Why you should care
Because Aida Avella’s return to politics may be the best sign yet that Colombia’s 50-year civil war is heading toward a calming conclusion.
Aida Avella’s political career has taken her from the smoking wreckage of a bazooka attack in Bogotá to a perfume counter in Geneva. Now, just months after returning to Colombia from 17 years in exile, she’s pitched herself into the sharp end of a presidential election campaign.
Her return in many ways is a metaphor for dramatic changes in Colombia, which sits strategically on the northwest tip of South America — south of Panama and next to Venezuela.
Armed Colombians on the far left and the far right have been killing each other for so many decades that it’s hard to imagine that the country could ever create a middle stable enough to sustain inclusive, free and fair elections. Avella’s return suggests it might just be happening.
They tried to eliminate us, but they didn’t eliminate us all. We have a life force, we have ideas … this [destruction] can never happen again.
– Aida Avella
Even just a year ago, no one could have predicted she’d play this role. Avella was drafted as the presidential candidate for the Patriotic Union (UP) last November, and later agreed to run for vice president in a coalition with leftist Alternative Democratic Pole leader Clara López, a more establishment figure.
“Political genocide” nearly destroyed the UP 25 years ago, when right-wing armed groups murdered thousands of party members, whom they saw as the civilian face of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The Colombian government revoked its legal status in 2002. Then the UP came alive again in 2013 amidst improved security and renewed prospects for peace.
“They tried to eliminate us, but they didn’t eliminate us all,” Avella told OZY. “We have a life force, we have ideas, we have the feeling that this [destruction] can never happen again.”
Now 65 years old, Avella is small and tidy, often decked out in conservative business suits. She’s a natural politician — warm and open with a motherly charm and quick humor, but a firebrand on the stump.
At a campaign rally in the city of Medellín, she rails against injustices in Colombia, while also laying out a vision: investing heavily in education, implementing a public health care system and state pensions, and carrying out rural land reform. It’s a blueprint for the “motherland” she wants to create with running mate López. With elections now weeks away, Avella and López are contenders for a second-round runoff, even if victory remains a long shot against current center-right president Juan Manuel Santos.
As a child in the small industrial town of Sogamoso, Avella saw rural refugees flood the town after fighting — known as “La Violencia” (The Violence) — broke out between the Liberal and Conservative parties.
Her grandfather, a former Liberal city councilor, taught her respect for education and for women’s role in society. “If you educate a man, you educate an individual; if you educate a woman, you educate a family,” he would tell her as he taught her to read.
She earned her reputation as a tenacious rabble-rouser in Bogotá in the 1970s… . Death threats quickly followed.
A staunch atheist in a Catholic world, Avella’s grandfather also taught her to question Colombia’s rigid conservative values and supplied her with literature banned by local religious schools.
She earned her reputation as a tenacious rabble-rouser in Bogotá in the 1970s, working as a labor organizer with the education union. Death threats quickly followed.
Politics came with the launch of the UP in 1985, following the first-ever high-level talks between the FARC and the Colombian government. Insurgents were to join democratic politics through the new party. A wave of optimism swept up leftists, peace advocates, the idealistic and the disillusioned.
“We saw it as our great hope,” she says.
As the party gained traction in elections, the FARC’s enemies — drug traffickers and state-backed counter-insurgency paramilitaries — attacked the UP, claiming an estimated 3,000 lives. The killing continued long after the peace process with the FARC had failed and the UP had severed ties to the insurgency.
Throughout, Avella was a rising star. She became president of the UP in 1991, following the assassination of her two predecessors.
After security forces foiled two assassination plots targeting Avella, paramilitary commanders dispatched a hit squad armed with guns and a bazooka.
Avella escaped, but her life degenerated into a paranoid nightmare.
“I couldn’t go shopping, I couldn’t pick my kids up from school — life had completely closed down,” she says.
So Avella fled with her family to Geneva, where she earned a livelihood working at a chocolatier’s shop and a perfume counter.
I have found people have this immense capacity to call for tolerance, to leave behind the past, to finish the war, to say, ‘Look — we have to build a different country.’
– Aida Avella
The revival of the UP drew her back despite her family’s opposition. Intending to stay only a few weeks, she was overcome by emotion and couldn’t refuse when the party drafted her to run for office.
“There was everything in the Patriotic Union Congress — feelings of survival, feelings of hope, sadness, joy, all combined,” she says.
Colombia has changed. The FARC is in renewed peace talks. The drug lords that hunted the party down are dead or in prison. The UP’s paramilitary enemies have demobilized, even though a new-generation paramilitary-criminal hybrid organization has developed.
“I have found people have this immense capacity to call for tolerance, to leave behind the past, to finish the war, to say, ‘Look — we have to build a different country,’” she says.
Obstacles to change are still enormous. Shortly after starting her campaign, Avella received death threats again. The stigma of the UP’s association with the unpopular insurgency persists, and the party remains on the political periphery. She’ll need to continue drawing on the gritty persistence that’s kept her going just to make her voice heard.