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Colombia: Moving Beyond 'Narco-Democracy'

Interviewee: Cynthia Arnson, Director, Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Interviewer: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
May 28, 2010

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Colombia's vote for the successor to two-term President Alvaro Uribe on May 30 pits a former top Uribe aide against a populist former mayor of Bogotá who has drawn strong support from young Colombians. Despite dramatic security gains achieved under Uribe, a strong U.S. ally, the strength of support for Antanas Mockus of the Green Party represents a backlash against years of political corruption, says Cynthia Arnson, who directs the Woodrow Wilson Center's Latin America Program. Citing corruption and ties between politicians of the long-established uribista coalition [supporters and political allies of Uribe] and security scandals, Arnson says, "A candidate who promises democratic legitimacy, and has a record of having provided good government, can be deeply appealing." Regardless of the winner, security will remain a priority issue, she says, and high levels of U.S. aid can be expected to continue.

Outgoing President Uribe is widely credited with crippling the guerrillas of FARC and ELN, and Colombia's crime rate has been markedly reduced. Given that security is no longer as pressing a concern, what issues are Colombian voters most concerned about going into the election?

In certain respects, President Uribe and his former defense minister, candidate Juan Manuel Santos, are victims of the success of their own security policy. Three-fourths of Colombians polled last November by Gallup-Colombia approved of Uribe's handling of the war against the guerrillas, and the same number supported his conduct of the fight against narco-trafficking. The president's approval ratings on security matters soared close to 90 percent following Operación Jaque, the daring military rescue of guerrilla-held hostages in June 2008, an operation in which then-defense minister Santos played a key role.

On other matters, however, notably the economy and corruption, the government's polling numbers have grown increasingly negative over time. In November 2009, for example, Gallup-Colombia showed 46 percent of Colombians thought that things in the country were getting worse as opposed to better; by contrast, following Uribe's 2006 election to a second term, 57 percent believed that things in the country were improving.

Colombians in general, and its youth in particular, want something better for their country than to be seen in the eyes of the world as a narco-democracy.

By more than two to one, those polled late last year considered the economy, rather than security, as the country's key problem. Three-fourths of the population thought that unemployment was worsening; 61 percent disapproved of the government's handling of the cost of living; and--in a sharp reversal of earlier trends--57 percent disapproved of Uribe's handling of the fight against poverty. Colombia's robust annual growth rates have plummeted as a result of the recession, and the growth rate in 2009 was barely positive, far below the regional average. Another area of vulnerability for the government concerns the key issue of corruption.

How do the platforms of the two leading candidates differ? Which constituencies find Santos most appealing? What about Mockus? How are they positioning themselves vis-a-vis Uribe's legacy?

Antanas Mockus is the candidate of change, and has based his campaign on themes of honesty, morality, and transparency in government. These are issues on which he made a name for himself as mayor of Bogotá, and he is the only capital city mayor in recent years to have won a second term. An IPSOS poll on May 22 shows that Mockus draws his most solid base of support from voters between eighteen and thirty-four years of age and from middle- and upper-class voters. The only age group, in fact, to have a more favorable image of Santos than Mockus was those over fifty-four years of age.

Santos, by contrast, represents continuity as well as experience. He has held three different ministerial posts in the past, whereas Mockus has never held national office. He is seen as the most likely to continue consolidating the Uribe administration's gains in the security arena, although neither Mockus nor the other major presidential candidates propose to break with the security policy. Santos has more support than Mockus in rural areas, in smaller towns, and among the poor, testimony to the way violence has exacted its heaviest toll on lower income groups living outside the major cities.

What is it about Mockus that has made him the surprise in this election?

As recently as February 2010, Mockus's unfavorable image among voters was 47 percent. By April, his favorable ratings had soared to 61 percent. He is now in a statistical tie with Santos in the first round to be held this coming Sunday. And among citizens who say they will vote in a second round, he beats Santos by about 5 percent. Mockus has clearly touched a nerve among an electorate weary of the numerous scandals that have dogged the Uribe administration, and his promise of transparent, honest government--which he modeled during his years as mayor of Bogotá--resonates with those who want Colombia's democracy to function on behalf of the public good.

Over the past several years, dozens of politicians of the uribista coalition have been prosecuted or jailed for ties to outlawed paramilitary groups; the country's internal security police known as the DAS spied on members of the Supreme Court, opposition politicians, and grass-roots activists; subsidies for rural development went to some of Colombia's wealthy landowners; the armed forces murdered civilians and dressed them up in guerrilla uniforms, in order to gain bonuses based on the number of guerrillas killed.

Against that record, a candidate who promises democratic legitimacy, and has a record of having provided good government, can be deeply appealing. Moreover, Colombians in general, and its youth in particular, want something better for their country than to be seen in the eyes of the world as a narco-democracy. Young people have volunteered for the Mockus campaign in droves, using the media and social networking to mobilize their cohort. Santos, by contrast, has waged a more traditional and staid campaign.

What will be the challenges for the next president? How will he likely grapple with issues such as persistent poverty and unemployment, or the new rise in criminal gangs that are reportedly involved in the cocaine trade?

The challenges for the next president will be substantial but not insurmountable. The guerrillas have suffered punishing defeats but continue to have a strong presence in some areas of the country. Maintaining the momentum on the security front will be crucial. As some security challenges have receded, others have emerged. New heavily armed groups involved in narco-trafficking have been formed, terrorizing the civilian population and continuing their quest for territorial control of drug trafficking corridors. There will be no choice but to continue to combat these groups. Also important will be a rural development strategy that provides viable economic alternatives to coca growing for the rural poor. Rates of poverty and indigence in rural areas--where the conflict still festers--far surpass those of urban areas, and consolidation of the institutions of civilian governance--schools, health centers, a system of justice--continues to lag.

The guerrillas have suffered punishing defeats but continue to have a strong presence in some areas of the country. Maintaining the momentum on the security front will be crucial.

According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) per capita social spending in Colombia has gone up in recent years, but remains at levels that are less than half the regional average. World Bank figures show that health expenditure as a percent of the government's budget has actually declined. Private investment in Colombia has soared during the Uribe years, but inequality has risen. A reform of the tax system, and a more effective safety net for the urban and rural poor--including millions of displaced persons--are huge pending tasks on the reform agenda.

Another challenge is that assembling a governing coalition in the legislature will be much more difficult for Mockus than Santos. Mockus's Green Party has only a tiny representation in the Assembly, and together, uribistas and the Conservative Party have a majority following the legislative elections last March. Some voters may swing toward Santos in the second round, precisely out of concern for the president's ability to govern.

Colombia has been received more that $5 billion in military aid from the United States. Will that likely continue? And what can the United States do better to help Colombia move forward?

U.S. aid to Colombia is likely to continue at high levels (in the hundreds of millions of dollars) for the foreseeable future, but much will depend on the new government's strategy for addressing social as well as military and drug-trafficking issues. The Democratic Congress has shifted spending priorities in recent years, to favor social and economic development over strictly military and counternarcotics goals. This emphasis is also likely to continue. Were Mockus to win the presidency, the chances for congressional approval of the long-standing free trade agreement would likely improve among those who have distrusted Uribe's commitment to human rights and labor rights.

Should U.S. economic recovery fail to improve current high levels of unemployment, however, trade agreements will continue to be very hard sells in the U.S. Congress. Finally, there is nothing better that the United States could do to help Colombia than to dramatically reduce the domestic demand for drugs. There are promising signs of a new commitment in this area, but still a long way to go.

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