Colombian expatriates going to polls
BY PAULA NINO
Special to The Herald
Colombians living in South Florida will go to the polls today to vote for
a congressional seat reserved for
Colombians living abroad. The election, which includes three candidates living in South Florida, makes
Colombia the first Latin American country to have such a seat.
Approximately 23,000 Colombians living in South Florida -- a record number
-- registered to vote in this
special election, according to the Colombian Consulate in Coral Gables. This more than doubles the
10,300 who registered to vote in the congressional and presidential elections four years ago. According
to the most recent U.S. Census, 139,000 Colombians make Florida their home.
Frustrated by years of escalating guerrilla conflict, spiraling unemployment
and increasingly bold activity
by illegal drug traders, Colombia's expatriate community sees its right to vote as the most viable way to
give support to its country, said Esperanza Martinez, director of the Colombian American Service
Association, a nonprofit organization that aids Colombians in South Florida.
The recent rupture of peace negotiations by President Andrés Pastrana
has ignited concern of many in
the exile community.
''Frustration has been manifested by the high number of people registering
to vote,'' said Juan Carlos
Zapata, founder of the association. ``People have something to say, and this is a way to say it.''
The three Florida residents running for the seat are: Jairo Martínez,
45, owner of a public relations firm
representing music personalities Emilio Estefan and Shakira; Manuel José Vives, 61, partner in a
vegetable import company; and Camilo Duarte, 38, a Miami entrepreneur. Martínez and Vives are
Miami-Dade County residents; Duarte lives in Miramar.
Martinez said Saturday that his platform would be based on creating a sense
of community among all
Colombians living abroad; on fighting to obtain temporary protected status for Colombians in the United
States; and on working to lower the tax on funds sent to support relatives in other countries.
Temporary protected status was not enough for Duarte, who said he wants
to explore the possibilities
As for the current war going on in his homeland, Duarte suggested leaders
``ask Washington to lead a
movement to freeze assets of the guerrilla abroad and put the money back into the Colombian
In addition, Duarte said, registration should be accessible over the Internet,
and the number of
congressional seats representing Colombians living abroad should be increased from one seat to four.
Vives said he would work to create social service agencies in local communities
to extend services such
as health and education to Colombians. He would also establish a network of social agencies called
''Casa Colombia'' to provide aid to immigrants.
''Social services to low-income Colombians abroad should be extended, and
the creation of education
for the children should be permitted,'' Vives said.
AROUND THE WORLD
The remaining 22 candidates hail from other parts of the United States,
as well as Panama, Venezuela,
Canada and Spain.
The special seat was created in Colombia's 1991 Constitution to give citizens
abroad a representative
in the House who would work for their interests, but the details about how it would work came into
place only last year, Zapata said.
Each candidate campaigns in his or her country of residence, but all of
the 106,500 Colombians
registered abroad will vote. The winner will return to Colombia to represent citizens abroad for the next
Staff writer Cyd Penny contributed to this report.