Is a redistributive political project viable in Colombia?

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Garry Leech

While many countries in South America have taken a turn to the left, Colombia's presidency remains in the hands of right-winger Alvaro Uribe. Furthermore, many representatives in Colombia's Congress are ideologically aligned with the country's president. Consequently, the national government has done little to address the gross economic inequalities prevalent in Colombia. If anything, the neoliberal policies implemented by the Uribe administration have exacerbated the situation for the 64 percent of Colombians living in poverty. Meanwhile, next door in Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez continues to implement his hugely popular "revolution for the poor." The stark contrast between the two governments' approach to poverty begs the question: Is a redistributive political project viable in Colombia?

On the national level, Colombia's politics remain dominated by the right. President Alvaro Uribe has willingly worked with the Bush administration to address security issues and with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to establish economic policy, which has resulted in Colombia becoming the latest poster child for neoliberalism. While Colombia's Congress contains a smattering of progressive political figures, it remains dominated by Uribistas and the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. This scenario has placed Colombia at odds with those South American nations that have taken a turn to the left in recent years.

On the local level, however, Colombian politics more closely reflect those of its neighbors. The emergence of the Polo Democrático Independiente (PDI) in 2003 marked the first highly visible left-of-center political party in Colombia since the Unión Patriotica (UP) in the late 1980s. In the 2003 local elections, PDI candidates won several important races: Lucho Garzón became mayor of Bogotá, Sergio Fajardo became mayor of Medellín and Angelino Garzón won the governorship of the department of Valle de Cauca.

While several PDI members have been assassinated in the past couple of years by right-wing paramilitaries, the party has so far managed to avoid the slaughter endured by the UP in the second half of the 1980s when more than 2,000 party members were assassinated, including two presidential candidates and four elected congressmen. One significant difference between the UP and the PDI is the latter's desire to distance itself from Colombia's guerrilla groups and its rejection of armed struggle as a viable option.

The PDI's policy proposals are not very radical. In fact, they appear to be more in line with those of Lula in Brazil than Chávez in Venezuela. In other words, the PDI seeks to implement its social project within the neoliberal paradigm rather than outright challenging neoliberalism as Chávez has done in Venezuela with his Bolivarian Revolution.

Still, having said that, like Lula in Brazil, the PDI does seek to implement redistributive policies to the degree that it is possible under neoliberalism. For example, the PDI recently introduced a bill to reform the education system in order to provide universal and higher quality education. Sixty-four percent of Colombian's live in poverty and the country's distribution of wealth is the second-most unequal in Latin America-after Brazil-and among the worst in the world. This inequality is reflected in Colombia's public education system.

According to UNESCO, children in the two countries with the most unequal distribution of wealth South America-Brazil and Colombia-receive the fewest years of education in the region. Colombian children receive an average of 5.3 years of schooling, less than their counterparts in Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay, Guyana and Bolivia. Colombia also ranks second lowest among the South American nations with regard to percentage of children enrolled in pre-school (33 percent) and secondary school (57 percent).

In an attempt to address the problem of inadequate access to education for Colombia's poor, the PDI's education reform bill proposes:

  • the creation of positions for 1,602,648 new students in the next five years.

  • the government provide support to mothers in the poorest strata to reduce substantially the cost of sending children to school. Mothers would receive a monthly sum that would depend on the place of dwelling, the age of the child and the courses to be studied.

  • the Department of Education provide free courses in math and physics at the National University to help teachers achieve academic excellence.
In addition to the PDI's education proposals, Antonio Navarro Wolf, the party's candidate for the May 2006 presidential elections, is also promising to improve the public healthcare system if elected. Navarro Wolf is calling for, among other things, a "50 percent increase in funding for the public health system as well as the construction of a hundred fixed doctor's offices and a hundred mobile doctor's offices to provide basic medical care throughout the country."

Even if the PDI were to prove victorious in both congressional and presidential elections next year it would still have to contend with IMF loan conditionalities. When the IMF approved a $2.1 billion loan to Colombia in January 2003, it stated that Colombian "authorities intend to take the measures needed to ensure public debt sustainability and maintain Colombia's record of servicing its debt. Accordingly, the program calls for ... key structural reforms and administrative improvements in the public sector."

The IMF demanded that Colombia reduce its deficit to 2.5 percent of GDP in 2003 and 2.1 percent in 2004. And under a $613 million loan agreement signed in April 2005, the IMF established deficit targets of 2.0 percent for 2005 and 2006. Given the ongoing conflict in Colombia, any future government is unlikely to cut military spending in order to achieve the IMF-imposed deficit goals. Consequently, it is social programs-including education and healthcare-that would continue to bear the brunt of public spending cutbacks in order to make money available to service the country's foreign debt. The IMF is calling on Colombia to reduce its public debt from its current level-52 per cent of GDP-to between 40-45 percent of GDP by 2010.

Navarro Wolf, if elected, would likely follow the Lula route of trying to implement poverty alleviation projects while abiding by IMF demands. The Brazilian government, however, has had only limited success in combating poverty. At the same time, Lula's appeasement of the IMF has turned many of his staunchest supporters into his fiercest critics. During his term in office, President Uribe has worked closely with the IMF and, as a result, has implemented a series of economic reforms that have included the privatization of the country's telecommunications company, Telecom, and the restructuring of the state oil company, Ecopetrol. . Clearly, there is little likelihood that the neoliberal paradigm would be seriously challenged regardless of whether Uribe or Navarro Wolf were to prove victorious in May 2006.

According to a September poll that assumed Uribe would run for re-election, almost 70 percent of respondents said they would vote for the current president. Only 1.4 percent supported Navarro Wolf. However, when asked who they would vote for if Uribe is not allowed to run for re-election, the race looked to be much closer with 16.3 percent of respondents choosing long-time Liberal Party member Horacio Serpa, while 14.2 percent supported Enrique Peñalosa, 10.6 percent backed Antanas Mockus and 6.8 percent selected Navarro Wolf.

Like most opinion polls in Colombia, this poll was conducted by telephone with 600 Colombians in the cities of Barranquilla, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali and Medellín. Consequently, it mostly reflects the opinions of the country's urban middle and upper classes. While Colombian polls fail to reflect the opinion of all Colombians-many of the urban poor do not have telephones and the opinions of the rural poor are also rarely solicited-this poll likely accurately reflects the attitudes of most Colombian voters. Why? Because Colombia's leftist parties have found it difficult to win national elections due to the strategy implemented by right-wing paramilitaries in the urban barrios and rural regions they control that force citizens to vote for right-wing candidates. Meanwhile, in rebel-controlled regions, the guerrillas often force citizens to abstain from voting, contributing to the country's habitual low voter turnout. In both scenarios, the left vote is thwarted.

Clearly, if Colombia's Constitutional Court allows Uribe to run for re-election, there will be little likelihood of any significant redistributive project being initiated before 2010. If the court prohibits the current president from running, then the PDI has a chance of gaining the presidency and the opportunity to implement its redistributive project. There is, however, still another obstacle to any PDI attempt to implement redistributive policies: congressional opposition.

Following the August approval of the Justice and Peace Law by the Colombian Congress, several demobilized right-wing paramilitary leaders made clear their desire to enter the country's political fray. The paramilitaries already maintain a substantial influence in Congress, as paramilitary leader Vicente Castaño recently told Colombia's Semana magazine:: "I think that we can affirm that we have more than 35 percent of Congress as friends, and for the next elections, we're going to increase that percentage of friends."

In November 2003, the 800-member urban paramilitary force known as the Cacique Nutibara Bloc (BCN) in Medellín officially demobilized. The group's political chief, Givanni Marin, and other former members of the BCN, have formed a political-social organization known as the Democratic Corporation, which operates in the same poor barrios that were controlled by the paramilitaries. Marin has announced his intention to run for Congress in the March 2006 elections.

According to a September 2005 Amnesty International report, however, the November 2003 "demobilization" of the Cacique Nutibara Bloc did not end that group's paramilitary activities in Colombia's second-largest city. The Amnesty International report reveals that two years after their demobilization:

Paramilitaries continue to operate as a military force, to kill and threaten human rights defenders and local community activists, to recruit and to act jointly with the security forces. However, rather than operating in large, heavily-armed and uniformed groups as they did in the past, they are now increasingly cloaking their activities by posing as members of private security firms or by acting as informants for the security forces.

Another troubling aspect of the demobilization process is the government's recent announcement that some 2,000 ex-paramilitary fighters would be incorporated into the country's police force. Clearly, paramilitary candidates will likely prove victorious in elections held in regions where paramilitary activities continue. Colombian congressman Gustavo Petro, who has denounced paramilitary ties with politicians, fears that demobilized paramilitaries who become elected congressmen would make it even more difficult to address Colombia's grossly unequal distribution of land, because paramilitaries are among the country's largest landowners.

Uribe's re-election would likely result in a continuation of the government's dirty war against civil society groups that are working peacefully for political, social and economic reform in Colombia. In August 2005, the United Nations criticized the Uribe administration for its practice of using arbitrary detentions to target those critical of the government's policies. The director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia, Michael Frühling, announced that his office is "concerned that mass-scale detentions and individual seizures with no juridical basis frequently affect members of vulnerable groups such as human rights advocates, community leaders, trade union activists and people living in areas where illegal armed groups are active."

According to the Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared (ASFADDES) reports that 3,593 people were "disappeared" by state security forces during 2002 and 2003, which is more than the total number of Colombians disappeared during the previous seven years. Meanwhile, the human rights group Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), 6,978 people were killed for socio-political reasons during Uribe's first year in office, which amounted to 19 people a day, the same rate as the previous two years. The CCJ determined that paramilitaries were responsible for at least 62 percent of the killings, more than double the amount committed by the guerrillas. Most of the reduction in killings achieved by Uribe's Democratic Security Strategy has resulted from diminished violent crime in the country's cities, not a reduction in political killings.

Uribe's likely re-election, the government's ongoing dirty war, right-wing control of Congress and the IMF's structural adjustment demands make the prospects for the implementation of a redistributive project through democratic means in the near future bleak indeed. But what are the prospects for success for the armed left in Colombia?

Despite repeated attempts by the U.S. and Colombian governments and the mainstream media to portray the rebels as little more than common criminals or terrorists, Colombia's guerrilla groups are still at least partially driven by ideology. This, of course, does not mean that the guerrillas are not responsible for committing human rights abuses against the very people they claim to be fighting for or that they do not profit from the illegal drug trade.

But in regions where the FARC has long maintained control, and where the national government has never had a presence, the rebels function as a de-facto government and have implemented redistributive projects. In recent years, for example, the FARC has broken up almost a dozen large ranches in southern Meta department and redistributed the smaller parcels of land to subsistence farmers. The guerrillas have carried out similar agrarian reform programs in Caquetá, Putumayo and other regions.

The FARC has also implemented a national tax system whereby the income from kidnapping, extortion and the taxation of wealthy landowners and businesses is used to fund military operations. The revenue from taxes imposed on local communities in FARC-controlled regions, however, is turned over to municipal leaders and used to fund local social and economic projects.

Both the FARC and the ELN are highly critical of neoliberalism and, if they were to achieve power, would likely implement more radical policies along the lines of Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. As ELN commander Antonio García has claimed: "Any project that changes society must include the idea that we need an economic model that serves the people and society, not the other way around." Of course, how democratic a rebel government would prove to be is up for debate.

In reality, however, there is little possibility of Colombia's guerrillas seizing power in the near future. At the same time, there is also little chance of the guerrilla insurgency being defeated, despite repeated claims by both the Bush and Uribe administrations that the Colombian military is beating the FARC on the battlefield. In fact, there is ample evidence that official claims of military successes against the FARC are grossly exaggerated. According to a recent report by the Colombian NGO, Fundación Seguridad y la Democracia, guerrilla attacks against military and police targets increased by 69 percent during the first three years of the Uribe government when compared to the same period during the previous administration.

Another sign that Colombia's conflict continues to rage is the ongoing forced displacement of rural communities. The Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy (CODHES), a Colombian human rights organization, reported that 287,581 people were forcibly displaced in 2004-an average of 780 people per day and a 38 percent increase over the previous year. In all, 2.9 million people, or seven per cent of Colombia's population, have been forcibly displaced since 1985, making it the country with the second-largest internally displaced population in the world after the Sudan.

Sadly, there is little hope of Colombia's conflict coming to an end in the near future. As a result, many on the political left will continue to be victims of the government's ongoing dirty war, with little possibility of a revolutionary government coming to power-either democratically or through armed insurrection. Consequently, and tragically for Colombia's poor majority, there is little reason to believe that a far-reaching, nationwide redistributive political project is viable at this time.