For Malcolm Deas, the so-called polarization that Colombia is experiencing is a phenomenon that some commentators are exaggerating. The democratic and electoral debate, he says, is more vigorous than ever.


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The academic, historian, and British Colombianist, in an interview with Contexto.

We are talking with the British historian and founding member of the Centre for Latin American Studies of Oxford University, Malcolm Deas, about different aspects of Colombian democracy and institutionality, and the national government’s current crisis because of the recent social protest.

Deas, born in Dorset, England, in 1941—he also holds Colombian citizenship—and considered a pioneer of Colombian historiography, believes that the protest that has been going on in the country for two weeks now poses a challenge because of the limited clarity in its demands and its leadership. Nevertheless, he thinks, the demonstrations will not change the institutional terms of reference that govern our country’s administration.

The studious Englishman, emeritus professor at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University, and author of, among others, such works as Of the Power of Grammar and Two Speculative Essays on the Violence in Colombia, states in the following talk that the Peace implies making efforts not to continue with both a secure and insecure Colombia.

CONTEXTO EDITORS: When there is a crisis, and this one looks very serious, historians usually have a broader perspective to examine it with. Do you think Colombia today has the institutional strength that has always helped it to overcome this kind of situation?

Malcolm Deas: Colombia is going through a crisis in which a government that doesn’t reach out to the people is confronting a protest that isn’t able to define itself clearly, either in its demands or in its leadership, but that has its base in a great discontent. I doubt that the protests will bring down President Duque’s government, or alter the electoral calendar, or the constitutional terms of office that govern local authorities, or the Armed Forces. I don’t think there will be official censorship or measures that counter the basic liberties of the Colombian people.

Will the country continue with its institutional weaknesses? When I try to rate the formal institutions of the country, I make a mental once-over and I find that there is a gamut that goes from the strengths and effective to the weak and inept. Strengths: The Treasury Ministry and the Bank of the Republic. Weaknesses: The judicial system, Health Ministry, and Agriculture Ministry. Every citizen will have his/her own list, but the protest obviously makes the reform of the weaknesses more urgent.

A reflection even less precise: power in Colombia has been and continues to be diffuse. The system is not very rigid. That can be a strength or a weakness. A few years ago, during the strikes motivated by “agrarian dignity”, I carried out a hypothetical exercise that led me to abandon my prior conviction that General Santander was the founder of the Colombian political system, a system with elections directed from on high, lots of lawyers, lots of newspapers, lots of high positions for the loyal, etc., and my conviction was replaced with the concept of Archbishop Caballero y Góngora, who had to confront the Comuneros[1]. I don’t think that my observation was entirely frivolous, and I don’t want to be frivolous about the current protest with a high number of deaths, but the argument is the following . . . The Archbishop confronted a big protest that he had no power to suppress. So, he sent emissaries to negotiate, he made concessions and he made promises. Later, he didn’t keep some of the promises. Facing the agricultural strikes and advances of recent years, the government sent emissaries, with checks and promises, and later on, it didn’t keep some of those promises. I noticed a pattern, that to govern Colombia you have to make promises that can’t be kept. The government’s answer may be unsatisfactory, but it isn’t rigid, it’s flexible.

R. C.: Opinions about the events of the last two weeks can be grouped into two big currents: those that idealize the peaceful demonstrators and condemn the police as responsible for all of the excesses, on one side, and those that only see the dark hand of the opposition and the insurgency behind all of it. The voice of those with more balanced opinions isn’t being heard. How do you explain what’s happening?

M.D.: It’s obvious to me that some of the protests of these dimensions have a deep substratum of discontent and frustration. At the same time I recognize that they are not totally spontaneous. They don’t result from one single incident; they had their announced date. It’s likely that there are groups that are trying to infiltrate and make the protests violent. The two things, discontent and infiltration, are nothing new. Certain elements fish in a turbulent river, but they don’t constitute the river. I have not seen in the big papers, El Tiempo, El Espectador, any analysis of that aspect, about the organizers, nor the role of the social media. It could be that the influences have varied in different stages of the Strike. The government’s intelligence agencies have never been very good at this type of analysis.

About the police, the ESMAD, and the Army: managing protests is not an easy job, and any government anywhere needs to have its ESMAD with the appropriate preparation, so that they don’t resort to the police, who lack training, or to the Army. It makes no sense to ask for the ESMAD to be abolished. They should be asking that it be made better.

It seems as if you are seeing that the representative democracies are wearing out. Can you identify that factor in the case of ours?

I’m not very convinced by that overly generalized argument right now in the West. In Colombia, the Congress and the traditional political parties lost prestige a long time ago, for a number of reasons. I’m guessing that this country will continue on the path of representative democracy. There’s no alternative. Besides, I don’t see these institutions wearing out at the local level. Colombia has recently been the scene of a vigorous competition between forces and new political concepts in the elections of mayors, with some outstanding results.

Constitutionally, Colombia is a democracy with alternation since the end of the National Front and, since the administration of Virgilio Barco, it moves at the national level toward a system of government–opposition, even though that system continues to frighten a lot of people and is not well understood. Historically, it frightened people with the well founded fear that the partisan battle would lead to violence. Now it frightens people because of the so-called polarization, a phenomenon that certain commentators habitually tend to exaggerate, it seems to me, the same as the many minds that are frightened that the opposition led by the leftist populist Gustavo Petro will win in 2022.

As a historian, I point out something that’s true but hasn’t received much comment: Colombia has never had a President from the Left. Murillo Toro? Nobody remembers him. Alfonso López Pumarejo? Progressive, iconoclast, yes, but from the Left? A friend suggested that the only example was the Conservative Belisario Betancur, who was the first  to make a serious attempt to make peace with the guerrillas. But the fact that Colombia has never had a President from the Left is something very peculiar. Could it be that it will always be that way? One day, you’d think, there will be an administration from the Left.

The surge in Petro’s presidential candidacy in the middle of the protests, like it or not, is completely legitimate. Is this surge symptomatic of the erosion of representative institutions? I will make an analogy.  In 1974 the alternation installed by the National Front with the election of Alfonso López Michelsen came to an end, and many citizens thought that a new political era would arrive. López offered “a bridge government” that didn’t satisfy them and then came the famous strike of 1977. The Peace Agreement with the FARC was signed in 2016, and the hope of another new era came along with that, even though, as we know, many people didn’t like the terms of the Agreement, while others had hoped for a new and broader political agenda, with emphasis on the future. My observation then, during the signing of the Havana Agreement, was “If there isn’t going to be a revolution, we will have to make some reforms.” The Democratic Center administration has not fulfilled that wish, either because it doesn’t want to, or because it can’t escape the past, and, with the virus, it has encountered a bad situation.

Up to now, no promising presidential candidate of the center with a small “c” has come forward. Although many are mentioned, neither is there a candidate from the Right. By “promising”, I mean someone with a high profile that can muster the votes and surge in the polls. The populists fill gaps, but I also don’t see a candidate that’s capable, once elected, of “shredding the institutions”.

Colombia is a democracy with alternation, which, since the end of the National Front and since the administration of Virgilio Barco, moves at the national level to a government-opposition system, although that system keeps scaring a lot of people and is not well understood.

Colombia historically has had a weak State and that weakness has explained several of our evils, including the incapacity to bring the government to all of the territory, and to have a solid tax collection operation. Now the time has really come to make that strengthening a “national purpose”, as Lleras Camargo said. “Where do we start?”

That has been a constant in our history, for many reasons: exceptionally fragmented geography, patterns of settlement, the indifference of urban Bogotá, and of the national government, guerrillas, drugs, etc. The Peace implies that it isn’t possible to continue with one secure Colombia and another Colombia not secure, and that it’s necessary to make a new effort in that area, not forgetting that the insecurity is urban, as well as rural, suburban, and on the frontiers. We have to find new strategies; improvisation leads to failure. It’s necessary to have a close collaboration between civil society, lawyers, criminologists, academics in various disciplines, residents of the affected areas and neighborhoods, Armed Forces and Police. That collaboration has been insufficient up to now because of the civilians’ lack of interest, with their usual negligence of these matters of security.

Without an exercise applied by the government to do this, there won’t be anything more than shots in the dark. Obtaining the collaboration of the people is a very long overdue task, and demands the permanent presence of all of the trustworthy authorities. Even though it has diminished, the country continues to have very high levels of violence when compared with the rest of the world, with the high visible and invisible costs that generates.

They say that Bill Clinton once said to Fernando Enrique Cardozo, the former President of Brazil, that all countries have one fear and one great hope. What do you think are those fears? What hope is there in the case of Colombia?

The fear is of falling into a poorly defined “abyss” of renewed political struggle, or into a populism that will put an end to the progress, real but fragile, that the country and its people have achieved. For a sector that is larger but is not listened to as much, the fear is going back to the poverty line they have managed to overcome. For many young people, the fear is not having any future. Hope? That the reformist potential of the country doesn’t drown in the face all of the wounds in the political system, of which we are all aware.

Do you still think Colombia is exceptional in the unstable context of Latin America?  At this time, what continues to make Colombia different?

I think that all of the Latin American countries are different. That’s how I recently summarized my vision for the Colombian political system: “Behold, a brief characterization: high stability, balance of power, extensive freedoms, a stubbornly civilian regime, weak capacity for repression, precarious public order, high rate of violence, mainly affecting the lower classes, a fixed electoral calendar, a diverse electorate; going from captivity to negotiating cronyism, depending on your opinion, legalistic and pettifogging. There is no Viceroy but the hearings and the judges remain. In Colombia there are more  lawyers per capita than any other country except Costa Rica. Not very populist, essentially reformist, limited presidential power, stable economic management, very visible struggle between good and evil, many protests. There is no guarantee that it can keep on being that way.”

It’s the product of centuries of history, two of them living in an independent nation. It’s stable only in a certain sense  . . . it’s difficult to change it, but it doesn’t generate a day to day stability. It’s different in many aspects from the other systems in the region; those are also unique. Latin American countries are old nations, and the 200 years of independent national political life that most of them have are the result of that variety. A very obvious example: the politics and political history of Venezuela are not at all similar to Colombia’s.

We continue to be very divided in Colombia by the proceedings against the FARC. How can we get past those festering differences about events that are over with? By the way, you once said that once we reached that Agreement, there would no longer be a revolution, but that we would have to make some reforms. Are we doing what needs to be done?

I would prefer to respond with some advice: identify the problem precisely, study it thoroughly, legislate, and follow up on the results with the necessary publicity. Repeat. Pardon my little sermon.

The following phrase is attributed to you: “Colombia has the bad custom of postponing and postponing the problems until they get to be very big problems”. Where did we get that bad complex?

I realized a long time ago that that was a Colombian dialectical tendency, even though not exclusively Colombian. After putting a problem in perspective, we add to it a litany of nearly interminable problems until we have a huge mountain of problems on the table and, faced with that mountain, obviously, there’s nothing we can do . . . let’s have lunch. I think there’s more chance of solving problems when you divide them rather than adding them all together. The modest, precise reforms have possibilities of success. The grandiose reforms fail.

In conclusion, a question about our history that you also know so well: why did Colombia do so poorly in GDP growth per capita in the 19th century?

The poor economic growth in the 19th century is related to the country’s isolation. The economic dynamic in the region was in the external sector, and in the case of Colombia, that was one of the weakest. Because Colombia had very high transportation costs, it didn’t produce much of what the rest of the world was interested in buying. The poor couldn’t get rich doing business with each other, and in that century, Colombians could not get rich by doing business with other Colombians.

[1] Commoners. Archbishop Caballero y Góngora was both Archbishop and Viceroy of New Granada; in 1781 he put down a peasant revolution known as Los Comuneros. https://thebiography.us/en/caballero-y-gongora-antonio

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