Echoes from the past in Colombia’s Developmental trajectory

By Rafael R. Ioris 

This past October 2nd, Colombian voters surprised almost everyone when they voted to reject the Havana Accords signed between the country’s government and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the country’s main remaining armed insurgent group. In contrast with similar attempts in the early 1980s and late 90s, this round of negotiations was seen by most, inside and outside the country, at least until a few days ago, was the culmination of a process of national political restructuring that could finally produce a much sought and needed lasting peace.

The process innovated from the conservative path, known as the Democratic Security Policy put together by the Uribe administration (2002-2010), in the wake of the national crisis of the 1990s. This hard-handed approach trailed a path of pro-market reforms and security improvements, supported in the international investment community as the best way to restructure the country’s economy, especially in a time when much of Latin America was surfing the so-called pink wave. Interestingly, the market reforms were paralleled by the encroachment of state repression of the traditional guerrilla insurgents, particularly under the guise of Plan Colombia and associated growth of paramilitary forces. Though, some of the latter was eventually curbed, largely due to international pressure, the rise in military spending in the national budget was continuous and permanent.

The recent peace negotiations were, as to be expected, permeated by many steps and a gradualist approach involving at the same time legal reforms and public policies to areas of conflict (e.g. subsidized scholarships and housing). And although in the last few years insurgent group activities decreased, this was not necessarily translated in many areas of the country into actual state rule or at least state presence. In fact, in many rural and more isolated regions, the continued threat of reverting back to a state of overt violence is still very present and many still find in illegal activities their main means of subsistence. Moreover, in what seems like a very rational vote, regions mostly ravaged by war-related activities, such a Choco, produced some of the highest levels of support for the Havana Accord.

But in addition to the failed plebiscite, Colombia faces today rising levels of organized crime activity not only in the countryside but also in urban areas. Yet, as challenging as these latest dynamics are, they have occurred not in the void but rather within an already deeply unbalanced land tenure structure which have plagued the country’s history. In this sense, though laudable for trying to move beyond an overly militaristic approach to the structural lines of the continued conflict in the country followed by his predecessor, Santos’ political overtures have to be complemented by actual economic measures aimed at reintegrating many communities into the national economy, particularly in times when Colombia’s mainstream economic policies have become ever more aligned with those of free-trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To be sure, land reform and restrictions on foreign involvement in key industries, such a mining and oil exploration, were some of the main demands the negotiators from the FARC presented repeatedly to the government in order to suspend activities In fact, the growing acceptance of the Santos’ administration of the land reform demands from the FARC had been seen as one of the most promising aspects of the peace negotiations. Demands for better access to economic means are not surprising in a country ravaged by land-tenure related historical conflicts. In fact, even when an assertive land reform program was sought, little was done to curb countryside violence which, in the end, costed the staggering amount of about 200,000 deaths, mostly of poor, countryside residents.
Like much of Latin America, Colombian historical path has been defined by continued sharp socio-economic contrasts and the succession of fast-paced developmental initiatives – such as a remarkable insertion into the global economy as an important primary commodity exporter, starting at the end of the 19th century, as well as the significant levels of industrialization achieved in the middle of the 20th century – which though successful in many senses, have not been instrumental to ameliorate, let alone address the severe inequality that is to this day a defining feature of the country. In effect, rather than serving to improve the living standards of its sizable population (the third in the region), the developmental trajectory of Colombia has been rather defined by sustained oligarchic rule and social exclusion.

This persistent course of events seems particularly disheartening when one considers more closely the events of the postwar era in the country. This was the period when Colombia witnessed a substantial degree of economic and political experimentation and change. In fact, the nation experienced fast-paced economic growth, important levels of industrial growth in different parts of the country, and, especially since the late 1950s, and even more so in the 1960s and 70s, when the county came to be seen by most of its regional neighbors as a remarkable case of success of liberal democratic institutions.
In effect, given the context of dictatorial regimes throughout much of the region in the period, the Colombia experiences with pre-accorded peaceful transitions of power among the two main political parties, Liberal and Conservatives, in the wake of the National Front Agreement of 1958, seemed warranted as a case of a functioning, at least formally representative, political system. Yet, the Colombian experiences since at least the middle of the 20th century should rather be seen as those of the history of the failure of formal liberal democracy, as well as the top-down attempted modernization. On the liberal democracy side, between 1958 and the late 70s, though some changes were made along the way, the Colombian political system was best characterized by coalitional rule between Liberals and Conservatives, at times in ways that resembled the experiences of consociational regimes, though in the Colombian case, without the ethnic, religious, or linguistic elements.

Thus, although the National Front was able to put an end of the traumatic experiences of La Violencia, by creating strong incentives to the two main parties, if not to cooperate, at least to accept the rules of the game, the restrictive nature of the political to all other relevant political forces, especially among popular sectors, was nonetheless solidified by the elitist and restrictive character of the power-sharing agreement then in place. The oligarchic nature of the Colombian state was further reinforced by a central feature of the historical political evolution of the country: its weak central structures of state and strong regional elites. Taken together, these characteristics of the Colombian developmental trajectory would, in the long run, prove conducive to rising levels of dissatisfaction particularly in periods of rapid demographic grow, such in the postwar era.

The formal shortcomings of the Colombian political institutions were also aggravated by the frustration of even middle-income sectors about the possibility of significant socio-economic reform within the formal political system. In fact, even when land reform was attempted in a more concerted fashion, such as during the sponsorship of the Alliance for Progress in the early 1960s, when the country was chosen to be a showcase of the initiative, the results of the program palled against the expectations of the Colombian and US governments, and were certainly less than what was needed. Much in the same way, the important industrialization of the middle of the century was largely derivative of a cross-sectional alliance between traditional landowning families and regional industrialists, which rather than create a new social segment capable of some sort of rupture from the traditional forms of exerting political power, worked to consolidate control of the decision-making process in traditional oligarchic forces, thus sustaining the path of restricted access to the decision-making process, though industrial workers did then, and still do their best to push the boundaries of the local and national spheres of economic and political power.

In this sense, though it may be true that the National Front proved successful in preventing military overt intervention in politics for much of the second half of the twentieth century – a time when much of the region was mired in co-called bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes – this positive outcome was reached at the cost of excluding more socially advanced, progressive and even radical demands. This path indeed enhanced the already present political apathy of growing numbers of political and economic disenfranchised groups; and the guaranteed share of state resources in all realms of government which assured the democratic election of four, Liberal and Conservative party presidents, between 1958 and 1970, was conducive to enhanced corruption and clientelistic patronage of favored supporters. Much in the same way, although the formal economy of Colombia has been strengthened in the last few decades, two main negative sides of these dynamics have to be highlighted. First, the continued deeply uneven ways in which the economic growth achieved in the period benefitted the country’s population. Secondly, the fact that an important, though not easily measurable element of this economic revival derived from the eve more present production and exportation of illegal drugs. To be sure, the 1990s was largely defined by the rise of flaunting drug lords (e.g. Pablo Escobar), who control enormous economic resources and related political influence in the country.

If one considers that about 2/3 of eligible voters abstained from participating in the recent plebiscite, most Colombians did not agree with the terms of the agreement or did not feel encouraged to participate in the process. To be sure, a viable agenda for lasting peace has to include in addition to cessation of conflict, a minimal agenda of development, which needs to have key elements of social justice understood as the reforming of the institutional conditions that sustain and reproduce poverty and inequality, including moving away from the historical, and more recently deepened, path of insertion into the global economy by means of commodity export, especially in the field of carbon-based energy production. In fact, it needs to be remembered that much of the end of violence sought under the Politica de Defensa y Securidad of Uribe was aimed most of all to create a more welcoming environment for foreign investors rather than actually addressing the deep-rooted causes of the continued conflicts in the country.

Actual integration of FARC into arena must be paved by concrete means to prevent the repetition of the experiences of the Union Patriotica of the mid-1980s, when more than 3000 former members of the FARC who had joined the political process were murdered with total impunity assured by the omission of the state apparatus. Similarly, effective representation of most affected communities in the violence, especially those more in need of land needs to be a central element of the any new move towards a sustainable peace, so that the errors of the past, when the National Peasant Association, though formally allowed to exist, was consistently undermined by conservatives administration in the 1970s, as well as the market-led land policies of the 1990s, which benefitted most the already capitalized, larger landholders.

In the short term, the Santos administration needs to prove capable of preventing the derailment of the commitments made by both sides in the Cuba Accords, largely by steering things away from the rising right-wing rhetoric of his right-wing predecessor. Moving forward, a new agenda along more inclusive lines of national development needs to be pursued, especially by means of effective political and economic incorporation of the most traditionally excluded social segments, particularly in the countryside.

Rafael R. Ioris is an Associate Professor of Latin American History and Politics in the Department of History in the University of Denver