Source: JOAQUIN SARMIENTO / AFP
The Centro Democrático party is playing a dangerous game. After its members sought to interfere in the United States presidential elections in favor of former President Donald Trump, there have been further efforts to interject themselves into the domestic politics of other countries including Peru, Argentina, and now Ecuador. Whether coming from the top of the national party or from its more obscure congressional allies, the party’s foreign policy adventures delegitimize the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and risk inviting foreign intervention into Colombia’s elections in 2022.
Colombia’s foreign policy has always attempted to follow a longstanding diplomatic convention: plausible deniability. In short, this means that if the government is going to interfere in the affairs of another country, it must be done discreetly and in a way that does not incriminate the president and those close to him. While Colombia has in the past sought to overtly interject itself into the domestic politics of its principal geopolitical adversary, Venezuela, it has been more circumspect about meddling in the domestic affairs of other nations.
However, this tradition has changed markedly in recent years, in part because Venezuela’s deteriorating democracy has warranted additional involvement from the Colombian government. After all, diplomatic norms regarding foreign interference in elections took a pause during Donald Trump’s presidency, due to the allegations that Russia had meddled in his own election.
Former President Álvaro Uribe has zealously defended his foreign policy ideas. During his presidency, Uribe was an outspoken critic of Latin America’s so-called “Pink Tide” and often offered an alternative narrative to those presented by presidents Lula, Kirchner, Correa, Bachelet, and Chávez. During his tenure in the Senate, the now former president Uribe sought to instill this combative spirit within his party, the Centro Democrático.
Uribe’s pupils have taken his foreign policy pointers and spread them like the gospel; in doing so, they have caused President Iván Duque’s government his share of embarrassments and undermined confidence in Colombia’s diplomatic institutions. Colombia’s foreign policy decisions are supposed to come from the Presidency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Centro Democrático, however, seems to be running a side operation—allegedly unbeknownst to President Duque—through which the party meddles in the affairs of other countries.
As I have explained before, the Centro Democrático threw in its lot to get former President Trump re-elected in Florida, with members not only overtly endorsing the Trump campaign (under the guise of their dual U.S.-Colombian citizenship), but also endorsing Republican candidates for Congress under the premise that they would be tougher on Cuba and Venezuela–collectively dubbed “Castrochavismo”—than their Democratic counterparts. Furthermore, after the election of President Biden—which was soon acknowledged by people within the Centro Democrático—Uribe penned a letter framing some of the key issues that President Biden would have to address on the global stage. (These are issues that President Biden, who served as vice president and former chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, does not need Mr. Uribe’s assistance with).
Peru’s constitutional and political chaos has also been an object of the Centro Democrático’s interest. The country’s body politic has been shaken to its core in recent months by former President Martín Vizcarra’s second impeachment, the short-lived presidency of Manuel Merino, and the transitional government of President Fernando Sagasti. At the same time, judicial authorities sought to suspend Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular party on account of the illegal contributions it allegedly received from the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht. Once again, the Centro Democrático sent a strongly–worded letter to Peruvian judicial authorities, urging them not to suspend the party, with whom they enjoy ideological affinity as opponents of “Castrochavismo.” Although the letter was unlikely to have any effect on Fuerza Popular’s judicial fate, the signal it sent was clear: the Centro Democrático is ideologically aligned with Fuerza Popular and does not respect the independence of the Peruvian judiciary.
In December, the Argentine Senate passed a law that marked a milestone for women’s rights in Latin America, becoming the largest Latin American country to legalize the voluntary termination of pregnancy within the first 14 weeks. The Senate’s approval of the bill—by a margin of 38 votes in favor to 29 against, with one abstention—rocked the conservative establishment in Latin America. The Centro Democrático and its socially-conservative congressional allies, of course, could not let themselves be left out of the conversation; before the vote, they drafted a letter to the members of the Argentine Senate, urging them to vote down the proposition and to protect life, suggesting that passing the bill “would have very serious consequences for the Argentine people and the entire continent.” As though Argentine legislators might somehow be unaware of what they were doing. Colombia’s attempted intervention into the abortion debate in Argentina followed previous efforts to exert influence over Argentina’s democratic processes. President Duque campaigned for former President Mauricio Macri’s re-election in 2019; and in June of that same year, President Duque openly suggested that Macri’s re-election was “fundamental for Latin America.” Duque’s not-so-subtle endorsement of the Macri campaign has not endeared him to the Fernández administration, and suggests how crass the Centro Democrático’s efforts to support like-minded politicians across the region have been.
The most recent entry of Colombian institutions into the political fray of foreign countries took place in Ecuador, where a presidential election between correista front-man Andrés Arauz and a still yet-to-be-determined runoff challenger, scheduled for April 11, will decide who will succeed Lenin Moreno as president. According to documents from the Colombian Attorney General’s Office, Arauz allegedly received a political contribution from the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the largest leftist guerrilla group still active in Colombia. This revelation, followed by the February 12th visit to Quito made by Francisco Barbosa, Colombia’s Attorney General, was widely condemned as a foreign intervention into the Ecuadorean electoral process. Although Barbosa is an allegedly independent government official, his close friendship with President Duque has been the focus of allegations of unlawful partisanship. When asked directly if his interference in the Ecuadorean electoral process was ordered by President Duque, Barbosa responded defensively: “I am the attorney general of Colombia, I do not have a boss, nobody gives me orders in this country”.
What is clear is that—as long as they are permitted to continue their foreign interference efforts unabated—the Centro Democrático and its operatives will seek to interfere in other elections around Latin America where it sees ideological battle lines drawn, and rally to defend their side. This includes the April runoff in Ecuador, Chile’s vote on the composition of its Constitutional Convention, and the first round of the presidential election in Peru. The party, and other Colombian government institutions, may improperly seek to interfere in elections, citing the specter of Castrochavismo, terrorist financing, or other reasons as justifications for interjecting themselves into sacred democratic processes.
The government, and particularly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, should be aware that letting domestic political parties (especially if they belong to the governing coalition) or other governmental institutions interfere in foreign elections is not only inappropriate, but also invites political parties from other countries to do the same. As Colombia’s 2022 election fast approaches, political parties from neighboring countries where the Centro Democrático has interfered may also choose not to remain sidelined, to the detriment of the election’s integrity.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk
All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of Global Americans.