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Colombia in Crisis

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - Aug 28, 2013, 12:47 pm

juan-manuel-santosOne of the main reasons to mistrust the state is summarized in Lord Acton’s maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

This sentence could be lengthened to note that those who attain some power, even if they are not charismatic or “great” men, are corrupted the most if their promises are vague (such as “social inclusion” or “benefits for everyone”) or if they seek the approval of everyone in the society. By corrupted, I mean that they pose a threat to liberty.

Most of the time, these leaders lack experience. So since social matters are complex in their nature, those vague but attractive promises tend to end up being not just a deception to the people but a threat to the peace and cohesiveness of an open society.

Since his election in 2010, Juan Manuel Santos has defined his government as the one of the Prosperidad Democrática (Democratic Prosperity). Supposedly, this catchphrase originally meant that he would build upon the achievements of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, and that he would focus on the economic front.

Apparently it really meant that his government would seek to ensure that the Santos name would be remembered in history.

At the beginning, his actions surprised everyone. Very soon after his election, he started taking measures to distance himself from Uribe’s shadow. He tried to create a broad political coalition to reduce the confrontational character of Uribe’s government; he sought to normalize broken relations with Venezuela and Ecuador; finally, he decided to support several “social” policies such as one for the victims of the internal conflict and another one to solve to problems of land ownership.

Not surprisingly, these actions allowed Colombian society to dream of a new age for the country. The media started talking about the possibilities of Colombian regional leadership or, even, an international one, due to the pending entry into the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The turning-point, however, was the launch of the Peace Process with the guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). This event marked the peak of Colombian optimism. At last, we were going to end a conflict that had lasted almost half a century.

This optimism has gradually disappeared, and it has been replaced by disappointment and a national crisis from which no-one sees an end.

First, the peace process allowed extreme political views to strengthen themselves. The Uribistas (followers of former president Uribe) started criticizing and denouncing it as an alleged neglect of the military offensive. The statist Polo Democrático Alternativo gained notoriety by demanding a departure from the economic model of liberalization for Colombia, which followed very recently. Presumably, this model was incompatible with the demobilization of the guerrillas.

In this sense, from a broad coalition, the government has, ironically, isolated itself.

Second, this process weakened the government in two ways. On the one hand, it allowed Venezuela and Cuba to become not just supporters but important actors at the negotiating table. This has reduced Colombia’s flexibility with international decisions, as the NATO one showed.

The peace process also allowed different social groups to lobby, even by violent means, for increased state guarantees, protections, and subsidies for their economic sectors. This was not merely the result of accepting that criminals were entitled to regular citizen benefits; it also came about from the critiques that Polo started leading against the economic model.

Third, the “Democratic Prosperity” promised by President Santos has transformed the path of wealth creation through a deepening of the liberalization process. Now it is a huge process of rent-seeking and cronyism, in which every sector tries to gain more of the nation’s wealth, at least that which exists in the short run.

During this administration’s term the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States has come into force, and one with the European Union will start as well, along with the Alianza del Pacífico (Pacific Alliance). However, the government has gone against the spirit of these agreements and increased subsidies for some economic sectors. Right now, it is negotiating with a national strike whose main demand is to halt the FTAs.

Fourth, all the previous results have inevitably led the Santos’ government to be more confrontational, isolated, secretive, and unpredictable than at the beginning of his mandate. It is also becoming even more criticized than Alvaro Uribe’s one.

Meanwhile, the aim of regional leadership has almost disappeared; the peace process has not advanced as expected; and the social dissatisfaction has upsurged so as to get the whole country paralyzed by strikes.

Juan Manuel Santos was elected with a clear mandate to follow the path signaled by Alvaro Uribe. Some changes to the style of government were necessary, but his out of the blue decision to start a peace process with the FARC unleashed several unintended consequences that led his government — and more importantly, the country — to the current crisis which has become a threat to the stability of the state in the future and to the continuation of the path of economic openness.

This is not to say that the peace process was a mistake in-and-of-itself, but that the current leadership in Colombia seems to have been unprepared to handle that responsibility.

As the case of Barack Obama shows, the kind of politicians who try to present themselves as the leaders who will go down in history are not just deceitful but dangerous. The difference is that the United States is a country whose wealth and stability cannot be ruined in eight years, but Colombia’s is yet to be created.

Yes, Juan Manuel Santos will be remembered — but as an example of Lord Acton’s maxim. Needless to say, he will be an example of corruption due to incompetence, but not as one of greatness.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.