Fensuagro, the largest agricultural workers union in Colombia, held its 11th National Congress on June 5 – 8 in Bogota. The theme there was: “We advance for peace, rural peoples’ rights, and food sovereignty.” Fensuagro – the full name is the United Agricultural Trade Union Federation – reelected Húbert Ballesteros as vice president and member of its board of directors.
Ballesteros, however, is a political prisoner, one of 9500 Colombian political prisoners and one of 130 Fensuagro leaders who are in prison. His victimization symbolizes repression directed at Fensuagro since 1976, when the union was formed. As of December 2013, assailants had killed 1500 Fensuagro members over 37 years. More have died since then.
From prison Bellasteros wrote an article recently that appears below; Fensuagro’s revolutionary ideology is evident there. And the Fensuagro Congress concluded with a “Declaration” along the same lines. It covers the class-based nature of Fensuagro’s struggle, its anti-imperialism, and its insistence on structural political changes in Colombia. Excerpts of that document also appear below.
Fensuagro has a stake in the outcome of peace talks underway in Cuba between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The reason is twofold: persecution visited upon the union during the civil war and Fensuagro’s revolutionary orientation shared with the FARC.
Fensuagro exemplifies peaceful mobilization at the Colombian grassroots on behalf of social justice and, in effect, works in parallel fashion with the FARC’s armed struggle for the same purpose. If the union’s record is any indication, Fensuagro will likely be continuing its fight even if, ultimately, the FARC is unable to negotiate peace with justice.
Húbert Ballesteros’ own story reflects Fensuagro’s militancy and its leadership role in targeting monopolization of land in Colombia, the basis actually of capitalist power there. The regime’s enmity toward union and Ballesteros surely is no accident.
An agrarian strike broke out in August 2014 and 200,000 strikers soon carried the action to 17 Colombian departments. Over two weeks authorities arrested 500 strikers; nine strikers were killed. “Colombia has seen one of the most powerful mobilizations in its history,” a contemporary observer said.
Ballesteros was a leader of the Patriotic March coalition that took charge of organizing the strike. After it was launched, he served as spokesperson for the group coordinating the strike known as the “Table of Agrarian Discussion” (MIA by its Spanish initials). Colombian authorities arrested Ballesteros on August 26, 2013. They accused him, together with other Fensuagro leaders and other political dissidents, of ties to the FARC.
The point here is that Bellesteros and his union want social revolution and basic change. That’s clear from Ballesteros’ recent article and the Declaration from the Fensuagro Congress that are both presented below.
Peace in the countryside is peace for Colombians.
By Húbert Ballesteros, June 6, 2015
No other sector has suffered from social and armed conflict in Colombia the way rural peoples have. This sector, long viewed as an obstacle to the economic plans of the trans-nationals and the bourgeoisie, has endured decades of political and economic violence and armed assaults orchestrated and led by establishment forces against rural populations.
Some students of Colombian violence say conflict there occurs periodically and they point to different causes for each period. What’s certain, however, is that a continuum of time and cause exists and it goes back even more than the frequently mentioned 50 years.
We find similar variation in people’s reactions to the causes and nature of the conflict. Some only look at aspects of armed conflict and blame what they see on ideological reasons from the outside. But the truth is that in establishing the origins of the conflict one cannot disregard the problematic agrarian situation as one of them, nor can the conflict be divided into different eras and distinct causes.
Without exaggerating, we might even be able to place its origin in the Santander idea of a republic and state that the Liberal and Conservative Parties adopted and then put into effect 18 and 19 years after the death of the Liberator. (1)
Followers of Santander welcomed the thesis of Englishman John Locke for whom “Property comes before society and the state.” They grant political power only to property owners and exclude the great majority of people, those who lack material wealth, from exercising it. This idea squares very little with the Liberator’s social theories in terms of property, the scope of his liberation project, and the type of political system he saw as necessary for setting the course for nations recently liberated and recently converted into republics.
This rigid conception became the culture medium for all wars our homeland has suffered ever since. The bourgeoisie, having established itself in power and having restricted participation by any other sector – and relying on violence – is responsible for conflict that has its own staying-power and that continues over time.
Two very important aspects of the current [peace] negotiations must be taken into account in order to evaluate the controversy over violence. In the first place, the agrarian problem is one of the main causes, according to conclusions from the Commission on Historical Truth [set up by the peace negotiators]. Secondly, partial agreements are already in place on the first point of discussion, [that of agrarian reform.]
They both contribute to an understanding of the objective reasons for the prolonged armed conflict and how to deal with it. We have been living in the midst of social conflict and we hope to overcome it with agreements signed in Havana.
That’s what we and the majority of Colombians want. Yet we must be aware too that those who oppose the process of peace, and who always have, are afraid that if Colombians do agree on getting past so many decades of violence, they might then snatch away privileges belonging to lords of the earth, the very same who are lords of war.
The signing of a peace agreement perhaps will never force them to back away from their pretensions. As is their custom, they will use their power, institutional and otherwise, to block implementation of any accords, particularly in regard to agrarian issues.
Will the government be disposed to confront them politically and in the courts? This is a necessary question for us. And the government has the duty of providing a response. Since the land problem really set the conflict off in the first place, it can equally become a big obstacle to achieving real peace.
We people of the land must be conscious of the fact that the signing of a peace agreement is both a great opportunity and a great challenge. We must prepare to take advantage of it and deal with difficulties that may emerge. As it is, until that moment, we must be aware of and promulgate the contents of the preliminary agreements. Our object is to promote backing for the negotiations and for convocation of a constituent national assembly.
(1) Francisco Santander served as acting president of New Granada (present day Colombia) between 1819 and 1826 and president between 1832 and 1827. Defenders of liberator Simon Bolivar accuse Santander of betraying him.
Political Declaration of the Fensuagro Congress
June 14, 2015
We declare that:
As a consequence of the structural crisis taking place in rural areas of Colombia, very high levels of impoverishment and absolute dependency are affecting vast sectors of the Colombian population, especially those living in zones of misery surrounding big cities and in rural areas. The cause is application of neo-liberal policies and institutional and fiscal adjustments imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development. A submissive national government takes its turn in carrying them out.
We point to efforts complementing policies aimed at greater concentration of wealth in our nation, consolidation of trans-national finance capital, and plundering of our territories. These include: free trade treaties; the legal project on Zones of Interest for Rural Social and Economic Development; expanding agricultural business enterprises, concentration of land ownership; the impetus behind mining and energy development; and the recently-approved National Development Plan, especially the part on Transformation of the Countryside.
The war continues as the principal instrument for plunder and concentration of wealth on the part of the Colombian oligarchy. It operates in conjunction with transnational capital and the destructive power of imperialism. Rural peoples; indigenous peoples; African-descended communities; and, generally speaking, the working class of our country are being robbed continually of their fundamental rights. The executive and legislative power and the judicial branch that are harmoniously integrated with the interests of trans-national and national capital constitute part of this machinery of war.
Violence and systematic persecution against rural and indigenous peoples is no recent phenomenon. This cropped up in the first years of the previous century and continued throughout the entire 20th century and into the 21st century. The current armed conflict stems from the historical causes of violence, from political persecution, from plundering of rural peoples, and from overt North American imperialist intervention in our country.
The fact of more than 9,900 political prisoners in Colombia shows that to designate a country like ours as the continent’s “oldest democracy” is a solemn lie. Numbers don’t lie: more than seven million displaced persons, thousands of disappeared, around 25 million acres of land stolen from rural people.
The peace negotiations taking place in Havana, Cuba, between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP guerrillas, represent Colombian society’s best hope for reaching a definitive agreement that might end armed confrontation and open the road to a political solution leading to a long, stable peace and social justice. From our Federation, we call upon the two sides to … not rise from the negotiating table until they sign a final agreement. We call upon the national government immediately to implement agreements already reached on agrarian policies and also those agreements likely to contribute to building confidence in the negotiations process.
Fensuagro declares itself in favor of the constituent process. Necessary time must be dedicated for organizing and promoting the convocation of a Constituent National Assembly. It may be possible there to transform agreements reached in Havana into the reality of a new political constitution that would establish peace as a fundamental principle for Colombians, and establish social justice and democratization of wealth and the nation’s political life. The National Constituent Assembly must embrace the fundamentals for constructing a democratic society marked by self-determination, anti-imperialism, and unrestricted national sovereignty. Peace must become a basic principle for the Colombian people, guaranteeing them the right to free health care and education, the right to enjoy suitable housing, access to drinkable water, high quality foods, dignified work, land for the landless, and other modalities permitting direct state support for rural people’s economy.
Wealth and natural resources will have to be declared the strategic patrimony of Colombians thus prohibiting privatization and sales to foreign owners. Land will have a social and ecological function. No longer will monopolized land-holding in the hands of a few be legitimate. Legislation will have to be developed guaranteeing effective and efficient control of tax evasion by trans-national and national companies and by finance capitalists. Those companies violating fundamental rights of workers will be expelled from the country. Millions of rural inhabitants dispossessed of lands, territories, and wealth are still waiting upon the state to give them back. Four years in existence, the Law of Victims does not pass the test. According the government itself, only 215,000 acres have been returned out of 25 million acres that farming people say drug-trafficking big land owners stole from them ….
… We commit ourselves to join with social and popular forces in consolidating the Agrarian, Small Farmer, Ethnic and People’s Summit (1) and converting it into a space of unity in diversity. Its goal is permanent mobilization and struggle against the trans-nationals for the sake of retrieving land, territory and a worthy life. We also commit ourselves to organizing and preparing people – centered protest actions in a spirit of unity and leading toward the Agrarian and People’s Strike. …
…. Likewise, we call for a redoubling of efforts from the agrarian sectors, small farmers, and social, political and people’s organizations to strengthen the “Broad Front for Peace” that is working to achieve an immediate, bilateral ceasefire, for de-escalation of military actions, and the signing soon of an agreement putting an end to armed confrontation. The Broad Front seeks a stable, durable peace and social justice. The door thus would be closed to reactionary forces intent upon condemning the Colombian majority population to the harsh, painful road of war and systematic violence. The country’s social organizations and people’s organizations have borne the brunt of that experience….
(1.) “On September 13, 2013 and as a result of the agrarian strike of August, people’s organizations installed the Agrarian Summit. [Participants] since then have been trying to balance problems of the agrarian sector with the demands of the State.” They are giving consideration to renewing the agrarian strike.
W. T. Whitney Jr. translated.