Hernando Gómez Buendía, Sociologist: "The Election Of Petro Would Suppose The Rupture Of a Political Consensus Of 200 Years In Colombia"

Hernando Gómez Buendía, philosopher, doctor in Economics and Sociology, is one of the sharpest political analysts in Colombia, author of the book Between independence and the pandemic. Colombia, 1810 to 2020, of Public Reason Foundation, where he collects the stormy journey of the construction of the Colombian State. A silent process, according to him, from the days of Simón Bolívar to the coronavirus crisis.

He attends elDiario.es via Zoom from his home in the far north suburbs of Bogotá. Over the years he has also been a columnist for 14 newspapers, including The viewer Bogotá, and since 2008 directs the analytical journalism website Public Reason. Apologize, with some humor, for extending in the answers. Deep down he knows how unlikely it is to be brief when it comes to explaining still insoluble issues such as who is to blame for the violence in Colombia or where the country is going after the next presidential elections on May 29.

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What would the arrival of the first leftist government in the country’s history mean?

It would be a completely different milestone in the history of Colombia. Of the 117 presidents we have had, Petro would be the first who does not come from either of the two longest-running parties in the Western world, the Liberal and the Conservative. There would be a break with a 200-year-old political consensus!

What does this conservative order consist of?

It is founded on a religious heritage of four centuries and has three fundamental features that explain its capacity for stability and resilience. First, having remained uncritically within the orbit of the United States in foreign policy. Colombia has had the greatest loyalty in Latin America to US policies.

Second, a very technical and orthodox approach to managing the economy, but which has never raised the redistribution of wealth. In Colombia there has never been, for example, an impulse for true agrarian reform.

And the third pillar has to do with the construction of a State that has made social concessions slowly and gradually, almost always as a method of negotiation of the elites with particularly weak social movements. Now, I must say that the achievements in health, education or pensions have been very important, especially since the 1991 Constitution, but in any case, they are improvements with an unequal scope in terms of coverage and quality. We are still far from reaching the universality that is enshrined in the constitution.

Do Gustavo Petro’s proposals seem viable to you?

Petro basically proposes to turn against the national budget. For example, a minimum old-age pension, free enrollment, or ending the ARS (Administrators of the Subsidized Regime). Who will bear the cost? In theory, the state. Its objective is to accelerate the process that Colombia began with the 1991 Constitution and that since then all governments have continued, to a greater or lesser extent. That seems like a legitimate hope to me. Seen with the serenity of an economist, it would be necessary to examine what the fiscal cost of these measures really is. It must be taken into account, and I explain it clearly in the book, that the spending of the Colombian State has increased in recent decades at a faster rate than tax collection. After the economic and social damage of the pandemic, I suppose that this will be one of the strong debates in the country.

An important change of agenda after having focused on the ravages of violence for half a century.

In Colombia we have had the bad habit, since the Colony, of discussing problems that are not with arguments that are not. It is what I call the “falsified polarizations” of our history. We basically spent 52 years discussing how to finish militarily or resign ourselves to negotiating with a guerrilla that from its foundation was doomed to failure.

Neither the international community nor Colombians themselves understood anything about the internal conflict. The FARC was an agrarian guerrilla group that made some military advances in the 1990s, but never managed to gain enough political strength to challenge the state. It was a peripheral, peasant conflict, without popular support in an increasingly urban country.

It is enough to remember the resounding failure they had in the first parliamentary elections in which they participated as a political party after the peace agreements in 2018 (0.34% of the votes for the Senate and 0.24% for the House of Representatives). Moreover, in rural areas where they might have had some sympathy, they only managed to elect a mayor in a small municipality in Cauca (a department in the southwestern part of the country).

The guerrilla was, without a doubt, a serious problem, which left thousands of victims. But it was by no means the big problem with which the electorate was mobilized for 50 years. So, going on to discuss taxation, or the services that the State must provide, seems to me to be a much less falsified discussion, in the sense that it is a reality that undoubtedly affects the daily life of the vast majority of people.

How do you see the right-wing candidate Federico Gutiérrez?

Fico is a poorly done caricature of the right. His program is extremely weak, he does not propose anything concrete in economic or social matters. It is the most simplified version of the conservative order that I described earlier. Because the conservative order has also had positive features, that must be said.

As which?

For example, the fact of having built a fairly stable, modern electoral democracy, with many elections and almost no military dictatorships; or having maintained a history of economic continuity, of modest but constant growth, and that continues to advance. But the version of “Fico” is honestly very clipped. His only clear strategy so far has been to try to scare voters with all the bad things that, according to him, a hypothetical Petro government would do.

On the contrary, one of the unresolved historical problems is that of territorial configuration. It even draws some similarities with Spain.

Yes. That is why I allude to the title of Ortega’s old book Invertebrate Spain. A problem of territorial planning that comes in both cases from the 19th century. Our intermediate entities, which are the departments, are very weak, unlike the Spanish autonomous communities. In Colombia, the State has tried to concretize a centralized model that does not work in real life because the central government has been too weak to impose itself on the regions of a very diverse country, very fragmented geographically and culturally.

The territorial powers, as is often the case, have made continuous resistance to this centralizing effort by Bogotá, a very important fact to understand the violence in peripheral areas. In Colombia, there has been an endless series of constitutional reforms, laws or decrees to try to shape the figure of the departments, but all of them have failed. This has meant that politicians have been the ones who have assumed the task of intermediation between the regions and the State.

I say that in Colombia politicians resemble consuls. Their job is not to make laws in Congress, but bureaucratic errands and favors for those who have helped them get elected in their territories: a job, a contract, a bridge, a school or a highway. That is also the way to maintain their electoral fiefdoms and at the same time a mechanism that facilitates corruption.

He underlines in the book that “Colombia’s great sin” has been the weakness of labor policies…

That is the fundamental problem today. If you add the unemployed, the underemployed, the precarious, the informal sector and the new middle class that has become impoverished, about seven out of ten Colombians of working age are not productive. That is why I refer to the great sin of Colombia. Although the quality of life has been improving for a long time, the economic model has been unable to create decent and well-paid jobs for the vast majority of the population.

It is a kind of paradox. But look, without putting any ideological name on it, this is the central flaw of the economic growth model and the unforgivable lack of truth in this country. It is also a problem that we have been removing from the body for years. Colombia wastes the vast majority of its inhabitants in their best years, when they are fit to work. The question is: where and how are we going to get those millions of quality jobs? I don’t have the solution, but that discussion must be given, because, among other things, the insertion of the country in today’s world depends on it.

He describes drug trafficking as the “great shock” of history. A reality that has come to threaten even the democratic order…

It has been the main cause of the 250,000 deaths of the internal conflict. They are the direct deaths of drug trafficking, of Pablos Escobar and the cartels, the deaths of the military escalation of the FARC in the 90s, which was financed by drug trafficking, and the deaths of the massacres of drug paramilitarism. It is the only force capable, since independence in 1810, of having made the Colombian State capitulate.

The first was in 1991, when drug traffickers managed to overthrow the extradition treaty for national criminals abroad that was discussed in the Constitution. The second was in 1994, when they elected a president (Ernesto Samper), and the third was a peace agreement in 2003 between narco-paramilitary groups and the government of Álvaro Uribe.

International norms did not allow dialogue with criminals. The government had to present as political criminals an army that dedicated itself to massacring and displacing peasants. They never sought to reach the Nariño Palace. It was the maximum penetration of drug trafficking in the political system. A fact that is usually ignored for ideological reasons.

Today Colombia has lost the commercial domain of drug trafficking, but it continues to be a present element that finances residual wars.

Why in the book does he classify former President Uribe as the great political phenomenon of history?

Uribe is part of an emotional phenomenon that is based on two factors. The first is the oil boom at the beginning of the century that shot up GDP, reduced unemployment, promoted foreign investment, and made it possible to serve more than ten million poor people a year through a social program called Families in Action.

The second factor was the ability to connect with the vast majority of Colombians through the thesis that the FARC were responsible for all the country’s ills. Driven by the commodity boom, and with the help of US intelligence, he launched a ferocious onslaught against a guerrilla without any citizen support. That is why he was one of the three great political figures in our history, a strong and charismatic personality and the most populist president in the history of Colombia.

In what sense?

For me, the best definition of populism is that it is a communitarianism with resentments. There are right, left, elite or anti-elite. Uribe convinced the country that this was a place full of honest, hard-working, democratic people, and that we were victims of guerrillas with no social or political roots, but simply some guys with no other reason than revenge and a thirst for wealth. That led us to a polarization that has blocked, to this day, the possibility of having a public debate based on objective truths.

With the enormous popularity that this kind of mantra of winning the war gave him, he managed to modify the Constitution to be re-elected in 2006 with the highest number of votes since there have been open elections (62% of the votes). And, were it not for a ruling by the Constitutional Court that stopped him, after four years he would have achieved a second amendment to seek his third presidential term.

And Petro, don’t you think he’s a populist leader?

The problem with Petro is that he is a politician with demagogic traits, but he has not yet found someone against whom to point his resentment. Petro no longer has the FARC or the paramilitaries to blame for our ills. So who is he pointing to? To the rich? To the corrupt, or to the gangsters? What is that half country that Petro represents? His banners against inequity, poverty or inequality are still too fizzy to mobilize such a large mass of people in a sustained manner as Uribe did for two decades with his crusade against the devil incarnated in the FARC.

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