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Latin America

Colombians vote for hostage legislators

Gechem was eventually released

The FARC released Gechem in February 2008

VILLA COLOMBIA, Colombia, March 9, 2002 (AFP) The son of a kidnapped senator and the stand-in for an abducted congresswoman made a final campaign stop here late Saturday, trying to convince voters to cast ballots in Sunday’s congressional elections for two absent candidates.

Carlos Eduardo Gechem, 25, the son of abducted Huila department Senator Jorge Eduardo Gechem, shook hands at this impoverished settlement south-east of Bogota along with Alfonso Castro, who is standing in for kidnapped Representative Consuelo Gonzalez.

Both men want voters to cast ballots for their candidates, who along with four other politicians, are being held hostage by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. By Colombian law, abducted candidates can run for office.

“Jorge Eduardo and Consuelo have been serving Huila for 25 years,” Castro told a crowd of about 40 residents that gathered at sundown on a narrow, dusty neighborhood street in this settlement outside outskirts of Neiva, the departmental capital. “We should vote for these people out of solidarity and respect for them.”

Colombian voters go to the polls Sunday to elect candidates to fill all of the country’s 267 senate and chamber of representatives positions. Representatives are elected locally, but senators are elected nationwide.

Senator Gechem was chair of the Colombian senate’s peace commission and perhaps the most powerful regional Liberal Party politico in the southeastern Colombia. His political base extends well into the vast jungle and grasslands region the FARC controlled until weeks ago.

It was precisely Hechem’s daring kidnapping that ended three years of government-FARC peace talks, and resulted in soldiers storming the Switzerland-sized former haven area.

FARC guerrillas hijacked a passenger airplane on February 20 that was carrying Gechem and 36 other people. The rebels landed the airplane on a remote highway and took off with the senator and an aide.

Gechem’s son Carlos Eduardo was in France, studying political science at Paris II university, when he got the news. “It was quite a blow,” he said. Ironically, his thesis is on abducted Colombian legislators.

Like all legislators being held by the FARC, Gechem is a bargaining chip designed to pressure legislators into approving a law authorizing a hostage swap for imprisoned guerrillas.

Carlos Eduardo dropped everything and traveled to Colombia to be with his mother and help in the campaign. Although the family has had no news from the senator, Carlos Eduardo said he felt much better just being home.

“We have felt an enormous amount of solidarity from the voters,” he told AFP. “People are tired of so much kidnapping.”

The FARC is holding some 750 hostages, including soldiers, police officers, and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, whose name will be on the ballot in the May 26 election.

Gechem was kidnapped just 15 days before the election, so much of his campaigning had been completed. Consuelo Gonzalez, however, was kidnapped five months ago, and is on the ballot against her family’s wishes.

Carlos Eduardo said that money dried up soon after his father’s abduction. And money for Gonzalez’s campaign “has been very, very tight,” said stand-in Castro.

If Gechem is elected, Carlos Eduardo hopes his father will be released by the time senators are to take office in July. If not, an alternate to be determined will likely get his spot.

Over the past days Pastrana has been urging Colombians to cast ballots in defiance of left- and right-wing insurgents aimed at undermining the country’s democracy.

Huila shoe store vendor Jhon Valdez, however, has no plans to vote. His main complaint: “That blanket of a ballot is too complicated.”

The Sunday ballots are the size of two newspaper pages, and voters must hunt for their candidate’s three-digit number, located next to his or her photograph, then mark it with a pen.

At the Villa Colombia rally, local organizer Luis Carlos Morera urged the crowd to vote early. “Get up and sunrise because the lines will be long,” he said. “And don’t just stand around cheering, make sure to cast your ballots and get your neighbors to vote too.”

Morera said that he would hand out cards with the location of area voting booths. The card conveniently also has the photographs of Gechem and Gonzalez, along with their ballot number.

Copyright 2002 Agence France Presse

SECTION: International News

LENGTH: 725 words

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About Carlos Hamann

Washington D.C.-based writer and editor

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