Translation by Peter Katel from the original Spanish language article by Ibsen Martínez, which can be found online at – https://letraslibres.com/politica/a-donde-fue-el-centro-en-colombia/
Ibsen Martínez is a Venezuelan novelist, television screenplay writer, playwright and essayist. He lives in exile in Bogotá.
Where did Colombia’s center go?
The Colombian elections of last June 19 strengthened the extremes of the political spectrum. But the Colombian center, today temporarily scattered, can stand on its own and grow.
By Ibsen Martínez
An academic topic that entered journalism around the end of the last century held that one of Colombia’s singularities was a so-called “immunity to populism.”
The two-headed hegemony of liberals and conservatives lasted so long that it seemed enough to look at a list of presidents from, say, the mid-19th to the early 21st centuries to become convinced that the country was a rare species.
You can point, in conversation, to Jorge Eliécer Gaitán as a populist predecessor, an archetype of the mestizo agitator – an admirer of Mussolini who held crowds spellbound with his Vargas Villa*-style oratory. But some killjoy will insist that Gaitán’s movement was a liberal force, an idiosyncratic one, OK, but liberal. Clarifying what “liberal” means in Colombia, will cost you another five pesos, boss.
Something similar happens when we talk about the “center” as the geometrically defined place of those of us who promote liberal democracy, which is tied to the rule of law and the concept of capitalism in its rational, not savage, form.
The Colombian center obviously faces enormous hurdles. Equality before the law remains symbolic. And huge swaths of territory exist “under rules that differ from the constitutional ones.” This Bogotá euphemism means “armed groups.” Excessive presidentialism and weak separation of powers have set limits on a great many timid reforms.
In addition, criminal and informal economies, as well as corruption, carry considerably more weight than the modest wealth creation typical of creole capitalism, an offspring of the agriculture-based middle class that arose in the second half of the 19th century. Incredible but true: It is not the pilot fish of the big monopolies, leading them to their next victims. This middle class survives, and is able to play by the rules.
The results of the latest presidential election are now being treated as a fight between two forms of populism, one on the left, the other on the right.
The distinction now made everywhere between these two populisms is not useful: It doesn’t extend beyond suggesting – without credibly showing – that the one considered leftist is more philanthropic than the other, which is supposedly more authoritarian.
Gustavo Petro won the second round with slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. His margin of victory against the candidate who drew the multiflavored opposition vote, Rodolfo Hernández, got only three percent. Clearly, Petro will be governing a divided country.
Barely two years ago, a nationwide survey conducted by the highly respected Cifras y Conceptos firm showed that 53 percent of a carefully weighted sample of adults identified with “the center.”
Undoubtedly, on election day, the overwhelming logic of ballot-casting and the so-called useful vote led candidates and voters from the center to strengthen the extremes. This should not cloud the fact that, starting with the elections of 2018, Colombia began to see a clear trend toward centrism, marked by increasingly well-defined policies.
This development has been, along with the consolidation of the leftwing electoral option, a healthy outcome of the Havana peace accord of 2016.*
Alejandro Gaviria and Sergio Fajardo, the country’s most distinguished centrists, offered policy platforms that overlapped to the point of being virtually indistinguishable, with both defined by moderation. This should be understood as more than simple good manners. The clamor of the hard-fought campaign that just ended notwithstanding, it is obvious that centrist moderation has gathered more public support.
What do I mean by “moderation?” I rely on the definition of a Colombian thinker whose work I admire: Jorge Giraldo, a philosopher and political analyst from Antioquía.*
Giraldo sets out two forms of moderation. One is the “the avoidance of programmatic maximalism, the false promise of grand, immediate solutions.” The other is pragmatism, understood as the setting aside of prefabricated universal solutions, in favor of measures that work, regardless of whether they are consistent with a doctrine or theory.
Gaviria and Fajardo are two successful reformers who have devoted many years to public service, each of them in his own tonal register.
Fajardo, trained as a mathematician, was the successful mayor of Medellín, and a respected innovator in higher education. Gaviria, a civil engineer and economist, was the sensible health minister in the second term of Juan Manuel Santos. He is a liberal essayist with a wide readership among the young.
After his defeat in the first round, Fajardo offered Hernández his reform program as well as irreproachable prospects for a cabinet on economic and social issues. For his trouble, he earned a thoughtless, rude rejection, expressed with a curse. A conciliation with Petro was also disdained, so Fajardo advocated a blank vote for the second round.
Gaviria, for his part, respected Petro’s announced constitutionalist approach, and said so publicly. He agreed, on essential points, with proposals for tax and pension reform. He voted for Petro and has agreed to enter into a dialogue with the new president and to set in motion a national accord on governability.
In his “Ten Commandments of a Skeptical Reformer,” a brief, eloquent essay published in 2016, Gaviria wrote that the reformer is almost always a tragic figure. “His (ethical) respectability comes from his insistence on doing what is needed despite the (majoritarian) forces of folly, opportunism and indifference.”
With figures such as Fajardo and Gaviria, the Colombian center, today temporarily scattered, can stand on its own and grow. I am sure of this. It still has much to give to Colombia, perhaps sooner than we now think.
Bogotá, June, 2022
*José María Vargas Vila: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/José_Mar%C3%ADa_Vargas_Vila