October 25, 2007
Several Colombian parties and candidates have openly embraced President Hugo Chávez's ideals but deny getting money from the Venezuelan leader.
Officially, Oscar Manduca is running for a seat on the legislature of Colombia's Atlantico province for the left-of-center Polo Democrático party. The party's official color is bright yellow, but at campaign rallies Manduca can more often be seen wearing bright red.
It is the red of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian revolution, which Manduca and dozens of the 86,233 candidates around the country in Colombia's regional elections Sunday want to bring.
Chávez has been working hard to unite Latin American nations behind his socialist model by financing development projects and supporters in other countries of the region. But his Colombian followers say they are not getting any help from Caracas.
Manduca says in fact he is a candidate for the Polo Democrático because his Colombian Bolivarian Current, or CBC, a nascent political movement that follows the tenets of Chávez's self-styled socialist revolution, did not qualify to register its own candidates.
''I am supported by the Polo, but I belong to the CBC,'' Manduca said in a telephone interview from his home city of Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast.
The CBC makes no bones that it looks up to Chávez and has embraced his ''Bolivarian'' ideals.
''Chávez is the principal exponent of Bolivarian thought, which we adhere to,'' Manduca said. But he denied that the CBC is a puppet organization of the Venezuelan leader. ``We coincide in our purposes but this is not the work of Chávez.''
Manduca, a former member of the leftist M-19 guerrilla group that demobilized in 1990, acknowledges he sometimes wears a red T-shirt emblazoned with Chávez's face during his campaign events.
''People associate us with Chávez. We are the little brothers of the Venezuelan project,'' he said.
The northeast province of Santander, known for its progressive politics, has a separate Chavista group, the Bolivarian Movement of Colombia Without Weapons, founded last year by retired army Sgt. Carlos Felipe Florez.
That group says it feels the need to stress the lack of weapons to differentiate itself from the Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia, a pseudo-political arm of the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Florez's group has fielded three candidates for the provincial assembly and four for city councils in Santander. ''We want to have the first Chavista deputies in Colombia,'' he said in a telephone interview.
The group is not linked to Manduca's CBC except by their ideological leader in Caracas.
But like the CBC, its candidates are running under the banner of another political group, the Indigenous Authorities Movement.
''The alliance is one of convenience,'' Florez said, a way to get around Colombia's election laws. The laws require candidates to have the backing of an established political party or movement, unless they get enough signatures on a petition to have their group recognized.
Florez says his followers managed to collect the needed signatures but failed to raise the $32,500 needed to make it official.
NO FINANCIAL BACKING
He offered this as proof that his movement is not receiving any financial support from Venezuela. ''Going to Chávez for money would be an affront to our sovereignty,'' he says.
CBC candidates also deny receiving money from Chávez. ''I don't even have the cash to have campaign posters made,'' Manduca said.
But Jairo Clopatofsky, a pro-government senator in the national legislature, said he suspects that the Chávez government or Venezuelan political organizations are funneling cash to some candidacies or Bolivarian movements in Colombia.
''All of this is part of Chávez's intentions to get involved in Colombian politics,'' says Clopatofsky.
Esperanza Contreras is amember of the Bolivarian Movement and is running for a seat on the city council of Bucaramanga, a mid-size city in north eastern Colombia. ''It would be great if Colombian-Venezuelan citizens were to come to vote for us here, but we're certainly not counting on it,'' she said.
''If we win, we will win for our Bolivarian ideals,'' Contreras said.