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Why Colombia can’t build the infrastructure it needs

Presidential candidates are promising economic development, but the nation’s laws make that hard to fulfill

A girl holds a poster for presidential candidate Gustavo Petro during a rally in Zipaquirá, Colombia, last month. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, is competing to become Colombia’s first leftist president on June 19. Petro won 40 percent of the votes cast in the first round and had been leading in the polls. But a last-minute surge pushed Rodolfo Hernández, an anti-establishment outsider who has united conservative forces, into the second round. Fears of what a left-wing victory could do to the economy — and in particular, fears that the government would seize companies, pensions and private property — continue to limit Petro’s support.

In a televised debate, right-wing challengers compared Petro to socialist leaders who have brought economic ruin to neighboring Venezuela. Petro has tried to reassure Colombians that he has no such intentions. On April 18, he made a legal commitment “not to expropriate anything, from anyone” — a public pledge that’s similar to ones he made when running in 2018.

But Colombia’s economic growth may depend on the ability to take at least some private property in order to build infrastructure. While such property seizures can scare investors and property owners, my research finds that Colombia’s particularly strong private-property protections have slowed infrastructure construction needed for the country’s economic development.

What are ‘expropriations’?

One of the oldest powers of any government is to take property for such public purposes as roads, subways and social housing. In the United States, this power is known as eminent domain, but it’s usually called a “forced sale” or “expropriation” elsewhere. Legal systems differ in how much owners receive in compensation and who determines a fair value. When governments try to redistribute land, they rely on the same legal provisions, although with equality as the goal rather than construction.

When Colombia was writing its 1991 constitution, participants on the left — spearheaded by the former guerrilla group M-19, which Petro was involved in — proposed including expedited procedures that would allow the government to acquire land for public projects, with compensation. But participants on the right feared that such a provision would be used to redistribute land and could scare off international investors. In the end, the assembly writing the constitution created strong protections for private property and required a judge to sign off on any land sales for public purposes.

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Strong property rights made it challenging to build infrastructure

Colombia has some of the worst transportation infrastructure in Latin America. While past presidents have promised to fix the problem, they’ve made little progress. My research finds that two-thirds of highway projects in Colombia stalled because of problems getting land. Knowing that a judge would have to authorize any sale, large landowners often refused to sell, calculating that they could get bigger payouts than the government offered by waiting for court rulings. These holdouts repeatedly blocked construction.

A project to expand the Valle del Cauca highway is the most famous example. The government needed to expropriate a roadside stop known as the Parador de Buga to widen the road. The owners refused to sell at the appraised price of $700,000. Construction stalled. A local judge then assessed the stop to be worth $5 million. Leaked audio tapes revealed that the property owners bribed the judge to inflate their payout and thought the government wouldn’t bother appealing, given the need to get construction moving. It took 10 years for the Constitutional Court to reverse the decision and for construction on the highway to continue.

Frustrated by these delays, many politicians and business organizations promoted a 2013 infrastructure law that allows construction to continue while court disputes are resolved. However, landless and minority groups still could use property laws in their favor.

Squatters built shacks in the middle of infrastructure projects — like the placement of electricity lines — to get generous compensation. Black and Indigenous communities used their right to be consulted about projects that affect their land to secure local public goods and redress long-standing grievances. In an interview I did with the director of a highway project in 2018, the person said, “You just ask, what costs more: to delay the project or agree to everything a community asks?” Government agencies and private firms usually try to pay off communities. Strong property rights can drive up the costs or lead to the cancellation of projects altogether.

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What the election might mean for badly needed infrastructure in Colombia

If Petro becomes Colombia’s first left-wing president, he will face a choice. If he maintains his promise never to expropriate, he probably will calm the fears of international investors and centrist voters. He also will avoid conflicts with marginalized groups that support his campaign. While rural and minority areas often need infrastructure the most, they also end up clashing with the government over projects to address local needs and decades of neglect.

Or Petro could choose to show how the left can build infrastructure. As mayor of Bogotá, Petro promised an underground metro. He had plans in place to buy the land for the metro line, but planning authorities didn’t approve the project before he left office. Petro has proposed to stop new oil exploration and transition to a green economy. But without the tool of taking land, a Petro administration may be unable to build roads, hospitals and renewable energy projects, especially in Colombia’s underdeveloped rural areas.

Colombia’s anti-expropriation sentiment could similarly hinder Petro’s opponent, Hernández, who has pushed his image as a builder and an outsider who can offer change. Supporters call him “Engineer Rodolfo.” He made his money building housing for the poor in his home city of Bucaramanga. But when Hernández ran for mayor in 2015, he promised to build 20,000 housing units for the poor. Although he won office, none got built. Hernández has said he would build thousands of modern houses in the countryside if elected to the country’s presidency. Faced with the tricky process of getting land and negotiating with communities, his engineering plans could produce more of the same, unbuilt infrastructure in Colombia.

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Alisha C. Holland (@ProfTortuga) is an associate professor of government at Harvard University and author of “Forbearance as Redistribution: The Politics of Informal Welfare in Latin America” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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