A good consultation with USAID; if only they had money Andean coca increases, while Andean aid drops
Feb 282006

According to a poll reported on Semana magazine’s website, the armed conflict is no longer Colombians’ chief concern. Instead, respondents said they were more worried about poverty, inequality and corruption.

The “Survey of Everyday Perceptions of the Conflict” taken by the University of the Andes and the Indepaz think-tank polled 2,000 people in twenty-one cities and towns, including large capitals and the urban centers of otherwise rural counties.

This could be good news. It could mean that Colombia’s political mood is becoming less warlike and more open to addressing the conflict’s underlying causes: poverty, rural underdevelopment, impunity, state weakness and the absence of the rule of law.

According to Semana:

The actions that Colombians, both urban and rural, consider to be the highest priority for attaining peace are not the obvious ones. They believe that neither military action nor peace negotiations should be the main tools. On the contrary, they prioritize increasing employment and reducing poverty, combating corruption and giving opportunities to young people. In the countryside, the need to help displaced people is felt more strongly. Negotiation with the guerrillas occupies tenth place among fifteen options.

President Uribe has said on repeated occasions that the conflict (or, in his formulation, “terrorism stimulated by drugs”) is the main cause of Colombia’s poverty. The poll seems to indicate that most Colombians now think the opposite, that addressing poverty is the best way to end the conflict. (Despite this disagreement, 60 percent of respondents said they would vote for Uribe.) This means that momentum for a military solution is subsiding.

Looked at another way, though, the poll’s results could be bad news. Reduced public concern about the conflict could also mean reduced public interest in the reforms and sacrifices necessary to end the conflict. Angelika Rettberg, a University of the Andes political scientist cited in the Semana article, worries that the survey could indicate that Colombians have taken some levels of violence for granted, and have developed a “modus vivendi” for dealing with it. “That modus vivendi, which could be a necessary survival tool, could also be one of the main barriers standing in the way of a stable peace,” she told Semana.

This is a very important point. Colombia, which has seen the majority of its political violence during the last sixty years take place in remote rural areas where few people live, has been through this before. It happens something like this:

  1. Rural political violence worsens to the point where it begins to affect urban elites and middle classes. Demands that something be done about the violence come to dominate the national political debate.

  2. A policy is adopted that seeks to address the conflict’s manifestations, usually through military force, without requiring meaningful reform or deep sacrifice. Examples include the “National Front” that ended the violence of the ‘50s; the “Public Security Statute” of the Turbay government in the late 1970s; peace accords with smaller guerrilla groups and the rewriting of the constitution in the early 1990s; and the Uribe government’s “Democratic Security” strategy.
  3. This policy does achieve some modest initial success, bringing levels of violence down to where they had been a few years earlier, to the point where urban elites no longer feel the impact and the economy recovers. While reduced on a national scale, the violence continues to rage in rural areas, armed groups’ structures remain fundamentally intact, and the conflict’s causes (state absence, poverty, corruption etc.) continue to fester.
  4. The country sees fewer and fewer results from the flawed policy that achieved the modest initial reduction in violence. However, with violence at more “manageable” levels, urban elites and middle classes lose interest in the costly search for solutions to the conflict and turn to other issues. Any momentum for fundamental reform or sacrifice is lost.
  5. After a few years of neglect and distraction, progress is reversed. Armed groups recover and increase in size and strength, often by finding a new source of income. Return to step (1).

Colombia appears to have entered step (4). Plan Colombia and “Democratic Security” have reached the limits of what an additional few hundred million dollars per year of military spending can achieve. The Uribe government’s security strategy is showing fewer results against guerrilla and paramilitary violence, and Plan Colombia has had only slight effects on overall Colombian drug production. And now the UniAndes/INDEPAZ poll shows that Colombians are viewing the conflict as a less urgent matter.

Is Colombia’s ruling class once more falling under the spell of “manageability”? If it remains possible to drive from Bogotá to Cartagena without being kidnapped, will interest in ending the fighting – whether through force or negotiations – disappear? With Colombia’s stock-market index at record levels, will people in Bogotá and Medellín care about what happens in Putumayo or Arauca? If coca-growing stays at around 100,000 hectares, will there be less demand to make Colombia’s rural sector economically viable? If the paramilitaries successfully hide their growing power behind their “demobilization” process, will we see an end to efforts to stop their infiltration of the state? If the New York Times can now recommend that tourists visit Bogotá or Colombia’s coffee region, will there be fewer calls to establish a basic government presence in neglected zones?

One poll does not mean that complacency has set in. And of course, increased concern about poverty and impunity is good news if it means that Colombians are really willing to undergo the sacrifices that addressing those problems would entail.

However, any sign that the unresolved conflict is becoming less of a concern has to be seen as troubling. Colombia has been here before. A return to step (5), a renewed worsening of the violence, could be in the offing – probably during Álvaro Uribe’s likely second term.

3 Responses to “Losing interest in a “manageable” conflict?”

  1. jcg Says:

    The main points being made are good and definitely worthwhile, plus the general outline of modern (that is, after 1948 or so) Colombian historical developments until recently seems rather fitting.

    The development of complacency due to the existence of a degree of “manageability” does seem like a realistic possibility in the current context.

    Then again, one can also think that many Colombians wouldn’t seem to be so worried about poverty, inequality and corruption if the security situation was so bad that it overruled those concerns.

    If anything, that the FARC (and AUC, though in a different way) are becoming more and more active lately is most of what’s keeping Uribe’s political platform so relevant. If the FARC really cared that much about change, the best thing they could do would be to NOT play into Uribe’s hand.

    Still, I must disagree with the implication that everything will simply “go back to step one” indefinitely.

    I am not a fan of the concept that “history repeats itself” over and over again, at least not most of the time.

    For better or for worse, each time Colombia has gone through that kind of cycle, some things have changed, to a greater or lesser degree, for better or for worse. Each subsequent cycle, therefore, will not be entirely identical, to the point that the cycle itself may cease to exist at some point in the future (independently of what the outcome is).

    For example, violence has usually gotten worse each time around, for example, and the state’s response has been somewhat more active.

    Obviously many common elements tend to remain, especially structural ones, such as the continuing need to “to establish a basic government presence in neglected zones”, but even on that front some things are slowly changing (even if only in a certain % of the vast areas involved).

  2. Rainer Cale Says:

    I am impressed by your sharp, measured, and intelligent analysis of things, Adam. Very difficult to come by. Very responsive to the uniqueness of each situation in question, using sophisticated theoretical tools without confusing those tools with the reality they are calling into question. Striking the impossible balance between maintaing “objectivity” and taking a stand, having a point of view. There is (usually) nothing too formulaic or facile about your comentary, (unlike Znet blogs for example). All of this takes an uncommon sharpness of perception, courage, etc., the likes of which I haven’t yet seen. Much appreciated. My comment on your article follows below.

  3. Rainer Cale Says:

    Adam, I agree with jcg in that I would say you are uncharacteristically formulaic with your “5 step” process. There is no way that the new constitution and the establishment of the constituional court in the early 90s can fit into your “step 2.” I.e., it is glaringly inaccurate to characterize them as “[not] requiring meaningful reform” and not “deep sacrifices.” I would hold that Colombia’s new constitution is the most progressive constitution of the Americas, which significantly weakened the executive branch’s power and opened the door for a very significant process of empowerment for Colombia’s most marginalized groups–indigenous and afro-colombians. Thanks to that constitution there are now some 35+ million hectares of land (24% of the country!) which has been legally entitled to indigenous and afro-colombian groups (and this is not just a masque–ask logging companies who owns that land). As for the constitutional court, well!, hard to see how you passed this one up. The court may have failed in a big way by allowing the reelection, but it has thwarted Uribe’s plans more than once, and has, since its inception, a VERY impressive record of trumping the president and commercial vested interests on human rights and marginalized groups lawsuits. Even today, while the court is arguably in its darkest hour, it has made the substantial move of calling the repulsive Justicia y Paz law into question. The US supreme court is the only comparable institution in the Americas, and is, I think we can all agree, a shameful disgrace by comparison.

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