Repression under the guise of making peace

No to the U.S.-backed 'Plan Colombia'!

by Pete Brown
(from Communist Voice #25, Nov. 27, 2000)


. Clinton's "war on drugs" is raging in southern Colombia. Right-wing paramilitary groups have launched an offensive aimed at driving left-wing guerrillas into political limbo and sabotaging the Colombian government's avowed efforts at peace negotiations with the guerrillas. At the same time the government is launching military offensives aimed at bottling up the guerrillas in their recognized bases and depriving them of financial support. When the paramilitaries attack the guerrillas, the official army stands aside saying they have a policy of "non-intervention". But whenever the guerrillas get the upper hand in some struggle, the army suddenly gets activated to "keep the peace." And the army's activities are supported by U.S. dollars, equipment and training provided through Clinton's so-called "war on drugs."

. In late October Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, renewed an effort at peace negotiations with the guerrillas. At the same time local elections were carried out throughout the country. For the first time the government recognized the guerrillas' right to supervise elections in their base territories. So Pastrana is making certain concessions, recognizing the guerrillas' existence and popularity. At the same time, his "Plan Colombia" emphasizes a military solution to the civil war with the guerrillas. His military offensive is aimed at strictly limiting their influence and forcing them to negotiate from a position of weakness. And as always the government keeps up the pressure on the left wing by means of the fascist paramilitary groups, many of which are simply military and police units operating without their uniforms. A number of leftist candidates in the elections were murdered by paramilitaries, so the "legal, open" road remains dubious for Colombian leftists.

Massacres by the military and paramilitaries

. President Clinton has certified that Colombia has met the basic requirements for recognition of human rights to receive U.S. aid. But the fact is that the Colombian regime is one of the most bloodthirsty, anti-people regimes in the world. This has been documented by numerous groups which have shown, for instance, that a major cause of death in Colombia is homicide from firearms. Just recently statistics came out about the murder of trade union activists in various parts of the world. These were compiled by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the labor international associated with the American AFL-CIO. According to them, half of all such murders occur in Colombia. Last year, they say, 140 union members were disappeared or killed around the world, and 69 of those were in Colombia. These numbers are clearly low; the ICFTU probably only counts as "trade unionists" professional bureaucrats like themselves, not rank-and-file activists. Nonetheless it's interesting to see that even according to this pro-imperialist group Colombia ranks as the most dangerous place in the world for working class organizing.

. Consider the city of Barrancabermeja, center of Colombia's oil refinery industry and a major hub for working class activity. So far this year 366 people have been assassinated in this city alone, with many killings done in broad daylight. The government claims it has no idea who is carrying out these killings. But in many cases policemen, warned beforehand, stand idly by while murders are carried out. This is a right-wing terror campaign designed to intimidate the working masses and prevent them from getting organized and asserting their rights.

. Meanwhile, out in the countryside, government forces directly carry out a war of terror against the peasantry. Here they claim to be attacking left-wing guerrillas, but when ordinary people get in the way the army attacks them too. For example on August 15 the army attacked a group of children playing near the village of La Pica, killing six of them before other villagers were able to make them stop. Even then the soldiers refused to call for ambulances to aid the wounded. This is one of the worst atrocities so far this year, but it's by no means the worst incident of recent years. (1)

. Barely a week after this atrocity President Bill Clinton had the audacity to sign a waiver allowing aid to flow freely to Colombia, certifying that the government there met basic requirements of human rights adherence. If this is what Clinton considers a humanitarian regime, we'd hate to see what he calls a repressive regime!

Prospects for a negotiated peace

. Pastrana was elected president of Colombia based on his promise to recognize the guerrillas and to negotiate peace with them. There is widespread sentiment in Colombia against the decades of massacres, and the liberal forces are willing to give some political space to the left wing. Also the government's hold on power was getting somewhat shaky as a mass movement against neo-liberal capitalist policies spread among the masses in Colombia and neighboring countries. The government is ignored, or militarily opposed, in vast sections of rural Colombia; to have any hope of developing these areas, the government has to come to some accommodation with the guerrilla forces that are strong there.

. For their part, the guerrillas were also growing exhausted with the decades of civil war. Some of their leaders tell journalists they were sick of living in the jungle and look forward to a normal life in the cities. The guerrillas were not losing the war, militarily or politically, but they weren't winning it either. So they were willing to take up Pastrana's offer of negotiation.

. Pastrana recognized the guerrilla group FARC's control of a certain area of Caqueta province. This is now called "Farclandia". FARC enjoys freedom of operation there, running their administration out of offices equipped with computers and satellite dishes. They raise money by taxing small farmers and businessmen in the area. This includes coca processors and shippers, so they have a fairly substantial financial base.

. But the Colombian government will decide next month whether to continue its concession concerning Farclandia. And on November 15, the day after the start of a new army offensive, FARC broke off negotiations with the government, citing government support for the paramilitaries.

. The reality today is that, while intermittently sitting down with FARC leaders to talk peace, the government is maintaining heavy military pressure on them and on the other major guerrilla group, the ELN. Despite all of Pastrana and Clinton's talk of "improved human rights", the paramilitaries are being maintained and have presently unleashed a reign of terror against any suspected guerrilla supporters. At the same time the government, with support from Clinton, has launched a "war on drugs" to undercut FARC's support in the countryside. U.S. aid to "Plan Colombia", centering mostly on military support, has the threat of leading to direct U.S. military conflict with the guerrillas. All this may well lead to a deepening conflict crossing national borders sooner than it leads to any "peace."

. For the Colombian activists, given the military stalemate and the mass sentiment for peace, a negotiated settlement may well be preferable to years of further war, which themselves are also likely to end in some sort of settlement. But it won't bring democracy to the people, or economic progress. Faced with a stalemated civil war, the Colombia oligarchy may agree to a settlement, but it won't give up its power. The past may serve as a guide to the present. Over a decade ago another guerrilla group (the ELA, originally a Maoist group) gave up its guns and agreed to enter the civilian political process, to run in elections as a legal party. The result: scores of their cadres have been murdered, even including some elected to parliament. And as a small minority party they have not been able to produce any progressive legislation. The Colombian toilers will be faced with a difficult, protracted struggle just to obtain democratic rights, some relief from the economic pain brought by neo-liberal fundamentalism, and to dethrone the special privileges of the oligarchy.

New class struggles, not national reconciliation

. How have the on-again, off-again negotiations proceeded? In their political documents FARC gives generalized calls for a regime that is more representative of the working masses. But little has leaked out about the actual specifics of the negotiations. Will Pastrana agree to some kind of power-sharing arrangement? Will FARC's armed guerrillas be integrated into the Colombian military? Will FARC be allowed to hold onto Farclandia as their own autonomous area? Will the government recognize FARC's right to tax this area or demand a sharing of tax receipts? Will mass organizations friendly to FARC be given liberty to operate in Colombia's cities, with the government pledged to protect them against attack from the paramilitaries? These are the concrete issues facing the two sides in negotiations. But so far neither side has opened up these issues to public discussion and debate.

. The FARC leadership has not opened up a discussion of their concrete negotiating position, but they have put out documents explaining their general political ideas. (2) These are concentrated in FARC's call for a "government of reconstruction and national reconciliation." Generally speaking, this means they would like the present government to play a more active role in the economy and provide a certain amount of social welfare programs. Colombia would remain a capitalist country with the present government still in power. But supposedly the oligarchy would be dethroned and reaction tamed. The main difference would be that mass organizations would enjoy some recognition, would be allowed to exist without their leaders being shot down in the streets on a daily basis. FARC emphasizes that this would be a pluralist regime; the bourgeoisie would still exist, with full rights and enjoyment of their wealth, but supposedly the capitalists would also recognize the masses' right to organize and to exercise some influence on the government.

. But how can it be expected that the oligarchy and the reaction would simply consent to be removed from power, although they haven't lost the civil war, which has only been fought to a draw? FARC is not going into these negotiations as a victor dictating terms to a defeated enemy. And how can it possibly be expected that the bourgeoisie would lose its exploiting features if only some FARC representatives and trade unionists are brought into government bodies? FARC's presentation of a peace settlement as a national reconciliation hides the intense struggle that would follow any agreement. It slurs over the fierce class contradictions in Colombia. It is one thing to seek a settlement of a civil war that has bogged down; it is another to politically pacify the masses in the face of their class enemies.

. In elaboration of its goals, FARC sets forward a number of popular demands for the amelioration of the condition of the masses and the blunting of the neo-liberal offensive, as well as some dubious demands that might aid the co-opting of the mass movement by the government. But FARC statements overestimate the degree of relief that can be expected from the peace negotiations. They cover over the real compromises that will be made for the ending of the war, and hence gloss over the real situation that will exist after a peace settlement. There will not be reconciliation between the lambs and the wolves any more than after previous peace settlements. Instead the masses, if they are to obtain any rights, will have to continue the struggle in new forms.

. FARC is naturally opposed to the paramilitaries and the murderous actions of the military and police. But it talks of such things as having the military and police "educated in human rights". It downplays discussing the actual guarantees that it is asking of the government.

. On the economy FARC puts forward a wide range of demands concerning taxation, land reform, colonization of empty lands, using 50% of the state budget for social welfare, a larger state sector, etc. Not much of this is likely to be agreed to and actually implemented.

FARC's politics

. The guerrilla movement in Colombia is centered on two groups, the largest one, FARC, and ELN. They represent a section of people in arms against the intolerable repression and fierce exploitation imposed on them. But the actions of these groups are guided by their political stands, set forward and defended by their leaderships. The deficiencies in these stands explain why FARC and ELN have in recent months engaged in some bloody battles against each other. And, to take the example of FARC, it explains why its leadership puts forward one face in public, and another in negotiations, and why it advocates a "government of national reconciliation".

. FARC was originally based on leftish Liberal Party activists who were forced to take up arms in self-defense in the 1940s and 50s, when the Conservative Party and then a military dictator had control of the government. The Liberal Party's return to a share of power in the 1960s still did not bring security to the leftists who had now become diverse bands of guerrillas. In the early 60s many of them joined together under the leadership of the revisionist Communist Party as FARC.

. The ELN was founded by urban students enamored of the Cuban revolution in the 1960s; they left the cities and took to the countryside. So politically FARC is more traditionally pro-Soviet, while ELN is more directly tied to Cuba.

. From the beginning FARC's ideology was totally revisionist. They replaced the Marxist ideas of class struggle with the perspective of obtaining united progress with the local bourgeoisie. They promoted the Soviet Union as "socialist" and for countries like Colombia maintained a perspective of "non-capitalist development", meaning that supposedly these countries could develop their own separate path, independent of capitalism or socialism, without going through the fires of class struggle. The state-capitalist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union was promoted as the model "socialist" regime, and the CP had bureaucratic state-capitalist solutions to all of Colombia's problems. Instead of encouraging the class struggle of the workers in the 1950s (for example, the oil refinery workers and banana plantation workers), the CP held that setting up state-capitalist enterprises (such as a state-controlled oil company) should be the main goal.

A period of turbulence

. Colombia is facing a period of turbulence. The government and oligarchy are not about to give away the store to the masses. Pastrana's Plan Colombia has the threat of an intensified civil war. But what about if there's a peace settlement? That may be preferable to the stalemated war. But even if the Colombian government strikes a deal with FARC, it won't by any means signal the end of civil strife. It may change the form of this strife, and lower the number of armed clashes. But the oligarchy and bourgeoisie will remain entrenched, and the workers and peasants will still face a difficult struggle.

. The example can be given of El Salvador, where an internationally brokered peace process brought about a settlement in which former guerrilla groups reconstituted themselves as legal civilian political parties. There still is peace. But at the same time the right wing remains in power, still has the capability of carrying atrocities against the masses, while the workers have gotten barely an inch of reform.

. Today the mass organizations in Colombia are bound by ideas of class collaboration and revisionism. This handicaps their struggle. The guerrillas have displayed heroism and perseverance in the face of a difficult struggle, but their leadership still dreams of working with the bourgeoisie. The workers face sooner or later building up a new, truly Marxist political trend in Colombia.

. It's up to workers and progressive people everywhere to firmly support the Colombian masses and their struggles. Plan Colombia, the threat of a wider war, and the on-going murderous repression of workers and peasants must be denounced. U.S. imperialism must be denounced for its arming of the Colombian military, for its enforcing of neo-liberal exploitation of Colombia, and for all its all-round propping up of the Colombian bourgeoisie. And we should render assistance to all attempts of the Colombian toilers and activists to build up new and stronger organizations of struggle.


(1) More information about human rights in Colombia is available at the website (Return to text)

(2) Documents from FARC are available at the website (Text)

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Last modified: October 15, 2001.