Democracy Lab

The Orangutan in a Tuxedo

The good news: Colombia is stable. The bad news: Colombia is stable.

Note: This article is an abridged version of an in-depth country study produced as part of the Prosperity Index project of the Legatum Institute. Complete versions of all 12 are available on the Institute website.

Colombia has emerged from its violent, chaotic past, and is ready to join the club of nations that respect human rights, share power with the people, and offer a decent -- and rising -- standard of living.... Or maybe not.

Colombia is the embodiment of paradox. On the continent that has defined macroeconomic volatility, Colombia has managed incredible stability. Since the 1930s it never experienced a year of negative economic growth until 1999. And in the 20th century it has never had a problem with inflation. Moreover, while democracy was collapsing everywhere in Latin America in the 1930s, power changed hands in Colombia (from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party) in a free election. And, apart from a short spell in the 1950s, Colombia has neither been the victim of a political coup nor lived under the yoke of a military government.

Yet the gains that should have followed from economic stability and political pluralism never materialized. Though Colombia has been growing virtually non-stop since 1900, the pace has been deliberate. Indeed, on average it has grown no faster across the business cycle than volatile Latin American countries like Peru or Bolivia.

Moreover, while Colombian democracy has endured, Colombia hasn't fared well by other measures of societal stability. The murder rate has been the highest in the world for over the last half-century. But murder isn't Colombia's only symptom of social dysfunction. The country has been fighting a civil war with leftist guerillas continuously since at least 1964. And in the early 1980s, Colombia became ground zero for the international drug trade, home to the cocaine cartels. It should be no surprise, then, that Colombia ranks 136 on the Legatum Institute Prosperity Index's safety-and-security sub-index -- the lowest in the Americas by far.

Liberal Party politician Dario Echandía once quipped that Colombian democracy was like "an orangutan in a tuxedo." By this he meant that, in Colombia, the civilized and uncivilized, the orderly and chaotic, the legal and illegal, all coexist -- and the membrane separating them is often very porous. Indeed, opposites seem to interact in ways that perpetuate an equilibrium in which both exist. The tuxedo promotes democracy and macroeconomic stability, while the orangutan generates violence, civil war, drug dealing, and anemic economic growth.

So what exactly is this orangutan in a tuxedo? Where did these two very different sides of Colombian political culture originate, and how is it they can coexist?

The model for Colombia's political system is a form of indirect rule, common during the period of European colonial empires, in which the national political elites (mostly residing in cities) delegate authority over the countryside to local elites. Colombia's local bosses are given discretion to run things as they like in exchange for an implicit commitment not to challenge the authority of the center. International drug markets, organized crime, leftist guerillas, and rightist paramilitaries are thus not the causes of Columbia's problems; they are part and parcel of a dysfunctional style of governance. As the Colombian writer R.H. Moreno Duran put it: "In Colombia, politics corrupts drug dealing."

This explanation raises obvious questions in turn. Which interests keep this awkward, seemingly unstable system in place? How can chaos and order remain in equilibrium? Why do local elites find it in their interest to sustain the chaos?

The chaos in the periphery in Colombia simplifies the task of creating a winning coalition in the center -- or, to put it another way, it lowers the price of votes. Instead of having to win support the old-fashioned way (with patronage or popular policies), politicians can get elected by gaining the support of local bosses, or perhaps by becoming the bosses themselves.

Consider, too, that the orangutan-in-a-tuxedo system makes Colombian democracy very elite-friendly. One salient theory of the origins of democracy is that it results from concessions made by elites to avoid disorder, or even revolution. This does not, however, explain the origins of Colombia's democracy. It was, from the beginning, a means for elites to share power among themselves in a way that would avoid fighting. It didn't always work, though, so the elites came up with other political institutions to facilitate power-sharing. After the bloody inter-party conflict known as the Thousand Days War (1899 - 1902), the two political parties agreed to assign two-thirds of the legislative seats to the then-dominant Conservatives, but guaranteed one-third to the Liberals, however many votes they polled. In 1958, after another inter-party civil war, it was replaced by the National Front agreement that restored the fixed allocation of seats, adjusting the division to 50-50.

Yet another way the system works in the interest of the elites is that a high level of conflict in rural areas prevents the periphery from cooperating together against the center. This is hardly unique to Colombia: A common theory of African political dynamics is that the center foments chaos at the periphery in order to "divide and rule." Sudan and Congo are the classic cases.

In most places in the world, one would have thought that either the orangutan would have eventually ripped off the tuxedo and overwhelmed the more functional part of the country, or, that, at some point, the tuxedo would have straitjacketed the orangutan. (The metaphor is strained, but you get the point.) As suggested above, though, disrupting the equilibrium  may not be in the interests of those benefitting from the system.

However, the fact that everyone is better off without the ever-present specter of mayhem doesn't guarantee that reason will prevail. I think the real reason for the stability of the Colombian system is that it's largely self-adjusting: The incentives in place are adequate to sustain power-sharing without the need to periodically renegotiate the grand bargain between urban and rural elites.

The answer to why elites on the periphery keep the pot boiling at just the right temperature that denies them dominance over the center is also elusive. The best explanation is that regional elites turn over rapidly, making it difficult to identify collective interest or to act on it when they do.

Rural conflict is further exacerbated by the fact that the ownership of much of the land in Colombia is in dispute, making it difficult to legalize any particular status quo. The rise of the drug cartels since the late 1970s has further complicated conflict resolution, since a lot of illicit drug wealth has gone into acquisition of land (and elite status).

The system is not held in place by some grand Faustian pact or Machiavellian calculation, but has evolved organically over more than a century. Local elites find it in their interest to act in ways that keep the system from veering far off-kilter without understanding their role in general equilibrium. And this makes the whole system hard to grasp conceptually, let alone reform.

Despite this history, Colombia has seemingly turned over a new leaf in the last decade. After President Andrés Pastrana's drawn-out, ultimately unsuccessful effort to negotiate an end to the civil war with the leftist FARC guerilla army, Álvaro Uribe was elected president on the promise that he would intensify the fighting.

His offensive pushed the FARC and the ELN (the National Liberation Army, another leftist guerilla force) out of numerous municipalities and led to the killing of guerilla leaders Raúl Reyes and Mono Jojoy. (Moreover the FARC's commander-in-chief, Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulanda, died of natural causes in 2008). After Uribe was replaced as president in 2010 by his former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, the new leader of the FARC, Alfonso Cano, was killed by the army.

These military successes coincided with a plunge in both the homicide rate and the number of kidnappings. In 2005, President Uribe had also persuaded 30,000 members of paramilitaries to demobilize in exchange for reduced sentences and confessions of their crimes -- quite a considerable political feat.

As the security situation improved, so did Colombia's international image. Foreign direct investment rose from $1.5 billion annually to $13 billion in a decade, while investment went from 17 percent of GDP to 27 percent. Prudent as ever, Colombia ran budget surpluses that reduced the national debt from nearly 60 percent of GDP in 2002 to 43 percent today.

President Santos has been building on these positive developments since coming to office. While trying to maintain the military initiative, he has launched an ambitious attempt to "take the water away from the fish" -- to bring peace to the countryside by restoring as much as 12 million acres to owners and implementing a land reform program.

Have Uribe and Santos, in fact, succeeded in chaining the Orangutan? I'm skeptical. Despite all the gains under the last two administrations, neither made a clear break with the system of governance that created Colombia's problems in the first place.

President Uribe invested vast amounts of time and political capital attempting to change the term-limit provision in the constitution so that he could maintain his grip on power -- hardly the work of a devotee to democracy. He succeeded once, but only through an alliance with the politicians elected with paramilitary support in 2002.

The unaccountability of politicians, an important characteristic of the system, has also persisted. One telling example concerns Santos himself, when he was still minister of defense under Uribe, During his tenure, there came to light what Colombians have called the "false positive" scandal. In pressing the military to intensify the conflict with the guerillas, the government offered pay rises and promotions for verified killings. Though this no doubt led to the deaths of many guerilla fighters, it also led to the execution of some 3,000 innocent civilians who were murdered and dressed up as guerillas after the fact. Yet when the scandal broke, Santos did not take any responsibility for the acts of the soldiers under his command.

It's true that violence has fallen in Colombia and that the economy has been doing exceptionally well in the interim. But violence also fell in the 1960s, only to bounce back. Moreover, Colombia still suffers from the most unequal distribution of income in Latin America (with the possible exception of Bolivia). And the growth spurt is largely explainable by the temporary global boom in the price of oil and coal, which constitute 60 percent of the country's exports.

The Orangutan is lurking. In the local elections of October 2011, 41 candidates were murdered and countless others were threatened with violence. Perhaps the most revealing statistic about the state of the commonwealth is that the richest tenth of Colombians pay just three percent of their income in tax, while the poorest tenth pay eight percent.

I'd like to believe that good things will beget better things -- that declining violence and faster growth will create a virtuous circle of social progress. But I fear Colombia is still the Colombia where the tuxedo fits the Orangutan all too well.

Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

The Survivor

Barack Obama called for Syrian's Bashar al-Assad to step aside more than a year ago. Here's why he's still in power.

On Aug. 18, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama released a written statement that declared: "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside." It was his first explicit call for the Syrian leader to resign -- but today, 452 days later, Bashar al-Assad is still in power. As he told Russian TV last week, "I am Syrian; I was made in Syria. I have to live in Syria and die in Syria."

Even as what was initially a peaceful uprising evolved into a full-fledged armed rebellion, the Assad regime has proved stubbornly resilient. It is still contesting every urban center in the country. While the rebels have succeeded in liberating territories in Syria's northern provinces, they are still not in control of one major Syrian city. Unlike in other Arab countries, where autocrats were brought down by citizen uprisings, the Assad regime shows no signs of fading into oblivion soon.

Unlike in Libya, the competing interests of regional and international players has so far prevented outside military intervention. But the regime's strength and the anti-Assad forces' divisions have played an important role in discouraging direct foreign involvement. Here are four reasons Assad remains in power.

1. The regime's inner sanctum has not cracked. In July, Assad's inner circle was dealt a serious blow when a bomb killed four of its members -- including Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha. But Assad and his coterie of senior advisors recovered quickly from this blow, appointing replacements to the officials killed in the blast.

According to people close to regime circles, the July bombing was the first time since the start of the uprising when the Assad regime felt under threat. Other setbacks, such as the defections of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab and Assad's friend and former Republican Guard commander Manaf Tlass, did not present a serious threat to the regime. By the time they defected, both were marginal figures in the regime's inner core.

As Assad declared in an August interview, these defections are a form of "self-cleansing" for the regime, ridding it of disloyal elements. The regime's core is now reduced to Assad family members and trusted Alawite security officials, some of whom are holdovers from the reign of Assad's father, Hafez. This core appears to consist of more hawkish figures who see the struggle in existential terms. As the inner circle gets smaller, the regime's response only becomes more determined and bloodier.

As Assad articulated in his Russian TV interview, foreign military intervention is unlikely because it will be too costly to the international community. If that holds true, the regime is calculating that it can hold on to power and deny the armed opposition the ability to deliver tangible results on the ground -- making it increasingly likely the rebels will lose steam. Russia's and Iran's reliable support reinforces this conviction.

2. The Syrian military is not close to a breaking point. Active personnel in the Syrian military are estimated at 295,000 soldiers, with an additional 314,000 troops in the reserves. Although exact figures are impossible to come by, some back-of-the-envelope calculations make it obvious that the bulk of this force has not defected to the rebels.

Qassim Saadeddine, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in Homs, told me recently that military defectors make up an estimated 30 percent of the rank and file of the armed insurgency, whose number is estimated between 50,000 to 100,000 men. This means the attrition rate in the Syrian army is at best around 5 to 10 percent -- not enough to seriously erode its fighting capacities. Moreover, when given the option, many military defectors are returning home rather than joining the FSA ranks.

Moreover, Assad's losses in military personnel have been made up for by the increase in the ranks of the paramilitary shabiha. These mainly Alawite fighters are increasingly becoming a skilled fighting force thanks to training by Hezbollah operatives. Loyalty to the regime also remains strong among non-Alawite soldiers. The insurgents have also acted in such a way to discourage defections: A recent YouTube video showing rebels executing a group of unarmed Syrian soldiers will only convince other soldiers to stick with the regime.

3. Syria's Alawite community remains hostile to the uprising. Political dissent among Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs, has so far been extremely limited -- despite a few military and civilian defectors.

There have been some signs of discontent inside the Alawite community, mainly due to the heavy casualties in the ranks of the Alawite-majority regime forces. On Sept. 29, there was a shootout in the town of Qardaha, the Assads' ancestral home, between two of Assad's relatives. While the fight is believed to concern the smuggling business in cigarettes, weapons, and other contraband controlled by Assad's extended family, it may also have had political undertones.

The Assads have been swift in dealing with any sign of Alawite dissent, as it undermines the regime narrative of a Sunni Islamist uprising targeting the Alawite community. Following the Qardaha shootout, for instance, they quickly brokered a reconciliation between the feuding families. Alawite opposition activists are hunted down, jailed, and beaten. When all else fails, they are shunned by their families and neighbors.

Any hope for regime implosion rests on Alawites' delinking their physical survival from Assad's political survival. There are no signs that this process has even started. The opposition -- especially the exiled leadership -- has utterly failed in reaching out to the Alawite community. No opposition figure has yet made a convincing case to the Alawites that their future in a post-Assad Syria will be safe from revenge killings, that they will enjoy equal rights as their Sunni brethren, that their economic interests will be safeguarded, and that they will not be treated with suspicion for years to come. Even worse, there is no serious thinking going on inside the opposition of how to develop such a narrative.

4. The Syrian opposition remains fractured. Syrian opposition groups signed a tentative agreement on Nov. 11 that aimed to unite all anti-Assad factions under one umbrella coalition. However, much work remains to be done: The basic challenge facing every single component of the opposition -- starting at the top and cascading down to the smallest local coordinating committee -- lies in the absence of a political program that unites the disparate anti-Assad groups. Although different groups have been working on a "Day After" agenda, there is not yet a common political vision of how to get from now to the day after Assad's fall.

In short, there is a political vacuum and an organizational vacuum at every level of the Syrian opposition. The diverse funding streams available to the opposition have exacerbated this problem, as new political and military formations emerge solely for the purpose of receiving cash. Competition, not collaboration, rules the day -- even inside military councils. As one opposition activist put it to me, "The ranks of the Syrian political opposition swell through further fragmentation."

Some steps are being taken to rectify these problems. The Syrian opposition groups' conference in Doha, Qatar, of course, is a necessary prerequisite to laying the groundwork for a post-Assad Syria. But initiatives are also under way on the ground: Local administrative councils are being established in liberated territories, bringing together local civic activists and military councils in an effort to get government institutions up and running again. The councils' purpose is to help provide Syrians with the services necessary to fulfill their day-to-day needs. It is still too early, however, to judge whether they will succeed in overcoming the infighting and poor organization that has bedeviled the opposition institutions so far.

Absent a game-changer, the violent stalemate in Syria is here to stay. Each side in this conflict believes the momentum favors its own cause, so each is unwilling to strike a deal.

No matter who takes the helm of the Syrian regime in the future, however, they will be forced to deal with an empowered citizenry that will no longer accept being ruled by an iron fist. Assad's regime may not fall tomorrow, but it can no longer rule Syria -- its old levers of control no longer function, and it has proved incapable of significant reform.

On the other hand, the militarization of the conflict has sidelined the activists and civic groups that launched the uprising. The failure -- and the unwillingness -- of the political opposition to articulate a credible road map for a solution ensures that military conflict will be the uprising's default course in the short to medium term, plunging the country deeper into chaos and violence.

In the interim, new actors are emerging in Syria. Jihadi groups in particular are injecting their own agenda into the conflict. Although they are still not as prominent as during the height of the Iraqi civil war, they have the potential to be a major player in a future Syria. In wars, as in evolution, the fittest survive and thrive -- and these groups are, unfortunately, the fittest.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images