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Colombia: A Guaranteed Income For The Rich

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

31 October 2009 

There exists a programme which theoretically benefits everyone but in reality only benefits a small number of rich people (not even all of them), a selection of criminals and other neíer do wells.  We are not talking about NAMA, but rather a Colombian government programme called Guaranteed Agricultural Income (AIS in Spanish).

The AIS was invented by the Ministry of Agriculture in the midst of the debate on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States.  Various sectors of Colombian agriculture were considered to be at risk from the coming into affect of the FTA, chicken farmers, rice producers and beef producers amongst them.  All of these sectors are dominated by major companies and large landlords, but the AIS was sold on the basis of subisidies to the poor.  The FTA never came into force, but the subsidies remained.  With the passing of time the truth has come to light and it is worse than anyone could have imagined, though one piece by the Cattle and Agricultural Study Centre at the Andes university (a Colombian equivalent of Oxford / Cambridge) did point in the right direction.

The technical requirements, both financial and environmental, of the AIS automatically excluded almost all peasants from applying.  They had to have sufficient land, which is not easy in a country whose GINI index on land distribution is just under 8 (0 being an equal distribution and 1 being the most unequal distribution).  Apart from that they had to put forward a balance sheet of the project signed by a chartered accountant, the CVs of the professionals that would carry out the project and also prove that the internal rate of return on the investment would be at least 12%!  No peasant could possibly meet these conditions.  Not only that, they had to carry out climate and hydric supply studies on the land, calculate monthy potential evaporation and carry out geotechnical land surveys and agrological soil studies!  The very conditions excluded the peasants, but they were the ones the media and the then Minister Felipe Arias (otherwise known as Uribito, as he has modelled himself in a grovenly manner on his boss, even down to the mannerisms).

That the poor would not get the money came as no surprise, except to the gullible.  However, the brazen nature of the handouts to the rich took more than one aback.  The family of the banker Sarmiento Angulo (a Colombian Rockerfeller) received almost $2 millon dollars!  They were not alone, other oligarchs such as Lacoutre ($6 millon!), Vives ($3.5 millon!) were also included.  This being the Uribe regime whose initial social base was the narco-bourgeoisie meant they were also included.  Ismael Pantoja who was extradited to the US for drug trafficking received $350,000 and even people connected to the paramilitary boss alias Macaco, whose goods are being embargoed by the State were able to receive finance from the AIS.

The scandal has seen calls made for a disciplinary investigation of the ex Minister and the current one.  Though, it is not likely that it will get very far.  We are still waiting for a whole string of convictions of politicians who conspired in the murder of thousands of peasants through their membership of the paramilitaries.  A far more serious crime whose investigation has dragged on now for four years.  Even the Conservative Party, to which Felipe Arias belongs, has criticised him and said he should not be their presidential candidate.  It is lost on them that Uribe, who they still support, was behind it all.

The AIS is not the only programme to benefit the rich.  Tax exemptions cost the State some 2.75 billion dollars, around the same figure as the profits in 2008 for the banking sector (the crisis hasnít quite hit that sector here).  All this in a country that levies VAT on basic foodstuffs.  A recent study by the environmental organisation Semillas has shown that the sugar barons received $5.8 billion dollars between 1990 and 2007.  Most of that money goes to a handful of companies in one department. Valle del Cauca.

These schemes show up clearly not just the class nature of Uribeís regime based on traditional oligarchs, landlords, bankers and drug traffickers, but also the nature of the regimes that preceded his.  The massive sums of money transferred from the poor to the rich, tainted with blood and otherwise can leave no one in any doubt about the thoroughly corrupt nature of the regime.

However, if we tot it all up, it is all small change.  The budget for AIS next year will only be around $250 millon, plus another $2.75 billion in exemptions for the rich.  From their vantage point in Bogota, Cali and Medellin, the Colombian oligarchy must be looking across the atlantic in envy, wondering what it would take to steal $57 billion euros in public money!  How do you translate NAMA?  Funds for oligarchs? Funds for paramilitaries? Etc.  No matter, they havenít a patch on Fianna Fail whcn it comes to corruption.  Despite the truth behind the myths of Latin American corruption, it pales into insignificance in comparison to the gombeen version, something right wing NGOs like GOAL would do well to remember.


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