Co-opt, Penalize, Cut

[translated by Anne M. Boylon, Colombia Support Network]


The first Senate and House committees have just approved the referendum project.  This being the case, it is ready to be ratified by the Congress of the Republic.  The government is shouting victory in spite of the fact that some of its pet ideas are not included in the text that will be presented to the citizenry. New pressures on the Congress to include them in the plenary sessions are being announced.  In particular, the Government is insisting on the extension of the terms of the present local and state elected officials to 4 years and the penalization of all consumption of drugs.


This being the situation, it is important to ask about the perspectives and especially the implications of this referendum for the government and, in particular, for the country.  It is also important to consider what can be learned from the process of its approval.


The referendum contains proposals that any Colombian would be disposed to support since they refer to reforms that advocate more transparency in the functions of Congress.  Some are:  the elimination of alternates, an increase in the reasons for loss of special privileges, the nominal and public vote, a change of the administrative system in Congress, and loss of political rights due to corruption, among others.  The first polls carried out by the media show agreement in opinion regarding these issues.  The replacements are a practice proscribed by the 1991 Constitution and reestablished by the Congress.


But, besides such attractive issues that would do little or nothing in regards to the transformation of traditional politics, the referendum itself contains proposals against which there is clear opposition among social sectors.  They are also giving rise to serious questions by specialists.


As things go, the referendum will be promoted as a plebiscite that is, in effect, a packet of measures against politiqueria that polarizes the citizens by pretending it is directed against corruption.  For this reason, those opposed to the referendum will be satanized as tolerating this scourge and will thus be characterized as part of the corruption. So, it is necessary to approach this referendum and its most polemic and unpopular measures with caution. Although it seems very paradoxical, many politicians and corrupt sectors will be for the referendum, and the independent sectors will end up in the opposition, promoting abstention or the blank vote.


The polemical, problematical and regressive themes are of two types:  those that look for deep political change and those designed to deliver benefits and rewards in order to win the backing of the traditional sectors.


 Freezing public expenditure for the next 4 years is a measure that seeks to introduce a part of the packet of adjustments agreed on with the World Bank and the IMF.  It contains part of a tax and fiscal reform the effects of which will be economically recessive and socially regressive.  In fact, the government has announced a tax reform whose essence is not really that of making permanent the tax on income or inheritance but rather the expansion of the list of products that will be subject to the VAT tax.  This way the contribution of the wealthiest sectors is transitory and destined for the military. The Minister of the Interior has said that the intention is to put it out that everyone will have to sacrifice.  But the real effect is the legitimization of the strategy of fiscal adjustment as a component of the economic model now being profoundly questioned in all of Latin America, even more so after the electoral results in Brazil.


On the political level the cut in the incomes of the State workers, through referendum, seeks to pit public opinion against the workers, its unions and independent political forces.  Concretely, it seeks to reduce its margin of political activity in the struggle to maintain the acquisitive capacity of their salaries. 


The penalization of personal drug consumption.  This measure hides political interests, more precisely the desire to capitalize on the backing of the referendum through the manipulation of opinion of those sectors that share the conservative prohibitionist paradigm.  But, more profoundly, it a message that indicates it has signed onto the republican program of Bush’s government.  In addition, it constitutes a cultural act with profound implications because it rejects the doctrine of the 1991 Constitution and of the Constitutional Court, according to which the State cannot attempt to protect citizens from their own decisions.


It is very probable that Colombian youth, among whom there certainly exists an important group who voted for President Uribe, oppose or don’t support this backward measure.  It is also possible that their parents, who are anchored in the traditional world of a country that has inherited an authoritarian, profoundly conservative political culture, are betraying them.  This is a tool that endows the conservative forces with an ideological program that is pre-modern.


The recall of Congress.  Although the government plan for the recall of Congress was modified in the parliamentary debate and submitted to the legislative branch for the required agreement, it is clear that the plan has remained as intended and is, in fact and also symbolically, the presidential model of relationship with other governmental institutions.  But how will this need to reach agreement with Congress operate?  In reality it will play out as an agreement between the President and his legislative co-religionists who are the majority in Congress, unless a system is worked out in which the majority is restricted, such as it was during the National Front.  If it is, in the end, done by simple majority, the Government will have won a powerful instrument with which to maintain control of his parliamentary supporters.  This he will use for the extensive and regressive legislative agenda contained in his presidential project.  Also, the so-called syndrome of the recall as a way to renew the legitimacy of the President through plebiscite is not just a theoretical possibility, but rather very probable, unless important progress relative to the crises in the economic, social and public order spheres is made.


Thus, there will only be a recall of the Congress if it doesn’t follow the government line, even though this means that important matters pertaining to the people will not be considered.  This is not unusual in the Colombian tradition.  It is important to remember that the Colombian way of managing the presidency is characterized by controlling Congress by means of a series of sinecures in exchange for support for the government structural agenda. This strategy makes the Congress useless and contributes to a loss of prestige.  Anything else is up to the parliamentarians themselves, the majority of whom represent leftovers from the last elections and whose principal goal it to be re-elected.  President Uribe has changed some things, but the model remains fundamentally the same:  on the one hand to make changes in the way of providing co-financing and inter-ministerial funds and indicate that they are willing to do a job formerly done by parliamentarians, that of traveling to regions of the country to make promises about solving problems; on the other hand, they reject making real democratic political reform, which would guarantee the emergence of new political forces capable of expressing problems and formulating solutions, something that hasn’t been done for decades by the traditional parties of the country.  President Uribe himself ought to form his own political party with the forces he has brought together and which seem to have a coherent political ideology in spite of diverging currents.


In this government so attuned to symbols, the proposal of extending the terms for mayors and governors also has an emblematical tinge. The President, as with his most recent predecessors, appears to have been interested in changing the traditional way of political functioning, but, in the end, he showed himself to be more interested in the unconditional support of the political class.  And this support has come from the political sector accused of corruption and politiqueria.


These traditional sectors have just turned down political reform.  In fact, Damocles’ sword of the recall has been sheathed and one more year of privilege has been granted to the mayors whose plans are normally limited to the terms for which they were elected.  All of this has a transparent look of presidential favoritism and raises serious questions about the character and viability of the reforms that the Government has announced as part of its legislative agenda.


The same schemata are being followed for other substantive issues. The country should not forget that in 1957 a referendum by plebiscite voted to establish the National Front.  That was done as a response to a political crisis such as we are experiencing today.  Although at that time the political gambles were more serious, the referendum was convoked in the name of peace and contained progressive aspects, such as the idea to establish an administrative career and the designation 10% of public expenditure to education.  In addition, the Constitution was protected to the point that it was only changed by the sovereign democratic interpretation of the Supreme Court of Justice in 1991 which allowed the formation of the constituent assembly.


It also should not be forgotten that the economic model that today has the country undergoing the most profound social and economic crisis of the last 50 years was done with their tacit acceptance (or unbeknownst to them – it makes no difference) of the National Assembly and that it is the same economic team with exactly the same goals who is in control.   After all is said and done, and as ex-president Carlos Andres Perez used to say, political capital is meant to be spent.

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