For over two decades Latin America, except for Cuba, has been governed by democratic governments. Over the last 10 years there has been impressive economic growth in Latin America and millions have emerged from poverty. However, during the same 10 years, democracy has eroded.
The recent lightning impeachment of Paraguay’s President Lugo and the scandal involving Colombia’s judicial reform efforts are the most recent examples of that trend.
Successive Colombian administrations for the last 10 years have sought to correct weaknesses and inefficiency in Colombia’s justice system. In late June Colombia’s Congress finally agreed to enact judicial reforms proposed by President Juan Manuel Santos.
However, once the text of the “reforms” became known, both the Colombian press and the public were outraged. The legislation revealed cynicism, greed and corruption. It would increase impunity and provide disgraceful benefits for Congress and the Supreme Court. Colombian citizens quickly began organizing petitions for a referendum on the legislation. President Santos cut short a visit to Brazil, and, because Colombian presidents lack veto power, asked the Congress to kill the legislation, which it unanimously did a week later.
Finger pointing was immediate. Although Supreme Court members said nothing, members of Congress petulantly claimed that the executive branch knew what was happening. President Santos admitted that the executive branch had committed “errors.” The justice minister, who steered the legislative process and had earlier blessed the final product, did an about face, claiming he had been “deceived” and resigned.
The favorability ratings of President Santos, some of his ministers and leaders of Congress dropped immediately, as did public support for Santos’ reelection to a second term. The fallout continues.
Many Colombians and the media have difficulty accepting these explanations. Colombians who follow politics know that, for decades, members of their congress have shamelessly sought to avoid accountability for their actions. Further, the mainstream press had warned for days prior to the law’s approval that the congress was intent on shielding itself against any investigation of its wrongdoing and that the supreme court would agree to this in exchange for extending the terms of its judges from eight to 12 years and raising their retirement age to 70.
It is useful to remember that in the recent past the supreme court has convicted 44 former members of congress of various crimes, including ties to illegal paramilitary groups. Further the court is also investigating 100 additional cases, which include sitting members of congress.
The United States considers Colombia its major “success story” in Latin America. No government in this hemisphere has received as much U.S. assistance for as long as Colombia. The United States has helped Colombia combat narcotrafficking for more than a generation, it also provided more than $7 billion to help Colombia defeat guerrillas and right wing paramilitary bands, strengthen the rule of law and reduce impunity.
With U.S. pressure and help Colombia reestablished extradition and carried out important judicial reforms. In a word, the United States has played a key role in shoring up democracy in a country that, in the late 1990s, many feared would become a failed state.
It is chastening to realize that, despite all the help from the United States and many reforms in Colombia, so much remains to be done.
That said, reassuring news emerged from this scandal. In a break with the past, the Colombian media and public opinion refused to accept such behavior from their government.
Myles Frechette is a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia and a former president and CEO of the Council for the Americas/Americas Society.