The Miami Herald
Sun, Sep. 23, 2007

U.S. Colombians seek more political clout


A man walks down the beach carrying crabs in two buckets, one with a lid and one uncovered. A little girl asks why crabs that look the same are treated differently.

The man says the American crabs are in the covered bucket, because when one finds a way out, the others follow.

''The Colombian crabs don't need a lid, because when one starts to get out the others bring him down,'' said Weston activist Fabio Andrade, president of the Americas Community Center. 'It's that 'if it's not me, it's not going to be you either' mentality.''

The analogy captures the local Colombian community's frustration over a history of in-fighting that has diminished a potential political force.

South Florida's second-largest Hispanic group, Colombian Americans, have elected a Florida state representative and a West Kendall community councilwoman. Former Gov. Jeb Bush tapped one of their own as a Broward County Court judge. They also have state senators in South Carolina, Minnesota and Rhode Island. In New Jersey, they boast the mayor of Hackensack and a councilman in a suburban community, as well as a councilman in Rhode Island.

With their numbers reaching about 375,000 in Florida and an estimated 1.1 million nationwide, Colombians want to become a more formidable force. They now count on an estimated 40,000 Colombian-American voters in South Florida and 30,000 more statewide, according to information compiled by local organizations and given to the Colombian consulate.

Heading into a presidential election, where Florida's non-Cuban Latino voters are poised to exert unprecedented influence, there are new signs that parts of the Colombian community are trying yet again to overcome the differences that have limited their unity -- and their political might.

They've created a Miami-Dade Democratic Council to groom candidates. An Oct. 6 tourism conference in Miami will bring together community group leaders from several states to forge new alliances. The Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce and state Rep. Juan Carlos Zapata, a Republican, went to Washington last week to lobby for Colombia's free-trade agreement, imperiled in a Democrat-controlled Congress concerned about human rights.

In an unprecedented show of cooperation, more than 32 community organizations recently banded together to honor outgoing Consul General Carmenza Jaramillo at Doral's Intercontinental Hotel.

''This event was a jumping-off point for the community to work together on things that matter to us all,'' said Jaramillo. "It was the first step to something new.''

The coalition of organizations that organized Jaramillo's farewell event will meet Oct. 4 to join forces on other issues.

Jaramillo is adding to that momentum with a South Florida think tank to consolidate political power.

Colombian Americans, like many others, seek the grail of Cuban-American style political power. But without a galvanizing figure like the exiles' hated Fidel Castro to unite them, and marked by decades of civil war in their homeland, they have yet to get behind one consensus agenda.

''The leadership and capacity exists to have more Colombians elected in different places, but up until now, many have put their own individual interests before the greater good,'' said Jaramillo. "One of the most important tasks [of the think tank] is to help Colombians get out of each other's way.''

Infighting has left its scars.

In 2000, Colombian-American Jose Luis Castillo ran against Zapata for Miami-Dade County District 11 commission seat -- splitting the Colombian-American vote. When Andrade, a Republican, unsuccessfully ran for state Senate in 2004, Zapata, also a Republican, campaigned for Andrade's Democrat opponent Nan Rich.

Zapata insists the feuds between Colombian candidates did not affect the outcome of those elections.

''I wasn't elected by the Colombians, I was elected by the Cubans,'' he said. "Physically, the Colombians are here, but their hearts and minds are still in Colombia.''

Zapata points to the gap in campaign fundraising as evidence of that dynamic: South Florida Colombians have been consistently reticent to give to compatriots running for local office, yet they raised more than $400,000 for Colombian president Alvaro Uribe during his 2002 race.

Zapata recently revived the Colombian American National Coalition, an organization that seeks to mobilize state and local groups on free trade and other issues. ''I can either do nothing, and become those Colombians I criticize, or I can get a few people together and try to do something,'' he said.

The Colombian-American community has flirted with politics before.

Starting in the late 1990s, Colombians united behind two failed proposals that would have given thousands of undocumented Colombians the right to stay in the United States legally.

By 2001, activists had created two national organizations that drew hundreds to back-to-back conferences in Atlanta and Houston to strategize on a national political agenda -- including a goal to elect a Colombian American to the U.S. Senate by 2008.

Fast forward six years, and those organizations -- the political action committee, the two national alliances, and a local umbrella group -- have faded.

''We really ran out of gas after that effort, because at the end of the day, we didn't have the political juice we thought we had,'' said Castillo, who recently ran the successful campaign of Colombian-American West Kendall community councilwoman Beatriz Suarez. ``But that was the genesis of our political efforts, and it provided a springboard for a lot of us to get involved.''

The Colombian government, recognizing the value in a united expatriate community, has begun efforts to bring citizens together. Through a program called ''Colombia Unites Us,'' it started seminars for Colombian leaders in cities including Houston, New York and Miami.

The event for Jaramillo was born out of the program's first local seminar in June, and the program is also organizing a meeting in October.

''Colombians are looking for things to unite us and take us to the next level,'' Andrade said. "We have failed in the past, but if you handle it right, failure always turns out to be a positive later.''