Colombia went to the polls on Sunday to vote for a new Congress. One of the candidates was Juan Valdes – not to be confused with Colombia’s iconic coffee famer Juan Valdez – an aspiring congressman from the city of Medellin.
Colombia Reports followed Juan for a day of hard campaigning. With little in the way of funds, his campaign appears to run on sheer willpower and the efforts of his team of volunteers.
A day in the life of Juan Valdes
Juan Valdes is not difficult to spot in a crowd – he spent most of his campaign surrounded by a team of helpers dressed in giant pencil suits, the symbol of a campaign whose flagship policies are on education. He has served as the secretary of civic culture and the undersecretary for education for Medellin; a career politician with big ambitions.
A week before the March 14 congressional elections, I went to Juan’s office, located in the quiet Laureles neighborhood of Medellin. The office is modest, but bustling with activity, which echoes what I saw of his campaign, run more on energy than on cash.
Valdes’ campaign is very different than those of other Congress candidates, in regards to politics, structure and – most important in Colombian politics – financing. Juan Valdes hails from Sergio Fajardo‘s political movement; a group of congressional candidates under the direction of Fajardo, one of Colombia’s presidential hopefuls for the May elections. Because the political movement is newly established, it lacks the financial weight and established support base of other, more entrenched political parties across Colombia.
Juan Valdes launched his campaign in June 2009. It began with only three members: him, his assistant Natalia, and one other person, and still relies entirely on grassroots fund-raising and door-to-door campaigning. As Natalia explained to me, all of Juan’s campaign money comes from friends and local business, and is dwarfed by the budgets of other campaigns. “Other candidates will spend more money on March 14 [election day] than we spend during the entire campaign. It is absurd!”
Due to their limited budget, the Valdes team had to develop an alternative strategy to build, person by person, a constituency of supporters. From barrio to barrio across Medellin, Juan has focused on connecting with local neighborhood leaders and residents and explaining his political platform to them. Leveraging the success and acclaim generated by Fajardo’s term as mayor of Medellin from 2003-2007, Juan started with a small list of contacts, which grew substantially as he worked to increase his network.
Juan’s campaign office was filled with about a dozen individuals all working on their own projects. A group of people sat at a table putting together information packs, while others were glued to their computer screens, working on marketing or planning the campaign’s grand finale party.
Natalia, Juan’s assistant, explained that only two of the team members are actually paid. The rest were donating their time and energy to help Juan and his political platform succeed. The office has a good atmosphere, and Juan seems to be on a friendly and informal basis with his team.
Juan talks sex
The first campaign activity for my day with Juan was to attend the filming of a live talk show on a local cable TV station, which had invited him as a special guest. Accompanying Juan in his official campaign van was one of his human pencils (who follows him everywhere he goes). The TV show, surprisingly, had nothing to do with politics or his campaign, but was an educational show about sex. Juan was invited by the host to share with the audience his knowledge and expertise on the responsibilities of parenting.
For Juan, this was not a joke or a waste of time, but an opportunity “to show the public where he stands on sexual issues, and to show the public who he is as a person, where his morals stand,” his head of communications, a volunteer, told me.
Juan, the consummate politician, clearly had no anxieties about being in front of a live camera. His ability to answer at length questions that he had not prepared for was impressive, as I listened to him explain his views on Medellin’s teenage pregnancy rate under the glare of the overhead “interrogation lights” used to illuminate the set.
After filming ended, Juan bumped into the host for another TV show, and immediately struck up a conversation with her. Juan, always “on” and looking for angles to help his campaign, insisted to the host that she should invite him onto her show. She replied that the program had no room for anything political. Ever the politician, Juan replied that he wouldn’t talk about anything related to politics nor to his campaign, and that he would just like to share his knowledge and opinions on the topic of her show. She thanked him for his offer, and said that his people should get in touch with her people to set something up.
In the public eye
After the interview, I was invited to lunch with Juan and his wife. Seated next to his partner, the strains of a public campaign on Juan started to become clear to me. This was one of the brief moments in his day that he was able to spend with his wife, and here he was, answering my questions.
As Juan explained, spending fifteen hours a day – or more – on the campaign trail puts a lot of stress on his family. The decision to run for Congress in the first place, he said, was “a mutual decision” that he shared with his wife, who has also sacrificed a lot during the campaign. “When I decided to launch my campaign, it was a decision that required a lot of commitment. It was a shared decision with my wife … and with my son. Both have been responsible throughout this process for the decision to run”, and “both have had to donate a lot of their free time, to give up so much of their time.”
But according to Juan, becoming a public figure hasn’t changed his life that much. There hasn’t been a need to change his routine in regards to security, he explained. People recognize him on the streets and approach him, but, Juan says, “This makes me feel proud, when people come up to me. Yes, I’ve lost privacy as I’ve become more of a public figure, but we don’t have anything to hide, so it’s okay. Being recognized, this connection to the people, translates into a great responsibility and commitment to the people.” In spite of his newly formed public image, Juan does not use security while campaigning in Medellin. As Natalia had said to me, “It’s really not needed – We don’t use any!” However, when Juan ventures into surrounding municipalities, he does take a police escort.
Juan went on to explain, “My son and wife understand the sacrifice, and that it is for the rest of the children and young people of Medellin and Colombia.” Not long after he finished this sentence, the van pulled up and it was time for our next stop.
Touring the streets
After lunch I followed Juan and over a dozen of his supporters – including the ubiquitous pencils – downtown to commence a “street walking tour,” as they called it. The campaign team started out with over 1000 pamphlets to hand out to people on the streets, which were all gone within 30 minutes.
The tour started with a tour around a commercial center in downtown Medellin. Juan and his supporters walked up to shopkeepers, introduced themselves, explained about the campaign and what it stands for, and then moved on to the neighboring shop; repeated hundreds of times. Juan’s speed and energy were, by this point in the afternoon, pretty impressive, as he moved from shop to shop, all the while maintaining a broad smile and introducing himself with a handshake. Juan said that he hoped that this strategy of “hitting the streets” and meeting people would pay off on the March 14 election.
Juan’s tour of various commercial centers, with non-stop walking, talking, smiling and handshakes in downtown Medellin lasted for over two hours. He didn’t even break a sweat. He sometimes did this several times a day, he explained.
Lots of effort for a small return
By this point, I was noticeably tired. The constant pick-up-and-go routine had started to take its toll on me, and I began to develop a new level of respect for those that put themselves through this, day after day after day. We moved on to a vocational training institute where Juan had been invited to give a presentation to 150 students on the topic of education; a key part of his platform.
Juan stood in front of the large audience alongside his helpful human pencil. As Juan’s presentation continued, the students became noticeably restless. His skills seemed to be failing him, as the students seemed more interested in the pencil, and what they would be doing later that night. But as the presentation came to a close, a number of students approached Juan for a private chat. While the majority rushed out the door, a large number of students were interested in helping him out with his campaign, and Juan’s supporters collected their details.
Juan says that he knows his campaign strategy of reaching the masses through sheer hard work would yield only small returns, in terms of the number of supporters gained. But given the fact he was trying to build a support base from scratch, there was no other choice.
With this principle in mind, we set off to end the day by meeting a small group of businessmen who were playing a recreational soccer match at a stadium on the other side of town. It was now raining, and Juan got on the phone to try and reach his assistant who had organized the meeting. After several attempts, Natalia finally answered, but she couldn’t give a definitive answer on where exactly we were suppose to meet the men.
After driving in circles around the stadium complex for several minutes, we decided to get out of the van and brave the rain. We ran over to the safety of the stadium and began to look around for familiar faces: none to be found.
We hung around for a little while, hoping someone would recognize us, but no one did. Juan knew from the start that the prospect of actually finding the group would be slim. He also knew that if he did find the group, it would only be a handful of people. However, this did not stop him from making the effort; working late into the night, in the rain, all alone, just to shake a few hands and explain his policy plans once again.
As of Monday, Juan’s vote count surpassed 12,000. His political faction of Sergio Fajardo followers didn’t perform as well as they had hoped. However, it appears that Juan and his party managed to receive the minimum amount of votes to elevate Juan to the House of Representatives.
It appears that Juan Valdes’ strategy, pouring his blood sweat and tears, and spending hundreds upon hundreds of hours out on the streets of Medellin, expressing his policies to anyone who will listen, pounding the city’s pavements as he strove for each vote, paid off in the end.
Juan explains that his motivation comes from within, “I feel it inside, a drive to become a leader.” Juan’s success story is more than a victory to him and his political movement. It is also a victory for Colombia; as Juan is just one of the many hundreds of candidates across the country who can now campaign as openly as he did, without fear for safety – quite a contrast to Colombian politics only a decade ago.
So where does Juan go from here? Well, as he said on his website following news of the victory, “The House of Representatives is the means, not the end. Our goal is transformation, and now we have the key to do it!”