Opinion: Colombia's presidential elections

Jun 07, 2006

Uribe must work toward social equity
Cynthia J. Arnson
The Miami Herald

Four years ago, Alvaro Uribe ran for president of Colombia and won by pledging to establish 'democratic security' in a country beset by political and drug-fueled violence. Ten days ago, Colombian voters rewarded Uribe for making good on that promise, reelecting him by overwhelming and historic margins to a second presidential term. Not only are most indicators of violence down; according to a poll released in May by four of Colombia's largest news media, 63 percent of the Colombian public would have continued the democratic-security policy even if Uribe had not been returned to office.

According to that same media poll, however, less than half of Colombians believe that the country is headed 'in a good direction.' What, then, is missing? Uribe hinted at an answer when he acknowledged in his victory speech that security policy needs social policy to make it legitimate. Why does belief in the future lags well behind popular enthusiasm for the security effort? Consider: More than half of Colombians -- some 22 million people -- live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations in 2006. Income inequality in Colombia is among the worst in Latin America, a region already the most unequal in the world.
The poorest 20 percent of Colombians receive only 3 percent of national income while the wealthiest 20 percent receive 62 percent. Improved rates of economic investment and growth -- a product of the confidence generated by improvements in public security -- have meant that the official unemployment rate fell to just 10 percent by the end of 2005. But underemployment remains unchanged, affecting almost a third of the economically active population, according to the U.N. figures. While the economy has grown, government revenues from taxes as a percent of GNP remain below the world average. Taxes remain highly regressive, and according to a USAID-funded study prepared last year, only a tiny percentage of Colombians pay income taxes.

As in most of Latin America, those in the rural sector suffer the greatest hardship. Even by the government's more optimistic estimates, more than two-thirds of the population in rural areas live in poverty and almost one-third in extreme poverty, that is, on less than one dollar per day. The rural population has lower rates of enrollment in education and worse access to healthcare or modern infrastructure such as roads. Not surprisingly, rural areas of Colombia are also home to the coca and poppy cultivation that has made Colombia the principal supplier of the cocaine sold on world markets as well as to ever-greater shares of the heroin.
Because the locus of Colombia's internal armed conflict is in the countryside, rural areas also contribute the bulk of Colombia's approximately two million internally displaced persons (IDPs), the third largest such population in the world after Sudan and the Congo. Women, children and Afro-Colombians -- the most disadvantaged of the poor -- are disproportionately represented among the displaced.

Campaign backfired

During his first term, Uribe changed the terms of international debate over Colombia, insisting that there was no armed conflict or humanitarian crisis but rather, a narco-terrorist threat. However much the rhetoric dovetailed with the U.S. global war on terror -- and however much guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers engage in atrocious acts of terrorism -- Uribe's campaign backfired, and the president ultimately had the wisdom to reverse his position.

It has become almost fashionable in policy circles to characterize Colombia's war as 'greed' rather than 'grievance' driven. That is, insurgent greed -- the quest for profits from the drug trade -- has trumped any earlier interest in a political agenda centered on needed reforms. Yet one does not have to resolve the debate over what motivates rebellion in Colombia to acknowledge the existence of what one World Bank official described as a 'social investment debt' to the rural poor. Just as important, to overcome the state weakness on which the conflict feeds, expanding the state's presence through all the nation's territory must extend beyond the emphasis on the military and police to include another face of the state: the public health official, educator and judge.

Uribe has a unique opportunity in his second term to make the hard choices that would make Colombia not only safer but also more equitable. He should use his overwhelming mandate to show that questions of poverty reduction and social policy are not the sole purview of left or populist regimes in the hemisphere, but rather, are central to overcoming the need and marginalization that continue to fuel conflict in Colombia.

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