Colombian Economic Protests

This past year has been an eventful one for Colombia.  Between the Government’s efforts to secure a Peace Deal with Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC); and the continued erosion of economic barriers through the adoption of free-trade agreements with the EU, Canada, Israel and as of May 2012 the United States, the period has been heavy with protests and unrest.

Image courtesy of the Center for American Progress, © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of the Center for American Progress, © 2008, some rights reserved.

This summer growing discontent with the government finally led to an onslaught of nationwide protests by farmers, miners and students.  Farmers argued that agricultural policies tied to the free-trade agreements are leading them to ruin. The market has been flooded with imports that small-scale farmers, who make up around 60 percent of the country’s population, are unable to match.  To boot, rising fuel and input costs are further leading farmers to bankruptcy. 

In August, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, and roadblocks spread through the country, with food and fuel shortages the result in some cities.  The government was initially dismissive of these protests but after riots in Bogota left at least two dead and dozens injured President Santos called for the militarisation of the city and mobilised 50,000 soldiers across the country. 

 In the weeks following, the government agreed to revise policies as part of the new “Agrarian Pact” for which negotiations started on September 12.  These measures include more protection of the agrarian sector against lower priced imports, regulated fertiliser prices, and the suspension of a policy that forced farmers to buy costly seeds from approved suppliers and made it illegal for them to produce seeds from their own harvests.

However, for the rural poor this is not enough.  There is also significant opposition to the privatisation of social services and the free ride that multinational corporations have achieved through these free-trade agreements.  For over a decade the Colombian government has been mobilising support for opening up the economy to the international markets.  With promises of the great benefits of increased foreign investment, access to large market for exports and an increase in competition within the country would guarantee more choices and lower prices for all Colombians. Many in the country seem to strongly disagree with these promises, mainly the working class and the rural population who have found themselves further impoverished by these so-called “benefits”. 

This discontent with the path the economy is taking because of free-trade agreements is not to be underestimated.  According to a poll published by El Tiempo newspaper, support for President Juan Manuel Santos fell from 48 percent to just 21 percent at the end of August.  It is clear; his success in alleviating these concerns of the working class will be essential to the bolster support that he badly needs if he has any hope of winning next years election.  This is reflected in numbers showing that the positive image for Navarro Wolff, a former Marxist guerrilla leader went from 32 to 50 percent in the same period.  This should be particularly concerning to the present government which also has the election ridding on the success of the peace process with the country’s guerrilla groups.

Already several agrarian leaders have denounced the negotiations with the government as a charade designed to promote small changes that won’t deal with any of the root problems.  Though many hope to see the abolition of the free-trade agreement, this would be an over reaction for various reasons.  Diplomatically it is undesirable to backtrack on bilateral agreements; furthermore, it is ultimately in Colombia’s best interest to become more integrated into the international economy.  However, not at the price of impoverishing more of its working poor and further increasing the disparity in wealth and development that is not only now the norm in Colombia but has been a phenomenon in many other South American countries after the liberalisation of their economies. 

On the other end of the spectrum, many including ex-minister of defence Carlos Ronderos maintain that the agrarian revolt does not come as a result of the free-trade agreement but rather a lack of competition from too many monopolies and oligopolies.  The solution, however, is not to increase competition in the national economy by giving up the market to multinational corporations but rather to bolster the farming and agriculture sector.  

What is called for is a clarification that the liberalisation of trade will confer benefits in the long run and a guarantee by the government that it will make relevant changes to protect the rural working class.  The government must protect the sectors most threatened by the trade agreement.  Specifically the agrarian sector, which has been the feature of the most unrest: it must be modernised so that it can compete fairly with subsidised product coming in from the US and the EU.

Furthermore, there needs to be a concentrated effort to bolster the Colombian economy so that it can take advantage of the export opportunities these agreements have offered.  Colombia’s economy must expand beyond only being able to export natural primary products.  Currently the products that generate 97% of revenue as exports are basic products such as coffee, rice, oil, carbon and minerals[1].  Unless Colombia can begin to diversify its products into secondary products and services, it is unlikely that the country as a whole will be able to achieve the benefits of free-trade agreements.

[1] El Tiempo, TLC: Colombia se quedo de bachiller

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