Jan 21, 2008
On January 10, two hostages held for three years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were released in a deal brokered by Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. The repatriation was taking place in a country in the midst of civil war.
Contrary to what the press pretends, the FARC is far from being the sole or even the main party responsible for violence in Colombia. For a very long time, two bourgeois parties took turns in power in Colombia. One was the Conservative Party, made up of cattle ranchers and then of businessmen; the other was the Liberal Party. Sometimes one of the parties won an election, sometimes they strong-armed their way to power.
In 1948, a dissident of the Liberal Party, Jorge Gaitan, had sought the support of workers and peasants against the landed oligarchy. Gaitan was assassinated by killers from the Conservative Party to prevent his being elected president. Thus began a civil war, referred to in Colombia as “the violence,” which continued into the 1950s, leaving 300,000 people dead.
The politicians not only killed each other, but more significantly they also eliminated communist militants or anyone suspected of being one. The landlords waged war against the peasants, chasing them off their lands, in order to create huge domains for raising cattle. Peasants resisted by forming self-defense groups. Manuel Marulanda, the founder of FARC, got his start in such a group, which only appeared in reaction to the threats against poor peasants perpetrated by landlords.
The FARC, born in 1964, is currently estimated to have 20,000 fighters. Another Colombian militant group is the ELN (National Liberation Army), which appeared in 1962 and which still has 4,000 members.
The FARC depends on the peasantry and is linked to it. In the regions under its control, it levies taxes on the peasants and assure them a certain social protection. The 1970's brought a “boom” of coca production, which is used to make cocaine, and then of opium poppies, the basis for heroin. Peasants changed over to these crops which permitted them to escape their abject poverty. The FARC put up with this, since the taxes they could levy gave them the means to equip their army.
On the other hand, the manufacture and delivery of drugs to the U.S. and Europe depended on the drug lords, the “cartels” of Medellin or Cali. Relations between the guerillas and the drug traffickers worsened when the traffickers laundered their fortune by buying up land, thus joining the landed bourgeoisie.
From then on, civil war opposed the FARC to the narco-landlords, who created “death squads,” to eliminate the guerillas or those poor peasants whose land they wished to steal. At the beginning of the 1980's, the guerillas kidnapped narco-landlords. In reaction, the Cali cartel created a group of killers called “Death to the Kidnappers.” In the following years hundreds of paramilitary groups appeared, sponsored by politicians, businessmen, cattle ranchers and foreign companies.
In 1985, the Colombian president proposed a cease- fire to the FARC. The latter created a legal political party, the Patriotic Union, and took part in the elections. But the agreement was broken in 1986 by the next president. Then the paramilitaries began assassinating all oppositionists – 3,000 militants of the Patriotic Union, its top cadres, hundreds of its elected officials and two candidates for the presidency.
What Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina experienced under military dictatorships, Colombia lived through those 25 years due to the paramilitaries. The balance sheet is frightful: three to four million displaced people, 70,000 people assassinated including guerillas, poor peasants, competing drug traffickers, non-corrupt politicians and anyone who continued the struggle, even when they didn’t support the guerillas.
In the regions under their control, the right-wing paramilitaries massacred entire villages, assassinated militants of Indian minorities or the women’s movement, also killing several thousand unionists.
Organizations like Amnesty International published reports of the civil war in Colombia: 70% of the acts of violence were caused by paramilitaries, 15% were due to the official army and the rest could be attributed to the guerillas. In fact, the majority of kidnappings for ransom were the work of criminals. These reports don’t prevent the majority of journalists from pretending that the kidnappings are the work of the guerillas alone.
President Uribe, who claims he wants to end the guerilla war, has in fact tried to legalize the paramilitaries. A commission was supposed to demobilize them, but scandals have revealed their role in corruption and in crimes too heinous to pardon, making their legalization difficult.
Uribe is unlikely to favor appeasing the FARC, since conflicts between the guerillas and the paramilitary have tended to enrich the wealthy. The presence of the guerillas has more than once served as a pretext for the expropriation of poor peasants. For these reasons, a political settlement of the conflict with the guerillas is far off.