Héctor Mondragón: The plan to Gaza-ify the Colombian Peace Process

[This important article is by the Colombian economist and activist Héctor Mondragón and argues that Colombia’s landowning elite are not interested in peace, even though negotiators have gone to great lengths to placate them. Originally in Spanish – translated by Justin Podur.]

To understand what is happening with the Colombian Peace Accords, it is necessary to identify the enormous political power held by Colombia’s large landowners. Without understanding the problem of the concentration of land ownership, it is impossible to understand anything that has happened in the country in the past eighty years.

The Socialist Worker’s Party of Germany in 1875 identified in their program the problem that the means of production were under the monopoly control of the capitalist class. Marx criticized their formulation for neglecting the “monopoly of the land owners (the monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital)”. He added that even “in England the capitalist class is usually not even the owner of the land on which his factory stands.”

Now, in the 21st century, in Colombia the economic and political power of the large landowners is notorious. The prolonging of the armed conflict unleashed an agrarian counter-reform and millions of peasants are displaced. Colombia has become the country with the most expensive land in the region (1) and the majority of arable lands are not cultivated. (2). 

The armed conflict has become an anchor weighing down social movements and an obstruction in the path of workers and peasants’ struggles for their rights. It serves as the pretext for repression and murder of popular leaders. Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Colombians, peasants and unionists, and human rights defenders have paid the highest price in lives and suffering for the continuation of the armed conflict. They want an end to it.

The landowners have made their profits throughout the period of war. They have no interest in returning the lands they have stolen and want to continue the process of displacement. The war also serves those who impose mineral, petroleum, and other megaprojects that devastate the environment because it provides the pretext for the physical elimination of the leaders of opposition to these projects. These assassination campaigns are not unique to Colombia – they occur throughout Latin America and elsewhere in the world.

Those who profit from war will not accept any peace accord – not even one they were able to edit and redact – because they know that the main effect of the end of the armed conflict will be that the people, especially the peasantry, will be able to organize and mobilize as mass movements for their rights. This will not be tolerated unless it is imposed on them by a mobilization of millions of determined Colombians who refuse to accept a return to war and who refuse to believe systematic campaigns of lies.

Neither the peace accord signed in Cartagena on September 26, 2016 nor the one signed in Bogota on November 24, 2016 will be accepted by the spokespeople of the landowners and megaprojects because they will not accept any peace accord, ever.

The hope generated by the accord signed in Cartagena resembles the hope awoken by the Oslo Accords of September 13, 1993 between Israel and Palestine, for which Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat received the Nobel Prize in 1994.

The religious right never accepted the Oslo accords. Assassinations and attacks were the path by which the accord was eroded and finally torn apart. On November 4, 1995, after a huge demonstration of support for peace, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a religious extremist. Rabin had just said in his speech: “I was a military man for 27 years. I waged war as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe there is now a chance for peace, a great chance, and we must make the most of it.”

As fighting resumed between the Israeli Army and Palestinian armed groups, Yasser Arafat was under Israeli house arrest in Ramallah from 2001, a violation of what was left of the Oslo Accords of 1993. The Israeli government has continued to build colonies on recognized Palestinian territory, bombed and invaded Palestinian towns hundreds of times, and converted Gaza into a ghetto where Palestinians are systematically murdered and massacred. Israel is governed by those who opposed the peace accords, those who declared Rabin a “traitor” – instead of peace, there is a racist nightmare.

Colombians have to do whatever we must to defend peace, to avoid what has occurred in Palestine – to resist the planned Gaza-fication of Colombia’s peace process. Unfortunately, things are moving in the direction of Gaza-fication.

First, through a massive fraud, thousands of voters were misdirected by messages that told them their retirement pensions would be reduced and their social services eliminated if peace accords were approved; that the peace accord “promoted homosexuality” and the “gender ideology”; that taxi medallions would be seized to be given to demobilized guerrillas; that many respected and famous people (who were pro-peace accords and voted “Yes”) were going to vote “No”. The result of the failed plebiscite on the accord was the consequence of a fraud – but it was used to modify the accords.

Second, the modifications of the accords have come at the expense of the peasants, communities, and the promised rural reform.

The deterioration of the text of the peace accords could only be justified if the new accords would bring in an armed actor that has, so far, not agreed to peace. At the end of the day a peace accord is between enemies – it is not a piece of legislation defined by voting by the population. A peace accord is what it is precisely because it does not reflect the thinking of any of its signers who agree to it – it is essentially an agreement on mutual concessions by those who had been at war. And yet in this case concessions to landowners were given without any promises by them to agree to peace. Indeed, they continue to advance their own plans for the continuation of the war.

Third, and worst, since the days before the signing of the accords and more so in recent weeks, a new wave of assassinations of Indigenous, peasant, and Afro-Colombian leaders has been unleashed. Those who have questioned gas fracking in Cesar have been arrested and detained. In Caqueta, they have been assassinated. The young governor of Putumayo, who challenged traditional landowners and is a firm defender of peace and rural rights, has been ousted. The leftist former mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, was fined 67 million dollars because he lowered bus fares while in power.

Fourth, the mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, sent the police to destroy the Campamento de Paz, a camp which had been set up in the Plaza de Bolivar in anticipation of the ratification of a peace accord that would end the armed conflict.

Fifth, before ratifying the new peace accord, the national government ratified a law that seeks to regulate prior consultation with Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and other groups in the country. According to Indigenous organizations, it is an “affront without precedent”, one which contravenes national and international jurisprudence and, if adopted, would violate the fundamental collective rights of these groups.

Remember that among ex-president Alvaro Uribe’s proposals to modify the accord was “limiting prior consultation”. In the new accord, Uribe’s proposal was rejected, but the government has put the proposal into legislation instead.

The changes in the new accord that affect peasants all came from Uribe – in some cases they had input from Andres Pastrana and Marta Lucia Ramirez. The changes are motivated by a desire to confront, weaken, or neutralize the important definitions in the original accord on the peasant economy.

The accords recognize “the fundamental role of the peasant, family, and community economy.” But this is precisely what the successive governments have denied. Uribe, in his first electoral campaign, stirred the Agricultural Society of Colombia (SAC) when he declared his lack of confidence in any autonomous role for the peasantry and proclaimed the need to subordinate peasants to the big landowners: “We will install in Barrancabermeja a peasant association, and demand that the contractors integrate with an efficient enterprise in San Alberto, so that associated peasants and business owners with a tradition of efficiency can take responsibility for the success of these projects.” (3)

This subordination of the peasant has already been imposed in practice through strategic growers’ associations, especially palm oil growers, during the years that Andres Pastrana was president. Pastrana was also the president that brought in Plan Colombia (4). The subordination of the peasant continued under Uribe’s governments, which received funding from the World Bank to support “associations of producers” of “small agricultural producers” with “private enterprise” (5). This experience did not help Colombian agriculture. By the end of Uribe’s second government, it was in one of the worst crises the sector has ever seen.

The following has been added to the peace accords:

“ Associations. The government will foment and promote associations, links, and alliances between small, medium, and large agricultural producers along with processors, sellers, and exporters with the goal of guaranteeing economies of scale and competitiveness and value-added to contribute to the improvement of the living conditions of rural inhabitants in general and small producers in particular. Technical, legal, and economic (credit or finance) assistance will be provided to small producers with the goal of guaranteeing family and community economies that are balanced and sustainable.”

In this manner, the plans of the past three presidents, also the doctrine of the Chicoral Pact of 1972 – which stated that large producers were necessary to guarantee competitiveness – has been inserted into policy through the peace accords. In reality peasant agriculture can reach and in some cases exceed the efficiency of large-scale cultivation. And besides, independently of the scale of production, small producers are efficient when they have access to resources and when the environment permits. (6)

This modification works with the other: “The government will pass a law with the goal of promoting other forms of access to state lands, such as the assignment of usage rights.” The origin of this change lies in the government and the Zidres law, which states that the occupiers of vacant lands that do not meet the requisites for being granted title may “conclude contracts to real surface rights, which allow the use, enjoyment and layout of the rural properties they occupy.” Although the agreement limits this to medium producers, there is no doubt that land grabbers are very interested in this modification of the accord and have taken advantage of the “No” vote.

The traditional discourse has been inserted in the new agreement so that “big producers” and “medium producers” can try to neutralize – as they always have – any programs that favor the peasants.

One “principle” added to the proposal of the “No” promoters says:

“Rural Development: Rural development depends on a balance between different forms of production – family agriculture, agro-industry, tourism, commercial agreculture – on competitiveness and the necessity of promoting and encouraging investment in the countryside with a business vision of production as a condition of development; promotion and encouragement, under equitable conditions, of chains of rural production with other models of production, which could be vertical or horizontal at different scales. In all cases the peasant, family, and community economy will be supported and protected, strengthened and developed.”

The modified accord fortunately maintains the recognition of the fundamental role of the peasant economy, as well as the principles of Welfare and “Buen Vivir”. But it cannot be denied that even though they did not agree with the peace accord, the big landowners have succeeded in introducing their discourse into it. They will later be able to use it to impose their “balance” of activities, and to erode what was agreed upon about the participation of communities in planning and management.

The Colombian Constitution, from the preamble and first article, defines the country as a democratic and participatory republic. It is not a mere representative democracy. The text of the original accord developed this point when it sought “decision-making bodies at different territorial scales that include the presence of communities”. The modified accord now speaks of bodies “that guarantee the participation of communities in the process of decision-making.” That is, communities now participate – they don’t make the decisions.

The modified accord says that the mechanisms for participation “in no case will limit the powers of government or of its legislative bodies (Congress, Councils and Assemblies).” What the spokespeople for “No” denied to rural communities, they have claimed for themselves, limiting the powers of the President of the Republic to define the peace accords.

On the question of the campesino reserve lands, the modified accord simply adds that they will be “made by the competent authority in accordance with current regulations” – that was obvious in the previous agreement since there are clear existing regulations on these zones. Their application was frozen, first by decision of Uribe and after – by request of the Ministry of Defense! The original and modified agreement both seek the enforcement of the law on campesino reserve lands, which has been in force since 1994.

What has happened with the campesino reserves in the past 22 years shows that it is not about what a law, decree, or accord says, but about how the government can use the armed conflict to displace peasants from their lands and prevent peasants from exercising their rights.

In order to not return to the peasants what has been stolen from them, in order to continue with land grabs, in order to impose large-scale, open-pit mining, fracking, diversion of rivers for coal or for dams – the despoilers need for the conflict to continue. They need for there to not be peace and for Colombia to continue under the thumb of those who promoted the “No” vote in the peace accord.

This is no matter of simple parliamentary opposition to the peace accords. There is a new deployment of paramilitary groups, operating with their usual impunity, to enclose each community and convert it into a ghetto, like Gaza. In Colombia the communities most affected by the war voted massively for the “Yes” side in the referendum – especially the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. The enemies of peace are on the other side.

The defense of rural communities is also the struggle for food sovereignty. Donald Trump says he will protect the US from imports, but will promote exports, repeating the old history of The Big Stick to impose the consumption of North American exports, especially agricultural exports, on Latin America, produced specifically in the areas that voted massively for Trump. Without peace, they will continue to impose the destruction of our food sovereignty.

The struggle for peace is fundamental. It is the most important struggle right now for the defense of Colombian workers and especially for campesino, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities.

1. Portafolio (2009) “Colombia tendría la tierra más cara de la región, según estudio de la SAC”, 30 de octubre de 2009.

2. DNP (2010) “Bases del Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2010-2014: Prosperidad para todos”. Bogotá: Departamento Nacional de Planeación, p. 172.

3. Discurso en el congreso del la SAC el 8 de noviembre de 2001.

4. Gobierno de Colombia. “Plan Colombia: plan para la paz, la prosperidad y el fortalecimiento del estado”, 8 de marzo de 2000.

5. Grupo del Banco Mundial. Colombia. “Banco Mundial aprueba préstamo por US$30 millones para mejorar la productividad rural”, 21 de agosto de 2007.

6. Forero, Jaime et al. 2013. “La eficiencia económica de los grandes, medianos y pequeños productores agrícolas colombiano”; EfiAgrícola.