Michael N. Escobar

LAS 10

Louis Segal

Katharine French-Fuller


Review Essay


The articles here reviewed deal with political and economic issues in Latin America.  Iván Orozco Abad's article "Notes for a comparative history of transitional justice"[1] compares the ways in which the legal systems of El Salvador, Chile and Argentina dealt with the crimes commited during a civil war and military dictatorships, respectively. Raúl Madrid's article deals with pension privatization in Latin America, and Mauricio Cárdenas' article investigates the influence Colombia's labor movement had on the privatization ac tivities of the Barco and Gaviria administrations of the late 1980s and early 1990s.


Orozco Abad opens his article with an exposition of the current status of the non-governmental organizations in Colombia that work on human rights issues. A brief review of the country's journal of record, El Tiempo, will show that the government of Alvaro Uribe Vélez has continued the practice of harassing NGOs as it attempts to prosecute a campaign against guerrilla insurgency and narcotrafficking. Although the president and vice-president have (until recently, after Abad's article went to press) been more muted in their verbal attacks, and have paid lip service to the idea that these organizations "are necessary to the preservation of democracy", lower-level officials routinely denounce the entire community of NGOs as sympathizers with the guerrillas, "green on the outside and red on the inside" (Orozco Abad 52). In the context of a very long-standing guerrilla war, the NGOs occupy a precarious position: their offices are subject to extrajudicial searches by police, arrests under charges of rebellion, deportations, and in the extreme, assassinations of their members (52).


Colombia's national motto is "Libertad y orden", "Liberty and order." According to Abad, in the current situation, authority has trumped liberty (53). Abad now moves to consider the history of human rights movements in other countries, with the idea that such a study might give lessons for those seeking to understand Colombia's current situation, choosing El Salvador, Chile and Argentina as cases of transition to democracy where outside influence played a relatively minor role in shaping events (54).


As a study of comparative history, Abad's piece seeks to identify the factors which account for the differing courses of events in different countries. In Chile and Argentina, the end result with regards to justice was the imposition of "(partial) justice against impunity" and "the primacy of memory over forgetting" (54). In El Salvador, the basic theme was reconciliation and "mutual amnesty" (54). However, with regard to the transition to democracy, Chile has more in common with El Salvador, in that the transition was the result of negotiations between national elites, whereas Argentina's dictatorship simply collapsed after the Falkland Islands debacle. He identifies the causal factor as the symmetry or asymmetry of the practice of brutality by the various factions in the pre-democracy phase, i.e., in El Salvador the brutality was more or less symmetrical (practiced by both sides equally), while in Argentina and Chile it was asymmetrical (55).


According to Abad, citing Juan Méndez' report "Truth and Partial Justice in Argentina" for Americas Watch, the Argentine NGOs played a key role in the downfall of the dictatorship, contributing to the difficulties it faced as a result of the war with Great Britain, corruption scandals, and other factors. Especially important were the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, which mobilized the population against the military's abuses and organized support for victims of the regime (56). The assymetry of the Dirty War made it easy to identify victimizers and victims (55), and as soon as the government was in democratic hands, the NGOs launched a vigorous campaign of lawsuits to demand retribution against those who had practiced torture, murder or disappearance (56). In 1996, in response to a military uprising, the "Law of Finality" ("Punto Final") decreed a one-time-only, last-chance window of 60 days to file lawsuits regarding abuses perpetrated by the military government; quite contrary to the government's intention, the NGOs launched a massive wave of lawsuits to get them into the process before the deadline (57).


With the advent of hyperinflation in the 1990s, and a generational shift in the population, the quest for retributive justice lost priority, until a naval officer admitted on a live news program that, on orders from the military command (whose officers had blamed all the violence on lower personnel acting independently), he had participated in nighttime aerial flights which dropped political prisoners into the ocean (59). This reanimated the Argentine NGO community (the "Scilingo effect"), which then initiated or reactivated further legal processes seeking justice for the victims of the dictatorship (60).


According to Abad, then, the Argentine judicial response to the dictatorship's violence was essentially entirely owed to the efforts of NGOs seeking justice.  Abad similarly reviews the course of events in the other nations. In El Salvador, the situation was different: the guerrillas, as well as the state, offended the civilian population (69), although he notes that the state committed the majority of atrocities directed against civilians. Tellingly, he describes how the guerrilla group FMLN would kidnap civilians in order to pressure the government for prisoner exchanges ("secuestros de civiles ... para negociar 'canjes' de prisioneros", 69) in the same language in which Colombians discuss the security situation in their own country today.


In addition, the FMLN assassinated rural mayors, laid landmines, occupied embassies, destroyed farmers' crops, and sabotaged public infrastructure; and in the periods of escalation of the war, it would summarily execute so-called "traitors" or "informers", and it would forcibly recruit peasants into its ranks (69).


Depending on one's point of view, this may or may not measure up to the wholesale violence practiced by the state, with its death squads and torture centers, "which were employed against labor unions, the church, and human rights groups" (72).


One of the first human rights NGOs in El Salvador was the Comité No Gubernamental de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Non-Governmental Committee, Cdhes), founded in 1979. Its first director was in fact also a member of a smaller guerrilla group. Its criticisms were  directed entirely at the state. However, Cdhes  and others were not able to have the same success as rights groups enjoyed in the Southern Cone, because El Salvador's justice system was less-developed, less-independent, being rather a punitive tool for the militarized national government - and also because they were compromised ideologically, being attached or seen to be attached to the insurgency (72). In the light of this, the United Nations observer force concluded that pursuing justice through the Salvadoran legal system would never succeed, and therefore threw its weight behind a weak Truth Commission that would not seek to punish the actual culprits (72). The truth commission, in fact, was entirely composed of non-Salvadorans (73).


Abad's article is very solid until the end. When he is describing the courses that events took in the 80s and 90s, nothing there contradicts information available from other reputable public sources. It is easy to accept his analysis of the dynamics of the conflicts in the three countries he studies. In the last section, "Some final considerations on the Colombian case," he qualifies the Colombian guerrilla movement as "more dirty" than the FMLN, as well as having less national and international support, and that the Colombian paramilitaries are "more independent" of the state than the Salvadoran death squads were (75). In the political climate of Colombia today, these are both very safe statements to make, but they are of questionable accuracy. Many NGOs have cited a wealth of incidents at the lowest  and higher levels showing intimate connections between the "paras" and the government; indeed, President Alvaro Uribe Vélez is widely acknowledged to be the founded of Convivir, one of the earliest modern paramilitary groups and a precursor of the famous AUC, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (the paramilitary central now engaged in "demobilization" talks with the state). When more than 80% of the atrocities committed in the conflict are attributed to the national army, one has to wonder if statements such as "our paramilitaries are more independent" and "our guerrillas are dirtier than the Salvadorans'" can be taken seriously.


Abad notes in the beginning of his piece that some Colombian NGOs position themselves as centrists and others are more avowedly leftist (53). In the face of attacks by the government, the centrists have aligned themselves with the leftists to "preserve the (superficial) unity of the human rights movement", to promote "solidarity" (53). According to Abad, this "impedes the emergence of coordination at the national level" and complicates interaction with the political system, deprives them of credibility, and leaves them open to be exploited politically by the extreme right and left (53). He does not, however, provide substantiation for these claims.


In Cárdenas  and Juárez' article,  they review the historical context in which the first privatization efforts took place, generally review Latin American privatizations to date (1994), then the effects of privatization and deregulation on Colombian labor and the movement's  response. Writing in the early 90s when much privatization had yet to be done, this is a descriptive article, reviewing historical events and drawing conclusions without much use of statistical data.


The question which they raise and only partially answer is why Colombia would undertake a privatization program at all. Relative to GDP, the state share of the economy has never been greater than 20% (246). Colombia did not suffer from a large deficit or heavy debt service, which has been one impetus for privatization in Mexico and Argentina (239). In general, Colombia's macroeconomy was healthy, in fact, one of the healthiest in Latin America: in the 1980s it was the only Latin American country which experienced positive GDP growth every year, and it enjoyed remarkable policy contiuity since the 1950s thanks to the National Front accomodation between the two main political parties (238). Cárdenas and Juárez establish that the two main identifiable reasons for Colombian privatization were the modernization of the state apparatus and, to a lessser degree, the improvement of efficiency in the provisioning of public services.


That is to say, both of these factors have limited explanatory power, so that it seems that the bulk of privatization in Colombia appears to be spontaneous and not yet explained by anything. "In Colombia there has been no clear model' of privatization" (246). Nevertheless,


There is broad consensus  ... on the need to internationalize the economy and modernize the state. ... a lack of coverage and poor quality of many public services, poor conception and execution of large investment projects, inefficiency in many state enterprises,  and the corruption and clientelistic use of public resources (238-239).


The specific cases of privatization cited by the authors seem to be only partially concerned with any of these problems.  More in a general sense, thorough overhaul of the economic structure  was seen "as the key to ensuring long-term growth" (249). The project to privatize Telecom, which at the time controlled local, national and international telephony, was thwarted by major union action, including a national strike, "basically isolating the country from the rest of the world" for several days (250). As a result, privatization of telecommunications was tabled and a negotiating body formed, composed of the union, the management of Telecom, and the telecoms ministry,  to jointly formulate plans for privatization.


By contrast with the Telecom case, the salt processing concern Alcalís was privatized in a more cooperative process with the labor unions. Through negotiations, workers accepted reductions in their benefits, and were then able to purchase the company's assets (the Colombian constitution of 1991 provided for the employees of a state company to have the right of first refusal in the event of privatization) (252).


These two cases are somewhat distinctive, because the Colombian labor movement is relatively weak; organization levels peaked in the 1960s at 13.4%, and in 1984 they were at 9.3%, and since then have declined, as more workers have joined the informal sector, the industrial sector has grown slowly, and various procedural restrictions have impeded organization (248). At the time of this article, privatization was proceeding in an ad hoc fashion (252); "programs designed to mitigate labor impact have also shown very little sign of success" (249); and government has "scorned traditionally weak groups ... as well as once-popular actors" (252).


This article's perspective is one that takes privatization as something inevitable, if not something to actively support; it analyzes the past attempts with an eye towards making recommmendations for better strategies for future use.


Labor issues have now emerged as an important factor in Colombia's economic development process, something business leaders and government officials had not counted on. ... Labor unions lack the strength required to become real interlocutors of government over privatization issues. (253)


The authors conclude: "political variables affect economic policy choices" (252). Colombia's state fiscal position, the weak labor movement, and the stability of the two-party system, allowed the state to undertake privatization mostly unhindered, except for specific instances of union opposition.


In recognition of this, the authors assert: "strategies to gain union support for privatizations should be figured out in advance by government planners" (253). The authors point out how labor unions have played the role of public watchdogs to expose corruption in the management of public enterprises (250). As this is due to clientelistic politics, the authors welcome this new tactic by the unions (253), which makes sense, since such practices tend to undermine the workings of a free market, and undermine the efficiency of the state.


Raúl Madrid's article develops the previous author's conclusion. This is a systematic, statistical approach to the question of privatization in social security. He analyzes a few key factors to determine their relevance to whether or not and how much a given country's system was privatized. Writing last year, he has the benefit of analyzing the whole of the nineties, which in fact saw pension reforms in many Latin American countries.


The criteria for choosing countries for the sample was the following: a middle-income country which undertook pension privatization in the 1990s (170). The dependent variable was constructed by


calculating the percentage of all state-mandated pension contributions (from both employees and employers) that members of the private system contribute to the private system, multiplied by the percentage of total members who choose or are obliged to join the private system. (171)


In this way, the index "provides a way to rank mixed, parallel and private systems on a single continuum" (171).


He analyzes several independent variables to see how they affected the degree of privatization: the domestic savings rate, the amount of loans received from the World Bank, the rate of unionization, government expenditures on pensions, the debt of the pension system, and the operating surplus of the pension system, the ruling party's share of seats in the legislature, and the amount of discipline within that party (Madrid 175). All of these variables had a statistically significant positive correlation with the degree of privatization of pensions, except for the party discipline variable, which was generated by another study's analysis of whether electoral laws in a given country were geared to candidates' cultivation of a personal vote, or whether party officials tightly controlled the candidate lists, assuming that such control would promote greater party discipline (174, 176). In addition, the unionization variable showed weak influence, which the author suggests that "the rate of unionization is an inadequate measure of labor strength" (176), and because in some countries with strong labor movements, "close ties between the ruling party and labor mitigated the unions' opposition" to the major privatizations which did occur (176).


This article was a very profitable read, a textbook example of statistical analysis of a problem in social science. Theories which sound good to an analyst need to be empirically verified before they can be really trusted. The author approached the problem broadly, attempting to account for all possible variables that might affect his subject. It analyzed both political and economic factors that bear upon privatization, and so provides a valuable example of how to examine other topics in public policy.


The upshot of my research for this paper has shown me that I won't be able to succeed in my field without a knowledge of statistics. I have a solid conceptual understanding of political science and economics, and a fair amount of general knowledge regarding Latin America, but without an ability to handle statistical analysis, this kind of research work is closed off to me.


Works Cited


Abad, Iván Orozco. "Apuntes para una historia comparada de la justicia transicional." Revista Análisis Político  48 (2003): 52-76.


Cárdenas, Mauricio and Carlos E. Juárez. "Labor Issues in Colombia's Privatization." The Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance 34 (1994): 237-259.


Madrid, Raúl. "The politics and economics of pension privatization in Latin America." Latin American Research Review 37.2 (2002): 159-182.

[1] All Spanish in the original translated by myself.