Colombian senator banned for "collaborating" with FARC rebels

Piedad Córdoba, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, is ousted from the senate.

Last week a leading left-wing Colombian senator and peace activist was dramatically sacked and banned from public office for 18 years for allegedly "promoting and collaborating" with Farc rebels.

The senator in question, Piedad Córdoba, has played a key role in Colombia's peace movement since joining the Senate in 1994 and her mediation efforts have led to the release of dozens of Farc hostages. Her actions have earned her praise from around the world and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

However, as an outspoken critic of the government and the military and a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, her role as a negotiator with Farc rebels has also made her a deeply controversial figure and strongly divided Colombian society. Last Monday she was ousted from the senate for what Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez described as having gone "beyond the call of duty". According to Ordóñez, Córdoba has "exceeded her functions as well as the authorisation she was given by the government to negotiate a humanitarian exchange."

According to Ordóñez's statement, her dismissal stems from evidence found in computer files captured during a cross-border military raid on an Ecuadorean rebel camp in March 2008. The raid saw senior Farc leader Raul Reyes killed and a number of laptops seized. The files allegedly identify Córdoba under several aliases such as "Teodora de Bolivar", "La Negra" and "La Negrita" and have been reportedly corroborated by various other sources, including legal phone taps. She has been accused of overstepping her role "in favour of other governments" - a clear reference to Venezuela and Ecuador which have both been known to harbour Farc rebels in the past.

A staunch advocate for human rights and the rights of the poor, many have accused her of Farc leanings due to the group's traditional grassroots membership and tendency to attract marginalised members of society. Lidia Solano, a spokesperson for Colombian NGO Justice and Life, described the allegations against Córdoba as "an attack against those who try and protect human rights, an attack against critics of President Álvaro Uribe and ultimately unlawful."

This is not the first time, however, that Córdoba has been accused of colluding with Farc and indeed the very same evidence from the 2008 raid has been used against before. In fact, these computer files were a key catalyst to the ongoing "parapolitics" scandal in which she, alongside over 30 other politicians, which include a number of former President Álvaro Uribe's close allies, have all been accused of links to right-wing paramilitary groups.

Córdoba's ousting also comes during a dramatic few weeks for Colombian politics. Farc's ascendancy was shattered when its top military chief Mono Jojoy (also known as Jorge Briceño and Víctor Julio Suárez) was killed in a large-scale military air strike in Macarena, a Farc stronghold in the south of the country.

Following weeks of increased violence and the death of some 40 soldiers and policemen since President Juan Manuel Santos took office on 7 August, this was a rather unexpected culmination to their latest campaign. Hailed as a triumph for the new president and a disaster for FARC, many doubts have been cast over Farc's future and the rebels' ability to find an adequate replacement for Mono Jojoy. However, in a move to surely reaffirm their status, it was announced that Pastor Alape, a rebel accused of coordinating cocaine operations across central Colombia, would take over his role.

Asides from the evidence from the 2008 raid, it is yet unknown what precipitated both Córdoba's ousting and the re-investigation of two other politicians, Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez and Congressman Wilson Borja. All three have been embroiled in the "parapolitics" scandal since 2008. It is possible that the laptops seized in the latest raid may have revealed more evidence against them, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

Despite being the victim of kidnappings, death threats and several assassination attempts throughout her career, Córdoba has always resolved to continue on regardless of the lack of local support for her work. Yet although she will be contesting the ban, this has undoubtedly been the clearest message yet from the government that she is unwelcome in Colombia.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war