Colombia’s Duque: The End of the Road for Empty Politics?

By a Colombia Watcher*

Iván Duque

Colombian President Iván Duque. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombian President Iván Duque’s first 100 days in office have left three important baskets empty: the basket of public policy, the basket of new ideas, and the basket of trust in government.  His problem is not so much that he is a puppet of his mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe; it is that they have failed to jettison their recent past and articulate a credible vision for Duque’s four-year term.

  • Duque’s economic development plan was hurriedly prepared with little policy guidance from the president’s office. It consists of a long list of sector-by-sector aspirations that bear no connection with either the current budget or realistic medium-term fiscal planning.  The underlying assumption appears to be that the government will somehow – on its own – abandon a longstanding tendency toward clientelism based upon contractual power for a results-driven technocracy.
  • Duque’s financial strategy appears to be stumbling. Congressional opponents say his nominee to be Finance Minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, is guilty of corruption in a previous job.  Instability in global prices torpedoed Duque’s plan to rely primarily on proceeds from a new oil boom, so the government has wagered on a highly unpopular and inequitable tax reform.  Reducing federal expenditures is out of the question — key constituencies depend on the government’s purchasing power – and a serious review of fiscal decentralization also appears beyond Duque’s political will and expertise.  Going back to debt financing would face legal, fiscal, and political challenges.
  • Achieving his promises to reduce corruption also appears difficult. The lack of accountability in the Odebrecht corruption case, in which supporters of Uribe (as well as former President Santos) reportedly were involved, has fueled cynicism.  Unlike in other Latin American countries, no high-level economic or political Colombian is in jail on Odebrecht corruption charges.  Moreover, leaks of irrefutable recordings and documents demonstrate efforts by the country’s attorney general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, to cover up irregularities.  (The auditor who leaked the evidence was subsequently killed, as was his son when he returned from Spain to attend the funeral.)

The new administration faces other challenges.  Polls taken immediately after the economic plan was announced showed that public support for the government continued its free fall after reaching the lowest level recorded during a president’s first 100 days in office.  The government appears to be looking for legal ways to abandon the already fragile peace process with the former FARC guerrillas – already undermined by the fact that killings and disappearances of local civic leaders continue unabated.  Dissident FARC members are returning to the jungle or joining the growing number of criminal bands that operate in both the cities and the countryside.  Protests joining students and workers from various sectors, including healthcare and transportation, continue to affect essential services in a way not seen in Colombia in recent years.

Restoring public trust in Colombian institutions will be a monumental task for which Duque does not appear to have a credible path forward.  He will probably struggle to distance himself from some of his scandal-plagued financial and political backers, but they will demand unconditional support and loyalty amid public outcry and pressure.  The coalition that ensured Duque’s second-round victory in June was temporary – united only to stop his leftist opponent – and is already showing signs of abandoning him.

  •  Duque may try to make international support a pillar of his presidency, as Uribe and Santos did, but even that is not going to be easy. He cannot expect the same enthusiastic endorsement Santos received from the European Union, Canada, or UN agencies, who applauded his focus on the peace process and building democracy from the bottom up.  There are already voices in the Duque government opposing efforts begun under Santos to meet the conditions for Colombia’s admission into the OECD club.  Duque may be optimistic of gaining U.S. support – heartened by the Trump administration’s reduced emphasis on human rights and democracy in the bilateral relationship – but the most Duque has gotten so far is some continuation of support for anti-drug efforts.  His desperate efforts to develop a strong direct relationship with President Trump have not yet borne fruit.

Duque appears burdened by the bonds that brought him to power – with members of his coalition, with former president Uribe, and with political and financial backers – that have either weakened or are now embroiled in scandal.  Delivering results and inspiring public trust and support may be beyond his skills, raising the prospect – still unlikely – that he might someday be tempted to resort to repressive tools.

November 29, 2018

* The author is a long-time Latin America specialist with particularly deep expertise on Colombia.

Colombia: Duque Preparing to Turn the Clock Back

By Christian Wlaschütz *

Uribe and Duque

Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe (left) and President-elect Iván Duque (right). / Centro Democrático (left), Casa de América (right) / Flickr, modified / Creative Commons

Colombian President-elect Iván Duque is not losing any time fulfilling campaign promises to take steps that will derail the peace process or at least put serious obstacles in its way, which will likely drive dissident FARC guerrillas back into the country’s already troubled rural areas.  Four weeks after his election and three weeks before his inauguration, Duque’s strong coalition in Congress has already passed legislation weakening the special peace courts (JEP) established for peace accord implantation.

  • Anyone who may have speculated that Duque would distance himself from his political godfather, former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, as did outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos at his time, does not understand the president-elect’s dependence on Uribe. Santos had always belonged to Colombia’s elite and had his own standing, while Duque has no backing on his own.
  • As Duque assembles his first government, observers expect that he will tap into his campaign alliances – including individuals keenly opposed to the peace accords. Among them are Vivian Morales, a leading representative of the Christian churches, and Alejandro Ordóñez, a Catholic conservative and former Inspector General of the Republic (2009-17) who allied with Duque after losing to him in the primaries.  Morales and Ordóñez were among the main figures behind the negative campaign that led to popular rejection of the peace accord in late 2016, arguing that it promoted homosexuality and would weaken the traditional family.

The changing international context makes it easier for Duque to pursue his agenda.  When Santos assumed the presidency in 2010, he had strong support to pursue peace, led by U.S. President Obama and visibly demonstrated by the frequent presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.  He immediately issued the “victims’ law,” admitted that Colombia had an armed conflict, and moderated the violent discourse of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.

  • Now the United States has shifted away from international cooperation and reduced its support for “soft” issues. President Trump has signaled priority to rigid counternarcotics and security policies, and not negotiated settlements.  Since Duque’s agenda includes a strong stance against the “Venezuelization of Colombia,” – referring to the emergence of a left-wing authoritarian government allied with Cuba and Venezuela – he is widely believed to be confident of Trump’s support for initiatives against FARC and other members of the Colombian opposition whom he claims are aided by alleged allies in the neighboring country.  The European Union, for its part, is currently completely immersed in internal affairs regarding migration and its own future.  In general, international enthusiasm seems to be suffering from fatigue –undermined by perceptions of Colombia popular rejection of the accords coupled with frustration over the high number of assassinations of social leaders.
  • The number of threats and assassinations of those who either support the political opposition or defend human rights and victims’ rights is simply breathtaking. Colombia’s weekly Semana reports that, in addition to killings related to land restitution, those related to political vendettas are increasing, concluding that the “ghost of political extermination” – similar to that of the Patriotic Union, a leftist party exterminated in the 1980s and 1990s – is back.

Duque’s efforts to weaken the peace process appear likely to advance – to the detriment of Colombian security.  Former FARC combatants will have little incentive to remain demobilized in cities and towns where they have little hope of inclusion in political and economic life, and are likely targets for harassment and assassination.  More likely, they will return to rural areas, which have already been experiencing a resurgence in criminality in the last year, and align themselves with active criminal groups there.  The insecurity and selective killings may lead Colombia towards times that it already seemed to have overcome.  The new president’s coalition of people with a strong resentment against the policies of the last eight years is not likely to take the steps necessary to lead Colombia into a different future, laying the groundwork for more crises, as the United States, EU, and the international community in general stands by.

July 12, 2018

* Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

Colombia’s Elections: With New Comes Old

By Julián Silva*

Two men sit in white chairs during an interview

Iván Duque (left), appears to be the frontrunner in Colombia’s May 27 presidential election. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

The first round of Colombia’s presidential election on May 27 has raised the profile of independent voices but does not appear likely to bring significant changes.  Most of the nine candidates represent new political forces, but the strongest are allied with the traditional elites that ruled under Liberal and Conservative banners during most of the 20th century.

  • Since the 1991 Constitution opened space for new competition to the Liberal and Conservative Parties, “independent” groups have shown increasing willingness to take the presidency for themselves. The old clientelistic machines, associated with the land-owning elites and those parties, have lost popularity in the urban-dominated country, and the rejection of the more traditional families seems to have prompted a certain “rebranding” by their heirs.  This year, only the Liberal Party presented a candidate – former minister, vice president, and peace negotiator Humberto De la Calle – but current polls indicate that he is unlikely to reach one of the two spots heading into the second round.  The youngest of the candidates seem to hold the lead: Iván Duque (42 years old) is pulling 38 percent; Gustavo Petro (58) has 29 percent support; Sergio Fajardo (61) has 12.8 percent; German Vargas Lleras (56) has 8.2 percent; and De la Calle (71) has 3.2 percent.

Several ostensibly independent candidates actually have close ties to well-established local and national elites.  Iván Duque, a fairly new figure in the Colombian political landscape, is aggressively supported by former President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who had deep roots in the Liberal Party and Antioquia Department elite before founding Centro Democrático in 2013.  The party is closely tied to land-owning oligarchs, big corporations, and the military, which gives Duque prospects for victory no truly independent candidate could have.  German Vargas Lleras, grandson of former President Alberto Lleras, is running on a new ticket called “Coalición Mejor Vargas Lleras,” which receives support from his old party, Cambio Radical, as well as stalwarts of the Conservative party and his family’s Liberal allies.

  • Several independents deserve the label. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, occupies a more leftist space on the political spectrum that was usually excluded by the traditional parties during most of the 20th century.  Former Mayor of Medellín and Governor of Antioquia Sergio Fajardo promises to bring an “academic” perspective to the presidency if elected.
  • In addition to airing complaints about the candidates, social media users have been extremely critical of links that most candidates have to the traditional Colombian political class. Provocateurs mix truthful information with fake news to mislead the electorate and, protected by anonymity and authorities’ loose control over the virtual space, even issue threats of violence.  An unidentified projectile shattered a window of the car in which Gustavo Petro was heading to a rally in the city of Cúcuta.  The Matador, a political cartoonist working for El Tiempo, received death threats after he depicted Ivan Duque as a pig in one of his drawings.

With a little more than three weeks until the first round, the table seems to be set for Colombians to choose between leaders with significantly different political bases.  Current polls suggest they will stick with the neoconservative elite that has improved security and driven economic growth during the last few decades but has been tolerant of corruption, inequity, and even violence in some parts of the country.  But support for a different formula that promises to address some of these chronic problems is not inconsequential, even if the new leaders’ effectiveness is still unproven on a national level.  Colombians will also have a chance to decide if social media will be a vehicle for amplifying the old politics of threats and violence – or perhaps channel legitimate popular voices to demand accountability that exposes “fake news” and hate-mongering for what they are.  On that, too, the old practices and characters seem to have the advantage as they pursue a strategy that creates an image of change to ensure that everything remains the same.  The appearance of change in Colombia probably portends more of the same.

May 2, 2018

* Julián Silva is a CLALS Research Fellow, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Universidad de los Andes, and Professor of International Relations at several Colombian universities.

Colombia: Effective Transitional Justice?

By Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias*

A large open square surrounded by buildings in Colombia

A view of the Colombian Congress building. / Fernando Garcia / Flicr / Creative Commons

Just hours before its “fast-track” authority for such legislation expired, the Colombian Congress in late November approved legislation establishing the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) with a weaker mandate than envisioned in the peace accord.  It covers only armed combatants – and excludes the civilians who financed the paramilitaries and other irregular forces – and falls short of enshrining the authority of the JEP magistrates.  This outcome was the result of obstructionism not only by the opposition parties led by the Centro Democrático of former President Álvaro Uribe and its Conservative Party allies; current President Juan Manuel Santos’ political partners in Cambio Radical, including leader Germán Vargas Lleras, broke with the government several months ago and made criticism of the peace agreement a centerpiece of the presidential campaign.  After much wrangling, the watered-down proposal for JEP passed on November 29.

  • The Constitutional Court still has to rule on the constitutionality of the new law, but most provisions apparently face no opposition. The Court unanimously approved the law giving Congress the authority to form the JEP and ruled on some sensitive measures.  It confirmed, for example, that members of the FARC could participate in politics without first being judged by the JEP as long as they promise to submit to the tribunal.  The Court also said that the JEP will determine on a case-by-case basis if FARC politicians’ responsibilities are compatible with fulfilment of their sentences.  It left many details, however, to the Tribunal.
  • The most controversial point in the Court’s decision that provided the framework for the Congressional vote is that civilians and state agents outside the armed forces will not be under the JEP’s jurisdiction unless they opt to be (such as when they expect more leniency than from the ordinary judicial system). That includes businessmen and politicians who financed paramilitarism – a provision that the opposition and Cambio Radical fought hard for.  (During legal proceedings involving demobilized paramilitaries under the Justice and Peace Law, former combatants mentioned their civilian sponsors more than 11,000 times.)  Victims and human rights organizations have called the decision an attack on their interests and stated it will bring only more impunity in the post-conflict era.

The Congress also took steps that, on balance, weakened the JEP’s authorities.  It excluded from JEP processes any FARC members accused of sexual crimes against minors.  The ordinary judicial system will have greater difficulty investigating and corroborating facts and, combined with delays and problems with impunity, could very well fail to satisfy the rights of either victims or perpetrators.  Another change made by Congress was to disqualify JEP magistrates who had worked as lawyers on cases involving human rights and armed conflict during the last five years.  Critics claim this article is illegal because it changes the rules of the game months after the magistrates were selected based on specific requirements such as knowledge and professional experience in human rights law.  Even though the Constitutional Court most likely will declare the provision unconstitutional, the fact that Cambio Radical proposed these disqualifications raises the prospect of more tensions in coming months and the continued stigmatization of human rights defenders at time that many face security threats in the country.

Rhetoric during the peace negotiations and subsequent political skirmishes that the victims were front and center in the formation of the JEP is proving to ring hollow.  The JEP starts its mission weakened both by the Constitutional Court and now by Congress.  The magistrates will face strong political pressures, and the exclusion from proceedings of the sponsors of paramilitary violence, which during the war at times surpassed by far that of FARC combatants, already complicates matters.  Ensuring the rights of the victims, providing justice, and determining the appropriate role for former guerrillas in politics and their reincorporation into society will be no easy task.  It will be up to the Colombian people, through popular vote in elections next March, whether a successor government will improve implementation of the peace agreement and the administration of justice, truth, and reparation to the war’s eight million victims.

December 13, 2017

* Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias is a Ph.D. Candidate in International Politics and Conflict Studies at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and a CLALS Fellow.

Colombia: Did Pope Francis Sway Opponents of Peace Accord?

By Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias*

Composite image of Santos, Uribe, and Pope Francis

Ex-president Álvaro Uribe (bottom left) continues to be at odds with current president Juan Manuel Santos (top left) over the government’s peace accords, despite Pope Francis’s call for putting peace above politics. / Santos: UNESCO/ Christelle ALIX / Flickr / Uribe: Centro Democrático / Flickr / Pope Francis: Mazur / Catholic News / Flickr / All: Modified / Creative Commons

Pope Francis’s recent visit to Colombia included a powerful message to the people, but overcoming the country’s deep polarization and high level of uncertainty around implementation of the government’s peace accords with the FARC will remain difficult as national elections next May 2018 approach.  Massive crowds assembled peacefully and homicides plummeted during his visit, and he is credited with facilitating a ceasefire between the government and the country’s other leftist insurgency, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), in force from October 1 to January 12.  The Pontiff’s reflections about peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation were seen in Colombia not only as a prayer but also as a political message to both the Catholic Church hierarchy and the country’s political leaders to unify behind a commitment to peace.

  • Divisions within the Church over the peace process will be difficult to heal. While many clergy have allied the political elite and its more conservative views about the FARC guerrilla movement, many others, such as the Archbishop of Cali, have supported approval of the resulting accords and their implementation.  The Conference of Bishops encouraged participation in last December’s plebiscite, but has remained neutral – despite the Pope’s prodding.  When President Santos and former President Uribe, a strident opponent of the accords, met with Francis in the Vatican in December, the Pope pushed hard for them to find common ground, but they left the meeting without white smoke emerging from the chimney.

Not surprisingly, Santos and Uribe don’t appear any closer to agreement after the Pope’s visit either.  Santos deeply thanked the Pope for his support of the peace process and after his departure, echoed the Pope’s main call to “to build bridges,” to “deactivate hatred,” to renounce vengeance, and to “reconcile ourselves in a fraternal encounter.”  Francis didn’t meet with Uribe (and there’s no indication that the former President requested a meeting) and spent his time in Antioquia meeting with the poor.  Uribe and his Centro Democrático party reiterated their discrepancies with the agreement.  In a public letter to the Pope, the former president said he had never opposed peace, but he forcefully rejected the political character of the war and, claiming the FARC was merely a narcoterrorist organization, and he denied their eligibility to participate in Colombian democracy.  “The legal authorization they have received to spend illicit money on their political activities, and other points, constitute incentives for crime,” he said.  Parties aligned with Uribe in opposition to the accords – Cambio Radical and the Conservative Party – have also tried to delink the Pope’s message about peace from the peace agreement itself.  They advocate a new peace agreement.

Even though the Pope hasn’t helped the two presidents mend fences yet, his concept of peace has resonated with the country’s social and political movements, ethnic groups, victims, and intellectuals.  A nascent coalition of left-leaning minority parties, called Ni-Ni’s, could give voice and organization to them and – perhaps in the future – bring some pressure to bear on opponents of the accords to come toward the middle.  Congressional elections next March and Presidential elections two months later guarantee that implementation of the peace accords will remain front and center in Colombian politics.  The national debate may be politically satisfying to some, but it will essentially preclude the sort of renegotiation that Uribe’s forces demand while also forcing delays in important national reconciliation measures.  Even if he wanted to, Santos doesn’t have the authority to jettison one of the measures most neuralgic for his opponents – the idea that a Truth Commission will bring to justice military officers accused of abuses during Uribe’s presidency and politicians linked to paramilitary forces – and, even if he could, it would not guarantee a strong enough consensus to plow ahead with the peace plan.  Pope Francis may have sown the mustard seeds of a popular movement to press conservatives to compromise, but many challenges remain.

 September 26, 2017

* Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias is a Ph.D. Candidate in International Politics and Conflict Studies at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and a CLALS Fellow.

Colombia: Pope Francis Appeals Directly to the People

By Christian Wlaschütz*

Pope in Popemobile with people surrounding him.

Pope Francis in Colombia last week. / Christian Wlaschütz

By appealing directly to the Colombian people to open their hearts to the hard work of forging lasting peace during his visit last week, Pope Francis avoided direct confrontation with opponents of the peace process but put new pressure on them to cease obstructionism and allow full implementation of the accords.  Since the Congress approved the revised version of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC in December 2016, there has been important progress on the formal level of the implementation of the peace accords.  The FARC surrendered its weapons and started its transformation from military group to political party of the same name.  However, as the country prepares to enter a new phase – with the launch of transitional justice processes under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Truth Commission – peace remains a concept that has still not achieved public enthusiasm.  As I have argued previously (here and here), one of the reasons is that common people do not perceive the relevance of the peace process for themselves and lack a sense of participation in it.  The Pope’s five-day visit, concluding last Sunday, seemed intended to address exactly these challenges.

Under the motto “Let’s make the First Step,” Pope Francis emphasized the importance of reconciliation, peace, truth, justice, and the “culture of encounter” on a spiritual level that transcends the struggles of daily politics.  Millions of Colombians, regardless of political affiliation, turned out to hear Francis’s non-partisan message of peace.  In Villavicencio, a center of armed violence during the war, 6,000 victims and former combatants publicly attested to their path from suffering towards active involvement in society.  Having found healing, forgiveness, and repentance, many now work as psychologists, human rights defenders, or social leaders.  Millions around the country watched the event on TV and saw that reconciliation is not an easy path – one without justice or truth – but includes these elements.  In Cartagena, the Pontiff emphasized two other essential components of peace: social justice and human rights.

Francis managed to combine gestures, massive events, and declarations to emphasize Colombia’s opportunity to leave the violent past behind and open a new chapter of history.  His key message – that it is possible to live together in peace – reached many millions.  In encounters with the poor, indigenous, Afro-Colombians, victims of conflict, and people with special needs, he drove home that social inclusion is a prerequisite for real change.  He emphasized that the peace process “is not a process for minorities,” but rather all of society.  Changing the political dynamics around the peace accords will take time, but the Pope has clearly invited detractors to change their attitude and support the process.  One news commentator hinted at the sort of awareness that would require.  Reporting on Francis’s visit to San Francisco, one of the most marginalized sectors of Cartagena, she said, “This is a Cartagena that we do not know. Thanks to this visit we see the other Cartagena.”  Maybe Colombians will also see the “other Colombia” now.

September 14, 2017

Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

Colombia’s Peace Accord and the Prospects of the War System

By Nazih Richani*

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A FARC demobilization zone is visited by the UN Security Council Field Mission. / UK Mission to the UN / Lorey Campese / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Colombian peace accord has achieved another historic landmark, but the process has been anything but easy – and continues to face serious impediments.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have deposited 60 percent of their weapons in UN containers to be destroyed, a watershed in the history of Colombia, as the 53-year-old insurgent group enters a new phase.  A coalition of political and social groups, however, continues efforts to stymie implementation of the accord.  It includes large landowners, cattle ranchers, agribusinesses, ultra-right religious groups, and extractive multinational corporations.  Its leading spokesmen are former President Álvaro Uribe and former Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, who are spearheading a vigorous campaign arguing that President Juan Manuel Santos and his government conceded too much to the FARC, compromising private property rights, the prevailing land-tenure system, and the country’s Christian values.  (The official line of the Colombian Catholic Church, which has strongly conservative factions, has been “neutral” on the peace accord, although Pope Francis has expressed strong support for it.)

These forces have flexed their muscles before.  They were instrumental in mobilizing opposition to the referendum on the accord last October, which forced the government to incorporate their demands by making the language of the accord clear that property rights and the agribusiness-extractive-rentier economic model remained dominant.  The opposition remains on the offensive, this time using the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Constitutional Court.  While Public Prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martínez was going after FARC money, alleging that the rebels did not declare all their assets, the Constitutional Court challenged the “Fast-Track” process by which passage of bills related to implementation of the peace accord could be accelerated by reducing the number of parliamentary debates and the time required for approval.  This opened the door for the opposition coalition in parliament to challenge the accord repeatedly with protracted debate and amendments.  Its main goal has been to prevent any change in the rural land tenure system and block the inclusion of the FARC in the political process.

The opponents’ ability to tip the political balance against the accord is likely to grow as Colombia prepares for its presidential election in May 2018.  The Santos government, the left, and center-left have already looked weak while trying to make even modest reforms necessary to create conditions for a lasting peace and facilitating a transition from a war system political economy to a different one.  The paramilitaries, including old groups that remained operative after the formal demobilization of 2005-06 (such as the “Urabeños,” mutated from the former United-Defense Forces, AUC); the drug cartels and organized crime; the dramatic expansion of coca plantations; and mining of dubious legality are important components of the “old” war system that are still potent and fuel the reactionary coalition.  The exit of the FARC (and possibly the National Liberation Army, ELN, as well) are certain to change the composition and political economy of the war system that has shaped Colombia for more than four decades, but new actors (the Urabeños and others) are emerging and mutations are taking place.  These forces will persist and wield considerable power as long as Colombia is not willing or capable of addressing the countrys need for agrarian reforms and pursuing sustainable economic development based on a more equitable distribution of wealth and income.

June 27, 2017

* Nazih Richani is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at Kean University.  In 2014, the State University of New York Press published a revised and updated version of his 2002 study entitled Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia.

Historic August for LGBT Rights in Colombia

By Juliana Martínez

Colombia Diversa / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Colombia has again shown itself to be a country of contrasts – a society ostensibly ruled by Catholic and conservative morals with one of the hemisphere’s most progressive Constitutional Courts – with two important legal decisions on LGBT rights.  The Court has defended the democratic, pluralistic, and inclusive spirit of the Colombian Constitution against powerful authoritarian and conservative forces for years.  In 2007 and 2008, it granted pension, social security, and property rights to registered same-sex couples, and it ruled that same-sex couples “constitute a family” in 2011.  In spite of some recent rulings tarnishing its liberal record, last month the Court made two decisions that, though limited, have historic implications.

  • It ruled in favor of step-child adoptions by gay couples.  After much political, legal, and even religious debate, the Court broke a four-year silence on the highly contested issue, ruling 6 to 3 that Verónica Botero could legally adopt the biological children of her wife, Anna Leiderman.  The ruling does not explicitly allow joint adoption by gay couples, but the decision cites ample scientific evidence and declares that parental homosexuality cannot be considered a risk factor for children, thus leaving the door open for further LGBT-friendly jurisprudence in the matter.
  • The court recognized the gender identity of trans women by declaring that they do not have to comply with the compulsory military service required of all Colombian males.  The case centered on Gracy Kelly Bermúdez, a transgender woman who filed a lawsuit against the mayor’s office in Bogotá when she was denied a job for failing to provide proof of her military service.  Bermudez had not entered the military because she identifies as a woman, and therefore did not have the Military Service Registration Certificate (libreta militar) required when applying for jobs, studying at the university level or accessing health care services.  She would have been exempted if she had undergone an official sex change – the right to change one’s sex has been protected in Colombia since 1993 – but this can only be legally done after undergoing sex realignment surgery, a procedure that most trans women do not have access to, cannot afford, or do not want.  Therefore, despite their gender identity and expression, the legal sex of the majority of trans women continues to be “male.”  The Court decided in favor of Bermúdez and ordered the mayor’s office to hire her immediately.

These decisions are far-reaching.  In the Bermúdez case, the Court was essentially prioritizing gender identity over assigned sex at birth.  It declared that asking trans women for the Military Service Registration Certificate when hiring them is unconstitutional because it violates their right to define their own gender.  Furthermore, the Court told Congress to draft a bill that regulates the rights of transgender people in Colombia, paving the way for a much-needed Gender Identity Law.  The ruling also has deep regional implications.  Since Argentina passed a groundbreaking Gender Identity Law in 2012, many countries have been struggling to achieve similar results – and the Colombian legal precedent can become a viable alternative for impact litigation.  Currently, at least ten countries in Latin America have compulsory military service with different levels of enforcement attached to non-compliance.  But as the Bermúdez case illustrates, military conscription mandates can turn into strange, yet effective platforms to denounce how the state routinely imposes gender identity on its citizens, often against their own will, and to catalyze legal reform that advances LGBT rights in the Americas.

* Dr. Juliana Martínez teaches gender and sexuality and Latin American Literature in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

September 25, 2014