This has to be one of the most difficult editorials I have had to write in a very long time. Not because of what I intend to discuss, but simply, because of where I am: Cartagena. Sitting in the basement of a 17th century home in the Old City, I am fending-off the temptation of going for a quick dip in a swimming pool or stroll the maze of sun-washed streets in search of deep fried arepas de huevo.
I always find Cartagena has a way of distancing oneself from the Colombia one gets to know over time, even if this summer, until the recent outbreaks of violence in the countryside due to the nationwide agrarian strike (Paro Agrario), has been rather languid.
The last time I had such a feeling of dislocation, happened years back, when Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavéz was basking in a political high noon and verbally shooting down President Álvaro Uribe Vélez at the Unasur Congress in Bariloche. Relations between Venezuela and Colombia had deteriorated to such a degree, that many believed a regional conflict was on the cards. All the while, cold beers toppled tables in Cartagena’s dank watering holes, and the immediacy of war was jilted by the joviality of our costeños.
If Colombia has fared well in the face of global turmoil, Cartagena goes about business as usual. When we turn on the news, we see Egypt spiraling out of control and the situation in Syria more precarious after the chemical weapons attack. The listing of humanity’s wrongs seems to get longer by the day. But in Colombia, we seem somehow hedged – at least for the time being – from so much adversity.
Even the country’s oldest guerrilla organization, FARC, currently talking in Havana, Cuba, with the government have made conciliatory statements looking to nudge their way into the inner circle of political life. The chief negotiators last month did a “mea culpa” coming out publicly to admit their role in the misery and bloodshed that has characterized this nation’s half- century old conflict. It’s a small step, but an important one. And after the liberation by the smaller, more radicalized ELN, of Canadian miner Gernot Wober, after eight months in captivity, a door has opened for parallel peace talks between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and these guerrillas.
The nationwide strikes which shut down many parts of the country and disrupted the free flow of goods, shows how Colombians are deeply concerned about the economic “bottom line” and what will pan out for them in the immediate future. Most major cities have witnessed widespread protests by striking teachers, transporters and health workers. All rallying around the Colombian farmers, the campesinos, who are enraged over the lack of government subsidies and sustainable investment in all things agricultural.
Colombians are standing firm with the plight of their farmers. Last month saw massive rallies with the banging of pots and pans (cazerolazos) in a wave of protest over the government’s “figure it out” approach to macro economics, complicated new taxes, and the watch dog practices of the state’s agricultural entity ICA, which fines Colombian farmers over seeds and their “certification” all the while, the country fast tracks genetically modified (GM) foods thanks to Conventions and Free Trade Agreements.
When I ask strangers what’s on their minds, and across wide-ranging issues such as climate change to national security, I’ve been getting a lot of these kinds of responses lately: “La situación esta muy pesada,” (the situation is hard) or “Hay que trabajar mas por menos” (Have to work more for less).
There’s a liquidity crisis brewing and it’s not only affecting those who work the land. It’s becoming widespread. And in Bogotá more acute. Our embattled mayor seems to govern by decree, increasingly out of touch with key issues such as security and citizen welfare. There’s a complacency and “figure it out” mentality to dealing with the capital’s problems as well. And there are many: real estate is absurdly over priced. Public works are haphazard and shoddy. The traffic is in permanent gridlock. Pollution and noise levels are maddening.
Then the big business story of recent weeks: the arrival of Starbucks in Colombia. How ironic that in the land of Arabica, we will be swamped by paper cups filled with Ethiopian and Guatemalan blends. It’s a telling tale of the expansion of Colombia’s franchise landscape.
Free trade must translate into creative trade; and this is something the Colombian government would do well in implementing. While there is hardly a way out of FTAs, there should be alternatives for small-scale farmers to get credit and enter into cooperative arrangements so they compete on a stronger footing with intermediaries, food giants and supermarkets.
This way, the Colombian economy will diversify and break an entrenched business culture which rewards monopolies, yet stumps independent initiative. As the government forges ahead, opening its doors to everything big name, our much traveled coffee mule may find it hard to keep the pace. Then again, I write this from Cartagena, a very sheltered place.