James Robinson, on the Colombian Peace Process

1. We would like to know what you opinion is regarding our country’s current peace process. Particularly we would like to ask you what are some of the possible outcomes that you expect this process is going to have regarding Colombian institutions?

My simple view is that the government has prepared incredibly badly for the plebiscite. In fact, it has not really prepared at all and it has done a very bad job by communicating to the Colombian people a vision of how this is going to change the country. I think just saying “peace” is simplistic, Colombians don’t believe it. What about the Urabeños, the Rastrojos, what about the ELN? There are just a lot of sources of violence in Colombia even if the FARC stops fighting. It is simplistic to say peace process is going to bring peace, it won’t bring peace.

Additionally, I am very worried that the plebiscite will go badly, because the government has done a very bad job at selling the idea of a different Colombia or even at conceptualizing what that different Colombia is. It seems to me, according to what I have read and understood from the newspapers, that in order to win the plebiscite President Santos is going to use the machinery of the traditional politicians, he is going to use the gamonales and the machine politicians on the coast to make sure the plebiscite goes through. To me that’s one step forward and two steps back, because he is just consolidating what for me is the real problem in Colombia, which is the way the political system works, the clientelistic way the state works, and the lack of public good provision. The FARC demobilization is a great thing, there is no reason for those people to be fighting anymore. Actually, there was never a reason, so that will be good if they stop, but I don’t think that just them stopping is going to solve the real problems in Colombia.

I don’t think the peace process and agenda will change those problems. The peace process is full of stuff that will never be implemented like all this rural reform, there is no capacity or will of the government to do that, there are no resources, there is no money, and do you know who is going to fund it? They say there is going to be a tax reform, but let’s see.

I do not know if the FARC realizes all this, but they are going to have this political representation, they are going to have people in the Congress, in the legislature, they are going to have some power and these special areas which they are going to control, maybe the Colombian government doesn’t say so but I think everybody knows. I read an article titled “Sapos that the Colombian people have to swallow” in La Silla Vacía by Juanita León and I think this is a really good analysis of what this really means. With respect to other issues, for example, that of reconciliation and the victims, is it going to be genuine? That I just do not know, I just do not know what the FARC thinks or how this process will work. However, when you look at the paramilitary demobilization there were many successes in that, there were successes in bringing together the paramilitaries with the victims and reaching some understanding about what had happened. I think many cases worked in a genuine way, so you can say that it was a good role model.

But again, that won´t change Colombia either. The society needs to move on, where is education? There is all this discussion, but where is the new Colombia? I do not see it. So that is my general view, it’s a good thing, but I don´t think it is going to solve the real problems in Colombia. Additionally, I do not think Colombian institutions are capable of implementing all the proposals that have been agreed to, but there seems to be no recognition of that or an attempt to understand the consequences.

2. The US and some European countries have tried to help Colombia considering our lack of resources and institutional quality. Do you think these aids have been useful?             

I think this is a very complicated question. The evidence from the Plan Colombia suggests that it was very ineffective at reducing drug production. Nevertheless, I think United States would like things to work better in Colombia, but I don´t think they can do much about it. I don’t think the US has the ability to really change the way politics works or the way the state works. I think people overestimate the impact United States could have in Colombia.

3. What can we do to our change institutions?

Well, that is a political project, you need collective action in order to demand a different type of society. But I don’t see it at the moment and I don’t see where is it coming from, because all the analysis that I have done suggests that politics is more clientelistic now than in the past. What’s needed is a process of collective change in society, via social movements and collective mobilization and probably new political parties. Colombian people need political entrepreneurs, collective action and leadership to define what is going to happen in society and I do not see much of that either, to be honest with you. They need this because they can’t rely on political elites to change anything. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The organization of society generates massive rents for those in power and with the right connections. They have no incentive to change anything. In the past, as I point out in my article “The Misery in Colombia”, change has come in Colombia when the contradictions of this system have got too high, when the ineffectiveness of the state has allowed too much havoc to occur, for example in the days on Pablo Escobar. These changes are significant and have led to expansion of education and healthcare, but they are not enough to change Colombia. I do not think that giving the FARC political representation will do much to change this situation.

*Fotografía tomada de http://lasillavacia.com/