According to a poll reported on Semana magazineâ€™s website, the armed conflict is no longer Colombiansâ€™ chief concern. Instead, respondents said they were more worried about poverty, inequality and corruption.
The â€œSurvey of Everyday Perceptions of the Conflictâ€ 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 Colombiaâ€™s political mood is becoming less warlike and more open to addressing the conflictâ€™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, â€œterrorism stimulated by drugsâ€) is the main cause of Colombiaâ€™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 pollâ€™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 â€œmodus vivendiâ€ for dealing with it. â€œThat 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,â€ 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:
- 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.
- A policy is adopted that seeks to address the conflictâ€™s manifestations, usually through military force, without requiring meaningful reform or deep sacrifice. Examples include the â€œNational Frontâ€ that ended the violence of the â€˜50s; the â€œPublic Security Statuteâ€ 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 governmentâ€™s â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ strategy.
- 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 groupsâ€™ structures remain fundamentally intact, and the conflictâ€™s causes (state absence, poverty, corruption etc.) continue to fester.
- The country sees fewer and fewer results from the flawed policy that achieved the modest initial reduction in violence. However, with violence at more â€œmanageableâ€ 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.
- 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 â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ have reached the limits of what an additional few hundred million dollars per year of military spending can achieve. The Uribe governmentâ€™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 Colombiaâ€™s ruling class once more falling under the spell of â€œmanageabilityâ€? If it remains possible to drive from BogotÃ¡ to Cartagena without being kidnapped, will interest in ending the fighting â€“ whether through force or negotiations â€“ disappear? With Colombiaâ€™s stock-market index at record levels, will people in BogotÃ¡ and MedellÃn care about what happens in Putumayo or Arauca? If coca-growing stays at around 100,000 hectares, will there be less demand to make Colombiaâ€™s rural sector economically viable? If the paramilitaries successfully hide their growing power behind their â€œdemobilizationâ€ 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 BogotÃ¡ or Colombiaâ€™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 â€“ probably during Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s likely second term.