Colombia Interview

Steve Shalom. The New York Times ran a story on February 25 by Juan Forero titled “Colombian Rebels Sabotage Peace Hopes.” Perhaps you can address some of the questions raised by the article.

Let me begin, however, by asking about the political program and values of the guerrilla group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Latin America has some guerrilla movements, like the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, who have been an inspiration to North American leftists, and others, like Shining Path in Peru, that are strongly condemned by North American leftists. Where would you place FARC on this continuum?

Justin Podur. It is important to understand the FARC’s roots. The FARC have their origins in peasant self-defense organizations. They grew out of a fight for survival, against the incursions of the state and against the mercenaries the landlords would hire to displace and kill them. That state-mercenary alliance evolved into the paramilitary forces of today, and the peasant self-defense groups evolved into the guerrilla insurgency.

That’s still the base of the FARC, I think — peasants who are fighting for survival. Any solution to the conflict has to deal with this question: if people have no option but to fight with arms for survival, then they will fight with arms for survival.

There’s another item in Colombian history that’s relevant here. The dynamic I just mentioned means that there have been many guerrilla groups in Colombian history — and even now there is more than just the FARC; there’s the ELN for example. Guerrilla groups, including the FARC, have tried to “go legitimate,” and seek change through political rather than military means.

And historically, when they have disarmed and entered the public sphere in that fashion, they’ve been systematically destroyed by assassination. That’s what happened to the FARC in the 1980s when they formed a political party, the Union Patriotica.

About 3,000 of the political activists they put forward were assassinated by the military, police, and paramilitaries. You can imagine the effect this would have on a guerrilla group. Everybody who wanted to try political struggle was killed, proving the people who said there is no political option right.

Having said that, it’s important to say that, in spite of this, there is — there has to be — a political option. To say that there isn’t is to say that the unarmed struggles of the peasants in the “peace communities” movement, the Afro-Colombians who are struggling to remain on their territories, the indigenous, the women’s groups of Barrancabermeja, the unionists all over the country, are fighting in vain. I think that’s the worst kind of disservice to them and to Colombia.

These independent social movements are struggling for rights and justice, and the FARC’s position towards them has been disappointing. The FARC has murdered leaders of these social movements. That’s a terrible thing. It’s one thing to be an armed movement because all the political options are closed; it’s another thing to close those political options yourself.

My own position is to support these independent social movements. Movements are what movements do, armed or unarmed. To the extent that the FARC defends the people, protects human rights, fights for social justice, they should of course be supported. If they are involved in murdering people and violating human rights, they should be denounced and struggled against the same way we would struggle against an oppressive state. And if the FARC were to win state power and deny people’s basic rights, independent leftists would have to struggle against this too.”

Note that denouncing human rights violations by a guerrilla insurgency isn’t the same as calling for an intervention by a greater human rights violator (the US or Colombian government, for example) to destroy the insurgency.

Q. The Times article charges that the FARC failed to use their control of the demilitarized zone to demonstrate their political proposals, by, for example, setting up agricultural programs. Is this an accurate charge? If it’s true, how do you explain this failure?

A. There are conflicting answers. When you consider that in the rest of Colombia impunity is 97% — meaning that 97% of violent crimes go unpunished — even setting up a system of regular laws, taxation, and so on, as the FARC had apparently done, is an achievement.

As far as agricultural programs, let’s take two. Let’s take land reform and crop substitution. For land reform, I think there are better examples than the FARC.

Take the indigenous of Cauca, for example. Notice that the NYT article didn’t talk about the indigenous of Cauca. That’s a shame, because over the past thirty years they have enacted the most successful land reform in Colombia. They did this in spite of paramilitary violence that has killed thousands of them, in spite of state violence, in spite of all the cards being stacked against them. They simply took the land back, and held on to it despite the repression that came down, until the authorities had to negotiate.

I’m making a point of mentioning this because these stories are every bit as important as the ones that happen to make the NYT.

How about crop substitution? As far as I know, the FARC haven’t made much of an effort to set up programs so that peasants can grow something other than coca. Suppose that they wanted to. I wasn’t in any FARC controlled areas when I was in Colombia, but I heard from many peasants who grow coca who said that they didn’t want to grow it. What would it take for them to be able to grow something else — bananas, yucca, coffee, whatever? They would have to be able to earn a livelihood at it.

And that ability is not in their hands, nor is it in the FARC’s hands — it’s in the hands of the world market and the commodity exchanges, and in the hands of the agribusinesses, international financial institutions, and governments that protect that market and make sure that Colombian peasants have no alternative but that market.

And again there are ways out of this — there is a whole peasant cooperative movement that is trying to organize (independently, of the state and of the insurgency) for land reform and for more self-sufficient, diverse, sustainable agriculture, a movement that is also facing tremendous paramilitary violence.

But for peasants, having to contend with the IMF, WB, the market itself, plus aerial fumigation by the United States, plus paramilitary violence, makes it difficult to establish any kind of agricultural programs.

As for how to explain it, I would blame global capitalism! In the sense described above, that the global economy is designed to take control over a peasant’s life away from the peasant.

But Colombian history, and the history of the war, plays a role as well. Fifty years of brutal war against a U.S.-backed onslaught have turned the FARC, of necessity, into an institution that is primarily concerned with fighting a war. They have enacted social and agrarian programs, but those have been subordinated to the needs of war.

Q. The Times article further charges that FARC commanders did little to dispel reports of murder and coca-growing. And it says that critics like Human Rights Watch were denounced by FARC as puppets of Washington. Is this true?

A. I think the coca-growing issue I’ve addressed. Coca is grown everywhere, not just in the demilitarized zone, and that’s because coca can earn peasants a living and other things cannot. The FARC are not involved in drug trafficking the way the paramilitary AUC is — the leader of the paramilitaries, Carlos Castaño, has admitted on television that the AUC gets 70% of its income from the drug trade (and who knows how much of the other 30% comes from the US). As for murders, the FARC have committed murders.

I hadn’t actually heard that the FARC had denounced HRW. The last HRW report I read about Colombia, though, was called “The Sixth Division” and it was about military-paramilitary links in Colombia. The title refers to the fact that Colombia’s army has five divisions, and the paramilitary AUC is thought of by many Colombians as the sixth division.

Note that that report wasn’t cited by the NYT article. It’s from October 2001 and very good. It seems to me that if HRW also brings attention to human rights violations committed by the FARC, that’s evidence that HRW’s agenda is really human rights, regardless of who’s violating them. I don’t think they’re a puppet of Washington.

Q. The main claim of the article is that the FARC is responsible for the breakdown of the peace talks. Though FARC claims to still be interested in negotiations, “few people seem to believe this.” And the immediate cause of the abrupt end to the negotiations was said to be FARC’s hijacking a plane and kidnapping a senator. Why did the talks break down?

A. I don’t think the kidnapping of Turbay and the hijacking is the reason. If you’ll forgive me quoting an earlier article I wrote: “In the haystack of assassinations of unionists and massacres of peasants by the paramilitary, kidnappings of middle-class Colombians and, yes, assassinations of activists by the FARC, it is an open question why this needle got singled out to be the last straw.”

In fact I think it has more to do with a perceived change in the balance of forces by the U.S. and Colombian governments. They say the FARC used the period of negotiations to try to strengthen their forces. That’s fair enough, and quite true. But that’s exactly what the U.S. and Colombia did as well.

During the period of negotiations, the U.S. was sending helicopters, training pilots, training and supplying “counter-narcotics” battalions, and fumigating parts of Colombia. Now the money from Plan Colombia has been disbursed. The helicopters are ready, the battalions are trained, and the U.S. has already moved on with the Andean Initiative.

US officials are actually quite frank about their plans. They want to move towards a counterinsurgency war. The war on terror provides the pretext, and the military infrastructure is in place now. Less than a month ago the government threatened to break off peace talks. I think it was going to happen, and soon, whatever the FARC did.

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