On a bus ride during a recent visit to Colombia, our journey took an unexpected turn–literally. Faced with what I thought at the time was a simple construction detour, our driver veered off onto a narrow dirt road and proceeded to barrel through potholes and squeeze past other buses and semi-trucks for nearly an hour before re-emerging further down the highway. We eventually arrived at our destination, the small tourist town of Guatapé, breathless and flustered. The next morning, we learned that the assumed construction detour had actually been the beginning of one of many roadblocks that were part of workers’ protests spreading across the country. Transportation in and out of town was now effectively cut off. We were stuck in Guatapé, with no means to leave.
During the next few days of being stranded in a town where we’d only planned to spend one day, we avidly monitored Colombian news to learn more about these protests. Protesters were a motley crew of health workers, truckers, teachers, agricultural workers, miners, and peasants, all with some bone to pick with the government. Most interesting to me were the demands made by agricultural workers, who claimed that recent free trade agreements made with the United States, China, and Europe had wrecked Colombia’s domestic agricultural economy. The influx of cheap goods from other countries, such as vegetables, rice and corn (which the U.S. government heavily subsidizes) has driven down internal prices, they said. Combined with rising fuel and production costs, this has turned small-scale farming into a net-loss operation.
Farmers had obviously come to see their situation as desperate, so much so that they were overturning truckloads of their own produce onto the roads to block traffic. When a farmer thinks it’s more productive to watch his season of tomato harvest get mashed by cars and government troops than to sell them in the market, something is terribly wrong.
The protests got me thinking about the often-invisible network of international trade that connects us all as members of a globalized society. While it would be easy enough for me to enjoy the benefits of living in a wealthy American society without giving much thought to the desperate living conditions faced by people in other countries, the truth is that American prosperity is not unrelated to global poverty. Being stranded on vacation in Guatapé, Colombia and eating dirt-cheap corn arepas while watching farmers on television complain about how U.S. government-subsidized corn imports had forced them out of business brought this reality home. Sometimes, American foreign trade policies benefit our nation while impoverishing citizens of other countries.
This knowledge might make us reconsider our judgments against those who immigrate illegally to the United States. Many do so because they feel helpless to improve their living situations given the faltering economies of their home countries. Moving to the U.S.–even if it means living under the radar and working less-than-minimum-wage jobs here–seems a better option than staying in their home country without a job.
Some might say that this is their home country’s problem, and that their own government should figure out what to do about the poverty and lack of opportunities in that country. But it’s more complicated than that. Domestic economies are tied to the global economy, which is disproportionately influenced by the policies of powerful countries such as the United States. We are a part of the problem.
This is not to say that rich countries should take all the blame for poorer countries’ problems. But before we heap moral judgment on those who immigrate illegally to the United States, we should understand that the situation is far too complex to blame only these individuals. I can easily see how these disgruntled Colombian farmers, if their situation continues long enough, might consider moving to another country–with or without permission–if prospects for making a living seem better there. Like everyone else, they need to feed their families. The same thing has already happened in Mexico, where U.S. corn and other imports under the North American Free Trade Agreement ran many Mexican farmers out of work and spurred massive undocumented migration across the Mexican-U.S. border.
Even so, some will say, this doesn’t justify out-of-work foreigners violating American laws just so they can find work here. But let’s look at it another way: If the United States demands a free flow of goods with other countries, is it fair to then deny a free flow of labor? If we are allowed to freely inundate other countries’ markets with our goods, why then cannot other countries’ workers come into our country to work when our goods have cost them their original jobs? Before we judge the fairness of undocumented immigrants working in the United States, let us first consider the fairness of the global economic system that pushed them here in the first place.
After three days stuck watching the news and cooking arepas in the hostel, we managed to make our escape from Guatapé and continue our journey through Colombia. I was relieved that the workers’ protests had not disrupted our vacation too much but also disappointed to learn that the lifting of the roadblock was not due to agreements reached between strikers and the government, but due to government force. Today, some agreements have been brokered, but many underlying issues remain.
Though the roadblocks momentarily inconvenienced us, looking back, I am grateful for our prolonged detour in Guatapé. It opened my eyes to the inconvenient realities faced by the working poor across the globe every day. It also made me aware of the complex and not always just economic web in which I, as a relatively wealthy American, unwittingly play a role.
Liuan Huska is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Check out her blog on embodiment and faith, Body & Being, and follow her on Twitter @LiuanHuska.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92, or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
We are always looking for new guest bloggers. If you are interested in writing a guest blog, contact [email protected].