Which Way for Colombia?


The Colombian people are being tested perhaps more cruelly than any other in Latin America. The bloody conflict pitting the guerrilla groups in the countryside, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), against the U.S. supplied and trained army, has taken a heavy toll.

The responsibility for this ghastly war lies with the Colombian oligarchy and imperialism, for the principle agents of terror and repression are the army and the paramilitary death squads.

The tragedy of the decades-long war in Colombia has prompted many to hope the peace negotiations will bring about an end to the bloodshed. These hopes are fostered by the largest of the guerrilla groups in Colombia, the FARC-EP, and to a lesser extent, the ELN. Closer examination of imperialism’s strategy, however, shows there is little reason to believe the guerrillas can negotiate the “peace with social justice” FARC leader Raul Reyes claims as his goal.

Many Colombians might find it hard to believe that the Democratic Party is portrayed in the United States as the lesser of two evils, for it was President Clinton’s Plan Colombia that recently raised funding for the military.

Needless to say, although there was some hand wringing in Congress about links between the armed forces and the paramilitary groups, much of this money will find its way to the death squads. Indeed, this is what imperialism expects.

Plan Colombia has also brought U.S. military advisors with it, raising concern among activists in the United States of another Vietnam. But the U.S. government obviously does not want a repeat of Vietnam. Instead, it would like to repeat the victories scored in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In fact, it was in this last country where the U.S. government perfected a method it has gone on to use repeatedly in Latin America. Unable to intervene militarily (and unable to exploit ethnic and tribal divisions to build proxy armies), Washington has turned towards peace plans modeled on the 1992 Contadora accords, which paved the way for the disarming of El Salvador’s guerrillas.

Though the revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador were much wider and deeper than the guerrilla movements themselves, the disarming of the FSLN and the FMLN was critical for demobilizing the mass movement, which might otherwise have led these countries down the Cuban road.

The strategy behind Plan Colombia differs little from the one applied in El Salvador. Essentially, Washington wants Colombia’s government to promise reforms in the negotiations, which may or may not be fulfilled, while creating paramilitary forces to repress the masses.

The paramilitary groups play a dual role in this strategy. While the death squads are an effective counterweight to the guerrillas, who have been able to defeat the regular armed forces in open combat, they are even more effectively employed against unarmed peasants and trade unionists.

In sum, Plan Colombia represents a serious threat to the people because it offers the hope of peace through negotiations, while increasing the Colombian oligarchy’s repressive power.

This strategy could be defeated by a united front of the workers in the cities, who have led multiple general strikes and repeatedly mobilized the general population in national civic strikes against the government’s neoliberal austerity measures, together with the guerrilla-led peasant movements in the countryside.

Unfortunately, unity has been blocked by the lack of initiative from the workers’ leadership in the unions and by the guerrillas’ own strategy, which is to negotiate reforms with the government.

The guerrillas don’t want power

Colombia’s guerrillas are quite open about the fact that they are not fighting for a government of the workers and farmers. In an interview presented on the FARC’s web page (www. farc-ep.org), Commander Manuel Marulando, “Tiro Fijo” (straight shooter), made this clear: “The FARC wants a democratic, patriotic, and pluralist government (in which all of the parties and social sectors are represented).”

In other words, commander Manuel wants to share power with the traditional parties of the Colombian oligarchy!

Sharing power with the landlords and capitalists responsible for devastating Colombia’s countryside and waging a campaign of terror against workers in the cities and in the fields hardly seems possible, provided one is fighting to liberate Colombia from their control. Yet, it is clear from the policies carried out by the FARC-EP in the demilitarized zone, the “zona de despejo,” which was conceded to the guerrillas by the Pastrana government, that the principal guerrilla force in the country feels it can live with oligarchs.

The demilitarized zone is not a liberated zone. The same capitalist parties who alternate in ruling the country are in control of the municipalities in the zone; the FARC has not built support within the zone for the national civic strikes that have shaken the oligarchy on several occasions; and no agrarian reform has been carried out in the zone, although the big landlords are charged with heavy taxes.

The guerrillas’ strategy is to win the most it can out of negotiations by punishing Colombia’s military and destabilizing the infrastructure.

Unfortunately, this means prolonging the war that has been waged at such a high cost for the people. The result has been predictable; the guerrillas have isolated themselves from the urban population, basing their support almost exclusively on the peasants forced off their lands by the death squads.

In contrast with the Nicaraguan FSLN in 1979, which enjoyed massive support from the population and even controlled large cities prior to leading a popular insurrection that toppled Somoza, the FARC have only limited support among the Colombian people. This is because the guerrillas have alienated themselves by their methods and policies-which include military roadblocks, mass kidnappings, and military assaults on towns in order to destroy police and army barracks.

These tactics inevitably bring additional suffering to the people. Worse still, there are reports of the assassination and kidnapping of trade unionists by the guerrilla groups. These accusations should be weighed carefully, however, because government propaganda pays little heed to the facts in its attempts to avert blame from the paramilitary groups and pin it on the guerrillas.

Even if these accusations are true, the country’s two guerrilla groups are not responsible for the terror inflicted on the population. The real issue of concern is that neither the FARC-EP nor the ELN have moved beyond a military strategy aimed at forcing the government to negotiate.

This almost incoherent strategy-fight to negotiate your disarmament-cannot succeed in meeting the demands of Colombia’s people for it fails to recognize that the government and its repressive apparatus serve only one purpose: crush all opposition to the oligarchy and imperialism.

Upsurge in the cities

The valor of the peasants of the FARC-EP and the ELN, who have dared to take up arms against Colombia’s U.S.-backed armed forces, is undeniable. Yet the guerrilla groups are not the only forces in combat. In fact, since the end of the 1990s, Colombia’s workers and the urban poor, as well as peasants outside the guerrilla movement, have been the protagonists of a mass movement that has stopped government austerity plans on more than one occasion.

The power of this upsurge was first expressed in a national civic strike, in February 1997, which mobilized workers and other sectors of Colombian society. The 1997 civic strike was the first the country had seen in 20 years, but it was soon followed by more nationwide civic strikes and general strikes. Since 1998, the Colombian masses have averaged one national civic strike and one general strike per year.

This upsurge has faced ferocious repression. Of every five trade unionists killed in the world, three are Colombian. It should come as no surprise that trade unionists are one of the primary targets of paramilitary terror, and they are certainly easier prey than the armed guerrillas.

The 2001 annual report on violations of trade-union rights, issued by the International Confederation for Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), is grim reading: “One hundred and thirty-five trade unionists, both leaders and members, were assassinated during the year, bringing the total number of trade unionists killed since 1991 to several thousand. At least another 1600 others have received death threats over the last three years, including 180 in 2000.

“Thirty seven were unfairly arrested and 155 had to flee their home region. A further 24 were abducted, 17 disappeared, and 14 were the victims of physical attacks.” Colombia’s ruling oligarchy, fearful of the power of mass movements, has attempted to systematically decapitate the working class.

Winning the fightback

Though the targets of brutal repression, Colombian workers have fought tenaciously and won important battles. The victorious struggle of municipal utility employees in Cali, just recently concluded, highlights the difficulties workers and the urban poor face when trying to block the government’s neoliberal policies-without being linked to the guerrillas.

On Jan. 29, after workers protesting the privatization of the second-largest utility service in Colombia (EMCALI) had occupied the Municipal Administration Center for 35 days, the national government was forced to sign an agreement with the Municipal Workers Union (SINTRAEMCALI), ensuring the company would not be privatized.

Before achieving this victory, the workers occupying the building were the targets of a bomb threat from right-wing paramilitaries. The most serious threat, however, came when the government tried to link the union to the FARC-EP.

The government’s maneuver was facilitated by the guerrilla group’s careless call for an “armed strike” on the same date workers had set for a municipal civic strike. Armed strikes are counterposed to broader-based civic strikes, and the FARC’s call clearly placed workers in grave danger, potentially paving the way for open government repression.

Fortunately, the union was able to avoid the trap, changing the date for the municipal civic strike that would help bring the conflict to a successful conclusion.

The mass movement in the cities and the guerrilla armies in Colombia’s countryside constitute powerful revolutionary forces. United, these movements are capable of defeating Plan Colombia, rolling back the neoliberal attack on workers’ and peasants’ living standards, and imposing land reform and peace on the Colombian oligarchy. Yet, the leaderships of both these movements have failed to take concrete steps towards building the unity so desperately needed.

In the cities, workers are understandably shy about linking up with the guerrilla movement, since this would be an open invitation to government repression. However, real opportunities for worker-peasant unity would develop more rapidly if the union leaderships would simply wage a more consistent fight for workers’ demands.

Unfortunately, the official leadership of the unions has quite often stood out for its eagerness to call off general strikes, in exchange for little or nothing, and its only half-hearted attempts to actually build these actions. Though repression has clearly taken its toll on the working class, it is also true that the union leadership has been reluctant to build independent class action, preferring to piddle away the energy of the urban masses rather than deal telling blows to their enemies.

In the countryside, there is no doubt that the agrarian programs of both the FARC-EP and the ELN cannot satisfy the demands of Colombia’s peasants. Moreover, the guerrilla strategy itself not only fails to protect the peasantry from the paramilitary death squads, whose strength has grown rapidly, but it also leads the peasants away from the cities, deeper into the isolation and relative security offered by the deepest recesses of the jungles and mountains. The net effect is a division of Colombia’s revolutionary forces.

There is reason to believe that the increasingly stronger urban movement will finally topple the barriers to unity between workers in the city and peasants in the countryside. The recent uprisings in Argentina will also tend to radicalize and activate the Colombian masses.

Imperialism and its local henchmen have much at stake in Colombia, especially in the context of the continental upsurge, and their only way out of the crisis is to spill more blood. The stakes are high, and rising.

Related Articles