It’s hard not to notice all of the buzz about emerging markets these days. Latin America and Colombia are no exception. Investors’ interest in Colombia continues to grow, and the country is now part of a trendy emerging-market acronym, CIVETS, that is second in fame only to the BRICs. Latin America’s two richest men, who already have some business interests in the country, are planning to pump billions into coal, oil and infrastructure projects. Now, about a century after Panama declared independence from Colombia and then built its famous canal, China and Colombia may even built a rail-based alternative to the lucrative waterway.
The stage seems set for Colombia to follow recent improvements in security with a period of rapid economic growth and development. But for the country to reach its immense potential, its political leaders need to match their lofty rhetoric with fair and sensible policies. During the first decade of this century, Colombia’s record in political leadership has been mixed. Despite achieving massive reductions in homicide rates during his first term, Alvaro Uribe handed his handpicked successor a country with growing crime problems, Latin America’s highest unemployment rate and a crumbling social infrastructure. Juan Manuel Santos, an ambitious and astute politician, has inherited the presidency at a decisive turning point for Colombia, full of risks and opportunities.
On paper, the transition from Uribe to Santos has been a surprising shift to the left. The new president has improved relations with the socialist government of Venezuela, explicitly declared a policy of non-interference in investigations into links between right-wing politicians and paramilitary groups, and, just in the past few days, reiterated his openness to domestic drug legalization. Moreover, in a move that would make him decidedly left-of-center in many countries, Santos also said that drastic reductions in inequality and a stronger commitment to social justice were key to Colombia’s continued growth and economic progress.
The Santos agenda, however, has been more about moving the country forward than about moving to the left. Indeed, many of his proposals include ideas traditionally associated with the right, such as his strong emphasis on cutting the fiscal deficit. Defying traditional political categorization, the Santos agenda is a kind of post-ideological project that aims to leave behind the crippling polarization, cheap populism and dirty politics of the Uribe years.
The new president rightly judged that the first step toward implementing effective policies was to tear down the barriers between political parties and branches of government that had burdened the Colombian state for eight years. He reached out to the opposition, to Colombia’s neighbors and to the broader international community in order to restore trust in the country’s democratic institutions and aspirations.
He insists, for example, on allowing the judiciary to investigate and even punish Uribe for wrongdoing not because he thinks his predecessor and former boss is guilty of any crime, but simply because democracies respect the separation of powers. This is a good idea not just on ethical grounds, but also because it has helped Colombia’s policymakers push aside the costly distraction of debating the integrity of the Uribe government. Now that Colombia’s decently transparent and effective judiciary is handling the matter, the government can get back to governing.
Having reduced political polarization, Santos has started moving on to his central goal: updating what the Colombian government does and how it does it. The first part involves pushing some long-overdue reforms, from land redistribution to deficit reduction. For years, these issues have been debated endlessly, often erupting into major political controversies, but few concrete actions have been taken. Santos’s assertiveness, ambition and aversion to cheap populism have helped put these issues at the forefront of the country’s agenda.
The political system’s rapid decline into an ideological battleground over the past eight years also contributed to rampant neglect of the dire state of Colombia’s state agencies and public services. While other Latin American countries have made admirable improvements in their infrastructure and social programs, Colombia has started to lag behind. Public education remains appallingly poor and the country is dangerously vulnerable to natural disasters, as evidenced by huge losses of life and property during recent rainy seasons.
Of course, getting the government back to work and restoring a basic sense of political unity was the easy part. Every important reform will have pros and cons, winners and losers. Land reform, to cite just one example, is an extremely tricky issue involving all sorts of legal complications and ethical dilemmas. Just who counts as an internally displaced person? How will the government determine the rightful owners of millions of acres worth of rural property? How can Colombia ensure that the land will be used productively? Perhaps most importantly, how will the country pay for the huge cost of actually administering these reforms?
Still, Colombia cannot afford to continue debating these issues forever. If there is any hope of putting our decades-long armed conflict behind us, our political leadership must take some kind of concrete action soon.
Politically, the Uribistas and their more dogmatic opponents have the most to lose from Santos’ new approach to politics. Now that Uribe is gone and most of the most explosive scandals from the era are being handled by the judiciary, one has to wonder what exactly Uribismo and anti-Uribismo mean. Indeed, the months since Santos’s inauguration have ironically revealed that his “U” coalition does not have much in the way of a real political platform, at least not one that deals with Colombia’s current challenges. The president’s conciliatory and reform-focused approach has come partly at the expense of the pro-Uribe alliance that helped get him elected.
So, for all its shortcomings, Santos’s agenda has set a new tone in Bogota that has been of great benefit to Colombia. Colombian politics is slowly but surely starting to more directly address the needs of citizens, rather than focusing on personal vendettas and high-level gossip, and this has helped keep Santos’ approval ratings above 80%. Sure, he has been helped by an economic recovery, but for a man who succeeded the most popular president in Colombian history and then abandoned much of his predecessor’s political vision and governing style, these levels of popularity are quite remarkable.
Santos’s approval rating speaks volumes about Colombians’ political preferences. Like most Latin Americans, Colombian voters are pragmatists who value transparent, effective government much more than any sort of ideological allegiance. Indeed, though the region is popularly associated with left-wing revolutionaries and right-wing dictatorships, Latin Americans seem to care little for political labels and yearn for governments they can trust.
In this way, Santos’s common-sense, results-focused approach to government is actually quite similar to that of his main rival in last year’s presidential elections, Antanas Mockus. Mockus’s Green Party was essentially a quirky coalition of former mayors who entered politics as outsiders. Mostly nerdy former academics, these men were instrumental in both Bogota and Medellin’s rise out of decades of violence and social decay. Their legacies include the expansion of the MetroCable and the integration of urban slums in Medellin as well as Bogota’s world-famous TransMilenio and urban bike lanes.
If Santos succeeds, he will leave behind a similar legacy of social integration, massive infrastructure improvements and good government. Colombia had a turbulent twentieth century, and many of its troubles spilled over into the twenty-first. Old-school populism and corruption are alive and well in Colombia, but a generation of pragmatic politicians and voters is well equipped to carry the country forward.