In Colombia’s congressional elections in early March, the name the Patriotic Union appeared on ballot sheets for the first time in over a decade. It is a name that carries a heavy historical burden, evoking memories of a political party whose tragic history casts a long shadow over Colombia’s civil conflict – and whose remarkable rebirth now hangs in the balance.
The first incarnation of the Patriotic Union (Union Patriotica or UP) was extinguished when the state removed its legal status as a political party in 2003 after membership was whittled down to a handful of activists, and the party could barley muster 50,000 votes in elections.
The signing of the UP’s death warrant was little more than legally ratifying the success of a bloody “political genocide.” By that time, thousands of UP leaders, activists and supporters had been murdered by right-wing paramilitaries, corrupt members of the security forces and drug traffickers, who saw the party as the civilian face of the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In 2013, the UP’s legal status was returned after a long campaign for recognition by those who survived the bloodshed and wanted to keep alive not only the memory but also the political hopes and dreams of those that did not.
However, the UP only secured just over 99,000 votes in elections – well below the requirement for a party to retain legal status – and members now face an anxious wait as the government decides whether to clip the wings of this political phoenix after its first tentative flight.
The UP was founded in 1985 as a result of negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government. It was conceived as a political vehicle for the FARC, enabling them to participate in democratic politics during a ceasefire.
The party’s impact at the ballot boxes was immediate, winning seven seats in congress, 24 seats in state congresses, and 275 council seats in elections coming just a year after the UP was launched. In presidential elections, the UP candidate finished a distant fourth but still secured a record number of votes for a leftist party in Colombia.
However, while many voters saw a new democratic left electoral alternative, the FARC’s many enemies saw guerrillas in civilian clothing.
At that time, the right-wing paramilitary counter insurgency movement in Colombia was gathering pace, instigated by local elites and drug traffickers tired of the FARC’s kidnappings, extortion and harassment, and supported by the Colombian security forces. For these groups, the UP was the FARC’s soft, unarmed underbelly.
“There were threats from the beginning,” said Beatriz Zuluaga, whose husband Pedro Luis Valencia was elected a UP senator in 1986. “He had to leave the house and hide, he had permanent bodyguards.”
In 1987, Valencia was murdered in their home, shot 42 times by gunmen. By the time the UP was disbanded thousands more had died – 2,000 to 3,000 by most estimates, in excess of 5,000 by the UP’s own count. Among the dead were two presidential candidates, eight congressmen, 13 state deputies, 70 councilors and 11 mayors.
Thousands more fled into exile. Among them was Zuluaga, who took her family to Cuba when the attacks continued after her husband’s death and her young daughter was left with shrapnel in her leg when they were attacked with explosives.
As was the case for many of the exiles, while Zuluaga and her family could escape the danger, they could never escape the memory of what happened. “From when my son was six years old, he would say, ‘the day they killed my dad, they killed me,’” said Zuluaga. “He would repeat it like an obsession.”
On their return to Colombia 11 years on, Zuluaga’s son committed suicide.
While UP activists were being buried nearly daily, the peace process that created the party spluttered and died. The FARC refused to discuss disarmament and it became clear they viewed the UP not as a way to transition out of arms and into politics, but as the opening up of a political front as part of a coordinated military strategy – the “combination of all forms of struggle.”
The guerrillas and the UP eventually became estranged, with a moderate faction under the leadership of Bernardo Jaramillo distancing the party from the armed insurgency and appealing to a broader, more moderate base. However, Jaramillo’s moderacy was not enough to save his life, and in 1990 he was murdered in an airport by a teenage assassin acting on the orders of paramilitary warlords.
Four years later, the last UP member to stand in congress, Manuel Cepeda, was gunned down in a Bogota street. The party slid into obscurity and ultimately, legal death, while the war between the FARC and the state intensified.
The extermination of the UP has haunted Colombia ever since. The FARC have pointed to the thousands of deaths as evidence they cannot safely participate in unarmed politics, while their opponents have pointed to the rebels’ use of the UP in tandem with a military strategy as evidence they do not want to participate in unarmed politics.
The survivors of the slaughter, meanwhile, were left to try to piece their lives back together.
“It is my permanent struggle not to lose the little joy that I have left, to keep hold of my tenderness and to carry on in the struggle,” said Zuluaga.
In July 2013, an unexpected court ruling provided a hopeful twist to the tragic tale of the Patriotic Union. The Colombian Council of State annulled the decision to revoke the party’s legal status, arguing the UP was an exceptional case due to the persecution it had suffered.
The remnants of the party gathered, not only from around Colombia but also from around the world, where many remained in exile.
One of the first to return was Andres Perez, a former mayor and founding member of the UP who came back to stand as a congressional candidate in March’s elections.
In 1994, Perez was accused of murdering a political rival and spent a year in a military prison, where he says he was brutally tortured. After the charges were dropped and he was released, the threats continued so he fled the country, only returning when the party was revived.
“This is the second chapter of the Patriotic Union,” said Perez. “It is the rebirth of the Patriotic Union and the rebirth of hope.”
However, as for many UP survivors, the experience of returning to a lost home to rebuild a lost dream has been one of mixed emotions for Perez.
“We have the chance to believe again, although this feeling is mixed with pain,” said Perez. “There were people who when we were explaining the rebirth of Patriotic Union burst into tears.”
In an echo of the past, the UP’s rebirth has coincided with renewed peace talks with the FARC and cautious optimism that Colombia’s 50-year civil conflict may be in its final stages. Although the party no longer maintains official ties to the FARC, a negotiated peace is at the heart of its political platform and remains the central aspiration for members.
“We are firmly convinced that the conflict in Colombia has to be resolved peacefully, through conversations and agreements, not through arms,” said Zuluaga, who is now the UP president for the northern state of Antioquia – her first ever political role.
“We want peace with democracy, with social justice, with employment, with democratic freedoms, with citizen security – with everything the word peace implies,” she said.
However, the party’s guerrilla heritage means it is still received with suspicion by some and by threats and violence by others.
“It is a stigma, they continue to mark out UP people as guerrillas, because we were born like that, but I don’t think people believe it,” said Zuluaga.
“We go around disarmed; we have no links [to the conflict] and absolutely nothing to do with arms.” Nonetheless, a month before the elections, a death threat was issued by a group claiming to be the narco-paramilitary army the Rastrojos, which ordered the “neutralization” of all UP candidates and placed a $25,000 bounty on the heads of its most well-known leaders.
Although presidential candidate Aida Avella’s convoy was attacked by the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) – who later apologized – no one has yet followed through on the threats. However, the air of optimism that surrounded the party’s rebirth has been tainted with paranoia, while painful memories of the past have become meshed with fear of repetition in the present.
The party has also struggled against the hard realities of having to hit the campaign trail a little over half a year after its emotional return, and searching for votes in an election that was primarily fought between the center-right coalition loyal to President Juan Manuel Santos, and his ally turned fiercest critic and anti-peace talks campaigner former President Alvaro Uribe.
The result was just 0.7 percent of the vote and not a single seat in congress.
“In terms of concrete numbers, we were hoping for more, but everything was against us,” said Zuluaga. “They didn’t provide us with the [public] instant loans financing, there were no [security] guarantees, there were threats.”
While their party’s presidential candidate is now campaigning on a joint ticket with Colombia’s main leftist party, the UP members await a decision from the state on whether it will once again revoke their status, and end their briefly rekindled dreams.
Zuluaga, Perez and others like them, who to this day are known in Colombia as “survivors,” are determined to continue, driven by the memories of their grief-stricken past and their hopes for a peaceful future,.
“We want to be recognized not just as victims, but as people that think and act,” said Zuluaga. “So we believe it is an obligation – for the blood of our lost loved ones – to participate in politics.”
James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. He has reported on Colombia and Latin America for various publications including the Independent, the Miami Herald, the Toronto Star, In These Times, the Times Education Supplement, AlterNet, Toward Freedom and Green Left Weekly.