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Horacio Serpa, the “liberal gentleman” of Colombian politics, dies

Archive photograph of the Colombian politician, Horacio Serpa, speaking with journalists upon his arrival at Casa de NariñoMauricio Dueñas Castañeda / EFE

Few figures in the politics of a country as polarized as Colombia reach a consensus about what their loss represents. The death of Horacio Serpa, liberal leader and former president of the Constituent Assembly – which laid the foundations of the 1991 Colombian Constitution – has managed to bring together political leaders from opposite shores. “A gentleman of politics”, as President Iván Duque has said; “A great liberal and always a noble gentleman,” as former president Juan Manuel Santos called him or “one of the great architects of the social rule of law that has consolidated the spirit of our Constitution,” in the words of attorney Fernando Carrillo.

Horacio Serpa (Bucaramanga, 1943) died this Saturday trying to overcome liver cancer and in the company of his family, who reported the death through social networks. Three times presidential candidate and former Minister of the Interior during the government of Ernesto Samper, Serpa was one of the highest representatives of the Colombian Liberal Party and participant in peace processes in the country’s history. “I feel immense sadness, it helped us to come to peace, we were a dissident group of the ELN that sought civil life and gave us hands generously, protected us as far as possible, great human being, audacious politician who came from below ”Wrote the political analyst León Valencia, a former guerrilla in the National Liberation Army. Serpa participated in at least four peace processes at different times, although he did not manage to do so directly with the two largest guerrillas, the FARC, which died after the Peace Agreement, and the ELN, which remains active.

His most prominent participation was as one of the presidents of the 1991 Constituent Assembly, which reconfigured the constitutional bases and was made with politicians from all parties, indigenous and former members of the EPL and M19 guerrillas, among others. “The merit of this memorable work went to Colombia represented by 74 Colombians – said Serpa in one of his most memorable speeches – conservative liberals, M19, PRT, indigenous Christians, politicians and poor, capital and provincial, intellectuals, peasants, ex-guerrillas . The whole of Colombia in the room of the most considered deliberations, all equally concerned and patriotic, the healthy possibility of peace. Hopefully it will come very soon for Colombians ”, he pronounced in 1991.

Born in Bucaramanga (Santander) in a family with few resources, he studied law and held dozens of public positions from mayor to minister. “I was born poor and I managed to equal myself when I graduated as a lawyer, because from then on my life was different,” he said during one of the multiple presidential campaigns in which he participated. Serpa lived one of his lowest moments as the minister of Ernesto Samper, the president who was pointed out for receiving money from the mafia in his presidential campaign in the so-called “8,000 process.” Loyal to his political partner, Serpa defended him from the demands for his resignation that rained down from different political sectors, with one of the most memorable speeches and that earned him to be known as Doctor Mamola: “Let Samper resign, as Jorge Eliécer Gaitán said: Mamola, ”he said with an angry tone.

For this seasoned politician who, however, always lost in his effort to reach the presidency of the Republic, the entrance of the money from the mafia to Samper’s campaign was one of the most painful moments of his career, only compared to having been pointed out by the family of the murdered conservative leader, Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, of having responsibility in the assassination that occurred 25 years ago. One of his last public statements was precisely about this crime, after former FARC commanders acknowledged his participation in the murder of Gómez Hurtado. “In recent years, we have been victims of insults and slander from Álvaro Gómez’s family” and also “of the silence of the FARC about its responsibility in this homicide,” reported Samper and Serpa, with whose departure –as the voices agree Colombia’s most representative policies – he left a liberal in the most traditional sense of the word.