Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On getting closer to those "Anythings can happen": Presidential Elections 2010

In the summer of 2006, three booms! sounded in the middle of the night, each about half a minute in succession. Alarms sounded, but no sort of hysteria. I thought little of it, an engine backfire or something, and went back to sleep. The next morning I found out that those explosions were truck bombs planted by the guerrillas outside a police training school two blocks from my cousin’s house where I slept. Two days later, I was in an uncle’s living room in Cali, where they were telling me about a car bomb that detonated just that morning outside a police station, killing 6 and wounding a dozen or so others, 10 minutes walking from where they lived. They had even walked over to see the damage. The re-election of Alvaro Uribe as President of Colombia led to my first experiences with political violence.

One week from today, Colombia’s political landscape will be in the middle of possibly serious changes. The elections which will see Alvaro Uribe, who has held presidential office for the last 8 years, out of his term, will likely demand run-offs in the coming months. The top contenders are Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s Minister of Defense, and Antanas Mockus, a progressive Green Party candidate and former mayor of Bogota, credited with cleaning up the city to somewhat more human levels. Run-offs will likely come down to these two. Talking to an Australian friend last night who has lived in Colombia for 7 years, he predicted things will likely continue as usual if Santos wins, and if Mockus wins, he could do something to piss off the paramilitaries and in the worst case, get assassinated, in which case Colombia would fall into political chaos.

Around a cozy fireplace in our hostel, my friend tells me and other travelers what he remembers about traveling on election weekend of 2006, going to the bus terminal and seeing so many police officers, and so many helicopters overhead in the cities, on the roads. People stopped being friendly, and tensions were high, as it felt like people thought something could happen at any minute. A walk this afternoon to the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, three blocks up from the Plaza del Bolivar and a zone of government offices, the streets are smattered every half block beginning at the library with officers in full fatigues, and AK-47’s. In one corner, three officers stand casually, talking, and, like sleeping babies in their mothers’ rebozos, AK-47's hang lazily on their backs. Over time, this may become normal to my eyes. For now, it is still surreal, and I steal glances, hearing my Colombian friend in my head, now finished with his police obligations, tell me how surprisingly easy it was to fire such a destructive weapon. And I recall how, from those first explosions in Tulua, to my cousin getting robbed on the beach, to my earrings getting yanked off my ears in Oaxaca, that, to someone for whom such experiences are typically virtual via movies or TV, the most impressive thing about violence is how casual it is.

Needless to say, wandering the streets of Bogota next weekend, or traveling between cities, is worth thinking twice about.

Like other tourists that I talk to today, I had no idea, in 2006, what was going on, that it was even an election year, or the weight of the political events that were taking place. And as Uribe had no option to run again this year (though he did try), there is much more at stake, with what feels to me like an Obama-style campaign as Antanas Mockus has risen from bottom to top through new media and garnered support from nearly every [level-headed] student, professor, and person under 30 in the country. Other than a few bricks through some windows, the U.S. experienced nothing like what parts of Colombia are likely to experience in the coming days. When I talk to tourists here in the hostel, they tend to be surprised about the risks and the possibility that they could be affected. As they/we tend to float above the social and political events in the places they/we visit, they/we are not used to having to change our itineraries for such causes. Unless worst-case-scenarios happen, travelers likely won’t be affected too much as they only tend to pass through Colombia for a couple weeks on average on their routes through South America. With a little more understanding of what is going on, I am eager and apprehensive to see what kind of changes will take place this summer, and how they will affect the day to day lives of myself, the Colombians around me, as well as travelers.