Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has declared the desire to increase the public external debt rather than decrease spending in social programs such as “Familias en accion” and his almost holy “Seguridad Democratica”.
This statement would be well received by the majority of Colombians. Despite the probable popular approval, it is important to question whether these programs are really helping the country or are just helping the administration building its popular support while being detrimental to all — especially the economically vulnerable — in the medium and long term.
Social program such as “Familias en accion” have been heavily criticised due to the manner in which the (international) resources are distributed. The government has total discretion in handing out such subsidies. This is a policy only implemented by the actual government and not guarantee of becoming a law. Critics say they only serve to increase the President’s popularity among the country’s poorest, the way Hugo Chávez is bribing the Venezuelan people through his Bolivarian programs.
The effectiveness of these programs in actually solving the structural unemployment and poverty in the country is highly disputable. Uribe is seeking to increase the number of families benefited by this initiative from 1.5 million to 3.5 million households by the end of his term in 2010. Some argue this is merely a reflection of the ineffectiveness of the program when there are not checks in place to ensure that recipients are not just receiving handouts, but are working towards ending their dependence. Most important of all; what will happen to these families once Uribe steps down?
“Seguridad Democratica” has always been hailed by Uribe as the cornerstone of his administration’s success. He emphasizes the year on year increment on foreign direct investment as a testament of foreign investors’ confidence in the country. The “Seguridad Democratica” has definitely brought more security to the main cities and roads, which is indispensable not only for foreign investor’s security but also primordial to urban Colombians.
However, this has not come in vain. Millions of Colombians have been forced out their homes and possibly hundreds if not thousands have been brutally murdered by security forces to make the war against the FARC seem more effective. It’s difficult to explain how the increased security has benefited these victims and their families.
Furthermore, this foreign investment, which has contributed to a sustained GDP growth, has not been translated into more employment. On the contrary, unemployment has been going up. The minimum wage has been raised, but has not been levelled to the increase of food and gasoline prices, resulting in an increase in poverty.
Colombia’s productivity has increased thanks to more advanced technology and more workload for the employed with lower wages. The popular statement of the richer becoming richer and the poorer becoming poorer becomes very representative of the everyday situations in the country.
So, wouldn’t it be fair to state that Uribe’s policies only serve to increase his popularity and promote his neo-liberal agenda without many obstacles? Would it be fair to argue that the elites are content with the government because the profitability of their business, while the unemployed, underemployed and exploited are satisfied because of similar social programs?
These two representative government programs appear to be well and sound in the short term, but we cannot forget that these programs are being financed by external debt and subsidies.
Uribe has already stated that there may be problems in financing the 2010 and 2011 budgets. Sooner or later we need to pay our creditors, otherwise the government will find itself reading the sign “hoy no fio, manana si” (today I don’t offer credit, tomorrow I do) that all Colombians are so familiar with. The government’s hope is to eradicate the guerrillas and attract more foreign investment, thus balancing the budget, but if this foreign investment focuses on exploiting the country and its people the future looks very bleak indeed. That is, if the current financial crisis doesn’t prevent foreign investment even to arrive.
It is important to state that foreign investment is very important for the economic development of countries such as Colombia. However, foreign investment does not in itself lifts off of the country out of poverty. The latest countries to achieve industrialization levels are in the Far East, the so-called Asian tigers: Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
These countries followed a state- led development where the government played a significant role in promoting the establishment of local industries, instead of leaving the free market to decide what was best for their development. This is especially true in relatively big countries such as Korea and Taiwan and currently China.
Of course each country possesses their distinct elements and no exact model of development provides the answer. Nonetheless, the Asian tigers’ path to development sits in stark contrast to what is happening at the moment in Colombia. Something that should raise many questions.
When these social and security policies are analysed in conjunction one cannot help but wonder at the “beauty” of politics and the not so blissful ignorance of the people who focus only in their self-interest and forget to understand the implications of the bigger picture.
But, wait a minute, this self-interest is after all the fundamental tenet of liberal democracy.
If we have not understood yet what this means we just need to wait a few more months to feel the consequences of such system when it results in a global economic depression. Although depression is what millions of displaced, underpaid, exploited families and the thousands of victims of the miraculous pyramids are already feeling.
Author Sebastian Castaneda is Colombian studies psychology and political economy at the University of Hong Kong