Colombian expats angry with FARC deal flock to Florida, eager to vote in new president

Former Colombian president and current senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, left, is cheered at a rally at the Signature Grand in Davie on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018.
Former Colombian president and current senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, left, is cheered at a rally at the Signature Grand in Davie on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018.

One day after the Colombian rebel group-turned-political party FARC announced it would suspend campaign activities in light of violent protests, a spirited crowd of more than 1,000 Colombian expats traveled from across the United States to attend a political campaign rally in South Florida ahead of presidential and congressional elections in the country.

The Davie rally was headlined by former Colombian president and current senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who vehemently opposed the 2016 peace deal with FARC, and presidential candidate Iván Duque, who said he would not give guerrilla members impunity if elected. Centro Democrático USA, the U.S. branch of Colombia’s Democratic Center Party, organized the rally.

Juan David Vélez, who is running for an “exterior” seat in the Colombian House of Representatives through which he would represent Colombian expats, also addressed the crowd — some of whom traveled from as far as New York, Houston and Colorado Springs. The overwhelming majority expressed opposition to a historic peace deal the Colombian government reached in 2016 with FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a violent rebel group that had terrorized the country for half a century. Guerrilla members exchanged their weapons for a right to participate in the country’s politics.

“To see criminals aspire to Congress or the presidency without serving jail time, admitting fault or compensating their victims serves as a monument to impunity,” Duque said.

Some on Saturday said the FARC accord, passed by Colombia’s Congress after a failed referendum weeks earlier, motivated them to want to vote in this year’s Colombian elections for the first time.

Among them was former U.S. Marine commander Danilo Bryan, who moved to Plantation after spending three decades in the military.

“A lot of these folks have been here 20, 30, 40 years and never voted,” he said. “But guess what, now they are. That’s how important it is. I am almost sure that 99.9 percent of everyone here is against the current environment in Colombia, if you will, where the FARC is trying to become part of the political force and possibly turn Colombia into another Venezuela and ultimately Cuba.”

While the FARC deal earned current President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel peace prize, it turned a large swath of the nation against him, as the deal now guarantees the former rebel group at least five seats in the Colombian House of Representatives and Senate in the March 11 legislative election. Former FARC Commander Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño is running for president in the May 27 race. Recently, protesters of FARC’s foray into politics pummeled candidates with eggs, rocks and tomatoes ahead of planned campaign events. One FARC activist has been murdered.

FARC senate candidate Pablo Catatumbo said the attacks on the campaign were proof of a “coordinated and focused plan to impede the political participation of a legally constituted political party.”

Gathered to hear from one of Santos’ most vocal critics, attendees inside the Signature Grand hotel waved orange bandanas and red cards featuring a simple, all-encompassing demand: “No Santos, No FARC.”

Uribe urged the crowd to continue pushing Colombia further, and to not be complacent when circumstances seem positive.

“One looks at patriotism like they look at their kids,” he said. “One has the right to want their kid to do better than them. One always has the right to think that patriotism of tomorrow should be better than the patriotism of today, and that the patriotism of today better than yesterday’s.”