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.
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.