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Colombia has a civilian government and it holds its elections at regular intervals with few interruptions. This has been happening since 1830 when Gran Colombia was dissolved. To this extend, Colombia has been classified as a democracy, that is, it has been able to hold regular elections ushering in civilian leaders. A closer examination of the Colombian situation, however, reveals a paradox situation.
In comparison to other Latin American states, Colombia has democratic institutions which have stood for a long, and also has the best records in terms of authoritarian rule in the Latin American region. In contrast, the country has the most violent history in the region. This country’s history is built on the foundations of elections and violence. This section tries to specifically detail the degree to which Colombia can be seen as a complete democracy, or if it is something short of democracy. As the discussion will demonstrate, Colombia has adequate basic requisites required to be categorized as a functional democracy.
However, the ongoing violence, and the inability of the state to end it has made it difficult for Colombia to fully realize its democratic goals. The escalating violence in the 1980s has in fact, watered-down Colombia’s democratic governance mainly because of the country’s incapacity to tame the violence. More so, it also owes states involvement in violence itself (Hagopian, 258, 2005).
From the 1970s until the early to mid-1980s, Colombia was cited along with Venezuela and Costa Rica as the only democratic states. Latin American states experienced what has duped the Third Wave of Democratization in the mid-1980s. Colombia’s claim to full democracy has been tainted by the ongoing violence that has tasked the country and bedevils its citizens. Colombia is known more for kidnappings, murders, displacements, guerillas, narcotic drugs, and other vices than its political parties and electoral history.
Therefore, these provide sufficient reasons as to why the subject of Colombian democracy is approached with caution. Looking at this overall scenario can result in conflicting interpretations and evaluations of democracy in Colombia. For instance, one can marvel that Colombia has survived its endless political violence holding onto something resembling democratic governance (Taylor, 2009, p.14).
The constitution of 1991 proclaims Colombian democracy as “participatory and pluralistic (Taylor, 2002, p.16).” That there exist deep points of departure in the very fabric of Colombian politics is indisputable, and hence neither the continued violence nor the history of successful electoral politics offers a sufficient point of departure of understanding Colombia. The complexities involved in understanding Colombia’s democracy and state are underscored in these great difficulties in selecting appropriate descriptive adjectives.
Even the basic elements linked with Colombian democracy are not clear. As with most aspects of Colombian politics and society, Colombian democracy has important contradictory elements, such as increased political inclusion and diminishment of protection of civil rights and liberties. This tension is the result of increased democratic access that political reforms, mainly the constitution of 1991, have provided while simultaneously the state has continued to be incapacitated to contain the ongoing political violence that has haunted the country for generations (Taylor, 2002, 17).
Official Human Rights Policy: Rhetoric and Reality
There arose during the last decade of the century mere rhetoric about a consensus on the virtues of peace, democracy, and progress as the features of modernity and as an ideology that ties together the Colombian nationhood. For Colombia to progress toward making the rhetoric into a reality, it would have to take sovereign control over the whole of the national territory and assist to integrate a society that is precariously divided between the very poor. The majority of these are largely in the informal sector, excluded from effective citizenship (Palacios, 2006, p.259,).
Actors in Colombian Violence
The Colombian political system is dominated by a conflict that has resulted in extensive violence. There are several actors linked to this form of violence in Colombia. This section discusses four actors who include; the Colombian armed forces and the national police, guerilla organizations, paramilitary groups, and drug traffickers.
The Colombian public forces are responsible for over 50% of human rights violations recorded in Colombia in incidences recorded in 1993 and 1994 (Younger, 2005, p. 128,). This was according to the Andean Commission of Jurists. Another study by the Center for Population Research and Education (CINEP) attributes 65% of human rights violations reported to have been committed by the state. In the 1994 report by the prosecutor general, 7,598 formal complaints were lodged against members of the public forces between 1991 and 1993, including 68 massacres. The highest number of these complaints were registered against the National Police, which was attributed, in part, to the participation of police in quasi-military operations against drug traffickers (Bergquist, 2001, p. 156).
Secondly, two main armed guerilla groups are operating in Colombia today, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) (Columbus, 2000, p. 219). Each of these guerilla groups strives more in conquering more territories at the cost of a civilian population that is not armed than with gaining sympathy with them. FARC guerilla group is estimated to have a ground group of about 18,000 combatants, and ELN is estimated to have some 6000 armed fighters. There also exist some remnants of Ejercito Popular de Liberacion (EPL) and of the Movimiento 19 de Abril (m-19). There is a guerilla group called Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) or paramilitaries can count around 11,000 armed militants. Colombia also has powerful criminal organizations which collaborate on some occasions with the paramilitaries or guerillas. Sometimes they operate on their accounts (Koonings, 2004, p. 173,).
Civil and Political Human Rights in Colombia
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Colombia made important steps towards opening up the civic and political system. This progress was enhanced notably with the election of local and regional authorities, and the enactment of the 1991 Constitution. This constitution recognized the basic human rights of citizens, gave a procedure for participation and oversight of public affairs, and recognized Colombia as a multi-ethnic country. This development, however, has been seriously undermined by the incapacity of the Colombian state to guarantee its people basic human rights such as security, and to deter the domination of many areas by armed gangs.
The relevance of the effectiveness of Colombian civic institutions has been eroded severely by violence as a consequence of both human rights violations and a reported 98% impunity rate. The institution of Colombian democracy is being tested by the concern that institutions such as judicial, security, health, media, and others are no longer viable. Drug trafficking’s effects on the judicial system are a basic example of the impact of violent crime on institutions (Gingale, 2002, p.48).
Social and Economic Human Rights
The Colombian violence and conflict have seriously weakened the country’s social and economic fabric. Therefore, this makes it difficult for the country to meet basic human rights. It has also led to the decline in the quality of life for all Colombians due to a climate of intimidation and uncertainty that exists, particularly in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods. The social and economic costs of violence in Colombia have caused critical violations of social and economic human rights in a number of ways which include: one, it has caused erosion of human capital by limiting educational and healthcare reach by both the providers and the users.
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The spate of violence has caused the abandonment of many rural facilities by rural teachers and health workers. These workers often face death threats and assassinations. In addition, the burden for health care has increased, with trauma care utilizing an important proportion of the health resources; two, it has caused forced displacements which have continued to strain the Colombian economy. The social and economic costs are high in terms of those displaced and the areas receiving the displaced population.
Normally, the displaced persons will flee to the periphery of urban centers where there is a scarcity of housing and employment, and often lack health and social services; three, the violence has reduced the capacity of families to function as a unit by eroding household relations as an asset. The battle zones in rural areas consist of men who have joined armed groups, and as a result family life is highly disrupted by high-stress levels (Gingale, 2002, p.47).
Bergquist, C & Penaranda 2001, Violence in Colombia, 1990-2000, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Forbes, Blvd.
Columbus, F 2000, Politics and Economics of Latin America, Nova Publishers, New York.
Gingale, M 2002, Lafourcade Colombia, World Bank Publications, New York.
Hagopian, F& Mainwaring 2005, The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America, Cambridge University Press, New York.
Koonings, K & Kruijt 2004, Armed Actors, Zed Books, London.
Taylor, S 2009, Voting Amid Violence, UPNE Publishers, New England.
Palacios, M, Stoller, R, Between Legitimacy and Violence, Duke University Press, Durham, 2006.
Younger, C, Rosin, Drugs and Democracy in Latin America, Boulder, CO, 2005.