leftist mayor in Bogot?, reject IMF-backed referendum

| October 30, 2003

Last Monday's election of Luis 'Lucho' Eduardo Garz?n as the mayor of Bogota and the defeat of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe's right-leaning referendum on fiscal and political reform is a surprising victory for the left in violence-wracked Colombia. In an interview with Phil Stewart for Reuters, Garz?n, a former Communist and labor leader, said that the simple fact he had survived the election was 'a revolutionary change in every way for Colombia and Bogota.' Leftist leaders have often been killed by right-wing death squads, and during the recent campaign 30 candidates were murdered and 160 dropped out after receiving death threats.

The mayor-elect -- the son of a maid who has worked as a golf caddie -- has promised to help the poor while not fomenting class divisions. The victory is the most important for Colombia's left in decades and shows the country's 20,000 Marxist rebels that armed resistance is not the only path to helping the poor. Garz?n's election is seen as the latest in a wave of popular sentiment swinging left across Latin America from Bolivia to Brazil to Venezuela, driven by opposition to the neo-liberal model of globalization pushed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

As the new mayor prepares to take office, President Alvaro Uribe is preparing to deal with the political and economic setback from the failure of his IMF-backed referendum. Andy Webb-Vidal, writing for the Financial Times, reports that Uribe 'had personally promoted the ballot as a make-or-break plebiscite backing his right-leaning policies.' Uribe wanted to cut back on government spending by freezing public sector wages and capping state pensions for two years. Further, he wanted to raise money for his hard-line military policies against rebel groups.

Garz?n has been a steadfast critic of Uribe and what he has lately called Uribe's 'authoritarian streak,' reports Stewart. Uribe has been under fire nationally and abroad for accusing left-wing groups of terrorism. Garz?n now wants to succeed where Uribe's right-wing policies have failed: stopping the guerrilla war raging throughout Colombia for more than a year. Garz?n plans to make changes in an unusual way. On Monday, Garz?n told the Associated Press that he will open food banks in Bogota neighborhoods inundated with refugees from the war-torn countryside. 'I am going to take away the fuel [the rebels] use to justify the war: social problems.'
-- Joel Stonington

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