In Cali, an Afro-Colombian woman is upsetting the political order. Maria Isabel Urrutia served in the national Chamber of Deputies from 2002-10. Best known as Colombia’s only Olympic gold medalist for her victory in the women’s 75 kg weightlifting class in 2000, she hopes to be the mayor after the Oct. 30 municipal election.

According to the government, just four per cent of Colombia’s 46.3 million people are Black, but Afro-Colombian organizations offer estimates that range from 4.4 to 10.5 million.

More to the point, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples (another two per cent of the population) suffer disproportionately in Colombia’s four-decade-long civil war. Human rights groups say that the two groups comprise a quarter of the country’s four million internally displaced persons.

Social inequity is a severe problem in Colombia, and a driving force that prolongs the war and expands the illegal drug trade. Urrutia, running for the centre-left Polo Democrático political party, promises to attack inequality and to reverse a decade-long drive by conservative politicians to privatize public services in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city.

Social movements are a lively force

It’s a mistake to think that the resurgence of social movements and the wave of relatively progressive governments elected in many Latin American countries over the past 13 years have not affected Colombia.

Many municipal governments are comprised of politicians who reject the neo-liberal, militarist approach of the central government and work to implement a progressive social and ecological agenda. While still a minority, progressive politicians manage to get elected to the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.

But running for political office in Colombia is still dangerous. On Oct. 4, a woman running for city council in Florencia, capital of the southern Colombian department of Caqueta, became the 37th candidate killed ahead of the Oct. 30 nation-wide municipal and regional elections. At least 12 candidates had been murdered in Valle del Cauca, the department that includes Cali.

Despite the risks, the social movements that drive the progressive governments elsewhere are a lively force in Colombian society.

Raúl Zibechi, one of Latin America’s best writers on popular movements, described the October 2010 national People’s Congress. Held in Bogotá, it was attended by 17,000 people from 212 organizations. More than half arrived from outside Bogotá. People came from Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. There were farmers, women, youth and children. People displaced by war came; so did gay men, lesbians and transsexuals. One report said that participants “abandoned the old customs of representation, and delegation of their will to political parties and to self-proclaimed vanguards.”

In the 1960s, when guerrilla fighters took up arms against the central government, they argued that Latin America’s military governments and weak “formal democracies”—regimes whose apparent adherence to democratic norms (like regular elections) belied repression—could not be brought down except by force of arms.

Among factors that have changed since then is the rise of interconnected social movements of popular resistance that demand democratic, economic, and political reforms. These movements have breathed new life into electoral systems and they influence government policies in ways that are bringing about greater social and ecological justice in many Latin American countries.

While violent attacks continue against social movements and their leaders, Colombia cannot remain immune from the transformation sweeping the region.


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