The 2011 World Economic Forum, an annual summit of global political and business leaders held in Davos, Switzerland, officially ended last week. The Colombian delegation included Juan Manuel Santos, who made his first visit to Davos as President. I was naturally eager to hear about his encounters with foreign officials and bankers or perhaps about what he had learned from the summit’s many panels and meetings. Instead, Santos’s most widely discussed reflection upon returning from Switzerland was that “the image of our country is changing… [foreign leaders] no longer make references to drug trafficking or guerrillas.”
In many ways, the attention devoted to this single comment is hardly surprising. Colombia is a very image-conscious country in more ways than one. We are painfully area that, for more than two decades, our country has developed a reputation for drugs, violence and lawlessness. So, when murder rates began to fall around 2003, Colombians grew optimistic not just about the country’s long-term stability and prosperity, but also about the possibility that it may one day shed its negative reputation.
Still, it seems somewhat strange to me that, about eight years after local murder rates began to plummet, the fact that foreigners no longer associate us with drug violence continues to make headlines. Colombia has been an emerging tourism and investment hotspot for years, and surely most people at Davos have picked up a newspaper in the past decade and realized that the local security situation has been improving. That global leaders no longer think of our country solely as a haven for organized crime is hardly surprising; it is basically the norm.
In fact, I would argue that Colombia’s main image problems today have little to do with guerrillas or drug lords. Many foreign observers, including influential policymakers in Europe and the United States, have been more concerned about human rights and corruption than about the FARC for about five years. So, yes, Colombia’s image has been changing and continues to change, but hardly for the reasons that the Colombian media seems think.
Take, for example, Freedom House’s recent reports on the state of civil and political liberties in Colombia. In its latest annual report, the prominent Washington think tank listed Colombia as one of only a handful of countries to have improved in freedom ratings last year. Why this positive change? Almost instantly, the conservative Heritage Foundation attributed Colombia’s rise in the freedom rankings the longer-term effects of former president Alvaro Uribe’s hard-line security policies.
But if anyone at Heritage had read the reports, they would have noticed that Uribe’s anti-guerrilla campaign actually contributed to a marked deterioration in Colombia’s freedom scores beginning in 2005. Freedom House has been specifically worried about the negative side effects and excesses of this military escalation – relative impunity for right-wing paramilitaries and their allies in the government, illegal wiretapping of the political opposition, widespread human rights abuses by the army, attacks on the independence of the judicial branch, irregularities in the referendum to allow for Uribe’s re-election in 2006, and so on.
In this context, the improvement in Colombia’s freedom scores in 2010 has more to do with Uribe’s departure than with his successes. The Freedom House report noted the restoration of equilibrium between three branches of government and the end of illegal wiretapping operations. The credit for this certainly does not belong to Uribe, who had a tense relationship with the judiciary and whose top aides are being investigated in the wiretapping case. On the contrary, much of the improvement is due Santos’s efforts correct some of his predecessor’s mistakes. He has reached out to the opposition, supported investigations into government wrongdoing under Uribe and revived efforts to compensate the victims of armed conflict.
Indeed, one could even say that Santos has embarked on an active campaign to show the world that he is not just another Uribe. Perhaps nothing underscores this point more clearly than his recent interview with the BBC. Uribe’s own interviews with the network were infamously explosive. A couple of years ago, when asked about his second re-election bid, he interrupted the interviewer and told him to skip to another question. When the reporter, somewhat shocked, insisted on at least finishing his sentence, Uribe told him to stay out of Colombia’s business.
Santos, by contrast, handled his interview like any leader of a functional democracy. In perfect English, he calmly and cordially answered all the interviewer’s questions, including one that touched on the delicate issue of whether he would respect the independence of the judiciary should Mr. Uribe be found guilty of any crime. His answer: “I will accept it, of course… if it happens, so be it.” In an earlier statement, he said, “we are a democracy. We respect the independence of powers. I’ve been respecting every single investigation [into illegal wiretapping], no matter who it touches.”
In this view, Santos’s remarks upon returning from Davos are outdated. Drugs and violence continue to plague the country and deservedly receive some international attention, but Colombia’s main reputational challenge now is to reassure the world that our democracy is fair, balanced and transparent. If Colombia’s image is improving today, it probably has more to do with end of the Uribe era than with security improvements.
Of course, in some circles, Colombia’s image is unlikely to be affected by any of these political considerations. The American film industry, which makes money off sensationalized violence and cartoonish stereotyping, is unlikely to change its view of Colombia regardless of the country’s murder rate or level of corruption. Indeed, if Hollywood still cannot adequately portray Mexico, just 150 miles away, Colombians should not expect accurate depictions of our country anytime soon.