Ex-rebels, Trojan Horses: Colombian Politics Are Anything but Usual

In Two Nations, It's Lights, Camera ... Democracy

Mary Luz Herran doesn't feel very safe talking on the phone, and when you meet her at a cafe, her back is never facing the door.

It's not a bad habit if you're a leftist rebel in turbulent Colombia, but Ms. Herran isn't a guerrilla anymore. She's running for Congress.

"People have to realize that they keep voting for the same people and continue [to have] the same problems," she says.

Herran is one of a flood of first-time, nontraditional candidates hoping to win congressional seats March 8 when Colombians go to the polls.

The preelection mood seems quite similar to the "throw the bums out" attitude in Washington over the past few American elections.

Except that here in Colombia the country is slogging through its fourth decade of civil war, the sitting president received a $6 million campaign donation from the Cali drug cartel, and the current Congress is considered to be more than 80 percent on the take, according to some lawmakers.

"The Samper administration has hit the bottom in terms of corruption, and the Congress was complicit," says political scientist Pedro Valenzuela, explaining the torrent of new candidates.

Herran joined the M-19 guerrilla movement in 1985 when she was 14. Her career as a rebel ended when she was captured and jailed in 1990, but that doesn't necessarily count against you in Colombia. When she got out more than a year later she joined the now demilitarized M-19 political movement.

"People trust us - they say if you were with the M-19 that you must be honest," says Herran.

Many other ex-rebels are running for office, but the most famous is probably Sergio Cabrera, Colombia's most accomplished filmmaker.

Mr. Cabrera says that even during his past decade in movies, he's always been political. "I'm in film as a refugee from politics," says Cabrera, who now is uncertain about the wisdom of his youth as a guerrilla.

"I don't know if it was correct, but it was sincere," says Cabrera, who was interviewed by phone from near the set of his latest film.

The film is true to form. It's about a conflict between guerrillas and police in a small town. When the World Cup soccer match rolls around, there is only one television left intact amid the violence. The warring factions have to negotiate in order to watch their team play. "I believe in peace. And I want to be one of the seeds of new democracy in Colombia," he says.

"My lack of experience is in my favor. I don't have any ties to the traditional, corrupt politicians," says Cabrera.

Not all the new candidates come from the ranks of the rebels - some are from the Army. Retired Col. Carlos Alfonso Velasquez showed up in Bogot's main plaza last week sitting on a life-sized replica of the Trojan Horse - the symbol of his campaign. "We can't confuse politics with politicians. Politics is much more noble," says Colonel Velasquez.

Velasquez has a long list of achievements, including the capture of the Cali drug cartel's accountant, which began the investigation into drug money in the president's campaign.

His military career ended abruptly last year, when he was discharged after criticizing the Army's policies. Now he'd like to be the one to bridge the gap between lawmakers and the Army.

"The Gordian knot in Colombian peace is the relation between the government and the military," says Velasquez.

He says that the corruption in government is feeding the war, giving armed groups like right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing FARC guerrillas - who show few signs of following M-19 into peace - more legitimacy.

"A Congress like this one is an obstacle to peace," he says.

Not all the nontraditional candidates are former soldiers. Claudia Vasquez comes from a sector that has entered politics about as seldom as the military or the rebels. She's an ex-banker.

"People like me have always been told, 'Don't go in there, they'll ruin you,' " says Ms. Vasquez.

But the country has reached a critical point, she says. "I think that there's corruption in politics everywhere."

Vasquez criticizes herself and others in the business sector for being the ones who have talked the most about Colombia's problems, but have never entered politics.

"Things have gotten so desperate that I didn't feel I had a choice," she says.

Vasquez echoes comments of the other three when she says that change is going to be a long and difficult process and strikes a common theme when she says her main aim is to motivate a pessimistic Colombian electorate.

"You can go into the Congress and not be corrupt. You can go in there and fight." says Vasquez.

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