Aida Avella, leftist presidential candidate for the newly revived Patriotic Union (Union Patriotica-UP) political party, has returned to Colombia after nearly two decades of exile to run for Colombia’s highest office, placing issues ranging from education and health care to pensions and corruption at the forefront of her presidential campaign.
When asked if she considered herself an ambassador of Colombia during her 17 years in exile, Avella laughed.
“An ambassador? Perhaps an ambassador for the poor who have no voice, for the [Colombians] who still have so many problems,” the presidential hopeful told Colombia Reports.
Born in the central state of Boyaca, Avella was influenced, and to a large extent raised, by her grandfather, who emphasized the importance of education. “If you educate a woman, you educate a family,” he would say to her, a principle that stuck with her throughout her life and career in politics. Indeed, it was during her education at Bogota’s National University in the 1960′s that she discoveredher passion for politics and her political voice alongside the country’s burgeoning left.
When the UP was founded as a broad leftist coalition in 1984, following peace talks between the FARC rebel group and the Colombian government, an enthusiastic Avella would sign on as an activist.
PROFILE: Union Patriotica (Patriotic Union)
“The Patriotic Union was born out of a peace process. It is a movement dedicated to constructing peace,” said Avella.
In the ensuing years, the UP would be systematically eradicated by armed paramilitary groups and drug traffickers collaborating with elements of the Colombian state. Thousands of members and sympathizers of the leftist cause were assassinated in the late 1980s and early the 90s. A rising star in the party, Avella was a participant in the 1990 Constituent Assembly that would form Colombia’s current constitution, and became the UP’s president in 1991. Her ascent put her on various target lists.
After a third assassination attempt on her life in 1996, during which hitmen fired a rocket at her car that ultimately failed to kill her, Avella decided that she could not stay in Colombia any longer.
“After that [assassination attempt] I had to leave. That was the third. That was enough.”
Avella spent 17 years in exile in Geneva, Switzerland, before returning in late 2013 to accept the UP’s nomination to run for Colombia’s presidency. In the meantime, however, her political work did not cease.
On the contrary, “I abandoned the country in order to continue to work for Colombia from the exterior,” she said. “I never stopped working. I left, but I never left, I never separated myself, I was always there, with patriotism inside of me, and doing many things for Colombia.”
In addition to working for various international organizations supporting trade unions across the globe in order to “pay the bills,” Avella was in constant communication with Colombians, aiding employees, workers, and judges of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, many of whom need frequent representation or a voice with international human and labor rights groups in Geneva. This work she did pro bono.
“All of it is political work […] it’s work that comes out of the soul. No one was paying us. We do work to live in the morning…but in the evening, we do work that is very special, very special because we were doing it for the political participation [of] marginalized [Colombians].”
Many Colombians travel to Geneva to seek such a voice, but cannot afford hotels. So for years, Avella hosted people in her home or with friends.
“When the political asylum seekers are not here… indigenous people are here, when the indigenous people are not here, the workers are here, when the workers are not here, the women are here, when the women are not here the Afro-descendent Colombians are here, where the Afro-descendants are not here, the artists are here […] There are always lots of people here from Colombia […] it’s extraordinary,” she said.
While in exile, Avella realized not only that there were many Colombians outside of the country who needed help abroad, but also that there was an entire demographic of Colombians in the exterior, very much interested in helping their native country.
Importance of Colombians in the Exterior
One of the presidential candidate’s focuses moving forward will be to pay more attention to the estimated five million Colombian citizens who are currently living abroad.
“These five million people […] make up almost 12% of the population of Colombia, and these people contribute to the economy — 4% of the GDP of Colombia,” asserted Avella.
The former council woman of Bogota illustrated that this economic influence comes from many citizens sending large portions of their income back to Colombia so that family members back home can buy buy houses or provide for children. “The money that they send are not loans,” said Avella, “they do not have interest, they don’t need reimbursements, it’s not credit. It is simply money that is being injected into the economy without any strings attached.
“Mines in Colombia,” the politician pointed out for perspective, “produce 2.2% of GDP…this is what the mines produce, and Colombians in the exterior produce almost double.”
Despite this, Avella said that she has seen many Colombians suffering in the exterior due to a lack of “official papers” and “basic social services” such as pensions.
The 17-year exile criticized Colombian ambassadors for not doing enough to help citizens living outside of the country.
“What are the ambassadors doing for the people who have spent twenty years living outside of the country? How have our ambassadors not made any contract with the countries in which our people work? When they want to go back when they’re old, the pension doesn’t stay with them, and they cannot get a pension without papers.”
Pensions, Health Care, and Education
Domestically, pensions proved to be the target to one of three major “basic social services” reforms that Avella said she would prioritize if elected to the presidency.
“We are planning to give pensions to all Colombians who are 65 years old,” claimed the presidential hopeful, “because in Colombia, you can get pensions for jobs such as working in a factory or working for the state, but there are many workers that are left out.”
Avella said that there needs to be an established system to provide all workers with such benefits, adding that farmers, for example, who would normally not receive a pension could pay just “100 pesos or 1,000 pesos” periodically to have “savings” when they reach retirement age.
Furthermore, the politician said that she intends to form a team that will make the pension acquisition process more practical, noting that the status quo demands 36 papers to be filled out to apply for one pension.
On health care, another reform priority, Avella spoke unequivocally and concisely: “Health is a basic right, for the entire population.”
“In Colombia, health and healthcare is a good. Healthcare is a business that gets millions and millions of dollars. Health should not be a good,” she said, referencing broader worldwide movements for easier less-costly access to healthcare.
The candidate emphasized that workers in particular should not go uninsured.
The third public policy platform of the Avella campaign relates to Colombia’s trouble education system, one marred in financial turmoil and international standardized test scores that fall among the lowest in the world
“Education in Colombia, well, we’ll see […] the National University (her alma mater) is falling to pieces,” she said, “There is barely any budget.”
The former Bogota councilwoman acknowledged that the public education system is plagued by corruption, and that addressing said corruption is a necessary precursor to any more aggressive education reform.
“There are so many things that we could do […] We are outlining plans […] We are going to fight against corruption.”
Corruption, she said, is a problem that extends beyond the education sector.
“There are elemental things that the state has to reform. For example, the notaries, they are a horrendous source of corruption.”
Notaries, she claimed, do favors for politicians to guarantee reelections in exchange for large sums of money.
“Notaries must be put in place. If we don’t, they will remain in the pockets of politicians […] It’s a million-peso business […] [Furthermore] the politicians are the brothers, cousins, families of these notaries, and they’re not going to take away [their ability to work],” Avella explained.
One of the largest practical problems with this type of corruption, according to the exiled politician, is that all of this money is not being taxed or going toward programs within the state, but rather it is just perpetuating an elevated class of the political elite.
“This is wealth that leaves the hands of the state, and […] ends up in the hands of this political class that has been in congress for years and years, and what does that do to the country? It makes it very unequal.”
Avella stated that she would champion a law regulating the salaries of congressmen, which recently increased despite widespread public opposition to a pay raise.
“There is no such law […] and that is why we have found that Colombian congressmen for example make double the amount of money as [equivalent politicians] in Spain. That’s not right.”
She continued saying that the position of the presidency should take a 50% pay cut: “That would be more than enough.”
What the UP Stands for today?
Aida Avella emphasized that the UP is a party of peace, and insisted that her and her party’s political stance is less polarizing or radical than people believe.
“The things that we want and that we fight for are very general things — we want the well being for the population, we want people to have a certain minimum lifestyle,” the candidate explained.
“When there are children dying of malnutrition, there is not a democracy. When citizens don’t have the right to health care, there is not a democracy. And there is not a democracy when there is not a reliable education system. There is not a democracy where Colombians still have to sleep in houses made of cardboard and plastic,” said Avella, maintaining that these topics represent “worldly fundamental rights” that can reach a general audience.
While the prodigal candidate has continuously polled in last place since the announcement of her intent to run, she said she remains undeterred and will fight until the country achieves peace.
“If this generation achieves peace, and achieves the social reforms that [Colombia] needs, they will be remembered in the history of this country […] This generation will be judged.”
- Interview with Aida Avella (Colombia Reports)
- Aida Abella: historia de mi vida (Las Dos Orillas-Aida Avella)
*Note: Candidate Aida Avella’s last name is spelled with a “v.” However,when the politician was first in politics, many used a “b” instead. Today, both spellings (AVella and ABella) can be found across different media sources, and the campaign has decided to allow different outlets to use what they prefer.