Are Colombians really that happy?

Photo by: Luza under a CC Licence.

It’s happened again. Despite falling four places, Colombia came in at a barnstorming number six in the New Economics Foundation’s latest Happy Planet Index. Just like the last time this index was released, Colombian intellectuals and observers alike have been scratching their heads. How could it be that in a country with a 40-year-long civil war, 4 million displaced people, and rampant poverty and inequality, everybody could be so ridiculously happy? Surely this was some kind of joke, or at least a conspiracy by the Ministry of Tourism?

Latinos are every bit as materialistic as Europeans, and in some ways even more so

Contrary to popular belief, the idea of the Happy Planet Index (HPI) is not, however, to find out which is the happiest country. The point is to analyze the relationship between happiness and ‘ecological footprint’, something which essentially reflects a country’s level of industrialization. Rich countries, regardless of how ‘happy’ their citizens are, don’t stand a chance on this index, because their level of consumption is so high that several more planets would be required for everyone in the world to live at that level. US and British citizens, according to the Index, actually voice slightly greater ‘life satisfaction’ than Colombians. The difference lies in the fact that Colombians use up considerably fewer resources to achieve a similar level of life satisfaction, and are thereby deemed more ‘efficient’.

Interpreting the index

There are different ways of interpreting the index, but it is unmistakable that nine out of the top ten countries are in Latin America and the Caribbean. The standard explanation for this is that Latin Americans retain strong families, and strong communities, things that are viewed as being crucial for people to be happy. At the same time, whilst poverty levels are high, they are far lower than in Africa, where a far greater percentage of the population lives in extreme poverty. In Colombia, the majority of the population lives in stratas 2 (generally considered to be poor) and 3 (lower middle class). Whilst these people are obviously considerably poorer than the average European, their levels of poverty still do not generally deprive them of basic rights like shelter, healthcare and nutrition.

Moreover, Latin American countries have made great advances in terms of life expectancy, which has risen along with urbanization. So while the level of poverty in Latin America is high, it is not so high as to drastically reduce people’s perceptions of their own lives (compared to Africa). Many rural-urban migrants, for example, may feel that their lives have improved significantly on account of greater coverage of services, even if they find themselves living in areas of the city that middle-class people would consider to be deprived.

The relatively high levels of ‘happiness’ are rooted in culture, rather than any particular policies or even economic structures

One of the claims made by the New Economics Foundation is that Latin America’s relatively high life expectation is related to its people being less materialistic. Has the person who made this comment ever been to the continent? In my own experience, Latinos are every bit as materialistic as Europeans, and in some ways even more so. If we consider, for example, the ever-increasing popularity of cosmetic surgery in countries such as Colombia and Venezuela, or the general way in which people’s physical appearance is prioritized, it seems to me that many Latinos are certainly materialistic. The tendency to ostentatiously spend money seems high, as is the desire to make lifestyle choices which overtly demonstrate social advancement (a good example is the drugs-related “new rich” known as traquetos in Colombia). Moreover, if Latinos were simply happy to be poor, how could we explain the high levels of emigration to developed countries (prior to the economic crisis)? To add a typically Colombian tale, the pyramid/money laundering crisis that exploded last November suggests that broad swathes of Colombians do want to live the good life, and are prepared to take considerable risks to achieve it.

What about our rights?

One of the worrying things about the HPI is the things which it doesn’t take into account. The extent to which things like human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, or just about any other rights don’t make it onto the HDI’s radar can be summed up by one bewildering reality: Saudi Arabia comes in at number 13. With respect to Latin America, what on earth happened to equality? Anyone looking at the HPI’s Top 10 could not fail to conclude that, contrary to the claims made by social-democratic pundits and intellectuals in the developed world, inequality really doesn’t seem to impact much on people’s happiness at all. On the other hand, and perhaps to the relief of moderate Leftists across the world, Costa Rica, with its extensive welfare state and lower levels of inequality, came in at number 1. Yet the table doesn’t really tell us whether Latin Americans genuinely don’t care about the inequality that persists in their societies, or whether, as I suspect, they manage to enjoy life in spite of that inequality (and would, perhaps, be even happier if their economies were more like Costa Rica’s). Beyond that, did anyone mention violence? Latin America repeatedly shows levels of violence, particularly youth violence, that far surpass the rest of the world. It’s hard to deal with the possibility that a society where a considerable percentage of young people find themselves involved in violence – and a considerable proportion of other people are victims of it – can possibly be the same romantic place where people look after each other and everyone talks to their neighbours.

Maybe it’s just the case that Colombians are relatively free of the hand-wringing, self-important, ‘I had a really deep chat with my shrink last week’ angst that makes Europeans constantly believe they are less happy than they should be

Clearly, the relatively high levels of ‘happiness’ are rooted in culture, rather than any particular policies or even economic structures. Few would deny that Latin Americans know how to enjoy themselves, even when times are bad. It could also be the case that Latin Americans, having lived through numerous social and economic crises, are far better at coping with things when life gets tough. It might also be worth asking, though, whether Latinos are also more culturally conditioned to declare themselves as happy people relative to other cultures, and whether this cultural conditioning is really the same thing as ‘happiness’. On the other hand, maybe it’s just the case that Colombians are relatively free of the hand-wringing, self-important, ‘I had a really deep chat with my shrink last week’ angst that makes Europeans constantly believe they are less happy than they should be.

Treat with caution!

Clearly, the Happy Planet Index has to be treated with caution. It achieves its primary function, which is to demonstrate that people actually can live long, happy lives without tearing up the planet. But whether or not that means that Europeans or Americans could genuinely reduce their levels of consumption without becoming miserable is, I fear, rather doubtful: It is one thing being happy with less, but it is quite another make do with less than what one is accustomed to. In terms of other policy implications, the HPI is not particularly helpful to Latin America: it implies that everything is going swimmingly when it clearly isn’t, and I’m not sure how meaningful it is to Colombia. Still, we could speculate that the lesson is for such countries to adopt the Costa Rican model, entailing a high level of social expenditure and environmental protection, thereby building on culturally inspired ‘happiness’ with real and lasting improvements in society. In the meantime, Colombians should celebrate the aspects of their culture which allow them to enjoy life even when times are bad. By no means, however, should it be interpreted as ‘proof’ that negative phenomena, like inequality, or violence, don’t really matter.

Rachel Godfrey Wood has a Masters in Globalization and Latin American Development, and has been living in Colombia for the past year, where she helps in a foundation for demobilized child soldiers. She also writes on her own blog at, and is about to start an internship with the International Institute for the Environment and Development.

A remarkable failure

Back in 1979, Colombia’s former President Alberto Lleras Camargo made a remarkably accurate prediction: that the Colombians of the future would have their reputations stained by war and drugs, and that this would largely be the fault of zealotry on the part of US officials bent on enforcing prohibition on the world. Some 30 years later, a growing consensus exists that Lleras was right: drug prohibition has been a catastrophe, one borne disproportionately by Latin American countries.

The issue has been raised in a recent report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which concluded that the war on illicit substances has failed in its stated objective of reducing the cultivation, commercialization and consumption of drugs, whilst creating a highly lucrative illegal industry based on violence, which has decimated local societies.

A deadly legacy

Colombia has been particularly damaged by drug prohibition. Already struggling with a legacy of violence and inequality, a narrow-based democracy and armed communist insurgent groups, since the introduction of prohibition in the 1970s it has seen the type of violence and distortions that could only exist in a world where drugs such as marijuana, opium and cocaine are aggressively prohibited. Prohibition invited new armed actors to enter the fray, and provided the impetus for ageing ones to gain an influence far beyond what they could otherwise have expected.

If the prohibition-related violence wrought on Latin American societies was killing North Americans or Europeans, cocaine and marijuana would have been legalized years ago

During the 1980s, drugs-related violence swelled to an unprecedented level. The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) was transformed from a relatively weak, ideologically committed leftist insurgent group into a multi-million dollar, ideologically compromised force, fully prepared to terrorize the local population. Rightist forces were then established by the political and business class as a response to the leftists, and used the revenue from drug trafficking to spread fear across the Colombian countryside. Under the watch of the drugs cartels, Colombia’s cities became gory battlefields, with drugs-related assassinations and kidnappings. In the 1990s, the cartels were broken up by significant state efforts, leading some to think that Colombia had turned a corner. Unfortunately, the FARC and the right-wing AUC (United Self-Defence Units of Colombia) paramilitaries took advantage of the gaps left in the market, increasing their numbers to 18,000 and 16,000 respectively by the turn of the millennium.

Many Colombians have argued that the effect of drugs-related ‘ghost economies’ has not been entirely negative. Particularly in the early years, farmers benefited considerably from growing marijuana. Some economists go so far as to say that the constant inflow of drug money in the 1980s was the primary reason the country never suffered from the debt crisis that engulfed the rest of the continent. Moreover, Colombia’s high economic growth rate prior to the outbreak of the current international financial crisis appears to suggest that drug economies are not, in themselves, serious obstacles to economic progress.

Such claims, though, overlook the extent to which ghost economies provide a high incentive for corrupt practices and encourage clientelistic political structures (both legal and extralegal) which are contrary to democratic development. The drug economy has concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, encouraging a culture of ‘easy money’ and/or complex patronage systems designed to consolidate drug traffickers’ power. Such rapid progress has created a nouveau riche class known as traquetos, renowned for their extravagant spending and conspicuous consumption. This culture sends out the message that money can be attained extremely quickly and relatively easily via drugs.

Plan Colombia

In 1998 the Colombian President Andres Pastrana and US President Bill Clinton agreed a new anti-drug strategy. Plan Colombia represents by far the most intensive example of enforcing drug prohibition. It has received over $6 billion in 10 years, but a 2008 UN study revealed a 27 per cent increase in land used for cocaine production, despite the reported aerial spraying of 153,000 hectares. President Alvaro Uribe might point out that cocaine production still covers a third less of the national territory than it did when he came to power in 2002, and that actual cocaine production has not risen significantly, since coca plantings have been reduced in high-yielding regions like Meta and Guaviare. However, a broader analysis of statistics tells a different story. Cocaine production spiked between 1999 and 2001, but this is largely explained by the FARC’s use of the demilitarized zone temporarily ceded to them to freely cultivate the coca plant. While the invasion of this area and the weakening of the FARC command structure reduced cultivation in the short term, Plan Colombia has not been able to drive cultivation figures down to the levels of the 1990s. Instead, Colombia has retained its share of 60 per cent of the world’s cocaine production, and 90 per cent of the US market.

The war on drugs, as Colombian economist Eduardo Sarmiento points out, fails to respond to two basic realities of the trade: production is highly elastic (eradication in one area prompts cultivation in others) whereas demand is inelastic (higher prices caused by successful prohibition do not reduce demand). This means that any advances are short term, and producers and traffickers will react to any repressive measures with speed and imagination. Adam Isaacson of the US Center for International Policy claims that what the State Department refers to as ‘attempted coca production’ (defined as eradicated plus un-eradicated coca) has actually doubled since 2000, suggesting a relentless effort on the part of small farmers and drug traffickers to keep cultivating regardless of impediments or pricing structure. Both aerial and manual eradication only seem to cause the well-known ‘balloon effect’, whereby reduced production in one area is simply pushed into others.

Beyond simply failing, eradication campaigns have brought on a human rights blight. For all the government talk about ‘alternative development’ programmes, the net effect of Plan Colombia has been to displace thousands of people from their land into even more marginal zones. Aerial eradication does not just destroy coca, it destroys subsistence crops and causes significant environmental damage. Government attempts to convince farmers to grow other crops are doomed to failure while coca remains so profitable, and the only remotely successful substitute programmes have been confined to small-scale experiments.

Supporters point out that Plan Colombia has drastically improved the security of the country’s citizens. Cities like Medellin and Bogotá have seen their crime rates plummet, albeit due to improved local governance rather than Plan Colombia, and the FARC is a shadow of its former self.

But the waging of war on a multifaceted, dynamic and flexible industry is an entirely different proposition to focusing on a particular armed group. The drug trade does not depend on any particular actor, and the weakening of the FARC in 2009 will not damage the drug trade any more than did the defeat of the cartels in the early 1990s. Even if we accept the government thesis that the FARC is in terminal decline, there will still be impoverished farmers willing to grow coca, and there will always be opportunistic criminals (political or apolitical) willing to traffic it.

Look beyond the surface, and it is clear that the prohibition of drugs places a ceiling on the country’s progress and continues to distort its society. Thanks largely to drug revenue, supposedly demobilized paramilitaries are rapidly reforming as Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles), and currently operate in 246 of the country’s 1,100 municipalities. Both the Aguilas and the drug-trafficking groups understand that by maintaining a decentralized structure with no clear leaders and a low profile, they can control the drug trade. Beyond this, Colombia’s internal consumption of all drugs is rising, and drug-related delinquency continues to blight its cities.

Conspiracy theories

Some on the Left, such as Noam Chomsky, have argued that the discrepancy between the FARC’s diminution and the failure to eradicate drugs is not coincidental. According to this theory, prohibition was never really the objective, but rather a cover for the US’s more ambitious campaign to secure the region’s resources and repress voices for social change. This theory overestimates the importance of Colombia’s resources, however, and underestimates the fanaticism of drug-war warriors, be they in the White House or Casa Nariño. Using prohibition as a cover to fight the FARC would be a highly irrational proposition, given that the group benefits significantly from the illegality of drugs. If Plan Colombia is to be understood in the context of the US’s geopolitical project to exert control over the entire region, then it has been a remarkable failure. Since the beginning of Plan Colombia, Washington’s influence in the region has dwindled to the extent that Colombia is one of its few allies in Latin America.

The Colombian Government’s response to these failures has been to launch a ‘shared responsibility’ campaign in Western Europe and the US, which attempts to wake up consumers’ consciences to the damage caused by their demand for cocaine. However, the Colombian Government is not going to convince many people to give up cocaine on ethical principles while it remains patently obvious that the worst effects of the trade are indirect, and caused by its prohibition. Recently Colombia’s Vice-President toured Europe, proclaiming that for every gram of cocaine consumed, four square metres of rainforest are destroyed. It is unlikely, however, that this will wash: like most of the other problems associated with drugs, environmental destruction is primarily caused by prohibition, as coca is only grown in the rainforest because it is eradicated elsewhere. Moreover, this argument comes from a Government which has no qualms about promoting environmentally damaging policies, from biofuel cultivation to the very aerial spraying used to kill the coca plant.


Prohibition has failed in Colombia, just as it has failed in the rest of the world. While the country has come a long way in reducing its levels of violence, its progress will always be limited as long as prohibition remains the international paradigm. Meanwhile, the inherent violence of prohibition continues to spread across the continent. And all this because governments in developed countries have so little faith in their own societies that they can’t bear the thought of accepting the reality of drug consumption.

Although it is rarely stated, the commitment of the developed world to the prohibition of cocaine and other drugs, and the enforcement of this policy via schemes like Plan Colombia, imply a fundamental injustice: that the corruption, violence and impunity endured by drug-producing and intermediary countries in the developing world are a price worth paying to keep rich societies safe. If the prohibition-related violence wrought on Latin American societies were killing North Americans or Europeans, cocaine and marijuana would have been legalized years ago. UN drug czar Antonio Maria Acosta claims that legalization would be an ‘emotional’ reaction. He is wrong. As the Economist has claimed, legalization would not be a panacea and would be fraught with problems, but it would still be the most moral, rational response to the blind narrow-mindedness of prohibition. The debate should not be whether or not to legalize drugs: rather, it should focus on the best way to do so.

Rachel Godfrey Wood is a research fellow at COHA, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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