“Free trade” is a concept; a concept that acquires full sense in the field of economical thought, but does not in the reality of economical politics, where relations and asymmetry of power become visible protagonists.
Written by Pablo Abitbol
Originally published in Spanish here, on September 2nd, 2013
Translated by Daniela Matiz
How deafening the din of the police roll and the grenade when they crash against the grey matter of a citizenry that protests rightfully. How deafening the violence of stones and fire that destroy without compassion our modest storefronts and public property. Even the rumble of pans blandished by some urbanists is deafening, those who –with reason and heart– support today the farmers in their strike, although maybe they haven’t stopped to think enough about what the food that appears every day on their plates actually is and where it comes from, losing that way the powerful vote they could exercise three times a day. How more deafening is the silence that tries to impose itself with the bureaucratic denial of the social protest.
Is it possible to look for some clarity between so much noise and so much fury?
The first thing is the past, that fog hidden in stories that are not told and that will not come to life until we attain to animate them as collective memory. We can’t comprehend and interpret the present to make big and, especially, small daily decisions with which we shape the future, if we don’t bear in mind a minimal notion of the past. Probably, saving such memory would force us to blink twice before overlooking something like:
“It doesn’t surprise me that farmers are going out to the roads to protest. What surprises me is, given the deplorable condition of the Colombian countryside, that they had not done it before.” (D. Samper, El Tiempo, Agosto 24 de 2013)
Was it a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…? All of Colombia’s recent history is traversed by the common thread of farmer resistance, from the tensions that began to set on the “wastelands” a hundred years ago, with which the commanders of the civil wars rewarded their own efforts, and from the startup of strategies of amplification, appropriation and forced exploitation of the agricultural and livestock frontier, until the infinite manifestations of protest, always faced with infinite repression, and from which we might still have just a couple of memories covered by a mantle of magical realism and mythic names –United Fruit, Tropial Oil–.
A lot of people ask themselves “why it is that during this government farmers are actually protesting”, and some argue that, before, they had no motives, and others argue that now the liberty to do so exists. That is why it is also key to refresh more recent and punctual cases; it is key to revise, for example, one that we are about to forget due to the frenzy of the news cycle: el Catatumbo. When reading about it, we can see how this case represents unlike any other (in the end, like all of them) a story that furrows decades of aggression and harassment, protest and resistance, negotiation and agreement, non- compliance and abandonment. Aggression and harassment; the constant story of the farmer, the indigenous and the afro in our land of forgetfulness.
Let us recall that the period of The Violence was the thunderous rupture of a wave of conflict that had been growing in the Colombian countryside since at least two decades before the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Let us recall that this hurricane of shots and machete blows left around 300.000 casualties in the countryside, and that from this hurricane, self-defense farmer forces were born, which we know today as the FARC. And let us remember the more than 200.000 casualties and around 4 and a half million victims of aggression, forced displacement, dispossession, violation and massacre that have been left all over rural Colombia, the violences that we have all endured since The Violence period ended. Let us remember, schools. Let us remember, mass media, universities, everybody. Let us remember.
And just as from our poorly told history we tend to hide the triumph of oblivion, from the economy we tend to assume that productivity and growth are the most important things at stake, and from the law we tend to assume that laws thoroughly configure the totality of the rules of the game.
We blindly hold on to the idea that only the motive of certain gain assures the investment and innovation required for a production that can attend an increasing demand for food and raw material. And as if public decisions only had to do with the balance of the market –and not with ethics or justice– we recommend, based on that, to bet everything in favor of free trade.
But “free trade” is a concept; a concept that acquires full sense in the field of economical thought, but does not in the reality of economical politics, where relations and asymmetry of power become visible protagonists.
We lose from sight the fact that with the hand we’ve been using for decades to sign agreements and free trade treaties, we confront our farmers with powerful European and North-american producers who receive prodigious subsides. We lose from sight that with the elbow with which we assign our own subsides, we distort internal prices and we generate inequality in the access to land, the supplies, the capital and the technology required by our own farmers in order to empower themselves, experiment, learn and freely unfold in the market. We lose from sight that the rules of the game don’t get exhausted with the law; the law is part of a complex and contradictory sea of values and social norms in which sail those who take advantage of their power to abuse rights.
In the world of stories without memory, political economy and the social reality of the law, there is no such thing as a free market. Which is why we should look, look, look and look for –even when we have already forgotten this strike– ways to make structural decisions and undertake innovative projects that allow us all –farmers, merchants and consumers– to be more and more free in markets that become more and more fair.