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People Power in Bolivia Hits the Internet

In our last post on Bolivia, we argued that a broad coalition, the type of movement with the potential to create real institutional change, could have formed in Bolivia. One of our pieces of evidence was that the grassroots politics which helped Evo Morales and his movement MAS to come to power could not easily be controlled — not even by Morales himself. As a result, grassroots movements may have started not only wrestling power from the old elites but also disciplining MAS. We gave the example of the campaign to “Anulo su Voto” last year, where people cast empty ballots to protest the MAS’s domination of the appointment of candidates to different judicial bodies.

Here is some subversive evidence that the campaign continues (thanks to Pablo Selaya for pointing this out). Have a look at the National Electoral Office’s website.


On the web page are listed the different judicial bodies, for example the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunial. Also on the web page is an icon “Méritos” which you are supposed to be able to click and find out the merits of the different candidates but when you do so you are directed to the empty web page:


This roughly translates as “it’s not right” or perhaps “it’s not just”. So the protest continues…


Extractive Institutions Breed Inequality: A Colombian Example

In Why Nations Fail we discuss how Colombia today has extractive institutions. Colombia is not North Korea or Zimbabwe, but the concept of extractive institutions is useful precisely because it clarifies that even though the details of institutional arrangements dominated by elites — and their severity — vary across countries, they share common characteristics. In the book we focus on the inability or disinterest of the Colombian state to control large parts of the country. Instead, the state delegates this to local elites and paramilitary groups.

But how does this all influence economic outcomes, for example, wages and inequality?

Here’s an example of how. On August 21, 2009, unidentified persons arrived at the home of Gustavo Gómez, an employee at Nestlé-Comestibles la Rosa S.A. and a member of the Sinaltrainal trade union. They knocked on his door, and when he opened it they fired 10 shots at him. He died a few hours later. At the time of his murder, Sinaltrainal had just presented a set of demands to the company, Nestlé Purina PetCare de Colombia S.A.

The murder of Gustavo Gómez is unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg as is illustrated by a report just published by the International Trade Union Confederation.

The report begins:

Colombia is once again the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Of the 76 people murdered for their trade union activities, not counting the workers killed during the Arab Spring, 29 lost their lives in Colombia.

There might be disagreement on whether or not the US labor movement is protecting over-paid workers as we discussed here, but most people recognize the right of workers to organize, protect their interests and prevent employer abuse. But not in Colombia. And in such an environment, it should be no surprise that workers are not able to protect their rights and bargain effectively, and this tends to reduce wages and increase inequality.


Who supports the US penal system?

Gabriel Kreindler sent this comment about our post on the US penal system:

I wanted to share an article that may be related to your post on the US penal system. It speaks of Louisiana’s for-profit local prisons as a contributing factor for extremely high incarceration rates in that state. Local sheriffs make a profit from local prisons, so it’s in their interest that sentences stay harsh and prison populations very high.



http://www.nytimes.com/2012/ 05/26/opinion/blow- plantations-prisons-and- profits.html?ref=global-home#

It seems - on the face of it - a continuation of the perverted prison institutions that you described in your post on Mississippi.

This is a very important point we did not have space to get into in our post on the US penal system. Indeed it appears to be the case that many powerful constituencies profit from high prison populations, and this includes local law enforcement and of course, firms operating for-profit prisons and jails. It is plausible that reforming the penal system is particularly difficult because of these constituencies. This seems to be a very interesting and fairly unchartered research area.

Another comment on this post came from Albert Nock, who wrote:

You used that phrase [a uniquely American failure] in your post “Our penal system”. But you didn’t provide much discussion of other polities. Julius Uzoaba has in “A Comparative Study of the Incarceration Rates of Racial Minorities in Four Common Law Countries of Canada, US, England and Wales, and Australia”. Here are the last two sentences from the abstract:

“Currently in Canada, the Natives constitute about 3% of the general population but 17% of prisoners in the federal system. In Australia, the Natives currently make up 2% of the population but 20% of all prisoners. African Americans currently make up 13% of the US population and a staggering 46% of the sentenced prisoners. In England and Wales (1999/2000), Blacks comprised only 2% of the general population but 10.2% of the prison population.”

What makes the U.S. unique is the overall incarceration rate, rather than the overrepresentation of a minority population within the incarcerated population. Similarly, if you look at the former Confederate/Jim Crow states in the U.S, the ratio of the black to white incarceration rate is often even lower than in the north. Again the difference is a more generally punitive judicial system.

This is also right in an important sense: the United States is unusual not only in terms of locking up (and having under probation) a huge proportion of its African-American population but also in the sheer incarceration rate. If the United States had the same incarceration rate as Germany or Sweden, even the much higher likelihood of African Americans to end up in jail would not have created the same deep problems as we have today.

Though there are probably many reasons why the United States locks up so many people, one reason stands out: the war on drugs.

The political economy of the war on drugs is another major factor that has to be part of the equation (and one that we did not also have space to get into in our previous post). The story of ballooning incarceration rates in the United States is closely linked with the war on drugs, and one constituency that seems to benefit from this war is again the police force and the police unions. In fact, some have argued that other law enforcement agencies, in particular the CIA, benefit directly from the war on drugs (see in particular Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion).

Once again, it would be very interesting to investigate how much resistance scaling back the so-called war would generate from the police.

But in discussing all this, it is also worth remembering that the United States is a democracy, and even with all this resistance to reform, reform would happen if there was an overwhelming majority supporting it. Nevertheless at a time when Latin American governments are wishing to decriminalize drugs, there seems to be no appetite for reform in the United States (see, for example, this excellent article in the New York Review of Books). An interesting paper by Camilo Garcia shows how Prohibition in the first half of the 20th century was reversed when sufficiently many people started thinking that rather than reducing it, Prohibition was fueling crime.

And that’s another interesting issue to consider: the war on drugs is still not widely viewed as an utter failure. Why not?


Why wasn't Charles Taylor tried for the crimes he committed in Liberia? Part II

In our last post we wondered why Charles Taylor was not tried for his war crimes in Liberia. To answer this question, we first need to look at the history of Liberia.

The modern nation of Liberia was born in 1820 by the American Colonization Society (ACS) as a home for freed and repatriated African slaves. In 1847 Liberia became independent of the ACS and the year 1877 saw the emergence of the True Whig Party (TWP) which would dominate politics until the coup of Samuel Doe in 1980. The TWP party was the political vehicle for the Americo-Liberians, the decedents of the freed slaves brought back to Africa by the ACS. In the 1960s the Americo-Liberians comprised about 3-5% of the population but completely dominated all of Liberia’s institutions.

The Americo-Liberians set themselves up as the elite ruling over — and exploiting — the indigenous Africans. They structured economic institutions to extract rents from the rest of society and political institutions to guarantee their monopoly of power. These economic institutions included slavery as late as the 1920s; even in the 1960s 1/4 of the labor force was coerced. In most economies, wage payments account for about 2/3 of national income. In Liberia, as a result of the severe repression of labor, in 1950, wage payments were less than 20% of national income, and in 1960, only about 27%.

As is the norm with extractive elites, the Americo-Liberian elite not only monopolized economic benefits but also political power in the society. For fear of losing political power, it actively blocked development in many ways.

In 1961 a team of social scientists comprising of Robert Clower, George Dalton, Mitchell Harwitz and Alan Walters was sent off by the USAID to construct the first national accounts in Liberia. Though they went off armed with standard models of underdevelopment, such as the ‘Big Push’ thesis we discussed here, they soon recognized that standard models of underdevelopment could not accurately capture Liberia’s problems. Eventually they wrote a seminal book on Liberian underdevelopment Growth without Development. The book’s main arguments were summarized by Dalton in a paper in the Journal of Economic History. Dalton observed (p. 581):

The economic backwardness of Liberia is not attributable to the lack of resources or to domination by foreign financial or political interests. The underlying difficulty is rather that the traditional Americo-Liberian rulers, who fear losing political control to the tribal people, have not allowed those changes to take place which are necessary to develop the national society and economy.

The nature of the elite is brought out by the next figure (taken from Growth without Development) which shows how the country was run in 1960 by the family of Presidency of William V.S. Tubman who ruled from 1944 to 1971. President Tubman’s brother was the Ambassador to the USA. His brother’s brother in law was Ambassador to Germany. President Tubman’s father was the President of the General Confederation of Labor, the main association of labor unions and his grandfather was the Vice-President of Liberia. His granduncle was the Senator of Monsanto County, which is the county where the capital Monrovia is. Another granduncle was the secretary of commerce, whose step brother was the president of the central bank. It was a family business embedded within the big family of the Americo-Liberians.


No wonder that Dalton also wrote of Liberian politics (p. 581):

To understand Liberian politics, knowledge of kinship connections is more useful than knowledge of the Liberian constitution.

The True Whig Party and along with it the dominance of the Americo-Liberians were thrown out of power in 1980 by a coup led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. Doe was a Krahn from the interior, not an Americo-Liberian. (And there was a reason that the coup had to be led by a Master Sergeant: senior officers were Americo-Liberians).

Doe’s coup was in a sense a rebellion of the exploited indigenous peoples of Liberia. But in a typical pattern of the Iron Law of Oligarchy, Doe’s regime was as extractive and vicious as the one it replaced. Doe, for example, duly executed most of the cabinet including President Tolbert.

One of the members of the cabinet who escaped was the Minister of Finance, a Harvard trained economist called Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Johnson Sirleaf was not an Americo-Liberian by ancestry but more because of her father’s adoption by an Americo-Liberian family. After the Doe coup, Johnson Sirleaf went into exile.

In 1989 when a civil war broke out with the invasion of the country by Charles Taylor, like most of the Americo-Liberian elite, she backed and supported Charles Taylor, going so far as raising money for him. Taylor, himself an Americo-Liberian, carried with him the hopes of many Americo-Liberians that he would manage to turn the tide and put them back in charge. He succeeded.

Last year Johnson Sirleaf ran for re-election against Winston Tubman, nephew of William Tubman. Liberian politics is all back in the Americo-Liberian family.

When the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its report about the civil war in June, Johnson Sirleaf was included in a list of 50 names of people that should be “specifically barred from holding public offices; elected or appointed for a period of thirty (30) years” for “being associated with former warring factions.” This ban was overturned by the Liberian Supreme Court.

So why wasn’t Charles Taylor brought to justice for his crimes in Liberia? The most plausible explanation seems that those in power, including above all Johnson Sirleaf, are afraid of the revelations that this would bring out — revelations both about their complicity in Liberia’s civil wars and war crimes and about how the Americo-Liberian elites are still ruling the country as they have done over almost the last two hundred years.



Why wasn't Charles Taylor tried for the crimes he committed in Liberia?

The Special Court for Sierra Leone found the former Liberian President Charles Taylor guilty of “aiding and abetting” war crimes during Sierra Leone’s long civil war. Last week Charles Taylor was finally sentenced to 50 years in prison, which he will serve in the UK. There were atrocious crimes during the civil war in Sierra Leone (see our blog post here), and Charles Taylor did quite a bit more than “aiding and abetting” the Revolutionary United Front rebels under the leadership of Foday Sankoh; he armed Sankoh and organized the rebellion with the aim of taking control of, or at least destabilizing, Sierra Leone. There should be no doubt that he is guilty of war crimes in Sierra Leone.

But here is the thing: Charles Taylor also committed war crimes in Liberia. He was a ruthless warlord. He not only used child soldiers extensively, but he encouraged them to commit atrocities, even against their own parents. He won an election in Liberia in 1997, but this was at best an election under the shadow of violence. Charles Taylor campaigned with the slogan: “he killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him,” making a banner out of his atrocities, and carrying the implicit threat of further violence if he did not win. His destructive behavior continued once in power. He looted Liberia’s resources and gutted the state.

So it would be natural to expect him to be tried for war crimes in Liberia before being tried for “aiding and abetting” Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone. But the Liberian government had no interest in bringing charges against Taylor for what he did in Liberia.

Isn’t that strange? Doesn’t Liberia have a democratically elected Nobel Peace Prize winning president in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf? Why wouldn’t she and the Liberian government go after Charles Taylor and bring some degree of justice to his numerous victims in Liberia?

It turns out there’s a good — or actually bad —reason for this, and it’s related not only the complicity of Liberian elites currently running the country in Charles Taylor’s crimes but also to the root causes of Liberia’s underdevelopment as we explain in our next post.