Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s critics in Colombia often charge that his strategy is too heavily weighted toward the military. They argue that his â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ plan has neglected the social and economic dimension, and that sharp increases in military spending have come at the expense of essential non-military services, including aid to the poorest. For his part, Uribe responds to these critics with statistics showing that, in fact, social expenditure has increased since he took office in 2002.
The Colombian governmentâ€™s comptroller, Antonio HernÃ¡ndez Gamarra, has strongly questioned the Uribe administrationâ€™s claims. Speaking before Colombiaâ€™s Restrepo Barco Foundation in BogotÃ¡ on Tuesday, HernÃ¡ndez acknowledged that government social expenditure has indeed risen, both in peso terms and as a percentage of the national budget. However, he cautioned, this increase owes mainly to one type of spending: the rising cost of pensions for retirees. Worse, HernÃ¡ndez added, when one defines â€œsocial expenditureâ€ more strictly as funding for poverty reduction, income redistribution or â€œhuman capital formation,â€ the amount spent each year is up to 20 percent less than the official government estimate.
(The PowerPoint slideshow HernÃ¡ndez used for his presentation, which mainly provides aggregate figures with little explanation of how they were derived, is available on the Comptrollerâ€™s website.)
If the comptroller is correct, then, Uribe has done little or nothing to increase the sort of social investment most necessary to improve the countryâ€™s security situation. In the parts of Colombia where armed groups and coca thrive â€“ beyond the relatively prosperous cities, where at least a threadbare social safety net exists â€“ there is still a severe unmet need for the basic governance on which a legal economy depends. This means roads, clean water, a functioning judiciary, guarantees of property rights, and much more, including the physical presence of government representatives.
If most of the recent increase in social expenditure owes to pensions, then we can safely conclude that Uribeâ€™s military effort is far, far ahead of any attempt to consolidate a real government presence in zones said to be â€œre-takenâ€ by the armed forcesâ€™ recent offensives. If the soldiers are still on their own because there is no money to bring in the rest of the government, the guerrillas and paramilitaries need only wait until the soldiers move on, as they inevitably do, and re-establish themselves.
In one of a series of interviews in MedellÃnâ€™s daily El Colombiano that resemble fawning campaign ads more than journalism, President Uribe responded to the comptrollerâ€™s critique. His words were disheartening:
â€œI havenâ€™t included investment in Democratic Security as social investment, but it is, because security attracts resources.â€
Wrong, wrong, wrong. That may be true on the most macro level: if there is greater security, then private investment flows likely increase. But even then, we have to ask for whom security attracts the most resources. While Colombiaâ€™s stock market index has enriched investors by increasing almost ninefold since Uribe took office, incomes remain stagnant in poor, violent departments like ChocÃ³, Guaviare or CaquetÃ¡ (and of course, where coca has been eradicated with insufficient attention to alternatives, incomes are depressed).
Colombiaâ€™s conflict will be won or lost (or stalemated) on the micro level. As weâ€™ve seen over and over again, sending the troops into a zone with a history of government absence does nothing to â€œattract resourcesâ€ to that zone. To do that, you need to establish at least the rudiments of a functioning civilian government. But if the comptroller is correct, the Uribe governmentâ€™s budgets have not made that a priority.