Colombia’s Statist Quo Continues under Santos

EspañolColombian politicians’ distrust of open trade, economic competition, and free markets is as innate as a koala bear’s fondness for slightly moist eucalyptus leaves and longish naps on shaded treetops. I make this comparison with the caveat that the average koala’s few wakeful hours are surely far more productive — though clearly not as lucrative — than those of the average, overpaid Colombian congressman.

In all likelihood, President Juan Manuel Santos’s reelection on June 15 will only strengthen the tendency of soi-disant public servants — of whom Santos is the undisputed Grand Poobah — to enlarge the state, on which they invariably suckle, as the individual taxpayer picks up the ever-rising costs. This will be the case especially when (and if) Santos signs a peace deal with the cash rich but hardly mollified Marxists of the FARC guerrilla.

My prediction is built upon the few yet clear signs that the government has emitted in the past weeks.

On June 18, the Colombian Congress rejected a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea, upon receiving orders issued from the executive. The alleged reason was the need to revise the clauses that affect the local automotive industry and especially the car-components trade union.

Presumably, behind Santos’s decision to sideline the Korean FTA lurks the statist progressives; this would be the first consequence of the Faustian pact into which he was forced during the last weeks of the presidential campaign. At that time, humbly comparing himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (his counterpart being Bogotá’s mayor, Gustavo “the Latin Stalin” Petro), he made clear that he was willing to pay any price to defeat his main rival.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro. (Flickr)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro. (Flickr)

As the daily El Espectador reports, the FTA with South Korea was “strongly opposed” by “trade unions and parts of the left such as the [Alternative Democratic Pole] (PDA), whose former presidential candidate, Clara López, supported Juan Manuel Santos in the [presidential election’s] second round.” This, incidentally, came after López’s fourth place finish in the first round of voting.

Indeed, opposition to free trade with South Korea has been a long-time banner of the hardline socialists’ vedette, PDA Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo. He didn’t support Santos but has constantly argued for protectionism in a seemingly awkward but in truth perfectly logical alliance with the trembling titans of the local car industry, beginning with the mighty pressure group ACOLFA (Association of Colombian Producers of Car Components).

Simply put, satisfying the protectionist fantasies of Robledo and the Colombian automotive sector’s coterie involves forcing Colombian consumers to pay more to buy from cosseted local big shots. That this is decreed completely against consumers’ desires is of no importance to the self-appointed defenders of wholly unproductive and uncompetitive industries in the name of “national sovereignty,” that traditional refuge of racketeering rapscallions.

What statists of all persuasions fail to mention is that, as Harvard professor James Robinson writes, such cartelization of the Colombian economy has been an integral part of the system since time immemorial, as the rich “mostly make their money from monopolies in protected sectors that are created and shielded by the government and enforced by predatory behavior and even violence.” Nihil sub sole novum, as they say.

Another signal of the things to come arose only two days after Santos’s victory, when the minister for transport finally weighed in on the Uber controversy, stating that the company isn’t authorized to operate in Colombia. This came as no surprise to anyone who had paid attention to the campaign’s final stages; on June 4, Santos declared before more than 1000 Uber-phobic taxi drivers assembled at a football stadium, “QLF (cab drivers’ code for ‘cancellation’) for pirate taxis, QLF for special services, and QLF for applications that foment illegality.” For the latter, read Uber or any other tech company thriving on customers’ dissatisfaction with traditional taxis and their customary abuses.

The most flagrant, garish and brazen intrusion of the state into the private sphere in recent weeks, however, has been Mayor Petro’s imposition of a city-wide ban on alcohol sales on the days in which Colombia’s national football team plays its World Cup matches. As is usual whenever an authoritarian politico such as Santos’s new ally intends to push his weight around, the peddled argument is that upholding citizens’ security is his priority (nine people died in Bogotá following Colombia’s 3-0 victory against Greece on June 14, yet not all deaths were related to the football).

Nonetheless, as Julio César Mejía, founder of Students for Liberty in Bogotá, argues, blaming alcohol consumption for violence in Bogotá — where nearly four homicides take place daily on average, although this number can occasionally rise beyond 20 — is “one of the most simplistic and popular myths” told to explain the causes of murders in the capital.

Indeed, it’s hardly difficult for politicians to point to the few drunken hooligans who do make trouble. They then rob the remaining individuals of their freedom to buy, sell, or drink liquor in a civilized manner. Chesterton knew this totalitarian instinct well: in The Flying Inn (1914), the state, seeking to control all aspects of citizens’ lives, begins by banning alcohol.

That at least some in Colombia would resort to tyranny to impose their good intentions was made evident in a frighteningly honest tweet written by the aid to a Green Party senator: “as long as there are no prevention policies and culture we must resort to repression. ‘Lesser evil’!”

It’s quite a different matter, however, to admit that, while there is no real security without liberty, violence here is largely facilitated by a widespread impunity. A first step toward a real solution is making systematized crime extremely costly for the criminal; as Mejía writes, most homicidal violence in Bogotá is not sporadic but “instrumental, focalized, and brought about when illegal armed groups settle scores or fight over territory where drugs are sold.”

In any event, Petro himself admitted that eight people died in the city following Colombia’s win over Uruguay last Saturday, this in spite of the so-called “dry law”— in truth an administrative decree. Clearly it’s time for the mayor to start looking elsewhere for the causes of Colombia’s violence.

Other recent cases of the Colombian state meddling where it shouldn’t include a law approved by Congress that requires all sports trainers to hold an academic degree. That would immediately disqualify the degree-less and nonetheless — or perhaps therefore — wildly successful trainer of the Colombian football team, José Pékerman, from holding his current post. The central government has also announced, conveniently after the election, that this month’s hike in the highly regulated price of petrol was the steepest in 30 months.

The nearly absolute passivity with which the Colombian public has received each of these news items suggests that World Cup success has created a nation of tree-hugging marsupials taking 40 winks as the lumberjacks get to work. Either that or we libertarians have a Herculean task ahead of us.

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