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Kevin Howlett argues Colombia is ruled by an elite with a monarchical grip on power. That they’ve made a hash of things. And that it’s about time someone else had a go. 


In Colombian politics the sound of your surname matters above all else. Talent is frankly secondary to heritage, ability merely subservient to class. “Rosca” outstrips intelligence. Without “palanca” you are nothing.

The old boys’ network, the Rose Garden, the oligarchical elite; however you want to phrase it, power is frequently inherited rather than won in Colombia.

And this means Colombia has been badly governed by an insular clique, out of touch with the vast majority of Colombians.

Keeping it in the family…

Semana magazine, itself tied to the powers that be (its director is the nephew of the president), has talked of a “monarchy of the vote”.  It points out that the Ospina and Mallarino families have each totted up three presidencies, while the Lopez, Pastrana, Mosquera, Lleras and Santos clans have each had two commanders in chief in their number.

And yes, current President Juan Manuel Santos and Vice President German Vargas Lleras are part of this dynastic trend.

Then there is Clara Lopez who currently leads in the polls to become Bogota Mayor later this year. She is a direct relative of the two Lopez presidents. And we shouldn’t forget that just a few years ago she was a key player in Samuel Moreno Rojas’ corrupt mayoralty – that’s Rojas, the grandson of the 1950s military dictator, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla.

In Colombia, political offspring are called “delfines”. Carlos Fernando Galan is one such delfin. He is currently a senator and head of the Cambio Radical party (which Mr Vargas Lleras founded). Carlos Fernando is the son Luis Carlos Galan, the presidential candidate assassinated in the 1980s by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel.  Juan Manuel Galan, the brother of Carlos Fernando, is a leading Liberal senator, and former anti-corruption tsar. One of Cambio Radical’s most prominent congressmen, Rodrigo Lara, is the son of Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Luis Carlos Galan’s right hand man (also assassinated by Escobar).

Meanwhile, former Liberal Party director and minister for planning and development, Simon Gaviria is the son of President Cesar Gaviria, the chap who took over from Galan after he was shot, and who presided over the final days of Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror. A small circle indeed!

The list of delfines is almost endless and not restricted to those friendly to the Juan Manuel Santos regime. The most prominent senator in former president Alvaro Uribe’s opposition party, Centro Democratico, is Paloma Valencia. Paloma is a grand-daughter of “National Front” president, Guillermo Leon Valencia. 

Colombia’s political cartels…

Why does this matter? Since the birth of the republic, Colombia has been characterised by exclusionary politics. Havard academic James Robinson, (author of the book, “Why Nations Fail”), has talked of the “cartelisation” of Colombia’s politics, in which the two main parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, have worked together to shut out anyone who threatened to break their bipartisan hegemony.

The new constitution of 1991 forced the arrival of new political movements, but while there may be new parties on the scene, the same people from the same families seem to be able to cling on to power.

In Colombia there is a phrase, “los mismos con las mismas”; the same old people with the same old rubbish. In other words, Colombians have heard the blah blah blah from politicians for decades – over two centuries in fact – without anything much ever being delivered.

I’m not a pathological anti-elitist. I have a great deal of sympathy for institutional continuity in some situations. The problem with Colombia, is that her “monarchy” has made such a hash of running the country that it really doesn’t deserve to cling on to power.

The state is failing Colombia…

Colombia is a country in need of real, profound and fundamental change. It is one of the most unequal societies in the world, the state fails to deliver even the most basic of public services to large swathes of the country, and, too often, business labours under a pre-modern, mercantile logic.

So why then should the nation stick with the very people who have been incapable of sorting the mess out?

Rafael Pardo, a minister in successive governments, has said that, “Colombia is a country where everything happens but at the same time nothing happens”. She lives in the chaos of a “permanent crisis, without there ever being any danger of the essentials falling down”. The government lurches from one catastrophic cock-up to another abject failure, but it manages to amble indolently on.

President Santos this week made an extraordinary claim. He said more than half of Colombians are now “middle class”. For Santos, middle class is a family of four that earns 600 dollars a month. Perhaps if the political class were a bit more in touch with the families who live on that paltry sum, they would do something to give them a pay rise, not just to patronise them with platitudinous mendacity.

Why Colombia’s exclusionary politics matter is because the vast majority of the nation remains disenfranchised, abandoned or forgotten by the state. Just before the elections last year, Mr Santos raised the salaries of congressmen by 8 million pesos a month (over 3,000 dollars). This year, Colombia’s teachers are on strike as the Santos government refuses to give them a pay rise. The average teacher earns around 1,400,000 pesos. Curiously enough, just about the same as that family of four Mr Santos claims is middle class.

It’s time Colombia’s elite moved on and let someone else have a go at ruling the country.

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