Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

State Building in Colombia: Getting Priorities Straight

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

State Building in Colombia: Getting Priorities Straight

Article excerpt

For many Colombians, the term "state building" provokes considerable discomfort. After all, their country is in many respects highly sophisticated. It is South America's oldest democracy, has flirted only very briefly with military rule (under General Rojas Pinilla, from 1953 to 1957) and, compared to its neighbors, has political parties that have long been, and still are, reasonably coherent and effective. Colombia has also been a generally solid economic performer for decades; it was the only major country in the region that did not have to renegotiate its debt in the 1980s.

Although such accomplishments can easily be attributed to a dynamic civil society, including a relatively vigorous entrepreneurial sector, they are also an unambiguous statement on state capacity. It is hard to imagine such a record, widely recognized throughout Latin America, without minimally functioning state machinery. For Colombian sensibilities, therefore, state construction is a task better suited to countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, in the Western Hemisphere context, Haiti or perhaps even countries in Central America.

Yet, beginning in the late 1990s, Colombians were forced to confront the hard reality that, despite some impressive achievements, their state had great difficulty carrying out perhaps its most basic function: protecting its citizens. The statistics on homicides, kidnappings and violence in general were staggering. The slide into rampant lawlessness and insecurity was no doubt related to the state's weakness, inefficacy and, in some cases, even absence. The deterioration in law and order was compounded and reinforced by notable economic decline--uncharacteristic for Colombia--and social disintegration. Colombia's high level of violence had long been one of its unhappy distinctions in the Latin American context. But the disappointing economic performance, reflecting some degree of mismanagement, was something new. The combination of maladies, and their severity--expressed in the dramatic exodus of Colombians from their country--made talk of a "failed state" at least sound plausible.

Not surprisingly, when Alvaro Uribe ran for the presidency in 2002, his message of "democratic security" resonated with an electorate weary of unrelenting violence and frustrated by fruitless "peace efforts" carried out by previous governments with the country's insurgent groups. Uribe emphasized his commitment to prevent a "failed state" scenario by mobilizing the nation and bolstering the state's capacity to protect its people. Rooted in the conviction that it is necessary to have a strong state to guarantee the exercise of democracy, his notion of "democratic security" has as its first objective the "consolidation of state control throughout Colombia." (1) This would mean strengthening Colombian security forces--the military and police--and extending their presence in areas from which they had been absent, and into which lawless actors had made significant inroads. Such a change would not only provide more protection to the Colombian people; it would also apply growing pressure on Colombia's insurgent and paramilitary forces to come to the negotiating table and reach a political settlement with the government.

With a political solution in place and the conflict contained, Colombia would then be better able to move on and focus on a broader agenda of social and economic development and institutional renewal and reform. Ending violence altogether would be unrealistic, particularly in view of its persistence throughout Colombian history. But the hope was to contain such violence and help Colombia get back on its traditional track. Though previous Colombian governments--including the administration of Andres Pastrana that immediately preceded Uribe's--had made serious efforts at state strengthening and renewal, these lacked the sharp focus and strong thrust articulated by the "democratic security" message.


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