A Bright Future for Colombia?

The factors that make up a State should not be seen solely as independent parts, but understood in the aggregate as part of a larger functioning system. This blog has looked at many of Colombia’s characteristics and policies and now I want to explore the connections between these parts and how those interactions could have implications for the future.

Colombia, a nation once consumed by prolonged violent conflict, has overcome considerable obstacles in the past two decades. We saw how foreign assistance helped destroy organized drug networks with Plan Colombia, and more recently we have seen Bogota push boundaries further in an attempt to decrease the economic and social stratification in the city. The central factors of state decay we’ve looked at all play into each other. In Colombia, the lack of security pervaded the nation, making it difficult for the economy to succeed due to the lack of trust and extreme income inequality. Citizens were feeling uncertain about their government institutions and many lived in fear of insurgent group violence.

The turn of the millennium represents a turning point for Colombia, as it began to repair the broken systems. In addition to Plan Colombia and Bogota’s plans, the nation is working to improve and increase mobility around the nation. The Ministry of Transport has advanced extensive projects for road building, although the nation has neglected its railways. Colombia has 16 times more kilometers of roadways than railways. The nation boasts over 140,000 km of roadway, but only 874 km of railways. Inaccessibility is a boundary to economic development for Colombia. Connecting rural areas to urban areas is a crucial step for Colombia because it will facilitate stronger economic ties and hopefully, transfer and balance the wealth from cities to those rural areas. 

Colombia has a strong future ahead, according to the IMF and the Brookings Institution. In an IMF report on the financial stability of Colombia, the evaluation shows that the banks and institutions are in good health and performing well. The systems appear resilient to shocks, although the IMF recognizes that a global recession is the biggest potential risk for Colombia.  This month the Colombian Minister of National Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno, spoke at Brookings about the successes of Colombia and speculation on the future of the nation. The speech highlighted the lowered unemployment rate, financial independence from the US, government seizure of drugs, and improved security. Lastly, Pinzón declared that he sees peace in Colombia’s future.


First Colombia-Brazil Investment Forum

Last week I took a brief look at the overall situation of Colombia’s foreign relations within Latin America. This week, I want to look more specifically at Colombia and Brazil because their relationship is growing important, especially due to their geographic region. For Brazil, Colombia offers connections to the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans. For Colombia, Brazil holds most of the Amazon Rainforest, including the Amazon River, meaning the two nations need to join forces for environmental management. Additionally, both nations are powerful governments in South America, which creates an opportunity for global influence and economic leverage. To my surprise, there is little information about the history of relations at the Brazil-Colombia border. While Uribe was President, Colombia remained somewhat isolated, but under the new President, Juan Manuel Santos, relations with Brazil are developing further. Looking towards the future, globalization will bring Colombia and Brazil closer and catalyze collaboration and management as demand increases and resources are depleted.

In 2011, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) sponsored the first Investment Forum between Colombia and Brazil as a way to increase bilateral trade and investment. Over 600 business leaders and government authorities attended the event, drawn by enticing opportunities of the region. According to the IDB, annual trade has quadrupled since 2004 and is now at $3 billion. The Forum identified that the number is far below the recognized potential for the two nations.

From our class discussions and the Williams et. al readings, there are both successes and failures of trade agreements and other mechanisms to improve trading. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, created a trilateral trade between Mexico, the US, and Canada. The agreement represented an impressive feat at the time of ratification, but has since been criticized for creating many conflicts at the US-Mexico border. Could the Colombia-Brazil investments represent a successful trade agreement? Santos, the Colombian President, is looking for investments that would seek to achieve a more equitable society and reduce poverty in his nation. Lula, the Brazilian President, wants to accomplish further innovation for businesses to generate more income and employment.

Despite the significant increases in investments between Colombia and Brazil, each nation is still dedicating less than 1% of its total foreign trade budget to their goals, according to the IDB Integration Department. Colombia and Brazil need to plan for future investments and incorporate infrastructure advancements into goals in order to better connect the two nations. Moving forward, the trade alliance between Colombia and Brazil will be beneficial on the local, regional, and global scale.

Border Relations

Throughout the course, we have learned that buffer states play an important role in a nation’s status. Weak buffer states can make it difficult for a given state to improve its institutions and reach a stable state. This trend is common in Africa, where many bordering nations are critically weak or failing and the regional failures contribute to the cycle, preventing or delaying success. Colombia is situated in a unique location, with one coast on the Pacific Ocean and one coast on the Caribbean Sea. Its neighbors are Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. Colombia’s position makes it the gateway to Central America and North America, meaning that the other South American nations rely on Colombia as a means of transportation throughway. The relationships become especially contentious when looking at issues of drug trafficking through Colombia to the US and Mexico. Colombia’s relationships and trade agreements with surrounding Latin American nations are inherently connected with internal affairs.

Colombia seeks to maintain positive relationships with its bordering nations, regardless of their political systems or beliefs. The economy is open and supports trade between Border States and states farther abroad. Venezuela, Colombia’s eastern neighbor, has similar history and culture to Colombia, but their politics and security are the basis for tensions. Previously, one of the main sources of tension relates to the presence of the insurgent and terrorist groups due to a spillover effect from Colombia, specifically the FARC. Political leaders have also contributed to border tensions. For example, in 2008 president Uribe’s efforts to control the FARC inside Ecuadorian lines were met with resistance and backlash from Ecuadorian president Correa, as well as Venezuelan president Chavez. More recently, Venezuela has been trying to aid Colombian and FARC peace negotiations by encouraging FARC leaders to participate.

While it is difficult to summarize Colombia’s border relations within such a limited space, the examples provided show the interconnectivity of Colombia’s internal happenings and external relations. Next week, I will analyze Colombia’s relationship with Brazil based on resource conflicts.

Environmental Policy: Water Quality

Colombia’s geography is unique due to its wide range of ecosystems and high biodiversity. It is one of the five most biologically diverse nations in the world and home to about 10% of the world’s species. The Amazon Rainforest makes up about one third of Colombia’s land. Apart from the Amazon, Colombia is also home to the Andes Mountains as well as beaches and coral reefs off the coast. Given the wealth of diversity in the nation, Colombia faces many challenges in trying to protect its assets. The urban centers of the State face serious air pollution from vehicle emissions, leading to increased smog and respiratory problems. Many of the major rivers are polluted due to dumping waste. Outside of urban areas, extreme deforestation occurs throughout the Amazon. Intense farming and agriculture contribute significantly to soil degradation and deforestation. The impacts of poor water quality for Colombia are far reaching. Effective policies are needed to make the difference.

For the past decade, Colombia has worked on environmental management policies. In 2003, Colombia requested a World Bank Sustainable Development Structural Adjustment Loan to help with medium-term program initiatives to reduce air pollution and improve water quality. Resources For the Future conducted a comprehensive study on the environmental policies and practices in Colombia. The new constitution in 1991 marked a first step for Colombia in adopting the principles of sustainable development into their legislation.

For dealing with water quality issues, Colombia uses permits, discharge standards, and discharge fees. The policy is designed in a conventional command-and-control manner, but Colombia has struggled with implementation. While 64% of polluters say they have the appropriate permits for discharging water, the remaining percentage are not in compliance, which leads to significant evasion of the system. For discharge standards, the levels are often not strict enough and do not include all pollutants. Discharge fees are ineffective because the environmental regulatory bodies do not have the necessary information to collect all of the fees. There is a significant gap in dischargers that register because there is no effective system of monitoring. The report recommends that Colombia develop plans for building and regulating municipal waste treatment plants. Additionally, the government needs to strengthen regulations, programs, and investments for non-point source pollutions. If you want to learn more, I recommend reading the whole report, available for free online here

As Colombia develops over the coming decades, the management of the resources will be crucial to sustaining environmental quality and developing in a sustainable way. While much of the rural population lives in poverty, their farming and ranching practices will need to become less intensive and destructive, or else the land will no longer be able to support these activities.

Economic Policies: Oil Exploration

As seen throughout this blog, the effectiveness state functions and institutions play a significant role in the success of a nation. Colombia has struggled with violence and inequities over the past fifty years, but how has the economy fared throughout all of this? What role has the economic situation played in conjunction with the other factors of Colombia’s system?

In the past decade, Colombia has maintained economic success through sound policies. A strong economy has created a system that resists internal shocks and helps maintain stability in the nation. Although their GDP has grown, Colombia still relies heavily on its natural resources and struggles with further economic development. Looking at Colombia by the numbers, it ranks 29 in the world for GDP at $366 billion; however, the GDP per capita is a mere $11,000 and ranks 110 in the world. The disparity between these two numbers and the corresponding ranks exemplifies the stratification of Colombian society. 34% of Colombia’s 47.7 million people live below the poverty line, which means more than 15 million people are living in poverty.

A large portion of Colombia’s GDP is based on its oil reserves and industries. Colombia’s oil production has grown 75% in the last four years. The energy sector represents 12.5% of the nation’s GDP. While oil has been a reliable source of success for Colombia, in order to meet the growing demands of the industry there will need to be further increases in research and development of reserves. Colombia’s dependence on oil makes them vulnerable to changes in the oil demand. In the event of a drop in oil prices, Colombia’s assets would lose value quickly. Another potential area of weakness is the global shift away from fossil fuels for energy. As climate change becomes increasingly present, alternative energy industries are working to replace the need for energy from fossil fuels. An increase in alternative energy sources could mean a decrease in the value of Colombia’s reserves. Additionally, the environmental impacts of oil exploration in Colombia could be far-reaching and costly.

As Colombia moves into the next stages of economic development, it should focus on a well-rounded plan that will ensure stability in the long term. Faltering economic policies could lead to outbreaks in violence and illegal activities, bringing Colombia back to where it was in the late 1900s.

Scope vs. Strength

In the literature on state failure, a question about the scope of state institutions is often presented as a way to represent the quality of the state’s functions. By quality, I mean how well their system is working given the extent of government and the effectiveness of institutions. Fukuyama’s paper, The Imperative of State-Building proposes a way to analyze the role of the state in development through looking at scope vs. strength (2004). Scope refers to the state functions and strength refers to state institutions. Looking at the United States, we have relatively strong institutions and broad scope of functions. Colombia, a nation that has experienced extended periods of violence, has emerged in the 21st century with progressive policies under Gustavo Petro, the elected Bogota city Mayor in 2011. Prior to Plan Colombia and the millennium, Colombia lacked the scope of state functions. Although it had reasonably strong institutions, insurgent groups and violence constantly threatened those institutions.

The biggest shortcoming of Colombia’s state functions was the lack of development outside the city and the extreme economic stratification. The CIA World Factbook reports a 58.5 score from 2011 for the Gini index, up from 53.8 in 1996. The Gini index is a measure of the distribution of family income. A zero would be perfect equality and 100 is perfect inequality. Colombia ranks eighth out of 136 countries scored in the World Factbook. According to Colombia Politics, a news site dedicated to reporting on Colombia, reported that in 2012 the score was 49, meaning it fell significantly and quickly on account of the progressive initiatives of the state.

At present, the scope of state functions is improving as a consequence of the diminished violence and strong leaders. This has been a source of success and revival for Colombians, especially in Bogota. Looking into the future, the progress will only continue as elected leaders pursue it. Political turnover is always a period of transition, so hopefully Colombia can continue on this positive trajectory.

Plan Colombia: The Millennium Years

After decades of violence and high volumes of drug trafficking, the US took special interest in the state of Colombia and its institutions. The main objective for the US in its involvement with Colombia was eradication of drug trafficking networks and decreased quantities and price of cocaine, heroin, and other imported drugs. For Colombia, the nation’s objectives were to promote peace, economic development, and improve security. Plan Colombia represents collaboration between Congress and Colombia in which the US provided over $6 billion to help Colombia reach its objectives and consequently the US objectives also.

With foreign aid, there is often evidence that the aid was not as effective as it could have been or didn’t achieve the intended goals. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) conducted a progress report in 2005 to document how successful US efforts were. The report assessed violence, land cultivated for drug use, and attacks on oil pipelines. Seizures of cocaine and heroin increased 30% and 43.9%, respectively, between 2003 and 2004. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime found that production was reduced by 47% since 2000.  Violence has decreased on account of increased security personnel, including reducing the FARC ranks. The report concludes that the Plan Colombia initiatives have been successful (up to 2005), but that more help is needed and disengagement may be a slower process than initially thought. Additionally, USAID mentions the potential need for other international players provide more support for the plans.

By the numbers, Plan Colombia looks pretty good, but it is important to look at the domestic perception of the intervention as well. In Colombia, the plan was not well received by all parties.  The government did not use any campaign strategy to garner public support for the plan and upon its implementation, many civilians were angry. Farmers criticized the fumigation technique mostly fueled the opposition. These farmers claimed that the chemicals (herbicides), spread via airplanes, were responsible for widespread destruction of crops aside from coca. Civilians criticized the herbicides for their environmental damages, including some birth defects. The government required coca farmers to either cease activity or face fumigation consequences. If a farmer opted to cease activity, he or she received compensation from the government. The compensation provided was arguably not sufficient to sustain a family for a year, making it unlikely that the farmers would comply with the plan.

See photos: Plan Colombia

In conclusion, was Plan Colombia what the State needed to pull it out of the violence and corruption of the 90s? How does domestic public opinion factor in? The plan represents a measure of foreign aid that reached many of the goals outlined in the objectives, but fell short in unifying the nation. Despite Colombia’s original objectives, Plan Colombia did not address the social injustices in nation and economic inequality still put Colombia’s GINI index among the worst in the world.

Internal Conflict: Drug Violence

In Tanisha Fazal’s book, State Death, she offers the theory that the world has adopted a “norm against conquest” in the post-Cold War era. International organizations, such as the UN, provide a resource for negotiation and conflict resolution. We no longer fear a world war and for the most part, do not hear of countries being annexed through a hostile or violent takeover.

Despite that the time of conquistadors and annexation is over, many nations are still battling severe violent internal conflict. Civil wars and genocides are not a thing of the past yet. Colombia, though politically strong, found itself facing extreme national insecurity on account of prolonged violent conflict. Much of the conflict was drug related, with powerful cartels taking control of political systems. In the 1980s, the strongest drug traffickers attempted to run for political office to gain impunity, but ended up being shut down. As the State attempted to threaten and extradite traffickers, the violence set in. The largest cartels, the Medellín and Cali cartels, threatened “bribe or bullet” to government officials – and followed through on those words. The late 80s saw the assassination of a presidential candidate, hundreds of judges, and two bombs.

The situation worsened and the government eventually negotiated a surrender policy with Pablo Escobar of Medellín. Escobar agreed to serve time in prison, but on his own territory. He was still able to conduct his drug business from prison and ultimately escaped for good in 1993. Once Escobar escaped, the State, with information from the Cali cartel and US intelligence, used a systematic decapitation strategy to eliminate Medellín. Once Medellín disbanded, the US pressured the Colombian president, Ernesto Samper, to take action against the Cali organization.

With the two major organized trafficking networks destroyed, Colombia hoped for relief from the violence. What they may not have realized was the subsequent development of “boutique” trafficking networks that sprung up. These networks did not hold enough power for mass violence, but the fragmentation of the system left them virtually free from government oversight.

In a way, I think Colombia experienced a degree of failure during the 1970s to 2000s. The central governing body lost control of its policies and in many instances, fell at the mercy of the drug trafficking organizations. Civilians felt endangered and insecure, given the prevalence of these violent networks. Other insurgent groups also compounded the violence in the State during this time. The State’s military could only offer moderate resistance to the FARC operations. Last week I mentioned violence and insecurity, and now we have two more factors: corruption of political institutions and inadequate military forces. Does the situation in Colombia represent a deviation from the “norm against conquest” mentioned by Fazal? Colombia wasn’t annexed by drug lords and the government wasn’t overthrown, but decapitation strategies were used to solve problems. On the whole, it might be hard to say that Colombia as a state deviates from the norm against conquest, but I believe that for the decades covered here, violent conflict represented straying from traditional strategies.

Next week we’ll see what happened to Colombia in the millennium with Plan Colombia. Could the State fix its failures of past decades?


Signs of “Stateness”

Colombia is an especially interesting nation to look at through a “failed states” lens. In William’s book Geographies of Developing Areas, the Global South is regarded as exotic and erotic; with Northerners viewing peoples of the South as “noble savages” (29). While Latin America is included in the marginalized Global South, Colombia proved itself as a leading nation. As the first constitutional democracy in Latin America, Colombia successfully embraced the practice of elections, drawing from already developed nations.  Although the nation evaded the tenuous struggle for democracy that other nations in the region experienced, Colombia still found itself with civil unrest throughout the country.

Looking back at my last post, “stateness” refers to the effectiveness and legitimacy of a nation’s government. So far, we’ve seen that Colombia has a legitimate government with peaceful and timely turnover of power. On the other hand, though, the geography and terrain of Colombia makes the decentralized government somewhat ineffective. The State found it difficult to develop outside cities. Today, that lack of development contributes to the stratification of rich and poor, some of the worst separation in the world. Without the extension of government influence into all parts of the country, illegal activity prevailed throughout the unguarded lands. Drug trafficking and military insurgents proliferated the land, creating a period of violence, sometimes referred to as “laviolencia.”

The instability and insecurity lasted for decades. Security and welfare are important aspects of “stateness.” Though a leader in its political system, Colombia’s security and governance falls short of adequate. According to the Brookings Institute, at the turn of the 21st century conflict-related annual killings exceeded 30,000, which rivals Iraq during post-Saddam years and exceeds Mexico per capita. The insurgents and drug lords ruled the land, uprooting civilians sense of security and instigating this “failing” trend.

President Uribe, elected in the 90s when Colombia was dangerously close to failing, brought “Democratic Security” and a stimulated economy to the country. Peace talks with the FARC, at present, are giving hope for a decrease to the violence. Some argue that other insurgents will replace the FARC; those groups that are not involved in the negotiations. In order to continue on the upward trend, Colombia needs to repair its judicial sector and solidify peace deals. Security continues to be one of Colombia’s greatest challenges to raising its status.

Colombia. So what?

As the 29th largest country by population and the 26th largest by area, Colombia stands as an important nation in the global community. Situated in South America, it is the only nation that borders the North Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  Colombia was the first constitutional nation in South America, and has since boasted high literacy rates and a majorly urbanized population.

The landscapes of Colombia include diverse environments. In the southeast, one finds the Andes Mountains, but in the west, one finds flat coastal lowlands. Throughout the country there are also highland and lowland plains. The country is subject to volcanic eruptions as well as earthquakes, making it somewhat susceptible to natural disasters.

What has made Columbia unstable in past years? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly one problem, but the presence of rebel groups has been a major source of conflict and corruption in the nation. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army, more commonly known as FARC (the initials are from the Spanish translation), is the strongest guerilla group in Colombia. The FARC presence has been a catalyzer for violence and conflict within the State. The Colombian government recognizes the FARC as a terrorist organization, although the FARC see themselves as a group that stands for agrarianism and against imperialism.

In the past fifty years, Colombia has experienced high levels of violence, corruption, and prevalence of a drug trade in cocaine and heroin products. In the past five years, the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index shows Colombia on an improving trajectory, moving from #37 to #57. But after all, what do those numbers mean? Let’s find out.

This blog will seek to discuss the “stateness” of Colombia. Stateness, in this case refers to the amount to which people respect political institutions and political legitimacy. The word isn’t always so clearly defined though; just check Google. Was Colombia ever a failed state? Does it still show signs of a weak state? What does the future look like? I will look at the interactions between politics, geography, economy, and society. The relationships between these factors will help answer the questions posed above.