What’s Next? Colombia After the Strike

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - Sep 5, 2013, 10:57 am

Important gains in the advancement of more open and free societies have often been achieved through successful social movements. The “English Revolution,” the separation of church and state, and the founding of the United States (the first society with individual liberty as its supreme value) are all examples of this type of achievement.

Source: Q-Colombia.
Source: Q-Colombia.

Unfortunately, such admirable examples are not always the end result. Consider the ongoing social movement in Colombia. A national strike, which began on August 19, has managed to unite a range of interest groups: farmers, students, the transportation sector, and other smaller groups have joined together in this nationwide protest.

Regrettably, this movement holds no pretenses of defending civil liberties. On the contrary, their aim has been to rollback what little economic liberalization Colombia has managed in the past decade.

Among the demands being made by the protesters are greater government intervention within the various industry sectors represented by the striking parties, along with a general attack on free-trade agreements. In other words, they are calling for cronyism and protectionism in their favor but at the expense of the Colombian economy and the general population.

Even though the strike is still ongoing, it’s possible to visualize the implications of these demands for the future of Colombia.

First, the continuation of the political trend towards commercial liberalization is now precarious, as are the existing achievements in freeing the country’s economy. It’s not enough that the critics have managed — almost without public debate — to create a near national consensus opposing existing free trade agreements; they are also targeting realistic future agreements with Korea, for example, and even China.

Additionally, the animosity fermenting within Colombia has started to affect the prospects for foreign investment in the country. Loathing toward “multinationals” has become somewhat of a tradition at this point, but this groundswell of animosity has begun seeping into other sectors as well. One of the more recent examples came after the announcement that Starbucks was hoping to expand operations into the coffee-rich nation. The company’s aspirations managed to inspire the kind of ire and indignation one would expect if it had just declared war, as opposed to simply hoping to inject growth and healthy competition into the café market.

Second, the anti-trade movement has begun to reveal the framework for a more interventionist government at home. The government of Juan Manuel Santos, the current President, has negotiated subsidies, for example, with the coffee industry. Now he is talking about an extension of those subsidies for other sectors that feel threatened by Colombia’s international trade agreements. One specific example of this is a government program which is currently protecting mandated quantities of milk from domestic dairy farmers.

Colombia is also exploring the economically illiterate idea of controlling gas prices. Obviously, the possibility exists that these programs may eventually be extended to other beneficiaries, in other market sectors.

Ironically, at the beginning of this national strike, which has now been ongoing for weeks, the protesters in the agriculture markets were demanding the liberalization of the importation of chemicals, because, due to regulatory controls in place, chemical companies had been allowed to set high prices and effectively establish an oligopoly. In other words, the protesters in Colombia ask for free-trade when it benefits their interests, and more government intervention if they feel grieved in the slightest.

These developments are largely the result of a population that has failed to recognize their own government’s limited strengths and effectiveness. The strikes have created a contradictory situation for the government. On the one hand, as demonstrated above, they have resulted in a propensity for the government to intervene in the economy more easily, and more often. On the other hand, they have weakened those essential functions that the state must fulfill.

In this sense, the third potential result of the strike has to do with the weakening of a government that now finds itself at the negotiation table with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), which it considers a terrorist organization, in addition to the beginning of negotiations with another guerrilla force, the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional).

From the start of the negotiations with the first guerrilla group, the government insisted on the impossibility of changes to the country’s economic model. Yet, the demands currently being made through the national strike are more closely aligned with those of the guerrilla groups, who, in turn, are strengthened in their obsession with implementing a Marxist economic model in Colombia, similar to what is already being done in Venezuela.

The fourth result of the national strike is that the state appears debilitated internationally. These movements have distracted the country from the possibility of a greater international leadership. Additionally, it has opened the door to increased outsider meddling in internal affairs from countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Cuba — happy to expand their failed models into Colombia.

Also, Colombia’s government runs the risk of appearing feeble to the United States. Established growth in recent years, economic transformation, and strengthened security and justice, which began during the government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002 – 2010) , had made possible a new relationship — from a Colombia as the beneficiary of assistance provided by the United States to one in which both nations mutually benefit from trade and investments.

A setback in Colombia’s economic progress would slow that breakthrough.

Finally, political polarization in recent weeks has worsened as a result of these strikes and demonstrations. Each political group has sought electoral gains through the protests. The danger of this, regardless of your political ideology, is that the critics of the government of Juan Manuel Santos have taken advantage of the situation, to promise a more interventionist government with a smaller economic pie for all.

The consequences are: less economic liberty, more restricted markets, a growing dependence on the welfare state, a weaker government facing guerrilla groups, a weaker government internationally, and an increase in bureaucratic solutions. These, unfortunately, seem destined to be Colombian characteristics for the coming days, months, or even years.

This is a bleak outlook. Bad ideas can spread like wildfire, and this national strike is acting like gunpowder, destroying what little progress has been made in the country. This is the problem with underdevelopment: their societies are often perpetuated by the misconceptions and bad ideas in which they believe. This seems to be the case in Colombia. We’ll see.

Translated by Joel Fensch.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.

Globovisión: A Piece of the Communications Hegemony

By: Trino Márquez - Sep 5, 2013, 7:54 am

Alignment With the Regime In early 2013, a group of businesspeople associated with the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, acquired Globovisión — a television channel linked to the opposition — to undermine Nicolás Maduro’s administration, bar his reelection, and pave the road for Cabello’s run for the presidency. At the time, I thought the media group would not effect a radical change in the network’s programming and editorial line in the short term, since presumably profitability would prevail over political affinities. The owners would not give up their natural audience, the urban middle classes won over by the network in December, 1994, when it began broadcasting. I was wrong. I failed to notice the complex mix of interests, beyond the economic arena, between that sector of the boliburguesía (the Bolivarian bourgeoisie) and the ruling elite. The recent stampede out of the network by its most distinguished journalists, some of whom were founders of the network, and support staff, and the reasons given for their quitting, heighten the situation to a new level. The owners chose to align with the communications hegemony established in April, 2002, when Hugo Chávez was ousted for 50 hours. The audience is not very important right now. The remaining broadcasters will have a very hard time upholding the notion of a “defense of [media] spaces,” as they have until now. Some journalists with a stronghold of their own could try to preserve their own plurality and autonomy. However, independence is no longer part of the network’s strategy. The cornerstone is now subordination to the ruling group. The drastic changes seen in the last few weeks are associated with criticism from Nicolás Maduro and with that fragile and tense pact between the president and the shadow behind him, Lieutenant Cabello. The old Globovisión — quarrelsome and defiant, the sounding board for the opposition — was tolerated by Hugo Chávez, a caudillo with soaring self-esteem. He applied fines, threatened, and harassed the network, but he never shut it down. It would have been an unacceptable display of weakness for a leader who felt anointed by the gods, with a universal fate. In the end, the strategy chosen was the one designed by the late commander, to turn the network into a business bound for bankruptcy, with a single escape route: sale. Weak Government: No Tolerance for Criticism Of course, this transaction would not be authorized for the first anonymous party who came knocking on the doors of the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) requesting permission to carry out the operation. There was the risk that the network would fall into the hands of a group even more critical of the government. The deal had to take place with members of the ruling circle, or at least of one of the more politically-powerful factions. And that's precisely what happened. Conatel approved its transfer to a faction associated with Cabello. At first, it was convenient to disguise the deal a bit and give the idea that Globovisión would keep its critical line, dulling only its sharper edges. However, Maduro does not approve of any criticism reaching the general public through television screens. His crippling insecurity, the serious problems he faces, the corruption in his inner circle, and his ministers’ ineptitude leave no room for tolerance. He was, for example, unable to accept even a slightly critical remark from Alberto Nolia, presenter of Los Cuadernos de Mandinga, a show previously broadcasted by Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), regarding Maduro’s policy of citizen security. The impudence of this journalist, a stalwart of the regime, got him ejected from VTV. If this happened with an unconditional champion like Nolia, in charge of the government’s dirty work, how could it be tolerated with a network bought with the regime’s leaders’ approval? It simple could not continue being a venue to denounce and criticize the outrages and mistakes of Chavez’s mediocre heirs. Globovisión’s new owners should be reminded that this administration does not get along with democracy, but accepts it halfheartedly and grudgingly, because it has no other option. International regulations demand a certain degree of composure, even for Cuban tyrants, who adamantly resist any change, no matter how harmless. Maduro gave the channel owners a reminder. He started by branding them as conspirators, an attack which exploded like a missile in the network’s headquarters. It was only a matter of time before tolerance for criticism within the channel would go down, and down it went. Amid such an environment of self-censorship, it was natural for the journalists who felt most affected to quit. The regime likes networks like VTV and journalists and “intellectuals” like those swarming about within them. The only broadcasters and “intellectuals” who are allowed to work and voice their opinion there are those who sing praise of the late lieutenant colonel and admire the “triumphs” of his revolution, now maintained by his heirs. A mere suggestion of criticism is demonized as an expression of right-wing ideologies, imperialism, or any of the countless similar follies in the government jargon. Of course, the critical analysis that Mario Vargas Llosa demands in La Civilización del Espectáculo (Civilization of Spectacle) was pulverized in the “network of all Venezuelans.” The same will happen to Globovisión. That is why it is being transformed. The Opposition: Mourning and Moving On What is happening with Globovisión is obviously a painful blow to the opposition. The network was an essential tool of the heroic resistance of the Venezuelan people against the installation of a Cuban-style totalitarian dictatorship. Globo was not a neutral network, in the asexual sense of the term. There is no place in Venezuela for value neutrality. To invoke that neutrality is a ruse of the timid and the regime’s covert agents. No-one can be impartial when faced with a project bent on destroying democracy and the Republic, like the one launched in 1999. It would have been terribly irresponsible to claim being “chemically pure” towards the behavior of a ruling class determined to “re-found the Republic” through the demolition of democratic institutions, the establishment of a single line of thought, and the abolition of any form of independence in state institutions and civil society organizations. Globovisión took the side of freedom of information, expression, communication, and thought — a set of values from the western culture which gave birth to modern democracy and the struggle against the all-embracing power embodied in absolute monarchs. The alliance between Globovisión and the democratic opposition was a natural one, because they shared values and interests. Both parties defended similar principles. This coalition is now broken. Globo will be, at most, a less aggressive, or kinder, counterpart of VTV. It will be a bland, decaffeinated product designed to make the tragedy we live in more palatable. The defense of the principles inherent to freedom, democracy, and the Republic in the communications arena will no longer be among its concerns. There is a need to complete the mourning process and move on, however painful it may be. Until now, the opposition was lucky to have this powerful image and voice. From now on, it must reinvent itself and innovate, lest the mourning becomes perpetual. Translated by Ceteris Paribus.

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