Economist exposes Colombias misery

CHICAGO — Hector Mondragon is not your typical economist.

He doesn’t have a desk job as an adviser to a big bank or multinational corporation, nor is he a government bureaucrat. Neither does he hold a comfortable position teaching macroeconomic theory at a university, although he’s well qualified to do so.

Instead, for more than 30 years, Mondragon has been an economic adviser to the dispossessed in Colombia, particularly indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, campesinos, the workers and the urban poor. He has been an outspoken advocate for the economic, environmental, and cultural rights of the Colombian people.

That career path has made him a marked man.

“For 16 years I’ve been living under the threat of death,” he said in a recent interview with the World. “My children’s lives have been threatened, too.” The threats are not idle. Mondragon, 50, was tortured for nine days by right-wing paramilitary elements in 1977, and political assassinations happen daily in Colombia today.

“I don’t teach classes or appear at conferences in Colombia, and I try to avoid a regular routine in my daily activity,” he said. To avoid the assassin’s bullet, he’s become accustomed to changing lodgings from night to night and to having others chauffeur him around.

Assault on workers

The situation of the country’s working people is very grave, he said. “More than 100 trade unionists were assassinated last year, and the year before that 180 were killed. The purpose of these assassinations is to reduce the capacity of the workers to resist the attacks on their living standards.”

Even though the economy grew by 4 percent over the past year, he said, workers’ wages and food consumption have fallen. “The level of poverty has increased, especially since many traditional labor agreements between workers and the companies are no longer recognized.”

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a good friend of President George W. Bush, has pushed through “labor reforms” stripping Colombia’s workers of basic labor and democratic rights. In place of long-standing labor agreements, contracting-out and “contractual services” have come to dominate the employment scene.

“The so-called contractual services are a way of allowing the employers to deny workers their health and retirement benefits,” Mondragon said. “They are also a way of evading the minimum wage law.” Many workers’ hours have been cut, and underemployment and unemployment have mushroomed.

President Uribe’s neoliberal agricultural policies have only aggravated these problems, he said. Over a million campesinos (farm workers), unable to make a go of it at traditional farming, have been driven from their land and have flooded the cities, causing overcrowding and heightened competition for gainful employment. “People are desperate for jobs,” he said, “and this has only helped the employers push their ‘contractual services’ model and drive down wages.”

The electorate rebuffed the Uribe government’s attempt to institutionalize these anti-labor reforms through a referendum in 2003. The government has since found other routes to translate them into law. To enforce them — and to put through the accompanying cuts in workers’ living standards — the government has been happy to look the other way as employer-backed, right-wing paramilitaries have terrorized Colombia’s workers and campesinos.

“The most severe repression has been directed at workers in the petroleum, electrical and social service sectors, so as to weaken the power of their unions,” he said. “Another objective of this repression is to pave the way for the privatization of publicly owned enterprises and services later on.”

“Take the case of the hospital workers in Cartagena,” Mondragon said. “There was a wave of public hospital closings in the city earlier this year — like little coups d’état. The top regional leader of the hospital workers was assassinated. The night before the closings, the army moved in and occupied the hospitals. The authorities didn’t want a repeat of an earlier situation in Bogota, where the workers had occupied the hospitals and operated them for the public good.”

Fighting back

But the army’s maneuver backfired. People organized, and a general strike took place involving 700,000 workers. “It was a political strike, and it paralyzed the country,” he said. “Shortly thereafter a demonstration of 1 million people protested the ‘free trade’ agreements that lead to such closings and privatization.”

Another dramatic illustration of the workers’ fighting mood was the recent strike at the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, involving over 5,000 workers. “The workers were on strike for 35 days,” Mondragon said, “and they were ultimately successful. They won government guarantees that the contract with the oil workers union would remain in force and that Ecopetrol wouldn’t be sold off to private interests.”

At one point the government declared the Ecopetrol strikers “terrorists,” arresting 17 strike leaders and firing over 250 workers. But the workers held out.

“The strike broke the back of the government’s plans. They thought it would be easy to crush the workers by imposing unconstitutional ‘reforms’ that prohibited them from protesting,” he said. “But they failed.”

We asked him about how Colombia’s people viewed the U.S. administration’s “Plan Colombia,” its program to facilitate regional “free trade” and to ostensibly combat narco-trafficking. The U.S. has given over $3 billion in military aid to the Colombian government since 2000.

Phony war on drugs

“Plan Colombia is portrayed as a ‘war on drugs,’ or as a ‘war on terrorism,’” Mondragon said. “In reality, it is a plan to protect the interests of private corporations in the region — not only Colombia, but also Ecuador and Venezuela.” He noted that there are substantial oil reserves in the region.

On the day of our interview, a story appeared in the New York Times about U.S. military advisers helping Colombian troops protect private oil company pipelines in the oil-rich Putamayo region.

“As is well known, the war on drugs has not been successful,” he said. “But the U.S.-backed fumigation and defoliation of the countryside with herbicides has ruined thousands of acres of farmland, destroyed crops, poisoned farm products, and polluted the waterways.”

Mondragon said the main problem is not the cultivation of coca plants, per se, but that farmers are unable to survive raising traditional crops because of the domination of agribusiness and the relentless pressure of free trade. Coffee, for example, has traditionally been one of the country’s prize exports, yet prices have collapsed and Colombia has had to resort to importing coffee beans. “All this adds up to more human misery,” he said.

Economic distress in the countryside has resulted in land falling into fewer and fewer hands, Mondragon said. “Once people leave, a small handful of wealthy people move in to acquire the land — not for agriculture, but for speculation, investment, development, and privatization.” About 30 percent of the landowners now control 95 percent of Colombia’s land. “We call it the ‘anti-agrarian reform’ of the Uribe administration,” he said.

While some Indian tribes have won protection for their lands, Mondragon believes that unless there is a change in the country’s direction, it’s only a matter of time before their protections are stripped away, too. Government-provoked political violence in the countryside has displaced several million more campesinos over and beyond those who have fled because of economic hardship.

U.S. role needs to change

As for the much-vaunted U.S. aid to Colombia, Mondragon said, “Most of the funds do not stay in Colombia but are used to purchase military material, like Sikorsky helicopter gunships, and herbicides from U.S. companies. Therefore the funds go back as profits to U.S. corporations. The next chunk of funds goes to pay military personnel. A small amount goes to help the displaced campesinos that the Plan Colombia has itself created. A minimal amount goes to micro-agricultural projects that have the potential of being helpful, but are not the priority of Plan Colombia.”

“Getting labor groups and church organizations to visit us from the U.S. and Europe is very important,” Mondragon said, “because during such visits people get to see and hear how Plan Colombia is being implemented.

“Word gets around,” he continued, “and that is of enormous help to the workers and campesinos. It give them hope that the world is not blind to their plight, that the world is behind them in their fight for their rights.”

Our telephone interview with Hector Mondragon took place Oct. 22, while he was visiting Chicago for a solidarity event sponsored by the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America. A member of the Mennonite Church, he continues to work as a full-time consultant to indigenous and campesino groups in his homeland.

Not your typical economist.

The author can be reached at malmberg@pww.org. Sijisfredo Aviles contributed to this article.click here for Spanish text