I got some interesting facts.
On May 30 of this year (2018), Colombia signed the agreement of accession to the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The only Latinamerican countries in the OECD are Chile and Mexico, but after ratifying the accession, Colombia will become full member of the organization as well.
I’ve seen the OECD described as the club of wealthy countries. Well, not for much longer. I say this not because I think Colombia lacks wealth. I say this because I think, in fact, I know, most Colombians lack wealth.
Not long ago, the rankings of inequality were suggesting that Colombia was among the most unequal countries in the world. In 2011, the country was only behind Haiti and Angola. This is dismal. But our leaders say they are doing great progress lifting people out of poverty: more recent rankings say we are not the third but rather the eight most unequal country in the world. What a relief. C’mmon. Give me a break.
According to the United States Development Agency, just 0.4% of the population owns 62% of the country’s best land. The Oxfam says that 80% of land in Colombia is in the hands of just 14% of owners and that this concentration has actually increased over the last 50+ years. Despite relatively fast economic growth in the last years, approximately 45% of Colombians live under the poverty line. Most of them are rural dwellers. No wonder leftist guerilla movements popped up like mushrooms just about everywhere and haven’t gone away in the last 50 years.
That’s on the side of inequality. The story gets even grimmer when we consider social mobility. Today, I ran into a chart from the OECD of income mobility across generations. I’ll include it to the end of this post for you to see, but basically, the chart ranks countries based on how many generations it takes for children from low-income families to reach the average income in their country. Not surprisingly, the most mobile societies are in the Nordic countries: in Denmark it takes two generations for poor families to reach average income levels, in Norway, Finland, and Sweden, it takes 3. Most other countries in the list follow with 4, 5, and 6 generations. The OECD average is 4.5.
Towards the bottom of the list, are Hungary, China, and India, with 7 generations. Then, Brazil and South Africa, which are notorious in the international platform for their social injustices (remember the apartheid?), with 9 generations. And at the very bottom of the list, with 11 generations is: my beloved Motherland, Colombia.
So, it takes 11 generations, more or less 220 years, for a poor Colombian family to reach “average income levels in their country.” In other words it takes 220 years for families to go from very poor to less poor.
That’s sad, but is not surprising. What is truly surprising about this statistic, is that it took so long for OECD researchers to come up with the estimate. In my family we have known this fact for centuries. I’ll tell you how.
Don Jose Antonio Villegas Londoño was born in 1750 in Rionegro, Antioquia. His father was captain Felipe Villegas y Cordoba and his mother was doña Maria Manuela Londoño Piedrahita. Don Jose Antonio became an explorer and for his service to the Crown in colonizing new lands, he was awarded large portions of land in the Southeast of the Antioquia region. He was truly a wealthy man and founder of many towns in the region, including the town of Abejorral, the town where he settled and, eventually, died.
Don Jose Antonio had a big heart, big enough to hold his 2 wives and 17 children, and this was controversial. After all, he was a big public figure and played an important role in the life of the common man. Don Jose Antonio’s personal life must have been worthy of a telenovela, to the point that it threatened the good Catholic ways. If today, in a Colombia where by constitution State and church are separated, religion weights heavily in social, political, and economic matters, imagine how it was in the 1800’s. Don Jose Antonio’s liberal ways sparked the fury of local religious institutions, and the priest of Abejorral organized a public hearing. In front of everyone in town and, most importantly, in the eyes of God, the priest cursed Don Jose Antonio. The priest cursed him to a life in poverty. Moreover, the curse would fall upon his descendants, 10 generations of Villegas would be cursed to live in poverty.
I don’t know how many years were researchers at the OECD collecting data to find that it would take 11 generations for a poor Colombian family to become less poor. They should have asked me. I could have told them what the pattern was: it has been in my family’s genealogical books for centuries. But even if they didn’t ask me, they could have asked a priest. Apparently, in Colombia, poverty is not established by pervasive social, political, or economic institutions, it’s what God wants to keep his subjects in the moral path of servitude and submission. By keeping people hungry, leaders make sure the majority doesn’t get used to better times. In addition, the hungrier the people, the less energy they have to fight, and anyway they won’t fight if they are told God wants them hungry, polite, and quiet. And this strategy works!
It works: we are society of submissive citizens. This Sunday we are coming back to the ballots for the presidential elections, and I wouldn’t be surprised if once again, we vote for the “good old” status quo.
PS: In case you are wondering, I did some maths. If 1 generation is 20 years, 10 generations is 200. So, if Don Jose Antonio was cursed in 1800, I am generation 10. My children will be able to escape the curse. For that I work…. I mean, I pray.