Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Coming Election

I read about Colombian politics from time to time as it's (obviously) an area of interest. Generally, Colombia's problems are not so exceptional in the developing world (and developed world, I dare say) in that the government struggles with corruption, urban planning, rural development, and border controls. The difference, of course, is that Colombia is betwixt between two equally sharp and interlocking points - drugs and guerrillas. These two problems have been enduring concerns of greater or lesser severity over the last 50+ years.

This is an interesting period, however, as Colombia has experienced unprecedented security and prosperity in the last 6 years and now the population faces an important decision: to continue with the Uribe regime, a sometimes corrupt and bloody government, or roll the dice on a new president. I see any outcome other than 4 more years of Uribe as exceedingly unlikely, but that doesn't mean that it won't be a tight election in the end. It's about the economy, stupid, and anyone who thinks otherwise is outthinking themselves.

Some organizations, notably American organizations, are strongly advocating a change of leadership. Their arguments, in sum, pretty much amount to pointing at the Uribe government's inability to solve corruption and violence, as well as a general (and accurate) critique of the US funded Plan Colombia. These organizations, while performing a valiant advocacy, far short of a little thing I like to refer to as reality.

Even though the people who work for those organizations are obviously diligent, intelligent, and well intentioned, but to me, lack one fundamental quality necessary for any dispassionate analysis of the political development of Colombia (or any nation): objectivity. It's quite aggravating to see impassioned advocacy divorced from objectivity because implicit in their message is corruption, violence, and drug problems can easily disappear under different leadership. Sadly, that's unlikely at best.

No, the truth is, Colombia is making progress but it is the sort of progress that is generational, evolutionary, and incredibly slow. I will not, at this point, pretend to be an expert on Colombia, but it does seem obvious that this culture is changing at a very slow and incremental pace. With economic development, investment, and the increased focus on education have come a coincidental increase in the independence of women, the altering of the familial structure, and a reshaping of Colombian culture. In a lot of ways, Colombia is where the US was at the beginning of the 1960's: a machismo (male dominated) culture that is inevitably changing for the better.

What does this mean for Colombia? Well for starters, women no longer need men for economic stability. With the new found sense of independence, a rising divorce rate will inevitably follow. It's quite traditional in this culture for women to internalize the acceptance of cheating - it's what men do - or some such nonsense. That traditional sense of self-oppression is slowly being overturned and the men of this country have a rude awakening coming.

But even more so than the dynamic between men and women, what seems immanently clear is that the end to violence and corruption is more than simply a political formula. There is no leader that is going to miraculously solve the problem and any analysis that suggests otherwise is foolish. No, progress in Colombia (and likely in other nations) is a generational process. When sufficient members of society have an equally strong stake in the continued prosperity and growth of the national wealth, then the incentives to resort to violence in an organized fashion will diminish.

And that's why I think Uribe is the right choice. When you discuss economic prosperity in terms of a developing nation, you're speaking mostly of foreign investment. Domestic enterprises are without a doubt critically important, but really, the largest sums of capital come from abroad. As anyone with a thimblefull of knowledge about the stock market is aware, investors are inherently flighty. They don't like change - they like stability at all costs. Investors can deal with corruption. They can deal with internal political problems. But they can't deal with violence in the business centers. They don't want their investments jeopardized by bombs going off or by "revolutionaries" carting off the profits.

Uribe makes sense because, while at the micro level he's got his fair share of troubles, at the macro level he's got the right idea: secure the cities, foster a climate for economic growth through foreign and domestic investment, and establish the necessary linkages (free trade) to lock in economic growth for the long run. To change course on that strategy mid-stream would be a grave risk to the long term prosperity of the country - and I believe illogical.

Just don't tell my wife...


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