Patriotic Union revival signals hope for Colombian peace

Aida Abella was a harbinger of peace in Colombia as she entered the reception area of Bogota's El Dorado Airport on November 14. Waving green and yellow Patriotic Union (UP) flags, hundreds of supporters welcomed her with unrestrained joy. She was returning after 17 years of exile in Switzerland. Abella came now because peace negotiators of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government reached an agreement recently on future political participation for FARC insurgents and Colombians in general.

This was the second agenda item of six being negotiated in Cuba, with agrarian rights having been agreed upon earlier. The talks began in November 2012. For Congressperson Ivan Cepeda, son of a Patriotic Union senator assassinated in 1994, the recent accord represented a "clear demonstration that we can really believe that peace is possible".

Aida Abella told her supporters, "We are arriving in the country we want to change to become a country at peace, a democratic country, a tolerant country. We come convinced we are going to attain peace in this country, convinced that changes will have to occur. We come convinced that the struggle of our comrades...was not in vain. We come ... to ask the enemies of war to bury the hatchet, because we need deep social reforms."

Aida Abella was returning for the first Congress of the Patriotic Union in 14 years, this one taking place in Bogotá November 15-17. By acclamation, delegates from 27 regional assemblies, 1278 in all, named Abella as the UP candidate for president in elections set for May 2014. Nominations came from the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) and from ex-Senator Piedad Cordoba representing the Patriotic March coalition of social and political movements.

Said Cordoba: "We need you, Aida, for hoisting banners of social justice and peace without exclusion, We need a voice of hope for men like David Ravelo, Húbert Ballesteros, and millions of Colombians. Be with us so that we women can overhaul the country for bringing back ethics, peace, and justice". Cordoba proclaimed earlier that, "Comrade Aida, I want to tell you that I am inclined to carry your bag throughout the whole national territory [as you campaign.]"

Aida Abella was UP president and a Bogota city councilperson on May 7, 1996 when a bazooka propelled rocket struck the armored vehicle carrying her. On the advice of UP and Communist Party leaders, she left for exile two days later. Once a teacher, Abella led a state employees' union and served as a Constituent Assembly delegate in 1991.

The UP Congress named a new governing board joined by current president Omer Calderón, human rights activist Jael Quiroga, PCC secretary general Jaime Caycedo, and others. Speakers at the Congress and afterwards called for government guarantees of safety for UP activists, candidates, and election workers. They emphasized a "broad front" electoral strategy encompassing all progressive forces.

That will not be easy in view of the fragmented state of the Colombian left. The Alternative Democratic Pole (Polo), once a sizable coalition that in 2006 gained 2.6 million votes for presidential candidate Carlos Gaviria, is now smaller. Polo candidate for president Clara Lopez arranged in 2012 to expel the Communist Party from Polo ranks for its association with the Patriotic March. The Green Alliance, a Green Party fusion with progressives, will also be running candidates.

The UP gained an opening to hold its Congress and plan for elections by virtue of a July, 2013 Council of State decision that restored its "judicial personhood" which had been removed in 2002 due to UP failure then to win seats in Congress. Now UP spokespersons are demanding that the Party be granted 14 congressional seats to make up for the killings of congresspersons elected in 1986.

Aida Abella's return to Colombia brought back painful memories. FARC leaders and the conservative government of Belisario Betancur agreed in 1984 that the FARC would lay down arms in return for insurgents' participation in electoral politics. Together with the Communist party and other left forces, the FARC launched the UP electoral coalition. In the 1986 elections, the UP elected five senators, 9 congressional representatives, 14 provincial assembly delegates, 351 municipal councilpersons and 23 mayors.

Paramilitaries, police, and the army responded to UP electoral success by carrying out a massacre that would take the lives of almost 5000 UP activists, 200 of them since 2002. The toll included two presidential candidates, seven congresspersons, 60 councilpersons, and 13 mayors.

Reflecting on the revived UP, Communist Party secretary general Jaime Caycedo sees the "Patriotic Union as the viable and possible alternative for a democratic peace, constructed collectively and oriented to establish social justice as the crux of post-conflict society and state." And, "ending the war is the principal business of the current political and electoral discussion."

There is ambivalence, however, to UP reinsertion into Colombia's political mix. By November 21, presidential candidate Aída Abella had returned to Geneva, Switzerland. She told the UP Congress, "Guarantees [of our safety] don't exist, and we require them. And if there are none I will turn to moving the presidential campaign ahead overseas, protesting that conditions don't exist for doing so in the country." She took comfort from her own plans to seek support from well over 4 million Colombians living abroad, over 10 percent of the electorate.

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