Sunday, February 28, 2010

By: David Schoeller-Diaz

Over 10,000 phone messages reportedly arrived at the Colombian Presidential Palace within 24 hours of the long awaited Constitutional Court ruling, which barred President Uribe from seeking a second reelection by a 7-2 vote. Coming from the Press Chief we can accept the figure as embellished, but nonetheless points to the strong emotions involved.

As the ‘Uribe Era’ comes to a close, less than 150 days of uncertainty remain before the new path of the country is forged. One thing, however, is clear. Colombian democracy is stronger today, illuminating institutional autonomy in a region long dominated by populist “caudillos” and military dictators. A third presidential term would have most certainly led to further concentration of power in the executive branch, and more precisely, in the hands of a single dominant figure, threatening the long-term institutional capacity to tackle the evolving threats facing the nation.

For long, Colombia has had a paradoxical democracy, simultaneously one of the most resilient in Latin America with a rare history of virtually uninterrupted elections, and fraught with chronic political violence for over 50 years. While a democratic tradition solidified early on, the state never acquired the heavy-handed measures of most countries in the region to enforce their authority and provide necessary social services throughout the territory. In other words, while Colombia has been truly privileged to circumvent the grueling struggle towards democracy, effective nation building never reached far beyond the major cities allowing illicit activity to flourish. The tough terrain and decentralized character of Colombia make it extremely difficult for a non-state army to existentially threaten the government, and for the government to patrol its frontier lands against insurgents, paramilitaries, or drug trafficking.

Álvaro Uribe, the Harvard and Oxford-educated Governor of Antioquia, was elected at a time when most Colombians were saying “No Más”, following two highly ineffective Presidents.
The 1990’s saw economic stagnation and a dramatic rise in homicides, kidnappings, and drug production. In the face of this crisis, many international analysts questioned the viability of the state, increasingly flirting with that grisly label of “failed state”.

During the last 8 years, President Uribe has succeeded in becoming the most popular head of state in Colombia’s recent history, consistently holding one of the highest approval ratings anywhere in the hemisphere. The debate on his legacy will continue, particularly during the intense electoral battle likely to come. Two prominent politicians, Andrés Felipe Arias (former Minister of Agriculture) and Juan Manuel Santos (former Minister of Defense and graduate of The Fletcher School), are vying for President Uribe’s mantle, but a rich electoral landscape covers the political spectrum. Nevertheless, despite substantive policy disagreements, most Colombians agree that it is in great part due to President Uribe’s “Democratic Security” that the country has seen drastic crime reduction and a reinvigorated economy, even withstanding the global recession relatively well. Thousands of paramilitaries have demobilized, and for the first time in decades, guerrilla groups that have terrorized communities and intertwined with the drug industry, appear severely weakened.

There are many capable politicians that can address current challenges. So far, most emerging candidates have vowed to somehow continue a forceful military strategy, while presenting innovative policies towards the evolving security outlook and the pressing socioeconomic needs. The next administration must pay special attention to five crucial matters.

  1. Keep the resolution of the armed conflict and crime reduction a top priority. This demands a sustained military pressure on militants, prioritizing civilian protection and human rights, while holding an open door for constructive negotiations. 
  2. Intensity efforts to repair diplomatic, security and commercial relations with neighboring countries, particularly Venezuela, by stressing vital mutual interests.
  3. Develop a more comprehensive and coherent response to the roughly 3 million internally displaced, most struggling to rebuild their lives in sprawling shantytowns.
  4. Stimulate continued commercial activity and protect investor confidence, in order reduce unemployment and bolster the economy.
  5. Reinvigorate the rural sector, long neglected in this largely urban country, by improving security and nurturing agricultural employment. Neglect has exacerbated the armed conflict by leaving a pool of idle men, and ample terrain for militancy and drug production. Moreover, the greater government command of territory previously held by militants opens an unprecedented opportunity for responsible land reform to redress the nation’s exceptionally unequal land distribution. Land reform, accompanied by more effective state presence and investment in infrastructure, is a vital step to develop alternative crops and reverse poverty-driven displacement. 
Thanks to Colombia’s resilient democracy, I am confident that voters will openly and critically wrestle with these and other issues, so that 150 days from today, the country’s future can look a bit brighter.

David Schoeller-Diaz is a MA candidate of Law and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, with a concentration on Human Security and Conflict Resolution. He has lived in Latin America, West Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe for over 15 years



Jaime Correal said...

Great points David, I too sighed with relief when I heard the news about the Court's decision. Not because of dislike for Uribe but rather for the preservation of a long-established democratic tradition. I sincerely hope this short period before the elections is sufficient to allow voters to make a wise choice. These elections have a tremendous geopolitical significance given the current polarization in the region. Domestically the nation is at a crossroads regarding its path to prosperity. Decisions always involve trade-offs; over the past 8 years the country has favored security over other pressing issues, and justifiably so I may say. However gains in security are short-lived without providing avenues for inclusion. Is the time ripe for a comprehensive social inclusion policy to have priority over “democratic security”? Which is the path of least resistance to a peaceful prosperous society? Emphasize on security and along will come prosperity and inclusion? or rather emphasize on inclusion, and along will come security and prosperity? These questions are intriguing and I’m definitely do not have the answer, either way a choice has to be made and I sure hope the next leader understands this better than I do.

David Schoeller-Diaz said...


Thank you for your comments. You make some excellent points and pose, I believe, some of the most essential questions facing the country. Colombia is at a critical crossroads and constructive conversations like these help to envision the best path forward. There is no easy answer to your questions, and the presidential candidates, as well as the Colombian people, will have to honestly wrestle with them. Clearly, an enlightened leader will be vital to sustain the delicate security progress we have seen and build a more inclusive society. In addition, I believe that by protecting and nourishing a truly inclusive, participatory and representative democracy, guided by a sense of common purpose and direction, we can more effectively solidify and broaden progress for all Colombians. I realize there is great ambition in these words, but I firmly believe that without open and frank debate, progress is elusive, unequal and unsustainable.

I don't pretend to have any complete policy answers, but will propose some thoughts. I believe that we can develop a more comprehensive approach to deal simultaneously with closely interconnected security and development needs. Efforts to integrate IDPs to their new homes, addressing public health, education and employment needs, will go a long way to prevent urban crime, not to mention build healthier and stronger cities. Moreover, fortifying of the rural sector by ensuring that viable products can be sold to stable markets, will be crucial to eventually ending the armed conflict and containing the scourge of drug production in the country. Foreign investment can help fuel development, but I believe that a wholesome economic policy must be pragmatically driven by the objective of addressing these profound social needs, to ensure truly healthy growth and reduced incentives for violence.

Finally, I need to emphasize my firm belief that greater socioeconomic focus cannot come at the expense of continued efforts to restrain political violence. This is not only because I still think that advances are fragile (as the President often states), but also because progress and improved living conditions for all demand stability. The last thing we need is newly-built country schools and hospitals blown up by a reinvigorated FARC, or micro-paramilitaries shedding blood and terrorizing communities. As with development, the objective of a security strategy must be to protect vulnerable communities and a safe space for commerce to flourish, not victory for its own sake.

Again, I don't expect these comments to answer the crucial questions you have posed, but I hope we can continue contributing to a broad discussion on Colombia's future. Plus, what better place to move this discussion than The Fletcher School?

homelesseus said...

If there were newly built country schools and hospitals where would FARC get their support? Uribe's connections to the drug cartels is well-known, though his Harvard/Oxford manner seems to have thrown sand in your eyes. Security first! Country schools later! Yeah, that's a new one--been there done that and didn't work! My God, is this the kind of intellectual the Fletcher school is churning out? If the president "states" it, it must be true? Let's hope the next generation of diplomats and leaders--as educated as they are--are a little less stupid than the present regime.

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