Colombia’s 2022 Election Results and The Question Economic Underdevelopment

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Colombia is one of the “richest” nations in Latin America, according to the most common measure of economic strength: the Gross Domestic Product. It is also one of the most unequal countries in the world as measured by the Gini Index. Parallel to this, like many other countries, these riches do not ensure economic security for all. 5 million Colombians suffer from chronic malnutrition, and close to 16 million go hungry each day according to the FAO. These tendencies are not disaggregated either. The World Bank argues that Colombia’s wealth gap actually impedes its ability to develop the economy as much as it could otherwise.

Colombia has been through several different “variations” of development, with the import substitution strategy of the 1950s, or the export oriented model developed in the 70s, or the trade liberalization of the 90s. While each of these strategies had their costs and benefits, it is clear from the facts mentioned above that their historical implementation has denied Colombia’s people to reap the full benefits of the economic expansion that their country experienced.

Here I recall Andre Gunder Frank, the Marxist founder of the Dependency Theory, who stated in 1967 that some Latin American countries were subject to “the loss and misappropriation of economic surplus throughout the process of underdevelopment”(Capitalism, 1967). To a very notable extent, this experience is found in Colombia as well. Such an analysis of the structural relationship between an “imperial core” and “imperial periphery”, and the political and economic violence needed for such an arrangement, is largely absent from Liberal theory, which tends to reduce economic growth to an analysis of the transactions between two parties, with little consideration for the externalities of such transitions, and thus little concern for the fate of the surplus that is gained from economic activity. It is with a Marxist analysis that these concerns are revealed with great erudition.

What does this have to do with President-elect Gustavo Petro? Petro echoed the view that Colombia has elements of capitalist underdevelopment, but he makes a crucial distinction. Petro argued that a Leftist-led capitalist development plan was needed for Colombia to experience sufficient growth. This view keeps the consideration of the direction of the surplus, and recognizes the hindrance placed on growth from such extreme conditions, but Petro’s line is actually a deviation from Frank’s and the Marxist-Leninist line.

Frank wrote in his 1967 book Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America that “the historical mission and role of the bourgeoisie in Latin America- which was to accompany and to promote the underdevelopment of its society and of itself-is finished” (Capitalism, xvi). Such a statement reverberated through Marxist theory, as it was one of the first (accurate) proclamations that the smooth, progressive, wealth maximizing role played by the bourgeoisie in Britain and the United States is not automatically repeated elsewhere, particularly due to the dynamics of Imperialism.

If this argument is conceded, then according to authors such as Frank, the only hope of liberation form imperialism and development of the economy is to adopt a centrally planned economy run by a workers party, that can fight off Capitalist encirclement and strive for a distribution of the economic surplus that meets the famous maxim “from each according to his ability, to each according to her needs”.

Colombia is currently a close ally with the United States, but that is in the background of severe U.S military and economic presence in the country. The American reaction to Petro will depend on his relations with his own national capitalist and landowning elites. But if Chile, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia are any indication, they won’t take kindly to Petro.

Whether the correct line for Petro is the Cuban way or the 20th Century Labor government I can not say yet. I hope that Petro can find a progressive role for the capitalists in the country. But we can say with confidence that Neoliberal continuation is not the way forward.