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On my choice of civil resistance


[Translator’s introduction: this statement is a response to an August 29/08 article in El Tiempo, Colombia’s national newspaper, which claims that an email to Hector Mondragon was found on the laptop of FARC guerrilla leader Raul Reyes, who was assassinated by the Colombian government in March 2008. We read this claim as an attempt to draw nonexistent links between the social and political movements of which Hector is a part, and the guerrillas, of which Hector is not, to delegitimize the former and justify government violence against them.]

To those who know me well, those who work with me, there is no doubt that I live and practice a total commitment to nonviolence. Risking everything, giving my whole life to this commitment, I have dedicated myself to civil resistance, to the struggle for individual and collective human rights, in a country where the powerful use violence to impose their interests and where armed groups believe that violence can be stopped with violence.

Those who know me know very clearly that I am not part of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), because I disagree with their strategy, their political line, and their methods.

For 18 years, I have publicly and privately differed from the FARC’s strategy. That strategy is centered on the role of the guerrilla converted into a revolutionary army, through which the people can seize power and transform society. Mass mobilization and popular movements are relegated to a secondary role. This conception has been demonstrated to be completely inapplicable to Colombia. The FARC were once stronger than other organizations that emphasized the military over the political: later, for reasons that were probably related to the way that the Union Patriotica were massacred*, the FARC came to underestimate mass struggle and dedicated themselves to military strength as a first priority. This is a political error. It has become a tragedy for popular struggles. It has permitted the strengthening of the extreme right, which today is running the country. Not only has it failed to stop the displacement of hundreds of thousands of peasants and afro-Colombians, but it has actually exacerbated that process, and even provoked the forced displacement of indigenous peoples in various parts of the country.

In the majority of Latin America, it is mass mobilization that has begun to provoke change and challenge neoliberalism, the dominance of the transnationals, and the concentration of lands (latifundia). Even in a country where the agrarian sector has a greater proportional weight, like Bolivia, mass mobilizations have a primary role in social change. In Venezuela, too, social sectors in conflict resolve their contradictions on the terrain of mass struggle. In Ecuador, in Argentina, and in other countries, the masses have led the way. In each of these places the level of mass consciousness determines the success or failure of these torrential mobilizations. In Colombia, on the other hand, the military conflict has served as a curtain behind which the extreme right has managed to massacre the union and peasant leadership and thus impose the destruction of labor rights and the legalization of displacement from territories.

Despite the tragedy suffered by the Union Patriotica, despite the physical extermination of 3,000 of its activists, the party had earned the love of the people. Their struggle for a democratic peace accord that would open the way to popular participation had won the hearts of the people. Even though it would have been absurd to continue to expose senators, representatives, councillors and leaders to assassination on a daily basis, we need not confuse the need to go into hiding from murderers and take measures to avoid assassination with a policy of moving the struggle on to the terrain preferred by power, on the path of an indefinite war. Many revolutionary and democratic parties in many parts of the world have had to pass through a period of clandestine or semi-clandestine work but have maintained a policy of nonviolence centered on the organization of the people and their mobilization for their vital interests. In this moment the vital interests of Colombians are to stop the advance of neoliberalism, defend labor rights, social rights, and public enterprises, and to win a democratic peace.

The 1991 peace accords could have opened the way for Colombia, which by now could have been part of the Latin American movement. That Colombia is an exception to that movement is partly because of those who signed the accords but abandoned the struggle for social change, but it is mainly because the accords did not progress to encompass the two largest guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Army). Negotiations took place in Caracas towards accords, but they were frustrated. It is obvious that the right, especially the landholders, narco-politicians, and some of the transnationals knew they would not benefit from peace and dedicated themselves to the stimulation of paramilitarism, assassination, and massacre. But it must be said that these two guerrilla groups, FARC and ELN, lacked a strategy congruent with peace accords and lacked an analysis that allowed them to understand the decisive importance of mass mobilization as the true focal point for the change we need.

Other serious errors flowed from this mistaken conception of the guerrillas. The underestimation of the masses, their consciousness and their struggles, allowed the FARC to justify and to use methods of warfare, such as pipe bombs in populated areas, that harmed the people, as I wrote about in my 2005 article ‘Toribio attacked’. The kidnapping of civilians, which years ago the FARC considered a mistaken method of struggle, has become a central tactic of theirs, reaching the point where one FARC front ended up displacing some groups of Nukak indigenous people in order to maintain an area for holding hostages. For some years we have known that some of the murders of our beloved popular leaders or activists were actually committed by the FARC. In various cases activists have to fear not only the government or the paramilitaries, but the FARC. This has especially affected the indigenous movement. How could the majority not reject these actions by the FARC? What I have written here I have also said every day in the indigenous and peasant regions where I have worked. I have tried to say it so that they could hear it, in the hopes that it might produce some change in their actions, but even though they have at times responded to the demands of indigenous peoples, the problems keep occurring because they are based on erroneous conceptions.
I wanted to state these strictly political concerns first, to summarize the analysis that I have held to and deepened over 18 years. To these I must also add my personal commitment to nonviolence, which, although it is also essentially political, need not be shared by those who do not share my faith, nor by those who consider the legal right to the use of violence in self-defence to be legitimate.

The guerrillas came into being as self-defence for peasants against the assassinations and massacres perpetrated by agents of the state and landowners. The paramilitaries were formed with the pretext of fighting the violence of the guerrillas. The country has has suffered a chain reaction of violence. The beneficiaries have been the mafias, the ‘gamonales’ (politically-connected major landowners), and especially transnational capital, interest groups who continue to change the rules to tilt the playing field in their favour.

Since 1994 I have opted for a personal commitment to nonviolence as the way to contribute to radical social change. I renounced the use of arms in self defence under any circumstance. I got rid of two revolvers that I had legally carried since I had been threatened with assassination for my belonging to the Union Patriotica. I stopped working with bodyguards because I did not want to save my life at the expense of another. I ended up abandoning all routines, and thus the possibility of a stable job, in order to avoid being assassinated. I believe in the struggle for radical social change but I believe it must be accompanied with a radical change of method, the abandonment of armed struggle and the abandonment of the notion that the end justifies the means. The radical means of nonviolence can help us reach the objective of truly radical social change.

I have publicly maintained my commitment to struggle for radical social change. Radical change, as Carlos Gaviria teaches, means going to the root, not believing that a cosmetic change is a deep one. It is not about replacing one corrupt, right-wing government with another. It is not about exchanging one set of gangsters for another, so that our friends can rule instead of our enemies. It is not about demonstrating "governability" without meeting the basic needs of the 80% of Colombians who live in poverty. Colombia needs deep changes, especially on the land and in its relationship to the transnationals. And the only way to win these changes is to deploy the widest civil resistance, to construct alternatives from the base, and to have massive and committed civil mobilization. Absolutely everyting I have done in these years, every single day, has been to work towards this with all my strength and all my experience.

Today, I still carry wounds from the torture that I suffered in 1977 and also from 20 years of being threatened with death, pursued by the paramilitaries. Sometimes I lose hope, especially when I know that some of my friends have been killed. I ask myself why continue in this struggle with indigenous people and peasants, why not give up. But then I am struck again with the passion for the people I love and the certainty that they deserve lives with dignity, and solidarity. They failed to kill my body but today they are threatening to kill my words, and I feel it like a re-opening of my old wounds. But the word is a seed and it grows, whatever happens, in the peasant on the land, in an indigenous person in her territory, in Afro-Colombians returning to their communities, in those who live in the popular neighbourhoods of the cities who will eat better after the land reform that we will win, in every working family that will get a just wage for work, there the word will live. They won’t be able to kill it.

Hector Mondragon is a Colombian activist and economist.

*Translator’s note: the Union Patriotica were a political party and movement of the left, with similar left economic and political positions and ideas as the FARC guerrillas, that tried to enter the Colombian political arena in the 1980s. Thousands of them were assassinated.

-Translated by Justin Podur

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