falsos_positivos.gifRecently released Gallup opinion data on Colombia received media attention because it is the first to show that if President Uribe were not to run again for the presidency and the elections were to take place tomorrow, Sergio Fajardo and Juan Manuel Santos would be toe to toe for the presidency. However, the data has much more to say about Colombians’ attitudes toward democracy, human rights, and corruption.

First, the Gallup data shows the tremendous impact that Operation Jaque, the Hollywoodesque Colombian military operation of June 29, 2008 by which 15 hostages were released from the FARC, had on Colombian public opinion. Not only did the president’s approval ratings increase from 80 to 86% (the highest he has ever received–slide 33) in the four days surrounding the operation. Colombians’ perceptions of virtually everything improved, ranging from education (slide 20) to health coverage (slide 19–both up 5 points in the same four days). While on June 27, 51% of Colombians felt that senior citizens were being treated increasingly better, by July 3 another 7% were convinced (slide 18). This captures the jovial mood in the country following an operation in which some of the most famous hostages were released without firing a shot.

This is all in sharp contrast with the apparent lack of reaction to any of the notorious scandals that involved the Colombian government in the past few years.  The “Yidispolitica” scandal which broke in April 2008 in which former Congresswoman Yidis Medina was found to have been offered and agreed to a bribe in order to cast the deciding vote allowing President Uribe to run for a second presidential term, apparently did not have a significant effect on public opinion. Neither did the news in July that the armed forces had illegally used the Red Cross symbol during Operation Jaque to trick the guerrillas into handing over hostages.  Nor did the “falsos positives” scandal, which broke in April 2009,  in which the armed forces were found to have kidnapped and killed poor civilians in order to dress them up as guerrilla combatants and claim them as combat deaths.

President Uribe’s approval ratings have fallen slightly since Operation Jaque, in part because they had nowhere to go but down, but mostly due to the economy, which is Colombians’ greatest concern. In May for the first time since 2001, most Colombians disapprove of the way the Uribe administration is handling the economy (slide 38). Cost of life (slide 39) and unemployment (slide 40) are the only themes on which Uribe receives negative ratings. Meanwhile, Colombians’ opinion of General Freddy Padilla (slide 69), the head of the military forces, and of the military forces themselves (slide 102), have remained high and unaffected by Red Cross scandal or the “falsos positivos.”

A cynical interpretation of this apparent passiveness in response to some serious violations of democratic values and human rights would be that Colombians apparently don’t care too much about human rights or democracy. And there are good reasons to believe this. Most Colombians told Gallup they’re willing to sacrifice certain liberties in order to improve security (slide 92).  In terms of democracy, Latinobarometro recently found that 49% of Colombians claim they would not mind a government that is not democratic as long as it resolves economic issues. The most recent Lapop poll found Colombians to be similarly ambivalent about democracy, but perhaps most worryingly, found Colombians to be among the most intolerant in Latin America of opposition to the government.

An alternative theory, though, would be that Colombians do care about democratic values and human rights, but that they see the above mentioned incidents as examples of corruption rather than the government’s disregard for these values. This would explain why more than 65 percent of Colombians have consistently believed for years that the Uribe government respects human rights while many outsiders disagree (slide 91).The Lapop poll shows that 90% of Colombians claim that they have not experienced corruption in the past year, which is extremely low for Latin America, but 80% of Colombians believe corruption is the norm among public servants. And according to Gallup, corruption has been an increasing concern since Operation Jaque. Two days after the operation 77% of Colombians were satisfied with the way President Uribe was managing corruption, but this  fell to 51% by February 2009 (slide 36). While right after Operation Jaque 47% of Colombians felt corruption was getting better in Colombia, by May 2009 only 30% think so (slide 9).
While Colombians may seem indifferent to assaults on democracy and human rights violations, it may just be that they’re drinking Uribe’s Kool-aid. After virtually every incidient Uribe has at first denied that the acts took place, and then argued that he was misinformed by members of his government and was unaware of what was going on. While this may seem a weak response, this strategy may explain why Colombians continue to think so highly of the president and his policies. However, the president’s use of his own government as a scapegoat may eventually backfire as Colombians lose trust in their own democratic institutions.

(Photo of supposed “falsos positivos” from eltiempo.com)