Colombia’s next challenge

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 1, 2013


Overcoming five decades of violence and strengthening democracy at the same time is a notable success for any country. Colombia should be proud of its accomplishments. However, building a sustainable democracy with social and economic inclusion will require new skills and policies. If Colombia does not successfully meet the next challenge, the ghosts of the violent and unstable past will never go away.


When visitors arrive in Colombia, they find a country full of energy. The nation of 48 million people, the third most populated in Latin America, is on the move. Like shipwreck survivors who finally reach the coast after a life-threating danger, Colombians are exuberant and optimistic. Because they were so close to self-destruction, now that they are putting behind the period of violence, Colombians feel they can achieve any objective they set their minds to accomplish. Though significant parts of the country are still affected by guerrilla and paramilitary conflicts, the country is vibrant. Illegal drug trafficking remains a big problem, but the legal economy has grown rapidly in recent years while the underground drug economy has shrunk.


Bogotá today is a burgeoning city. People fill shops and restaurants. The strict security that used to characterize the city is almost completely gone. Streets are full of people who seem in a rush to enjoy what for so many years was impossible, a normal life. Signs of progress abound everywhere. Housing, schools, commercial centers, highways and all kinds of infrastructure show that Colombia is a country moving forward. Tourists can hail taxis on the street without fear. Though Bogotá is not a safe city by European standards, it is getting safer by the day while other Latin American cities are becoming increasingly more violent.


Poverty has declined from 45 percent in 2005 to 34 percent in 2011. With strong growth in job creation — unemployment is below 10 percent — and earmarked poverty reduction policies, more progress will be made in coming years. However, social and economic exclusion remain the norm. The close-knit Colombian elites dominate the political process, the business sector and the media. Inequality remains as one of the highest in the world, with the Gini coefficient barely declining from 0.59 in 2000 to 0.56 in 2010.


After two four-year terms, controversial President Álvaro Uribe, who implemented the policies that weakened the guerrillas, stepped down in 2010. Despite enjoying high approval for his democratic security policies, Uribe was criticized for tolerating paramilitary counter-guerrilla groups and for concentrating power in his own hands. After he successfully reformed the constitution to seek a second term in 2006, Uribe unsuccessfully attempted to modify it again to stay for a third-term after 2010. Though he threw his support behind his former minister Juan Manuel Santos who won the 2010 election, Uribe has emerged as President Santos’ strongest opponent. Uribe disagrees with Santos’ priorities of holding peace talks with the guerrillas and focusing on promoting social inclusion. As he remains more popular than Santos, Uribe is now tempted to return to the political arena by seeking a Senate seat in the 2014 elections. Uribe might also endorse a presidential candidate to run against Santos.


Colombians and tourists who pass through the main square in downtown Bogotá can read, on top of the Supreme Court building, a famous phrase by Francisco de Paula Santander, one of Colombia’s independence heroes: “weapons have given you independence, laws will give you liberty.” Though an aggressive military strategy was successful in defeating the guerrillas in Colombia, a different strategy will be needed to build a sustainable and inclusive democracy. The Santos government has made several mistakes, and his elitist style makes it difficult for him to relate to ordinary Colombians, but focusing on building a sustainable democracy based on social inclusion rather than just focusing on fighting the guerrillas is a good strategy. Uribe was the right man to win the war, but he is not well-suited to win peace.


Fortunately, though many have yet to arrive, most Colombians can see the promised land of progress and development. They do not want the guerillas to blow up the bridges that separate them from middle class status. As the economy develops, support for the guerrillas has declined. The challenge ahead for the government, and the Colombian elites, is to build sufficient bridges fast enough for the formerly excluded poor to join the middle class. That will be the most solid barrier to guarantee the continuation of market-friendly policies and democratic consolidation that Colombia needs to fully leave behind its violent past.


The challenge of social inclusion and poverty reduction will require new skills and strategies. The deep inequalities that exist in Colombia fed the discontent that guerillas claimed to fight against. Today, Colombia is a country on the move. Energy abounds. Passion exudes. Enthusiasm is contagious. However, if Colombia wants to succeed in meeting its next challenge, it must realize that the strategy that successfully weakened the guerrillas and fostered democratic security needs to be replaced with a new strategy that can build social inclusion and sustainable peace.