“Mi Tierra No Se Vende”: Understanding the Free Trade Agreement and the Current Protests in Colombia
[Note: The views in this article in no way reflect the views or opinions of the Fulbright Colombia program nor those of the U.S. Fulbright program.]
As I was walking into the university in Bogotá, Colombia, where I work as an English Language Assistant, I saw twenty students gathered around big white posters discussing what to write in the thirty minutes they had left of their lunch break. I caught a glimpse of one of their boards and read, “No queremos los gringos aqui,” meaning, “We don’t want the Americans here.” In this instance, I was happy that my brown skin did not automatically identify me as a “gringo,” a term usually used in Latin America to refer to white Americans.
I heard that farmer protests had started a week before, on August 20. Blockades, food shortages, and sometimes violent protests erupted on the outskirts of Bogotá as many local farmers were on strike. But, as I had not seen these protests in the streets of Bogotá where I live, I did not really understand what was going on.
Later that day one of my students asked me, “Teacher, what do you think about the paro and TLC?”
The paro, or strike, began in large part due to the Tratado de Libre Comercio (TLC) – the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) – and his question implied that the two were intimately related. As the American working at and being paid by the university, and by both the Colombian and U.S. governments, he (rightfully) expected me to know about my countries’ policies and have an opinion about it, but embarrassingly, I had no idea how to respond.
On August 29, I was finally able to physically see the extent of these protests and of the current political situation in Colombia. All over the city center in Bogotá, I saw signs and writing on the walls, expressing discontent towards the United States and the FTA, while more than 300,000 people – mostly youth – took to the streets in solidarity with the farmers and to protest policies on higher education.
Some of the protests became violent, and five people died during the 14 days of the nationwide protests. Two of the deaths occurred in Bogota during the Thursday protests. On August 31, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos decided to militarize Bogotá because of the “violence” from the protests on Thursday. I walked down the streets on that Friday, seeing almost every street corner occupied by very young-looking military men with heavy equipment and huge guns.
I spent the day thinking about the way in which the country I am “representing” here in Colombia plays a large role in the implementation of unfair and unequal “agreements,” which have worsened situations for already-marginalized populations. At the same time, I kept in mind that the “anti-gringo” attitude is in part due to the fact that most Americans are unaware of the Free Trade agreement and are even more ignorant about its impact on Colombia. I looked in all of the major U.S. newspapers for coverage of the protests, and I only saw two major sites, Common Dreams and The Huffington Post, cover the protests. Although I was not surprised, I could not help but feel guilty for the aloof attitude that U.S. media takes when reporting news from the global south, especially when addressing stories relating to U.S. policies.
It would be misinformed to say that the only reason people are protesting in Colombia is due to the Free Trade Agreement, although it is a main component. The discourse around the protests goes further, bringing up the history of political marginalization of farmers in Colombian history, and failed policies to bring Colombia into the global economy. Still, a large part of the protests and the current agricultural crisis has to do with Colombia’s history of free trade policies, specifically with the United States.
What is the Free Trade Agreement?
The Free Trade Agreement is a bilateral trade agreement between the United States and Colombia, first signed in 2006 by U.S. President George W. Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. In 2012, much to the dismay of many international organizations, President Obama and current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos amended the Free Trade Agreement, allowing for the importation of even more agricultural products from the U.S. Similar to a number of free trade agreements that the U.S. has with many countries in the global south, the FTA also allowed for the elimination of taxes and fees of goods and services between Colombia and the United States. In Colombia, more than 70% of imported products from the United States are not taxed.
According to a report issued by the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, “The U.S.‐Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) helps to level the playing field for U.S. farmers and ranchers by immediately eliminating tariffs on more than 70 percent of U.S. agricultural products, including a variety of fruit, vegetable, meat and processed food products.”
How does it affect Colombia?
When Obama signed the free trade agreement on May 15, 2012, he proudly said, “This historic treaty represents a great victory for workers and businesses in the United States.” He was correct in only referring to the United States.
A year and a half since the amended FTA went into effect, it is clear that this agreement is as one-sided as it was proclaimed to be. Enormous quantities of products, such as rice, milk, meat, and soy, were imported, tax-free, from the United States in the past year, affecting national production as Colombian farmers have to compete with those imported products.
A report issued by the U.S. Department of International Trade Administration shows that imported products from the U.S. to Colombia increased by 13.6%, since the FTA amendment, whereas goods exported from Colombia to the U.S. increased by only 3.3%. It must also be noted that corn and soy products are very harmful to the environment and have posed many problems for Colombian farmers, especially since many foods and seeds imported to Colombia are genetically modified, which poses many problems for the farm land and biodiversity.
Famed Colombian economist and writer Eduardo Sarmiento predicted the negative effects of the FTA on Colombia. As he said in 2005 before the signing of the first Free Trade Agreement, “In a world that is not regulated by comparative benefits but rather by absolute benefits, the agreement completely disfavors countries like Colombia, and even more when one considers exceptions in favor of technology and subsidies of common agricultural products.”
Another flaw in the FTA is that many Colombian farmers are competing without subsidies or any income protection, whereas the U.S. government subsidizes most agricultural exports. Oftentimes the prices of imported goods end up being much cheaper because of these subsidies. It is important to note that Colombia’s annual GDP also went down from 6.6% in 2011 to 4% in 2012.
Moreover, some people in Colombia suffer from land displacement. Many Afro-Colombian and Indigenous populations, who historically have produced the crops imported by U.S. companies, will have an even lesser chance of participating in the economy and are at greater risk of losing their land for production. Even though Afro-Colombian and Indigenous populations have special protection under Colombia’s 1991 constitution to be informed and consulted before development projects affecting their territories, many communities were not informed about the FTA. The FTA has also played a major role in the current mining conflict in Afro-Colombian territory, with the consistently growing presence of U.S. multinational investment in this industry.
Obviously, not all of the agricultural production in Colombia is negatively affected by the FTA. A recent article by Colombian newspaper, El Espectador, attempted to argue that the FTA is not the sole reason for the agricultural crisis in Colombia, showing that 2.7 million tons of potatoes are produced in Colombia and only 4.2 thousand tons are imported from the U.S. Still, one must wonder, why, if Colombia is producing so many products, these same products are also being imported from the U.S.
Why are people protesting?
The protests which began on August 20 were initiated by the campesinos, or farmers. Many other groups quickly joined in solidarity, and to address other pressing issues in the country, such as health reform, university policies, and gasoline prices. The one common thread linking the participation of different groups is the use of foreign power and policies in these sectors. Protesters feel that their land is being sold to international corporations, and that the government is denying them rights to their land and resources.
A student who participated in the protests told me, “We have all the resources we need in this country. They should be for us…it doesn’t make sense. With all the resources we have Colombia could be one of the richest countries in the world, but yet more than half of the country is poor.”
One of the main reasons for the protests and the economic crisis right now in Colombia is said to be the lack of democratic inclusion when using the model of economic development. Voices of farmers are not considered in these processes, and they are often not guaranteed that trade will actually benefit them.
Studies show that 68.5% of the farmer population lives far below the poverty line. The FTA has not provided room for more development or for more farmer participation in the economy. Farmers are outraged that the government, as well as the multinational corporations that benefit from the FTA, refuse to hear their voices, and acknowledge the impossible competition they face with the importation and production of goods from these companies.
It does not help that all of these disadvantages of the Free Trade Agreement were predicted by many research groups and organizations. Oxfam released an article in 2012 predicting that the Free Trade Agreement would result in 70% of the farmers in poverty, and said that 1,360 households would lose about 16% of their income.
One student who helped organize the protests told me, “Our country is being sold to the foreigners. Almost everything we eat now, sold at the grocery stores, is imported. Not only that, but food is very expensive! It’s the fault of past administrations as well, and now Santos does not know how to deal with it.”
In a recent video covering the protests happening in Boyacá, a province of Colombia with a predominant agricultural sector, the motto used throughout is, “Mi Tierra No Se Vende,” or, “My land cannot be sold.” The popular anti-US imperialist Calle 13 song “Latinoamérica” is used in the background. As someone from the U.S., where one of our unofficial national anthems is Woody Guthrie’s, “This Land is Your Land,” (a song which I analyzed with my students in one of my classes here), when I watched the protest video, I thought about the expansionist ideology that can be applied to this song. The U.S has a global imperialist mentality of “this land is your land, this land is my land.” Policies like the Free Trade Agreement allow us to expand this ideology and to use other people’s land as a way to gain more power and control.
In response to my students´ questions about my views on the paro, I hope to share with you this small glimpse of the current situation here in Colombia, in the hope of bringing awareness to the damage that many U.S. policies in the global south. Though the Free Trade Agreement is not the only reason for the current protests in Colombia, one cannot deny that the FTA has played a large part in the current agricultural crisis. I believe that in order for things to change, we as U.S. citizens must inform ourselves about our own country’s policies and its meddling in international affairs. I also believe that as young progressive-minded people from the Unites States, we must look at the way in which other youth are protesting throughout the world to understand that we have the power to change the way in which these injustices work. In the words of Calle 13:
“Vamos caminando, aqui se respira la lucha / Vamos caminando, yo canto porque se esucha”
For more information please look at the sources used:
Colombia Reports. http://colombiareports.co/
Gomez Barberi, Fernando. Landinez Cardona Ivan and Luis Jorge Garay Salamanca. “Impactos del TLC con Estados Unidos Sobre La Economia Campesina En Colombia.” 2009. Bogotá.
Sarmiento, Eduardo “¿Por Qué No Firmar El TLC?” 2005. Bogota:
Robledo, Jorge. “ Por qué decirles NO al ALCA y al TLC.” 2004. Bogotá.
US Embassy in Colombia. “Colombia-An Important Market for U.S. Agriculture”. 2012. Bogotá.
National Organization of Displaced Afro-Colombianos. http://www.afrodes.org/
Red Colombiana de Accion frente al Libre Comercio. www.recalca.org