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Hunger Strike to Fight Bureaucracy in Colombia

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A Colombian doctor stages a hunger strike against the bureaucracy

One consequence of Colombia’s emigration is that when graduates of foreign universities return to Colombia, they must have their degrees recognized by Colombia's Ministry of Education before practicing their profession. Colombia’s bureaucracy, however, is notorious for demanding large amounts of paperwork followed by a lengthy examination that ultimately may or may not lead to recognition of the foreign diploma. According to BBC News Mundo -- the BBC’s Spanish language service -- in 2020 the Ministry of Education accepted 76 percent, rejected 19 percent and as of early February 2021 and had yet to give a response to the five percent.

In January and February 2021, doctor Juan Pablo Ovalle went on a hunger strike for 22 days to protest the rejection of his Spanish medical degree by the Ministry of Education. Ovalle ended his hunger strike -- which took place in a tent outside the Ministry's building in Bogota -- when the Ministry finally recognized his degree.

Ovalle first submitted his application in November of 2019 and was told that if he was missing anything in his application, the Ministry would tell him within 15 days. Four months passed until the Ministry finally asked for more documentation which led to bureaucratic limbo and an ultimate rejection. Ovalle claimed that to appeal the rejection of his degree would have taken years and led to a costly judicial process.

Returning migrants are not the only Colombians for which the bureaucracy creates obstacles. The Colombian bureaucracy is rated as one of the three most inefficient in Latin America. A 2016 survey of Colombian business people found that 76 percent found it “difficult or very difficult” to start a business in Colombia and that bureaucracy was the greatest obstacle. A 2019 report stated that due to bureaucracy, opening a business in Colombia took twice as long as in the United States and five times as long as in Singapore.

Beyond business people, all citizens in Colombia -- as of 2017 -- must wait an average of 7.4 hours for simple bureaucratic processes like renewing an identity card. This often leads citizens to pay a bribe to speed up processes which causes further distrust between people and their government. On my 2018 visit to Colombia, citizens would frequently complain about corruption. Multiple people said they would be happy to pay taxes if only they could get the clean, honest government they believed the United States had. More taxes paid just meant more for the government to rob, many added. The government is an opponent to outfox.

A 2018 article in Spain’s El Pais discusses how Uruguay could serve as a model for other Latin American nations like Colombia. Uruguay’s government now allows for all government applications and document renewals to start online. A bureaucratic process online is 40 times faster than one in person. Moreover, with faster service and far fewer face to face interactions the possibility for corruption is greatly reduced which, in turn, can improve confidence in the government more broadly. A ver … if Colombia takes the Uruguayan cue.

Colombia's bureaucracy can be a crushing weight to its citizens
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