Sitting in the living room of a friend’s home, with bodyguards hovering outside and a bust of Lenin standing in the corner, Aída Avella knows she’s testing a concept: Can an openly leftist politician safely run for office in this polarized country?
The answer to that question could be the difference between war and peace, as Colombia tries to end a half-century conflict with Latin America’s largest guerrilla group.
Avella is the president of the ill-fated Union Patriotica party, and she’s running to recapture the Bogotá City Council seat she had to abandon in 1996 after assailants attacked her caravan with a rocket launcher and automatic weapons.
She survived the ambush and spent the next 17 years in exile in Europe, but more than a thousand Union Patriotica members (more than 3,500 by the party’s own count) were assassinated in the 1980s and 1990s.
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“This party has been so abused, we’ve been so stigmatized, we’ve had so many people disappear,” Avella said. “But now we see a very distant light at the end of a very long tunnel.”
After more than a decade since it ceased to exist, the party is trying to make a comeback in regional races in October. Union Patriotica members will be contesting spots as governors, mayors and city council members.
The UP, as the party is known, was founded in 1985 after President Belisario Bentacur signed a cease-fire agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, guerrillas.
The party drew followers from across the left, but its primary purpose was to give the guerrillas a vehicle — a way to lay down their arms and participate in politics. Initially, it seemed to work. In 1986, the UP won more than 200 local council positions and a handful of congressional and senate seats.
In the run-up to that race, and in the succeeding years, however, UP members were indiscriminately murdered, including presidential candidate Jaime Pardo in 1987. Most of the killings were carried out by right-wing paramilitary groups.
The UP massacre was a national and personal tragedy, Avella said.
“When they kill people that belong to your political party, they’re killing your family and friends,” she said, fighting back tears.
The party was essentially terrorized out of existence. Those who weren’t killed went into hiding or sought asylum abroad. Eventually, the UP became so small that it lost its legal standing. Its demise helped convince the FARC that change through politics was a mirage, and the guerrillas resumed their attacks.
More than a decade later, the FARC are back at the negotiating table in Havana. And they’re being asked, once again, to lay down their arms and put their faith in politics.
That’s why the UP’s resurgence — and how it fares in these elections — is so vital.
Wearing a black pantsuit and wire-rimmed spectacles, Avella, who is in her 60s, looks more like an executive than the standard-bearer of Colombia’s left. She said she’s just as surprised as the next person to be back in the limelight; she had been resigned to a life in exile.
When President Alvaro Uribe, a tough-talking hawk, won reelection in 2006, she said she “closed the door” on ever returning. When his equally bellicose minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos, won in 2010, “I put a lock on that door,” she said.
But Santos surprised the nation two years later when he announced that he’d been holding secret peace talks with the guerrillas. Then, he helped push the administration to restore the UP’s legal status, recognizing that it had been extinguished through violence.
“That’s when I knew things were changing,” Avella said. “I knew I had to come back and do something for peace.”
She arrived home (leaving her now-grown children and grandchildren in Europe) in November 2013. Asked how long she was out of the country, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Seventeen years, six months and four days,” she says.
Last year, she made a largely symbolic run for the presidency. But she doesn’t see the city council position as a step down.
“It’s necessary to have local power to build peace,” she said. She imagines a network of UP politicians in city halls across the country helping push a progressive agenda into the national spotlight.
Among the party’s goals are the defense of water rights, revamping the healthcare system and providing universal pensions for senior citizens. But more important, she said, the party is out to prove that elections can be won “without boxes full of cash and buying votes.”
“We have to rescue this country from the people who have taken it over, not just banks and industry but politics, also,” she said.
First, however, the party has to make it safely through the election cycle.
Their mayoral candidate in the Pacific Coast city of Guapi is facing arrest for “rebellion” — charges usually brought against those considered guerrilla sympathizers. Other candidates have had their lives threatened or have faced harassment, she said.
At least two UP candidates — running for gubernatorial posts in Cesar and Norte de Santander — have been given police protection. But others who need it aren’t being safeguarded, she said.
“We don’t feel completely secure in politics,” she said. “We’re still being threatened. We’re still being singled out.”
Even more worrisome, Avella claims there are indications that once dormant paramilitary gangs — the same groups that killed so many of her friends — may be regrouping.
Just this week, a bus coming back from a UP rally in rural Colombia was stopped by armed men who identified themselves as right-wing paramilitaries, she said. Although no one was hurt, the men took photographs and videos of the passengers.
“They have new, strange names,” she said of the groups that, in theory, began disbanding in 2003, “but it’s the same forces.”
It’s not mere paranoia. The United Nations reported this week that 69 human rights, civil society and political leaders have been killed this year — up dramatically from the 35 murdered last year.
“In the context of October’s regional elections, we are very worried that these figures will continue to climb,” said Fabrizio Hochschild, the U.N.’s representative in Colombia. “And there are groups that are incredibly vulnerable.” Among those are leftist political leaders, he said.
Avella could have stayed in Europe. She had found meaningful work at the United Nations and has been helping push the UP’s “political genocide” case through the Inter-American Human Rights Court.
When she made the long trip home, she said she knew there were no guarantees.
“We know the risks we’re taking,” she said. “But it’s worth taking those risks if our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can live in a country that’s in peace.”