Americas

Vote Sizing Heats Up Colombia

Steve Glickman (left) and Douglas Batista (right) at Radio Colombia Network. (Photo courtesy of Patty Bates-Ballard)

When the president's cousin gets arrested and seventeen union activists are murdered in four months, Colombia sounds like a place to scratch off your list of possible vacation destinations. But a group of political reformers has a different Colombia story to tell. It's a story of energy, hope, and promise. According to Canadian organizer Steve Glickman, Colombia's at a tipping point and anything can happen. Glickman and Colombian-born and United States-raised Douglas Batista have found Colombians hungry for a revolutionary democratic reform they call vote sizing, or votos calibrados.

Getting the Message Out

In April, Batista, Glickman, and seven other organizers toured the country in two 1980's era compact cars, piquing interest with musical events and T-shirts. At a Magdalena University forum, their idea to give poor, working- and middle-class people a larger vote and more say in decision-making was a hit. "¡Finalmente!" people said again and again. "Someone wants to listen to our voices, our ideas, our problems."

From Santa Marta to Bucaramanga, from Bogotá to Medellín people welcomed the message with open arms. "When a few wealthy people wield all the power, things are out of balance," says Glickman. "A few live in luxury, leaving the rest to live in misery and despair. Eventually, people get fed up and usually react violently. But vote sizing offers true revolution without violence."

Media coverage has been generous, including articles in La Republica, Diario Magdalena, La Vanguardia Liberal, and coverage by Mastelevision, Radio Colombia Network, Radio Galeon, Radio Uni Magdalena, Radio Catolico Metropolitan, Colmundo Radio, and more.

Dangerous Work

The rewards are huge, but so are the risks. "What we're doing right now is really dangerous," says Batista. "We're getting involved in people's bread and butter." While the decades of Colombian cocaine-fueled violence has subsided significantly due to increased visibility of military personnel, leftist guerillas and rightist paramilitary groups still move with relative ease in many areas, and they don't take too kindly to interlopers. Murders of union organizers are on the rise again. In the streets of Bucaramanga, while listening to a woman share her concerns, Batista noticed two ex-paramilitaries standing nearby intently listening to every word. A friend who is a senator also warned him of the danger.

Vote sizing is a hot topic on the streets of Colombia. (Photo courtesy of Patty Bates-Ballard)

And when Glickman and Batista came upon an unmoving line of at least 1,000 trucks and cars before dawn on May 2, they went around them. At the front of the line were 100 or more police officers involved in the blockade and arrest of one of the world's most wanted drug kingpins, Miguel Ángel Mejía. After a brief heated exchange, the officers let the team of vote sizers pass through.

The Challenges

Why take this risk? "In my area of La Maria, you can buy a bowl of soup for 25 cents," says Batista. "But most people, if they eat breakfast, they don't eat lunch. If they eat lunch, they don't eat supper. There's an abundance of food for those who can afford it, yet many people are starving. Sewer water runs through the streets just a block from my house. The current system allows the elites to ignore the needs of ordinary people."

While Batista hopes the United States-Colombia trade deal will make food more available at better prices, it's not the kind of system overhaul that he believes is really needed. "The trade deal will be manipulated by those in power," he warns. "Ordinary Colombians physically have much less than Americans. But even after all this country's been through, Colombians are much more optimistic. And they're hungry for a real voice. They know what needs to be done to fix the problems they face every day."

Instituto para el Voto Calibrado

The group sees democracy as a symbolic principle that has lost most of its practical application in this devastated country still brimming with so much potential. According to Batista, all a candidate has to do to get elected in Colombia is have enough money to become known as the one who is going to win. What that candidate stands for may not even be known. "We're going to change that," he says. "By creating the Institute for Vote Sizing in Cartagena, we'll raise people's consciousness of their vote and discourage them from just giving it away. We are a tool for the people to use to help themselves."

Glickman also supports a vote sizing effort in Cameroon headed by Julius Awafong. Awafong had just returned from a videotaping trip to northern Cameroon when social unrest broke out across the country in late February. Students reacted to Cameroonian president Paul Biya's statement that he planned to run for office again in 2011 in violation of the constitution.

After spending seven futile years promoting his concepts in Canada and the United States, Glickman plans to move to Colombia permanently to finally realize his dream of amplifying the voices of the voiceless. Says Glickman: "Colombia is the engine of Latin America. This is a place where vote sizing can succeed."

Stay tuned to the new Web site, votocalibrado.org, for updates. You can see vote sizing on MySpace at www.myspace.com/votesizer.

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