How to avoid a caudillo in Colombia (and elsewhere)
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BOGOTÁ – While the campaigns must begin in earnest for the Congressional and Presidential elections in Colombia, in March and May respectively, the atmosphere here is one of deep pessimism, perhaps unparalleled. A September poll by Ipsos showed that 89% of Colombians thought our country was “on the wrong track”, the highest percentage among the 28 countries surveyed, and well above the global average of 65%.
This in itself is of concern. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the feeling that Colombia is on the way to ruin; that the problems, instead of being solved, only get worse. Most of the news is crime and corruption. The current economic crisis has exacerbated tensions: 42.5% of Colombians live below the national poverty line of around $ 90 per month (15.1% live in extreme poverty). Crime figures are on the rise and 96% of Colombians now believe the security situation is worsening, the highest percentage on record. Venezuelan migrants are becoming a political issue: in Bogotá alone, 15% of police detentions are Venezuelan migrants, while they represent only 4% of the city’s population. The army is now patrolling Colombia’s major cities, as police – weakened after the social explosion that took thousands to the streets last May – have been overwhelmed by crime.
On the corruption side, a $ 300 million contract signed during the pandemic to provide internet to 7,000 rural schools had to be canceled and is now the subject of a major embezzlement scandal. According to pollster Invamer, the president’s approval is in his twenties, an all-time low. The country is disoriented.
History teaches us that it is at such times that societies easily fall into the hands of the caudillos. Amidst grief and mistrust, the only policy options that seem viable are those that offer a clean slate. Resetting the system and starting from scratch, or at least getting your foot on the table, seems like the winning formula. Too often this leap into the void turns into a spiral of bad decisions that can lead a country down a dark path with lasting consequences.
So how to move forward in such a context? How to avoid an agenda that is only negative? I believe we need to find the courage and the strength to speak out about our own successes as a nation. Yes, it’s tough – talking about progress during tough times can send the eyes rolling (or worse) and make the messenger seem deaf. But we’ve seen in other parts of the world what can happen when no one is willing to stand up for hard-won progress, especially when it comes after decades of failure. This is not about getting drunk on false complacency or downplaying the serious problems we face. Instead, it’s about recognizing that overcoming failure brings confidence, which is necessary to build something new instead of just tearing things down.
In a new book, Cómo Avanza Colombia or “How Colombia is progressing”, I try to highlight some positive examples from recent years. One of them is infrastructure, where our country has gone from one of the worst performing in the world to what is the largest toll road program in Latin America, in terms of kilometers under construction and spending on invested capital. And the results are already visible: until 2014, Colombia had only managed to build 11 bridges over the Magdalena River, which essentially divides our country in two. Ten more have since been built. This means that in seven years we have done more than in previous centuries.
Becoming a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2018 is another success story. A number of small, individual steps were required in the seven-year process. While this is unlikely to divide Colombia’s history in two, all of the changes introduced improve the functioning of the public sector.
Colombia is today a leader in the emerging world in childcare. It is the result of a well-planned – and well-funded – strategy to bring children under five to CDIs (Centros de Desarrollo Infantil), which are landmarks in every city, where children benefit from ” access to world-class specialist attention.
The list is long. Changes to reduce payroll taxes – to generate more formal jobs – and increases in taxes on tobacco, alcohol, sugary drinks – to reduce their consumption and improve health – are part of the story . The same goes for carbon taxes, introduced in 2016, one of the first adoptions in the emerging world. Another force that has been particularly valuable during the pandemic is that the entire Colombian population has basic health insurance, which many countries would like to emulate. Two-thirds of the population do not pay a dime for this insurance. The country has much better results in international sports competitions. None of this happened by sheer luck.
Each episode of progress has its own dynamic and leaves lessons. However, the relevant question is what is behind these positive experiences. What are the common elements that policymakers and others, including members of civil society, can learn and apply to address current challenges? I believe they all share five things:
1. Learn from your own failures and the successful experiences of others.
2. Develop a plan with a clear roadmap.
3. Once you have that, prioritize. Political capital depreciates rapidly and must be invested intelligently and selectively.
4. Spend time and resources building institutions before cutting ribbons.
5. Very little gets on the first try, so don’t give up if things go as planned. Persevere and persist.
Politics matter more than good ideas, but good ideas drive progress. We must not lose our voice and forget to talk to our fellow citizens about what we can accomplish when we combine purpose and leadership. Now is the time to remind everyone that choosing the right ideas over demagoguery is always the right thing to do.
Cárdenas is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and was Colombia’s Finance Minister from 2012 to 2018. Follow him on Twitter @MauricioCard.
Key words: Colombian election
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its editors.