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| 2/11/2009 12:00:00 AM

The reinvention of Senator Piedad Córdoba

Controversial Senator Piedad Córdoba could, surprisingly, win the Liberal Party’s nomination for president. How did she do it?

In November 1962 and after losing the election to be governor of California, a grieving Richard Nixon told the world, “You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” That seemed to be the end of the end of the controversial politician. Six years later he would be elected president of the United States.

In July last year, following “Operation Checkmate” (Operación Jaque), Liberal Party Senator Piedad Córdoba was like Nixon. Fatigued, alone and without a future. Her unfavorable image was at 76 percent- only outdone by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela who had threatened Colombia with war. The issue of humanitarian exchange- her political cause – was completely tangled up after the successful Colombian military operation. She was considered so irrelevant, that Invamer-Gallup stopped including Córdoba in their select list of national personalities about whom they asked the Colombian people every month.

Today, thanks to her efforts for the liberation of politicians Alan Jara and Sigifredo López and of the four members of the military, Córdoba, in the words of a leading Liberal Party figure “is no longer a minus, but a plus, in the political arena.” Such is the new lease on life that she now has that the senator could win the Liberal Party primary next June 7, according to what has emerged from the Opinómetro-Datexco poll contacted by SEMANA. She has triple the support of former minister Rafael Pardo who has spent years campaigning (32 % to 12 %).

That is a not an inconsiderable feat for a politician who barely got 40,000 votes in the Senate elections of 2002 and 2006. Both times she entered Congress by the skin of her teeth.

Córdoba’s metamorphosis of someone without a future to a serious player is due to, as is always the case in politics, as much to her own merits as to other circumstances. Since she broke onto the national stage in 1996 in defense of embattled president Ernesto Samper, Córdoba has never cared about going against the grain. It is perhaps that rebellious attitude that allowed her to overcome the series of blows that she took for her closeness to Chávez and think that even in the midst of the triumphant euphoria that Operation Checkmate generated, that there was a possibility to achieve new liberations.
When last September she revealed a letter sent to the FARC as a launching pad for a back and forth of letters, she was ridiculed by many in the media and by analysts.
Nobody gave her any credit for her efforts. She maintained that perception even after the FARC answered affirmatively to the exchange of letters. Just last December she began to convert the nonbelievers. Curiously it was President Alvaro Uribe who set off the alarms by saying that the FARC and a “political leader, are setting us up in a trap. Right now I say to them, we do not accept it,” he said. But he did. The new Córdoba of 2009 played a fundamental role in that.

This was not the same Córdoba who a year ago regretted in public the death of “Raúl Reyes,” traveled in the official delegation of Chávez and did not restrain herself by insulting the government. This time she has been characterized by her deliberation and discretion. In contrast to the Chávez orchestrated liberations in which the senator did not miss a chance for a photo, in Villavicencio and in Cali she allowed the events and the freed hostages to speak for themselves.

That 32 percent of Liberals see her as an option for their party shows that she is on the right track. Today, Córdoba denies any political aspiration. That is understandable, because her effectiveness as a facilitator of a dialogue between the government and the FARC depends on the humanitarian nature of her work. That was something that did not happen in the show of Emmanuel, Chávez, Kirchner and Oliver Stone in December 2007 and January 2008. In other words, anything that looks like a media circus generates mistrust.

The newly freed hostages have asked Córdoba to continue her work, although it is evident that that will not be possible if she seeks the Liberal Party candidacy. But the senator more than anyone knows that in politics you have to take advantage of your popularity. For the first time in her life she leads a national poll.

The Colombian people, or at least the Liberals, are recognizing her efforts to help liberate Colombia from the horrible scar of kidnapping, and especially political kidnapping, in which people can remain more than ten years rotting in the jungle.

Córdoba’s reinvention, however, would not be so strong if it weren’t for the fact that the anti-Uribe leadership is without a leader. The main left-leaning party, the Polo Democrático, which thanks to its electoral results in 2006, seemed a plausible ideological counterpart to Uribe, is immersed in internal struggles among its various factions. Its leaders don’t seem to have the time or the vision to propose alternatives to the Uribe agenda. With regards to the armed conflict, Córdoba has gained the advantage. She is the most well-known representative of those who support a negotiation with the FARC. The senator has, with her humanitarian actions and her political positions, become the left’s most potent symbol.

Without a doubt, the result of the poll is encouraging for Córdoba and her nucleus of followers. But what lies ahead is a winding road full of potential pitfalls.

To begin with, as is always the case with public opinion, enchantment is temporary. The poll reflects in large part the emotion that the Colombian people felt seeing the released hostages hug their families. As Sigifredo López told millions of Colombians on television who witnessed his return to freedom, “this unilateral liberation is not a humanitarian gesture by the FARC, but rather of Piedad.” The question is whether they will think the same way if the senator throws her hat into the ring officially and becomes a candidate for the Liberal Party presidential nomination. That will disperse, without a doubt, the humanitarian aura that has surrounded Córdoba, as it would link her much more to the mundane reality of politics and personal ambition, and would distance her from the noble and idyllic of peace and the public interest.

The other risk is her well-known loquaciousness. Will she be able to control her mouth and avoid unfortunate statements like when she mourned the death of “Tirofijo” or when she said in an international setting that Latin American countries should break relations with Colombia?

It mustn’t be forgotten that the FARC embody a great part of the hatred that the Colombian people feel. It was precisely the perception that Córdoba was too close to the guerrillas’ interests that generated her high unfavorable ratings last year and that was the reason why she generated resistance, most of all among the middle and upper classes.

The senator has always been a polarizing figure. That is, simultaneously, what makes her attractive for certain niches of admirers and what distances her from the majority of the population. That radicalism rarely produces enough votes to win a national election and even less so in a Liberal Party primary which is open to the whole population. It would not be surprising that more than one supporter of Uribe would end up voting in the primary in order to put the brakes on the impetus of Córdoba.

Perhaps a high ranking official of the Liberal Party was right when he told SEMANA that the senator’s agenda is the same as any politician during an election year: get re-elected. It is possibly there, in congressional elections, where Córdoba could have a greater impact if she heads a list in favor of negotiations with the FARC.

During her public life, Piedad Córdoba has had a more than enough courage and has lacked patience. With her recent activities she has accumulated political capital and credibility. If she does not want to repeat the story of falling into disgrace, she will have to avoid indecisions like that of this week, that went unnoticed given the magnitude of the positive news of the liberations, but which diminishes her credibility. “I am not working anymore. It is sufficient,” she said in the style of Richard Nixon. “I believe that people do not value my work. They think that this is a media show. So I think that if there is someone who can do it better than I can, they should do it.” Just minutes later, in front of the same audience she said, “here I am and here I will stay.” That is certain. Because the only thing clear in the latest events is that there will be a Piedad Córdoba for a long time in national politics.

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