Poverty of imagination and poverty alleviation in Colombia

The face over the main square of the National University

There is currently a burst of left wing activity in Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in the world, which is quite inspiring to see. But one thing it doesn’t seem to have produced is a burst of new ideas.

I sometimes find it a bit dispiriting that the heroes of the left here are still the likes of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and now Hugo Chavez – along with a bunch of Colombian heroes, most of whom are dead. For some reason being dead really cements your reputation here, whether you’re a home-grown hero like priest-turned-guerrilla Camilo Torres Restrepo or a foreigner like Hugo Chavez, whose death almost puts him beyond criticism.

Even as the left gears up to try and take advantage of the peace process, these people from old left traditions – in which taking control of the state is the main goal – are the biggest reference points. In particular I suspect the biggest leftist organisation here, Marcha Patriotica, would love to have their own Hugo Chavez. This is actually a bit odd when you notice that Chavez completely failed to implement anything close to a socialist economy. All he did was tax the oil revenue and share it around. Which is nice, but it isn’t socialism and a lot of the socialists barely seem to notice that.

So I’ve often thought it would be nice to see a bit more original thinking here in Colombia, and a bit more rethinking of some of the old attitudes. A Colombia friend recently noted that the left would love to put a lot of the murderous army generals in prison – apparently without questioning the role or existence of prisons. So a few people try to rethink such things, but not many.

But while travelling through rural areas over the last couple of weeks, seeing the poverty and the problems people are living, I realised that perhaps people don’t want to take risks with new and untested ideas. Perhaps they just want something that will alleviate poverty a little and they want it to work. Perhaps copying Hugo Chavez just seems like the easiest and most risk-free way to do that. Perhaps better-thought-out, more democratic, more sustainable attempts to alleviate poverty just wouldn’t work – I certainly can’t promise that they would. Grabbing the state, raising extractives revenues and putting them into social programs is known to do some good at least.

I can’t say the prospect of that happening in Colombia excites me too much, but I’m not a campesino struggling to survive on the breadline. I guess from that point of view, what works is probably what matters. I’d like to see more imagination from the left here, but I guess they would rather see decent health services.