Oli’s big topic: Consequences schmonsequences

By Oli Pritchard February 6, 2020

After the resignation of the defence minister last year, there have been immediate consequences. Is this is a one-off, or a promising sign for the future?

Are people rewarded or reprimanded for jumping to the front of the queu? Are there consequences?
Are people rewarded or reprimanded for jumping to the front of the queu? Photo: Unsplash

One of the stories dominating the news headlines last year was the appalling affair in Caquetá, where eight minors were killed by the military in a bombardment of a dissident FARC camp. Enough has been written about the events themselves, but what interests me is the political fallout. Within a couple of days of the incident becoming front-page news, Defence Minister Guillermo Botero resigned, the right decision, as it was a horrific overreach by forces under his control.

Political figures in Colombia often cling on to power doggedly, like scarab beetles ensconced in shit, but in this case the resignation came fast. It seems unlikely that it would be on moral principle, given that Botero appears to have the moral fibre of a paper cup. In contrast, Nestor Humberto Martínez only resigned after months of scandal and the threat of exposure by the Supreme Court. In the rest of Latin America, Odebrecht led to resignations and protest. In Colombia, almost nothing.

One might expect political figures to avoid consequences in any country – the congenital liar Boris Johnson or the scandal-ridden Donald Trump being but two examples. But it’s not only politicians. A lecturer at the Universidad Nacional was accused of sexual harassment last year. The consequence? Promotion. That’s in the liberal heart of the Colombian intelligentsia. If even an institution like that fails to act, what deterrents are there for anyone?

Consequences in Colombia follow a strange logic. They seem to simply not apply to some people, who act with an impunity that beggars belief, and not to others. Of course, this happens in other countries too – as a cyclist I can reel off dozens of cases all over the world where cyclists and pedestrians have been killed by motorists who simply stroll away with a slap on the wrist (if that). Residing here, though, I see the cases in Colombia day in and day out.

Related: Previous columns from our house columnist.

The consequences, however, of exercising your democratic right to protest can be swift, violent and brutal. Every week, without fail, we see the consequences that exist for those social leaders that operate in zones where the state exercises at best minimal control. In those parts of the country, speaking out often means being silenced for good. The notion of justice thus seems wildly unfair, with neither moral nor legal consequences, rather simply brutishness.

In daily life, many actions seem to exist without any consequences. Breaking the law or not following rules becomes so routine that the rules themselves become pointless. Near my house is a police station and cars routinely flout the law in front of it, creating traffic havoc and dangerous situations. All this takes place about ten yards from a bunch of coppers. In our local parks, some people don’t bother picking up their dog’s shit because they know that nothing will happen if they don’t. I mean, there are consequences for children who can’t use the park, for people that step in shit, and for people that don’t like looking at a green space bespeckled with it. But critically, no consequences for those flouting common decency.

A failing student can simply submit extra work, bribe the teacher or exert pressure on the school to avoid those embarrassing grades. This persists up to university. At any rate, even if there’s no bending of the rules, there are always opportunities to retake levels, to sit exams a second, third, fourth time. When a person barges to the front of the queue, it often brings dividends rather than rebukes.

Over time, all of this leads to a situation where people forget the reasons not to do things and act purely according to their own base self-interest. From this stems a lot of corruption. After all, while people should (and many do) act on moral grounds, there are plenty of people who do the right thing simply to avoid castigation.

Hopefully, the case of Botero is a marker that the political landscape at least is changing. Let’s hope that Mayor Claudia López will make sure that those accused of corruption in the private sector also face real consequences for their actions. After all, the list of people accused of or linked to corruption that turn up to high-society events is extensive. If there continues to be no real consequence for doing the wrong thing, when will that stop?