Colombia’s “Luxury Taxi” Decree Designed to Muscle Out Uber

The Colombian government's "luxury taxi" decree is designed to benefit Uldarico Peña and other main players in the taxi industry.
The Colombian government’s “luxury taxi” decree only benefits the taxi industry’s big players. (@uldaricotxilibr)

EspañolLast week, the Colombian government revealed the details of its new decree to regulate the “luxury taxi” industry. Evidently, various ministers and the president himself once again yielded to the pressure which the very powerful taxi lobby exerts on politicians.

When I read what the Colombian media had to say about the decree, I concluded that the only article that got near to the truth was by Actualidad Panamericana, a satirical webzine.

“Uber Decree Published on Taxis Libres Letterhead,” stated the headline, which referred to Bogotá’s largest taxi company. The post referred to its owner, Uldarico Peña, as Colombia’s “de facto Transport Minister.”

Peña, in fact, was present at the press conference where the government announced its latest regulatory absurdity. The taxi business, in fact, should be fully liberalized for the sake of the consumer, rather than being subject to more preposterous state intervention. This, however, would affect Peña’s pockets, a solution that, apparently, is not politically viable.

Sporting a suit and tie at the press conference, Peña had an air of seriousness all too different from what he transmitted the last time he appeared in a video. Back then, he joked with various cronies and, amid the banter, offered each of them COL$100,000 (some US$30) to vote for Enrique Peñalosa as mayor of Bogotá. This, one would hope, was also a joke.

Last week, however, Peña soberly told the media that he was “satisfied” with the new decree. And how could he not be?

According to El Tiempo, “the measure rules that only black vehicles can serve as luxury taxis — paradoxically, all Uber cars are white. They must have an official band on the side. The Ministry of Transport will define their specifications.”

Such fainthearted language hides the truth: the decree is anything but paradoxical. It’s designed exclusively to take Uber out of the local market, which will be dominated by Peña and his colleagues.

Apart from the senseless ruling concerning the color of luxury taxis, the decree states that these vehicles “must be enrolled in a taxi company.” Such as the one belonging to Peña, one might add. Uber, meanwhile, has insisted time and again that it’s not a transportation company, but rather an intermediary that digitally connects passengers and drivers.

The government also requires the new luxury taxis to receive payments “by means of a digital platform belonging to the taxi company or to a third party.” Peña, however, said that he already has his own platform, and that he’s ready to begin working as soon as possible.

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As Actualidad Panamericana suggests, the government’s decree only benefits the dominant players in the market at the expense of consumer freedom. The document only lacked the Taxis Libres letterhead in order to reveal its real intentions.

Michael Shoemaker, who represents Uber in Colombia, said that the luxury-taxi ruling “doesn’t exclude other mobility alternatives for the citizens.” Presumably, he was referring to services like UberX. As Andrés Londoño Botero wrote two weeks ago on the PanAm Post, however, “the decree bans private cars from providing public-transport services,” which is the equivalent of a death sentence for UberX.

President Juan Manuel Santos could hardly have come up with a more misleading statement than his claim that “a path to an agreement is now open.” Worse still, he falsely said that “all sectors involved in the discussion can be content.”

This decree is a grotesque, bureaucratic monstrosity. It’s a coercive measure that pretends to force us to use a service that many of us don’t want. And it’s all done to pay back a political favor which Santos owes the taxi lobby while making sure that his vice president, a future presidential candidate, is owed a favor as well.

Actualidad Panamericana is mistaken only in suggesting that Peña is Colombia’s real minister of Transport. The taxi fat cat has no need to act as minister, whether de facto or de jure. He only needs to flex his political muscle during any election campaign.

He can then stand aside and watch as well-trained candidates for the country’s top posts complacently submit to his wishes, rather as the brooms which readily obeyed Goethe’s master sorcerer.

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