(Translated by Anne Schoeneborn, a CSN Volunteer Translator)
Interview with Clara López Obregón
By Margarita Vidal, El País
Cali, July 4, 2010
“I am a woman who has struggled between politics and academia. I carry in my blood all the regions of Colombia. I have dedicated myself to the ideal of social transformation in my country, and I have always been active in the parties of nonconformists.”
In this statement, Clara Eugenia López Obregón (member of the most conspicuous Colombian families, as much in the realm of politics, art, history, and academics as in that of posh high society, and resident of the exclusive Bogotá neighborhood La Cabrera) summarizes a political, personal, and professional decision. A graduate of some of the best universities in the world, including Harvard, where she received her economics degree magna cum laude, Clara renounced her class privilege in order to fight, from a variety of trenches, in the name of the poor. Now that the electoral race, in which she was Gustavo Petro’s vice presidential candidate, is over, Clara is the leader of her party, el Polo Democrático.
Where did your rebelliousness as a student leader at Harvard come from?
Since I was a child, I suffered a lot because of injustice. In the United States, I was horrified by the hidden racism that everyone breathes. With the student movement, I discovered that it was possible to organize to do something about it. That’s why I joined the strike that closed the university in the spring of 1969. Students and professors rebelled against the war in Vietnam. We succeeded in making the university stop its wage discrimination against workers based on gender and skin color, and made it withdraw investments of its immense assets from South Africa, where Apartheid ruled.
You were the president’s Economic Secretary during your uncle Alfonso López’s term in office, but later you sent him a very interesting letter in which you questioned aspects of his government.
Alfonso López was a great friend of my father’s and my second father when he wasn’t around. I completed my doctorate at his side in Colombia and I learned a lot from him about the art of governing. My questions went beyond his work in government, which the whole country recognizes. I shared with him the deeper question of why successive governments do not succeed in changing Colombia, with its unequal and socially unjust structure. When we discussed the letter, he said to me, “I prefer criticisms a thousand times to adulation.”
You were linked with New Liberalism. What about Galán attracted you?
Like many in my generation, I was attracted by the battle-hardened image reflected on his emblematic poster. I have not forgotten his teachings: “Men and women should say what they think and do what they say.” That was the beginning of the transparency that would change the political custom of doing what you think and not what you say in order to sweeten the gullible ear of the voters. During a time when there was a contemplative attitude about narcotrafficking, Galán had the vision of what that scourge would mean for the country and the premonition that it would cost him his life.
In 1986, you returned to the militancy of the left by linking yourself with the Unión Patriótica and supporting the presidential candidacy of Jaime Pardo Leal. Like Galán, Pardo, Bernardo Jaramillo and Carlos Pizarro were assassinated. How did those assassinations affect the country’s democracy?
During that time, we, from the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights and the Council of Bogotá, denounced the unholy alliance between paramilitaries, sectors of the Military, landowners, and politicians, which sought to convert Colombia into a narco-democracy. Those assassinations took place in order to stop people from coming to power who were committed to fighting against the corruption of the paramilitary mafias and because of the political opening-up that was occurring in the country.
In 2005, you denounced before the Supreme Court the possible infiltration of illegal, rightwing armed groups into the Colombian government, which led to the investigative process that is being moved ahead by parapolitics. How do you view the unfolding of these investigations?
The truth is that many leaders, among them Gustavo Petro, had denounced the parapolitical monstrosity, but only because of my complaint did the Court consolidate all the processes into a single one, in which evidence would be shared and the reach of the conspiracy to take control of congress and other forms of popular election would become evident. I felt offended by the defiant attitude of the paramilitary bosses who, even at the Congress of the Republic where they were received, in some cases even with applause, those who had committed massacres, displacements and even more atrocious crimes, such as the assassinations mentioned previously. About one hundred members of Congress were investigated, the majority of whom belonged to the governing coalition. This was the origin of the confrontation with the President of the Supreme Court.
In July of 2002 you sent a letter from Caracas to your cousin, Juan Manuel López Caballero, referring to “a conversation from black sheep to black sheep of the family.” I found this entertaining. What did you mean to say by that?
[Laughs] It’s a loving reference to someone who, like me, has moved away from that which is conventional in order to say and write what he thinks. Here, they call this “communism” and I reprimanded him in a friendly way for asking me the question that has served to “McCarthify” and, lately, to impede social and political change.
In the letter, you reflect on what it means to be communist, and you conclude that you are not one. Why make this written declaration?
Because, in Colombia, every person who fights against injustice and wants substantial changes is labeled a communist. And the paramilitaries have already demonstrated this. Even a man who was Assistant Director of the DAS held conferences titled “Why it is lawful to kill communists.”
You and your husband, Carlos Romero, went into exile in Venezuela due to threats. How did this happen and why?
There came a moment when those of us who would not be quiet and who did not accept the mafia’s rules, which are embedded into the power structure, were condemned. Initially, they started with my husband and then they told him that if he did not leave the country, they would kill me. Since that time, I was left with no doubts, the dual entity DAS-paramilitarism was in effect.
In the book Los Elegidos, former president López Michelsen describes the upper-class social world you were born and raised in. You say you received a privileged education. What led you to leave that world, adopt leftwing ideas, and get involved in minority opposition parties?
Well, in the microcosms of that world that is my family, we have a long tradition of rebellion. They also branded the old López Pumarejo a communist for separating the Church and the State and for naming the socialist thinker Gerardo Molina president of the National University. Something similar happened to López Michelson in the MRL and in his government for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. I think I am an heir of that tradition of non-conformity, which I am proud of.
You returned to finish your studies in economics with a prize-winning thesis about how to carry out a true agrarian reform in Colombia. I am interested in your thoughts on the topic, on the failed efforts of Carlos Lleras, on what happened with the Chicoral Agreement of Pastrana (senior), and what this has meant for us in terms of violence.
I chose the topic of agrarian reform for my thesis because of López Pumarejo’s obsession with the idea of introducing profound changes to the agrarian structure, changes necessary to modernize the country. There is no doubt that the land, or rather its plundering, has been at the root of the violence in Colombia. This is explained with clarity in the famous study of La Violencia, with capital letters, entrusted by the government of Alberto Lleras to the priest Lebret, to Fals Borda, and to Umaña Luna to try to explain the undeclared civil war between the liberals and conservatives. There they recommended nullifying the land transfer titles from those years. There were entire municipalities in which almost all of the campesinos and farmers were displaced and forced to sell their land at a low price. The pictures in this book, in its first edition, which I read during my adolescence, showed how the corpses looked after the application of the “shirt cut” and the “tie cut.” In this second VIOLENCIA, which should be written with all capital letters, the degradation has been greater, but the modus operandi is similar. Not against liberals and conservatives and by municipality anymore, but against those who are stigmatized—for the purpose of displacing and plundering as guerillas, con-conspirators, communists, and terrorists. History repeated itself and the worst part is that it continues repeating itself. If they had carried out the reform of López Pumarejo in the ’30s and ’40s, and that of Lleras in the ’60s, we would have, without a doubt, avoided much of the violence we suffer from.
You proclaimed the dialogue between Gustavo Petro and Juan Manuel Santos to be unauthorized, and described it as highly personal despite the fact that Petro was speaking nationally, without implying support of the government. Days later you yourself toned down the discussion and said that his behavior with Santos did not exclude him from continuing as part of the opposition, maintaining his independent opinions. In the end, what happened?
The one who proclaimed Petro’s actions as unauthorized was the National Executive Committee of the Polo, the body of which I am the spokesperson. This Committee is made up of 38 leaders. Imagine if each one of us turned into a loose cannon and tried to establish, without any discussion with the others, his or her own position or proposal toward the new government. This is about respecting the rules of the game of internal democracy. The fact that freedom of opinion exists among us does not mean that each one can act outside or against the collective decision. If we did things that way, the Party would come to an end.
Jorge Enrique Robledo reiterated on Friday that Petro’s position is not the Polo’s position and that the priority for the party is to unmask the “politics of continuity” of Santos who, as he says, “is going to mount a grand plot to continue managing the country for the good of a minority.” Were these positions reached between you and him?
When a leader speaks and develops the Party’s position and expresses his or her particular interpretation thereof, he or she is not going against the rules of the game. But when he or she goes from saying to doing and sends a public message that can be interpreted as going against the position of the party, in my opinion, he or she is violating the rules of the game. This is what happened in the case of the letter and meeting of Petro and Santos and can be verified by the cover of Semana. Without the actions of Petro, the principle nationally circulated magazine could not have titled a photo of president-elect Juan Manuel Santos: “Without Opposition?” This confusion, this question, remained for more than one of our members, who were surprised to see the message of opposition of the Polo Democrático toward the new government blurred.
It has been said that the low electoral results of the Polo are a result of a lack of ideological unity within the party. You will probably say that within all parties there are subtle differences, but in this case, they seem to be irreconcilable. What will happen with the Polo?
It is impossible to imagine a left that does not argue. Controversy and dialectics are part of the essence of the democratic left. We should not be afraid of contradictions. During controversy, we try to convince others. Like in any democratic discussion, in the end, the majority opinion prevails, enriched by the discussion and contributions of all the positions.
There is a lot in the electoral result of Carlos Gaviria, winning almost 2,700,000 votes in 2006 compared to Petro’s 1,400,00 in 2010. Does this once again reflect the traditional inability of the left to become a real alternative?
This is what the duality government – opposition consists of. Those who win the elections govern and those who lose build the alternative. In Colombia, many, including in the left, have not understood the necessary function of the opposition in a democracy well and, on occasion, as has happened with the current government, stigmatize it as anti-patriotic and even add the ingredient of “terrorist.” From the contrary camp, I think we are so accustomed to being the opposition that sometimes it gives the impression that we are turning into our very own opposition. The journalist Juan Gossaín, to whom I would like to pay tribute for his integrity and humanity, revealed the macabre criminal plan of the so-called “chuzadas” of the DAS, aimed at frightening and discrediting judges, political leaders, independent journalists and, specifically, aimed at dividing the Polo Democrático. With this witch-hunt within and outside of the Polo, we were still able to win 400,000 votes before. Don’t forget that in the last 25 years more than 5,000 leaders of the left have been assassinated. In the last debate, we lost six more at the hands of hit men, as I reported before the Minister of the Interior where we went demanding guarantees of safety for our candidate as well as for threatened leaders. It isn’t easy to progress in the midst of assassinations. I say so because the old left was also fragmented and never managed to take off politically. The “new” left, with the Polo, seemed to be at the point of managing to do so, and today again it is breaking apart due to internal disputes.
Could you be the leader capable of unifying it?
The Polo, as opposed to other parties, does not recognize natural or providential leaders who ought to be obeyed just because. In establishing our political line we only recognize the opinion of collective intelligence. I have moral and political authority to lead the discussions of the Executive Committee with balance and a guarantee for all sectors, and to represent the democratic line established within it. I will continue to hold this position until the Executive Committee deems appropriate.
Everyone commented on Petro’s optimal performance during the campaign and the debates. Was it more the candidate than the party?
When he offered me the vice-presidential candidacy, Petro made a gesture of unity that the party was enthusiastic about. Then, during the fight, I was unanimously elected to be president of the party and I received the mandate to promote unity. I traveled through half the country to meet with regional leaderships and to unite the forces of the Polo, without which the number of votes would not have increased. Many of the friends that had accompanied Petro to the congressional elections were letting themselves be taken by the triumphalism of the Green Wave. The party’s resolve to move forward with Petro’s candidacy remained firm. Petro’s performance improved in terms of his speeches reassuming the political positions of the democratic left with which the people associated him. Before, he had even announced being against the humanitarian agreement, which surprised many of his sympathizers.
In the first meeting of the Executive it was decided that despite being under 3% in the polls, we should risk even the financial future of the Polo in order to move forward with the presidential campaign. We authorized pledging the income of the next four years to guarantee the advance used by Petro, in addition to a loan guaranteed by the Polo, to finance the campaign. It was a necessary risk. From that moment on all the Polo supporters went out to organize large demonstrations that took place in public plazas, and the party fully supported its candidate, whose following improved as a result. That is how we succeeded in recovering at least half of the votes that we had obtained with Carlos Gaviria.
One foreseeable consequences of the situation with the Polo is the loss of the Mayor’s Office of Bogotá following the repeated mistakes of the Moreno administration. Wouldn’t that be a mortal blow for the party?
I think that those who anticipate the defeat of the Polo are getting ahead of themselves. I don’t think that the Bogotanos will let anyone take back the free education, the advances toward guaranteeing the right to health, and the numerous other successes that have been achieved, such as the significant advances in current infrastructural works and the initiation, at last, of the Metro, which the city requires in order to prevent traffic jams.