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Another scandal gets dodged

Observations on Colombia

In rural Colombia, your dead body can earn somebody a significant cash bonus – paid for indirectly by the US taxpayer.

For years, Colombia has been a recipient of large amounts of US military aid and is one of Washington’s last close allies in South America. Its government has received billions of dollars to fight drug production and the civil war with the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). As an incentive, security forces were offered a financial reward for each guerrilla killed in combat. Soldiers have since killed hundreds of civilians, dressed up the corpses in Farc military attire, and claimed cash bonuses.

The stories of falsos positivos, or “false positives”, have been in the open for more than a year, but the official position of the right-wing president, Álvaro Uribe, has been that the slayings were isolated incidents perpetrated by a few bad apples. However, the preliminary report from Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, concludes that the killings “were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military”. He also takes issue with the term falsos positivos.

He prefers “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit”.

Such harsh words from the UN are a difficult blow to the Uribe government, which nevertheless maintains that many of the dead were indeed guerrillas. But Alston points to evidence of “victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots”. There is widespread harassment of surviving relatives and those who actively pursue the cases.

President Uribe has managed to avoid much of the political fallout over false positives and remains popular in Colombia for making the cities safer and taking back much of the country’s roads from the Farc. “Someone else is blamed and Uribe comes up the winner yet again,” says Sara, a professor of law in Bogotá who chose not to use her full name. This time, some top military officials were dismissed – although one was then made an ambassador.

The false positives are far from the only example of a scandal well dodged by Uribe. His security forces were recently caught wiretapping the head of Human Rights Watch. Large numbers of his party are under investigation for links to right-wing paramilitary death squads that terrorise civilians. Colombia consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for trade unionists and journalists.

The government often supports the notion that the Farc has an “intellectual bloc” and that those who criticise the government are doing the work of the rebels. Last year Uribe’s administration claimed that a huge demonstration protesting against state crimes was Farc-run. Soon after, four protest organisers were assassinated.

Through all this, Uribe has maintained the support of the Colombian population and the White House, but this year David Miliband quietly announced an end to British military aid to Colombia, citing human rights concerns, though counter-narcotics assistance continues. Yet it remains unclear how close Uribe will be to Obama. He opposed a trade deal due to concerns over assassinations of union leaders. But with South America moving to the left and US interests increasingly isolated there, Colombia is not likely to lose its status as privileged friend any time soon.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.