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Colombia is heralded as one of the few Latin American countries not plagued by dictatorship. But how close is she to what Mario Vargas Llosa called a perfect dictatorship? Has the governing elite managed to hold on to power by convincing people they have a democratic choice while simultaneously and systematically dismantling all opposition and threat to their permanence in power?

santos llerasThere are few Latin Americans not scarred by the brutality and totalitarianism of the continent’s perverse dictators. But if you believe the hype, Mexicans and Colombians are some of the lucky ones; no Pinchot, Fujimori, Videla, or Castro have ruled these lands in contemporary times.

Some claim the Colombia’s democracy is one of the longest running in the world. And for others, Mexico’s 20th century one party state was democratic because the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), won free and fair elections.

But an election does not a democracy make.

Yes, civilians rather than military juntas, have been the norm in Bogota and DF, but the Mexican and Colombian states have no reason to feel entirely superior to their neighbours. Neither would be judged well against the ideals of the British, and then the French and American revolutions.

2010 Nobel winner Mario Vargas Llosa, called Mexico’s PRI party, “the perfect dictatorship”; the party had successfully camouflaged its totalitarianism by adopting the appearance of liberal democracy, it bought off the intellectuals and the media, and co-opted enemies or opponents, neutralising dissent or threat.

For Vargas Llosa, the Mexican state was for all intents and purposes as illiberal and undemocratic as the rest of Latin America.

Here he is setting out the case.

I am struck by the parallels with Colombia.

Vargas Llosa’s argument focused on the idea of “permanence in power” – the essence of dictatorship – where in the case of Mexico, it is “not of one man (as it would be under the traditional model), but of a political party”.  In Colombia I see a similar reality where it is not of political party that remains in power, but instead a political elite. This is “Colombia’s monarchy”, as discussed in an earlier article.

Following the military dictatorship of Rojas Pinilla (1953-57), the Conservative and Liberal elites decided to alternate power during what was known as the National Front (1958-74). Elections were called, but every four years the Liberals and the Conservatives coalesced around one, “oficialista”, candidate. So the Conservatives were given four years, the Liberals the following four, and so on.

The colour of the president would change, but power was shared. It mattered not a jot in terms of policy or even personnel as the same people were recycled in different cabinet and top bureaucratic posts.

After the National Front, Colombia returned to open elections where Conservatives were pitched against Liberals (only these two parties were allowed to compete). But the logic of the National Front continued (until Virgilio Barco in 1986), with the victors building coalitions with the defeated. A blue president would pick a partly red cabinet.

All this meant that Colombians were only ever sold the appearance of a choice, there was no worthwhile way of expressing a democratic will against the regime. Whatever the election result, any difference in outcome was imperceptible.

The important thing for the ruling class was to prevent the development of any threat to their rule. As James Robinson (author of Why Nations Fail) put it, politics in Colombia were run by “cartels”.

Challenges to the elite’s rule have emerged periodically. But when they do, as Vargas Llosa tells us the PRI did, these are “suppressed by the worst means”. Starting with Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (killed on 9 April 1948, an event that sparked La Violencia), the (joint, sometimes alongside paramilitaries, drug cartels, etc) role of the state in the murder of a litany of popular, populist and anti-oligarchical presidential candidates (Jaramillo, Pizarro, Galan…), is well documented.

Now people may argue, that was history, and Colombia has moved on since the 1991 Constitution opened the way for pluralist politics, for the foundation of new parties.

I’m not convinced by this view.

Take President Santos, a man born into this governing elite. When Santos came to power he hastily built a coalition of the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the two main parties that split from them as a result of the reforms of 1991; Cambio Radical and The U Party. So to that extent, he has brought back the idea of the National Front.

If you were being kind, you would call this Big Tent politics. Santos himself has heralded the “governability” it has given him. But with an emasculated (and compromised – many argue, bought off) media failing to hold him to account, and almost unquestioning support from the “cacaos” (the money men and business leaders), Santos (at least in his first few years in power) tried to create a form of unanimity or uniformity in the public discourse.

Of course this is less malign than a dictatorship, but it is a sort of totalitarianism-light.

The Santos regime is built on the very principle of power sharing, of co-opting opponents with cabinet positions, lucrative jobs in government or industry bodies, or even in plum diplomatic posts in Madrid, Washington, or London.

Unfortunately for Mr Santos, he didn’t count on his old boss, Alvaro Uribe, setting up his own political party to oppose the regime and challenge this “governability” in his second term.

But despite Uribe (who himself governed with a similar disdain for liberalism), and despite the attempts of the Left to gain traction (they won 2 million votes in the presidential election, but have very little representation in congress), Colombia’s politics have remained in the hands of a few.

The exclusionary nature of Colombia’s state means top political families, oligarchical forces, transcend generations; and any hint of change is quickly extinguished.

As Vargas Llosa moves on to say, many Latin American regimes have tried to copy the PRI but none have been as successful in controlling the levers of power while generating the false appearance of plurality.

Colombia’s regime has also failed in this. Colombians are acutely aware that they are governed by an elite.

While the PRI may well have been able to co-opt the intellectuals, and to mute opposition, Colombia has been at war for 50 years (although in reality it stretches back further) precisely because the governing class has failed to disguise the nature of its exclusionary politics; they are obvious to all.

It’s clear political warfare between elites (caused by the politics of exclusion) has been an almost ever-present since the birth of the republic. The Thousand Days’ War (1899-1902) was sparked by the Conservatives’ fraudulent attempts to cling on to power and exclude the Liberals from office, then came La Violencia, the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship, and then the guerrilla movements.

If the PRI are a model of a perfect dictatorship, then Colombia’s is imperfect, not as convincing or as camouflaged in its rapacious lust for continuity in power. Perversely though, it has been arguably even more successful in keeping its bum on the throne.

Behind Mr Santos sits the next in line, German Vargas Lleras. Mr Vargas Lleras is the grandson of the penultimate National Front president, Carlos Lleras Restrepo, (himself related to two-time president Alberto Lleras Camargo, the first National Front president).

Mr Vargas Lleras is favourite to win the presidency in 2018.

Do I think Colombia lives under a dictatorship? Of course not. But certain characteristics, and the logic, of this form of government, are undeniably present in the nation’s recent history. The blood of Latin America’s regimes has been splattered across the continent. The DNA may have been diluted in Colombia alright, but it is unmistakably there, in the contours on the ancien régime faces.

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