In the span of a few months, the Tomato Party has gone from an anonymous group of pranksters to a legitimate, certified political force, making waves in social media circles and preparing to launch candidates in the upcoming national elections.
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Last week, a movement started by three university students with laptops became the newest official political party in Colombia, collecting the 50,000 signatures necessary to register with the electoral authorities after less than a month of petitioning.
Colombia Reports sat down with Tomato Party founders Daniel Quintero, Elli Schnaider and Juan Carlos Upegui to discuss social media in politics, the state of Colombian democracy and their vision for the future of their movement and the country it hopes to change.
From an organizational standpoint, being internet-savvy is the strength of the Tomato Party, and its primary platform going forward.
In the span of a few weeks, they have gone from some 5,000 followers on social media to over 45,000 on Facebook and Twitter combined. They’ve used online promotional tools to organize protests to spread their message, including a series of widely popular ‘cacerolazos’ – in which protestors bang pots and pans – during nationwide agricultural strikes in September. They view the internet as the forum that will help to determine the direction of their movement.
“What the internet gives us is true democracy and inclusion,” said Upegui. “We are only three people, but with Twitter and Facebook we can stay active around the country; anyone with a computer can participate. And we can have our discussions in front of everyone, open to the public, so that there’s no mystery or secret deals, so that everyone can have their voice.”
The recent campaign to gain signatures was coordinated through the party’s website, and now that the signatures have been collected, said Schnaider, party members — who can also register on the party website — will have direct say in the candidate list, through an online deliberation process. Policy platforms, too, will be debated in social media spaces.
“Of course, in Colombia not everyone has access to the internet,” Quintero pointed out. “Many people don’t, actually, especially the people in the countryside, the people who have always been kept out of politics. For that reason, the internet is just our starting point. It will always remain central to what we do and how we operate. But the ultimate goal is to bring a digital conversation to the real world, which we’ve already done with the ‘cacerolazos,’ with the signature campaigns and other projects.”
In social media, the visionaries behind the Tomato Party think they have found a key advantage over traditional political organizations in Colombia.
“In two months, we have more followers than most of the political parties in Colombia,” said Upegui. “The internet is the future. Digital media, digital communication – they are the future. In ten years, everything in politics is going to be run online. But political bodies are always the slowest to change in society, and the other parties in Colombia haven’t realized the potential of the internet — what it means not just in terms of promotion, but participation, involvement.”
“We think we have tapped into something powerful and different,” said Quintero. “And by the time they understand what’s going on, everyone else in Colombia is going to have to struggle to catch up.”
Quintero explained that other political parties in Colombia still view social media as a “superficial toy” to “count members.” For the Partido del Tomate — which is both a reference to the rotten vegetables the members throw in their protests, and a name that, in Spanish, literally means the “Take it Youself Party” — the internet represents the possibility of a new type of Colombian citizenry.
“For a number of reasons,” explained Schnaider, “Colombian society has had a very low level of political participation. Some of that is because of repression and exclusion, and some of that is because people have become cynical about the actual state of democracy here.
“In Colombia, a few people, a few families, have always dictated everything, from the time the Spanish set up the ruling class, to the present day, where corruption ensures that only the richest people have their interests represented by elected politicians. There are obviously a lot of people who want things to stay that way, but we are trying to change that.”
The internet, said Quintero, naturally lends itself to the kind of “horizontal structure” the Tomato Party seeks to embody.
“Democracy cannot work when a few people are making all the decisions, when the economy is structured to benefit a few people. It needs inclusion to function, it needs active involvement from everyone. And with the Tomato Party, we have tried to create a space where everyone is encouraged to play a roll. [The three of us] are here to offer a broad direction and monitor the dialogue to ensure it stays true to its roots, but the Tomato Party belongs to the people, and they will be the ones to decide who the figures are and what they fight for.”
In that sense, the Tomato Party shares certain ideas with movements such as Occupy Wall Street in the United States, which the three founders acknowledged as one of their early influences. The difference is that the Tomato Party is not too horizontal to achieve goals, as Occupy proved to be.
“One of the things we are working on now,” said Schnaider. “And which our members have asked for repeatedly, is a set of norms to regulate the conversation and the party. That will be very important for the future. This is a party of action, not just indignation. Because indignation is important, but only if it leads to something. So we represent both: indignation and action.”
The norms, said Schnaider, which are being formed by committees made up of the party’s most involved members, will give certain people the power to oversee the party and its direction.
“It’s necessary, because what you saw with Occupy, for example, was the movement got pulled in too many directions at once, and was totally ineffective because of that. We are not going to let that happen to the Tomato Party, we are not going to let the movement become stagnant, especially not because of outside infiltration, which is a problem in Colombia. This is a movement that’s open to everyone, but not for everyone. Anyone can join, but anyone can leave, too, whenever they want.”
The Four ‘Pillars’
The Tomato Party was formed around four basic, related ideals. Inclusion is one of them, i.e. the horizontal structure. The other three are education, environmental protections and sustainable economics.
“Education is the axis around which change is made possible,” said Upegui. “An active citizenry is only useful when you also have an educated citizenry. One thing is simply informing people, and the internet is also very useful for that. Colombia is a very ignorant country, which isn’t the same thing as stupid. There are people who have made [the country] that way, and want it to stay that way. How can you change a problem if you don’t know it exists?
“But the basic education system, too, is terribly flawed, from a structural, pedagogic standpoint. There are problems with funding, resources, access, but also with what is being taught. In Colombia, where school curriculums are old and irrelevant, we still treat everyone like they are the same, like they need the same education, without considering their circumstances. If you are living in the countryside, for example, the classroom should reflect your life. We should be training environmental scientists, agricultural engineers, giving education that makes sense for the lives people live.
“Only then will you have a true democracy, where people understand their interests and know how to fight for them.”
A lack of education, in the countryside in particular, said Quintero, is directly responsible for the poor economic and ecological conditions facing Colombia today.
“If you look at our history, you have a country that was designed to serve other people. First it was the Spanish, now it’s the United States, and other countries with mining interests and other interests. We have so many resources in this country, but we’ve never been able to develop them into our own industry. Instead, we let other people develop our resources, while we pay the environmental costs.”
The Tomato Party proposes a set of strict, universal environmental protections that would stop mega-mining projects and destructive agricultural practices. “The idea,” said Quintero, “is to establish smarter, more sustainable activities around our resources, and invest the profits back into Colombia, not let them fly away across the border.”
“There are those who will say we are communists and guerrillas, because that is what the people in power do in this country” said Upegui, “but nothing could be more false. What we are suggesting is strongly capitalistic. We want to develop business, to develop industry; only develop it in an intelligent, responsible way that doesn’t make other people from other countries rich, at the expense of our people and our land.”
The Next Step
The Tomato Party has already collected the 50,000 signatures it needs to run candidates in next year’s national elections. But the founders, anticipating a backlash from election authorities, are in the process of building a “cushion”.
“We would like to have an extra 25 or 30,000 signatures,” said Schnaider, “so that when they take names off the list — and we already know they will — we will have enough to be safe.”
In the meantime, though, the party is going to start working on its candidates list.
“We want 100 names from across Colombian society,” said Quintero. “We are already accepting names from our members, and are willing to consider anyone, as long as they have no record of involvement with any illegal activity, paramilitarism in particular, and no previous career in politics. That is our main requirement: we are not interested in anyone interested in a career in politics. Too many of our politicians are professional liars, with no beliefs, only an interest in staying in office. Our goal is to diversify the political representation.”
With that in mind, the founders will be grouping candidates by categories. “Artists, engineers, scientists, writers, musicians,” said Upegui. “There is an idea that a politician needs to be experienced in politics. But in a true democracy, all the elements of society are represented. And in Colombia, you don’t see any diversity among the elected officials.”
It’s unclear how many candidates the party will ultimately be able to run, or which voting districts they will run them in. Quintero says that “the idea is to let our members decide that, based on where they are most active, and where they can generate the most support.”
So far, there hasn’t been any talk of running a presidential candidate, although with a few months remaining for the registration, the founders are open to all possibilities.
“Why not?” said Quintero. “If that is where the movement goes, then we will follow it there. It’s only a matter of time.”
Perhaps what most stands out about the founders of the Tomato Party is how much they believe in their message.
Asked what the timeline is for changing Colombian society, Quintero said the Tomato Party has already begun. “Person by person, interaction by interaction. That is the only way change ever works.”
Interview with Daniel Quintero, Elli Schnaider and Juan Carlos Upegui