As in most countries, the central issues in Colombia’s presidential elections were jobs and the economy. Each candidate presented different social and economic proposals and the debate often focused on the legacy of outgoing president Alvaro Uribe. Unsurprisingly, Juan Manuel Santos argued for relative continuity from the past eight years, and made frequent reference to the high growth rates Colombia has enjoyed for much of this decade.
By contrast, Antanas Mockus suggested that the Uribe government had neglected Colombia’s persistent social problems. He argued for more robust social programs, to
be financed partly by increasing taxes on the wealthy. For Mockus, this stance was as much a curse as it was a blessing. His ability to channel Colombia’s social woes was doubtless one reason why he became the most popular independent candidate in recent memory. Indeed, it is hardly a coincidence that Mockus, a successful former mayor of Bogota who nonetheless had never had much success in running for national office, rose to prominence at a time when Colombia´s unemployment rate is by far the highest in Latin America.
On the other hand, Santos’ astute public criticism of Mockus’ tax proposals hurt Green Party candidate’s fledgling campaign. The Partido de la U candidate echoed the rhetoric of the American right when he warned Colombia of the danger of raising taxes. Although fear of big government is not as deeply entrenched in Colombia as in the U.S., aversion to high taxes is universal. According to Santos’s own analysis, the tax issue was the final nail in Mockus’ political coffin.
Whether or not Santos can reach his social objectives while keeping taxes low is a legitimate question for another time, but there should be no doubt that Colombia needs a more robust social policy. Simply put, Uribe’s social agenda was a blatant failure, whether measured by the government’s own goals (most of which it failed to meet) or by comparison to Colombia’s neighbors. Indeed, most of the larger economies of South America managed to significantly reduce rates of poverty and inequality over the past decade. Center-left governments, namely those of Brazil and Chile, achieved the most remarkable successes in this area, but countries like Peru, which has had mostly presidents of the center-right, can also point to important achievements in social policy.
Paradoxically, Colombia’s lost decade in the fight against poverty was also a period of rapid economic growth. Such a gap between growth and poverty reduction – especially one sustained over eight years – has at least two possible explanations. First, the kind of growth Colombia enjoyed did not benefit the poor in the medium term. A particularly extreme (if oversimplified) example of this phenomenon is the case of Cartagena. Uribe supporters, including many Colombia Reports readers, will readily refer to Colombia’s tourist-friendly coastal city as an example of Uribe´s socioeconomic achievements. Indeed, thanks to the outgoing president’s business-friendly economic policies and successful security initiatives, the coastal city of Cartagena has begun to attract an impressive number of tourists, hotel chains, investors and, for the first time, cruise ships.
On the other hand, any visitor to Cartagena will probably note that the city’s picturesque colonial streets and luxurious hotels are oases of comfort and luxury in a massive sea of extreme poverty. In fact, Cartagena is one of Colombia´s poorest large cities. However intuitive the link between a tourism boom and poverty reduction (hotels and tourists, of course, bring money and jobs), there are still not nearly enough decent-paying jobs to provide for an urban area of one million mostly poor people and the thousands who continue to arrive yearly due to poverty and violence in the countryside.
In the absence of a natural trickle-down effect, effective social programs should theoretically take on the task of poverty reduction. But the second reason for the gap between growth and improvements in social indicators is that Colombia’s social agenda under Uribe did a miserable job of incorporating the poor into the country’s overall growth and dynamism.
A particularly extreme example is Familias en Accion, Colombia’s conditional cash transfer program. In other countries – namely Brazil, a pioneer of conditional cash transfers – such programs have played central roles in poverty reduction, but Familias en Accion has struggled to make a similar impact. One study found that the program mistakenly provided subsidies for thousands of families above the poverty line. More recently, members of the Santos campaign threatened to remove poor families from the program if they did not vote for the Partido de la U candidate. It would not be far-fetched to say that Familias en Accion has done as much for Santos and for the upper-middle class as it has for the poor.
Needless to say, not all of the blame should fall on the president. Uribe alone does not decide every detail of social policy. Nevertheless, given his highly personalistic style of government, Uribe could certainly have done more to strengthen and invigorate Colombia’s social agenda. Instead, his approach to social policy was full of contradictions. Although like most politicians he preached extensively about the need to improve social conditions, in practice Uribe was far less interested in poverty reduction.
Many advocates of a more proactive social policy, especially those who correctly pointed out the close link between internal displacement and poverty, were met with disdain and even personal insults from the government and the president himself. In other words, what should have been a legitimate debate turned ugly, personal and ideological.
If social policy is to evolve in a positive direction, Santos must incorporate Uribe’s critics in a serious and objective discussion about poverty and inequality. His proposal for a government of national unity is theoretically a first step in the right direction, but it is still unclear whether Santos is willing to back up this lofty rhetoric with concrete concessions to his party´s traditional opponents. In the area of social policy, Santos would do well to recognize that the government must do much more and, God forbid, may even have to raise taxes on the rich.