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As we watch the effects of the pandemic and resultant social instability around the world, my heart breaks for Colombia – an American ally that is now reeling from third order pandemic effects. I have spent many of my adult years in Colombia – as a soldier training Colombia’s military, a contractor, and a USG employee. I am married to a Colombian woman, who is now an American citizen, and have children who are American-Colombian. I consider Colombia a second home and am deeply in love with the people of Colombia, and the treasures there.
We can look to Colombia and see the frustrations of a population reeling from economic strangulation. Colombia is a modern country with all the accoutrements of a civilized democracy. It is also the oldest democracy in South America, (61 years, 1958), the end state of the bloodless coup d’état of 1953 led by General Rojas Pinilla followed by the coup d’état removing him in 1958 and eventually leading to elections and a new constitution.
Subsequent elections where Pinilla lost spurred the creation of several guerilla organizations including the M19 guerilla group as well as the FARC, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization which was intimately and consistently involved in illicit narcotics trafficking and related crime. The two guerilla movements grew in opposition to a political power-sharing agreement made by both parties in Colombia at the time – Liberal and Conservative – which negated election results because the two parties alternated power regardless of the electoral outcome. The result of this arrangement was a ruling class that consolidated power in the two parties, strengthened the military, and prevented political alternatives from taking root. These elites launched the “Accelerated Economic Development” plan, which essentially forced people from their lands in favor of government-subsidized large landowners. 70% of farmland in Colombia was owned by 5.7% of the population and 400,000 families were landless and displaced.
Taking all of this into account, we can fast forward to recent weeks of disruption and unrest in Colombia. The government tried to pass two reforms: the first focused on taxes, but which also reduced the ‘ingreso solidario’ – a program that is a rough equivalent of what is known as welfare in the U.S. This benefit is paid to roughly three million families in Colombia and the sum is equivalent to $50.00 USD monthly. At the same time, the Colombian Congress also included a pay raise for themselves, as well as levying taxes on many products which have been typically exempt in Colombia due to their designation as essential items or commodities.
The second reform centered on the SISBEN – a Colombian government test index used for the targeting of social programs, in this case the medical plan. In essence, this reform would have increased co-pays and eliminated specialists from the system. Both reforms were eventually removed from consideration, due in large part to the constant protests.
When viewing the social unrest in Colombia thru the prism of governance, it is important to note that the government shut down the economy at the start of the pandemic. It is estimated that 60% of Colombians live below the poverty level, as the minimum wage is $251.00 USD per month. Some percentages of those people were essentially paid nothing when the shutdowns started. For the estimated 15% of Colombians who make a living from daily sales, that income dropped to zero. The government implemented strict measures, with some cities only allowing citizens out twice a week for essentials. Adding insult to injury, the people who worked as essential personnel saw many of their jobs being performed by Venezuelan immigrants accepting half the minimum wage for work – a situation not unlike that in several industries here in the U.S. Businesses – businesses in an effort to remain afloat – gravitated to this solution, further exacerbating unemployment and lack of income.
After a year of the lockdowns, Colombians made the decision to return to commercial activity on their own – in the face of enduring government decrees and restrictions (which were not passed by the congress or signed into law). Colombians were simply faced with a choice of defying government wishes or literally starving – choices that were quickly followed by protests and opposition to the Colombian government’s attempt to increase tax revenue, which was decimated due to the COVID shutdowns. From this, we must consider, in a society where commerce is essential to eating, was the cost of shutting down the country worth the benefit? When faced with a gamble on guesses with a virus and guaranteed slow starvation, the choice is not hard to make. At the very least, what has happened in Colombia is a reminder that governments produce nothing – they merely collect taxes from the governed and allocate them.
Of course, exploitative groups have used income disparities – highlighted by the pandemic – to sow discord among the Colombian people and foment instability for their own nefarious ends. Much like Ferdinand’s demise, this could be the fuse that relights a revolution; and it could spread quickly. This is critical for the U.S. to understand and consider, simply given that Colombia is America’s only one true and committed ally in the region. The destabilization of Colombia could cause a ripple effect that would certainly affect American security and economic interests and it has the potential to realign the powerbase in South America. With Russia and Iran exerting influence in Venezuela, and Colombia’s former FARC leaders taking refuge in Venezuela, we cannot afford to ignore the wider implications of destabilization. We should all being paying attention to Colombia; as Colombia goes, so goes the domino in Latin America.
Colombians are hardworking, loyal, dependable, and honorable people. Like many people I have met in South America, they care deeply for their country and their families. Colombia faces trying times ahead, and fragile accomplishments in security and economic growth are threatened by both internal and external forces of instability and exploitation.
My heart breaks for the people of Colombia.
Miguel Alejandro Laborde was a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A). He is of Latino descent, learned to speak English at 11 years of age, and served alongside some of the most elite American special operators. He is also a pioneer in ISR, and a general aviation expert called on often to develop solutions otherwise thought impossible. He is a self-avowed patriot who loves America and believes in her greatness and opportunity.