Extorting Colombia: Campesinos Strike Back as Santos Flounders

EspañolThis week, agricultural organizations across Colombia organized another strike, the second in less than a year. According to El Tiempo, public support for the strike this time has diminished to the point that it only represents less than 10 percent of the agricultural sector of the country, primarily in the production of potato, rice, onions, coffee, tobacco, and panela (a natural sweetener).

Despite its negative impact on the daily lives of citizens, many people idealize this practice for two main reasons: (1) the figure of the campesino has been mythologized to the point that it has become politically incorrect to criticize their actions, or the actions of their representatives; (2) there is a clear right to this sort of protest.

However, what is generally misunderstood is that the former does not demonstrate sympathy for or an understanding of the campesinos’ realities, but rather a condescension on behalf of urban citizens. Second, even though there is a right to protest, that does not mean we should tolerate the actions of any given group that aims to extort the rest of the citizenry.

This is, unfortunately, what is happening with this latest wave of protests: the extortion of the many by the few. In a previous column, I warned that the attitude of Juan Manuel Santos’s government, by yielding to the promise of subsidies for the coffee industry during their protest in early 2013, could open a Pandora’s Box. The message to other industries in the country was clear: this government is easy to bribe and you could benefit from launching similar strategies.

There are several other reasons why these protests represent a blatant attempt to extort the rest of the country. First, the organizers themselves recognize that the government has already invested millions in the agriculture industry. However, they still complain, because the resources allotted have not been used in the way they desire. Some of these organizers even shamelessly argue that there are “too few” campesino organizations that receive these funds, when, in fact, there are 3,500.

Second, these protests aim to halt the internationalization of the economy. They oppose free trade, multinational companies, imports of food, etc. Never mind the evidence that these protests have resulted in a decline in imports in the industries in question. Their rhetoric also fails to explain with the wide array of evidence that upholds the merits of trade agreements (see here and here, among many other examples).

Third, the campesinos claim that the government should grant them an exemption from having to face the market to earn profits, as everyone else does in the private sector. Therefore, as expressed in El Espectador, they require price controls on imports, loan forgiveness, controls over mining activity, and fixed prices on their products so that, in the words of one of the protest leaders César Pachón, they may be allowed to sell their products above cost — as if this would not be possible in the market.

As this campaign continues, the administration of Juan Manuel Santos, blinded by his reelection effort, avoids confronting these protests with solid arguments. Instead, he has minimized them as simply an attempt by the opposition to manipulate the election; the first round of the presidential elections begin on May 25. At the same time, other government representatives foolishly assert that these protests have been entirely infiltrated by FARC guerrilla. If that were true, would it not be worse for the government to recognize this publicly when, despite their supposed role in the worker strike, they continue negotiation efforts with the guerrilla?

It is almost certain that these protests are politically motivated. It is also almost certain that, at least in some areas, they have been infiltrated by the FARC. However, to dismiss their significance on these grounds is yet another form of condescension toward the campesinos. More importantly, it avoids a critical debate over the central ideas that some of their organizational leaders preach.

Campesinos have undoubtedly suffered for decades, if not centuries, at the hands of exclusionary institutions that have prevented them access to better living conditions. However, condescending attitudes from the urban areas or the government are not the solution. The answer is more market solutions, more competition, and less government intrusion. The solution is not to hold Colombian society hostage and at the mercy of the once-marginalized sectors of society.

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

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