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Colombian University Students Look at the US Election

US elections have special significance for Colombians.

Colombian university students with certificates of completion for a seminar on US politics and campaigns. Speakout writers: Mariana Martínez Gómez, second from right back row. Valentina Chanci Arrubla, third from right back row. Front row kneeling, first from left, Juan Esteban Uribe Vasquez. Third from left, Santiago Franco Cardona. (Photo: Courtesy of Milena Perez)

Colombian university students with certificates of completion for a seminar on US politics and campaigns. Speakout writers: Mariana Martínez Gómez, second from right back row. Valentina Chanci Arrubla, third from right back row. Front row kneeling, first from left, Juan Esteban Uribe Vasquez. Third from left, Santiago Franco Cardona. (Photo: Courtesy of Milena Perez)Colombian university students with certificates of completion for a seminar on US politics and campaigns. Speakout writers: Mariana Martínez Gómez, second from right back row. Valentina Chanci Arrubla, third from right back row. Front row kneeling, first from left, Juan Esteban Uribe Vasquez. Third from left, Santiago Franco Cardona. (Photo: Courtesy of Milena Perez)

Introduction and translation by Michael Meurer

In October 2015, I had the privilege of teaching an intensive one week seminar on US politics and campaigns at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB) in Medellín, Colombia. UPB is one of the largest Catholic universities in the Andean region with an enrollment of over 26,000 and a strong outreach program to students from Colombia’s many indigenous groups.

The students in my undergraduate class were a mix of political science, international relations, law, journalism and communications majors. Perhaps because of the unique history of Colombia’s relationship with the US, their understanding of foreign affairs was quite sophisticated. When we covered the arcane system of US primaries and caucuses, their interest was intense, and they have followed the US presidential election closely.

Working with Truthout, I asked a group of these students to share their observations and opinions on the US presidential election and candidates, as well as the implications for the US-Colombian relationship.


Although Colombia is rarely discussed in the US outside the context of the drug trade, the two nations have been closely aligned for the past four decades, and Colombia is the third largest recipientof US financial aid in the Americas. A significant percentage of this aid is military.

Since 1966, Colombia has been riven by a violent de facto civil war between the government and an array of putatively leftist guerrilla groups such as Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). FARC is the largest rebel group in Colombia. The war with FARC has disrupted internal security and limited economic growth in Colombia for 50 years. It is on official US and European lists of terrorist organizations. A US Justice Department indictment in 2006 estimated that FARC supplied more than 60 percent of cocaine entering the US and 50 percent worldwide.

Since 2012, reaching a peace accord with FARC has been the top priority of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos against fierce domestic opposition that includes former President Álvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by FARC during a botched 1983 kidnapping attempt. After four years of intense negotiations by the Santos administration, a ceasefire and disarmament verification agreement was reached January 2016 in Havana, Cuba, with a final version expected to be signed by mid-March. It will then be put before Colombian voters as a ballot measure for their approval or rejection.

Colombia’s long civil war has caused over 220,000 deaths. Because of various amnesty provisions in the peace agreement, and because so many families in Colombia have been victims of FARC violence, the final accord is politically charged. Yet the Obama administration has been a strong supporter of President Santos’ negotiations with FARC. At a February 4, 2016, White House meeting between Presidents Obama and Santos, Obama promised continued US backing for the peace process and promised to seek $450 million in aid from Congress in 2016 to help Colombia rebuild. Obama proposes replacing the militarily oriented Plan Colombia with Peace Colombia.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, whose wife is the daughter of Colombian immigrants, expressed his probable opposition to a peace agreement in a National Review op-ed the day after the Santos-Obama meeting, saying that he would maintain Plan Colombia. Although the issue has rarely been raised during the 2016 campaign, it is likely that the remaining Republican presidential candidates share Rubio’s position and that Clinton and Sanders support the Obama administration.

Given this historical context, US elections have special significance for Colombians. The student opinions that follow are informed by an awareness of this reality.

The Best Idea of the North American Nation Will Win

Students at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellín, Colombia discuss the US presidential election. (Photo courtesy of Milena Perez)Students at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellín, Colombia discuss the US presidential election. (Photo courtesy of Milena Perez)

By Mariana Martínez Gómez, majoring in political science with a special interest in analysis of international issues

The election of the new president of the United States has global repercussions. Republicans remain stigmatized as warmongers and ultra conservatives, and candidates such as Donald Trump only reaffirm these ideas. Trump has consistently dominated all media, from radio to television newscasts to newspapers. His advertising strategy has worked. Empty ideas without depth or policy coherence are proposed to a North American electorate that likes to demand immediate solutions to their quotidian problems. Meanwhile, candidates such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Ben Carson have been eclipsed by the scandalous political campaign of the tycoon.

In the Democratic party, an intra-party clash is led on one side by an old social-democratic politician with a strong critique of establishment politics, and on the other side by an old female candidate with big establishment influence and power who is making another attempt at becoming president. Hillary’s speech is worn out and is scarcely believable. Bernie’s speech is novel, fresh and endorsed by young people, a generation that believes in social transformation and has hope in a new politics and a new project of the North American nation, grand but with acknowledgment of their internal needs.

This year, the nation that since its founding has advocated democracy as the only and best form of Government has the responsibility of choosing a leader for their country and for the world. This new leader will have the task of meeting the priorities of the citizens and also of exercising American power beyond the nation’s geographical borders. Whether a Republican or Democrat wins, the idea of a single, unique North American nation that is strong and large will remain.

The Colombian government will make every effort to strengthen ties with the new president of the United States. Colombia’s political class has been clear that the United States is the greatest power on the continent (And possibly in the world?) and has tried to be an unconditional ally from the perspective of Colombia’s small and short-sighted foreign policy. Each year Washington provides $310 million in aid to Colombia, a figure that President Obama has proposed increasing by $140 million in 2016.

In popularity polls in Colombia, Barack Obama occupies first place. The war against drugs and violent guerrilla groups such as the FARC has been a goal shared by the two States for decades. In order to build peace in Colombia, the government needs to maintain US support for the agreements reached in Havana.

The US Election and the Fight Against Terrorism in Colombia

By Juan Esteban Uribe Vasquez, majoring in political science and international relations

Nine months from the elections and only five from the conventions, the electoral landscape is not very clear. On the Republican side, Iowa and New Hampshire did not provide strong indicators of potential victory, and on the Democratic side, the exit of O’Malley means the possibility of the contest between Sanders and Hillary Clinton playing out until the last minute has been met. But this lack of a clear picture shows that Americans today want arguments of more colors and demonstrates a desire for true change.

These changes in the thinking of the citizens are personified by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. On one hand, Donald Trump, in addition to going against all the traditional Republican forces, challenges the party establishment repeatedly, announcing his idea of running as an independent if he loses at the convention. Many of his followers speak of this as evidence of a destroyed party without ideas in which Trump is the only one who dares to speak without mincing words. Thus Trump distances himself from a “weak” minority policy by publicly declaring policies against Muslims and Latinos, basically confining his efforts to arousing a nationalist vote, a vote that wants to “make America great again.”

Sanders in one way or another has consistently criticized the double morality of the Democrats, who for some years have lost seriousness in finding the real interests and favor of “the people.” Hence, Sanders is running as a candidate of the people and for the people, ensuring a series of public policies with social guarantees, but without abandoning the foreign policy of strong national security against terrorism. Thus on issues such as the war in Syria, he has proposed attacking the Islamic State. As Bernie awakens the enthusiasm of young people who are tired of traditional politics that is motivated by money and personal interests, as he did in New Hampshire, it shows that he has aroused many voters who were dormant, who were tired of the same labels – blue like Clinton and red like Jeb Bush. These are the voters of Bernie Sanders.

On the other hand, the competition between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio seems to be diluted, since in spite of their Cuban roots, they face the problem that Latin Americans are not a unified force. Each one, depending on their country of origin, seeks to address their own needs. Thus Rubio looks for the unification of these minorities by presenting himself as the personification of the American dream. On the other hand, his mission now is to win the next primary after the defeat in New Hampshire in order to attract attention again from donors of other candidates who remain behind, especially Jeb Bush. For Cruz, it seems that his appeal to Latin Americans is weak and his attraction is more tied to evangelicals, the decisive population for his victory in Iowa.

In the case of US influence in Colombia, the Republicans seem to be more open to a policy against terrorism and are the most reluctant about the peace process. Among these the only one who has publicly declared a position is Marco Rubio. After the February 4th visit of President Juan Manuel Santos to Washington commemorating the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia, Rubio said he does not trust the FARC. He feels a close relationship with Colombians because his wife is the daughter of immigrants from here, and dealing with Colombia would remain highly personal, implying a hard hand against violence in Colombia post-accord, and potential opposition to the peace process that is the basis of current government policy. Therefore a possible reconfiguration of US support for negotiations with the FARC under Rubio would imply a change in government policy and a frontal attack against this drug trafficking terrorist group. This would likely include a stronger stance at the negotiating table, demands for justice for crimes committed by FARC members and their compliance with international law, which is a significant increase in negotiating pressure. Failing that, there is the possibility of suspending the negotiations and extending the conflict with continued warmongering by both sides.

On the Democratic side, given the inclinations of the party for peace and stability at all costs, whether Sanders or Clinton are elected, the continuation of negotiations can be expected as normal with support for peacekeeping, as it is likely that the agreement will already be signed. Sanders has a great disadvantage at this point because his critics have shown that he is a candidate of soft power in international politics. The foregoing creates the possibility of two scenarios: (1) the extension of the agreements until 2017; or (2) so-called post-conflict situations, where Sanders is profiled as a trustee who will not exert pressure, both for the guarantee of the minimum justice required for crimes against humanity or in terms of respect for, and compliance with, the agreements that could be signed this year.

Fear and Uncertainty in the US Presidential Election

By Santiago Franco Cardona, majoring in law and political science

All the candidates for the presidency of the United States have a common goal: to once again make America the world’s leading power. Both parties are taking advantage of current fear and uncertainty. What is certain is that a nation such as the US does not have a clear future at this moment, and this insecurity about the future is being successfully exploited by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

The grand spectacles of Donald Trump have been put into the mouths of all the media and his presidential campaign has not cost a single dollar. His speech after the primaries in New Hampshire was the icing on the cake for a campaign full of inconsistencies and threats. “Make America Great Again” could be the slogan of all Republicans. Marco Rubio has an uncertain candidacy, and against everything that we previously thought, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush are catching up.

Hillary Clinton’s support of Obama has not served to protect her against her many scandals and the strong candidacy of her Democratic counterpart Bernie Sanders. This social democrat departs from the economic and social policies that have been the hallmark of the United States so far, offering instead a quasi-populist discourse that has earned him many votes. Although America continues to be a superpower, it is no longer the premier global power thanks to numerous errors in its political decision making. The historical moment is not favorable for the nation.

There are still many primaries ahead, and although not everything is set, there are already lots of plates on the table.

Hunger for Change: Notes About the Electoral Process in the United States

By Valentina Chanci Arrubla, majoring in political science and international business

Desire for change. That is the idea that the electoral process has so far brought to the forefront in the United States. Whether that is achieved through a transformation to renew the “establishment” or through actions to revive the principles that once made a great and powerful country, it is clear that the main objective of both Democratic and Republican candidates is to generate a real difference that is presumed to be urgent and necessary under the current circumstances. Creating a viable future is the priority.

The primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire have been marked by surprising results and obvious contrasts. The controversial ideas of Donald Trump (“Nobody is going to mess with us.”) have generated discomfort, but they have also driven confrontation to the front against his competitors. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the dispute is more even and congenial. However, the campaign has made it clear that becoming the first woman to lead the United States will be an increasingly difficult path for Hillary Clinton. Her mistakes in the previous presidential campaign have snared her again.

Whether a Republican or Democrat wins, relations with Colombia will continue to be close, as this has been a historical constant. For this reason, the support of the future President of the United States for the peace process is vital for the process to have greater legitimacy.

It is undeniable that there are great expectations from these elections. Although South Carolina will yield a clearer picture, for now citizens and leaders of various countries continue waiting amid the uncertainty for a result which can bring significant changes for them. Everything will be set in the response that Americans give to the question: Who is the best generator of change?