Has Colombia reached a turning point?

October 22, 2015

Gabriel Chaves describes the dynamics of Colombia's long guerilla war and explains why its end could create conditions for powerful social justice struggles to emerge.

IN LATE September, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) set a six-month deadline for the rebels to start the process of demobilization, reintegration and participation in electoral politics.

At the risk of prematurely celebrating the end of a 70-year conflict, this is a moment to reflect on the legacy of this long war and look at the potential space that might be created for social movements to win the fundamental changes that FARC failed to produce.

For decades, the armed confrontation has overshadowed the myriad other struggles throughout Colombian society, allowing the government to smear every social rebellion as being in cahoots with the guerrillas.

Both the government and FARC benefitted from this misperception. The state had the excuse to violently repress social mobilizations, and FARC got a propaganda tool to justify its existence and modus operandi--while third voices struggled to be heard amid the ensuing explosions.

To realistically assess the strategy, successes and failures of FARC, it is essential to keep in mind that the group has not had a monopoly on resistance. Instead, our evaluation should be given from the perspective of social movements that are confronting capitalist forces from below.

Rallying for Zonas de Reserva Campesina in Colombia
Rallying for Zonas de Reserva Campesina in Colombia (Camrela María)

No institution should be free from that scrutiny, especially those dressed in revolutionary rhetoric. The calculations of the peace dividend must also address whether it benefits the working class and its political interests.

FARC, whose stated objective is to take the power of the state "to transform Colombian society for the benefit of the majority," clearly has never belonged to the tradition of "socialism from below" which emphasizes that the working class must learn to win its own liberation rather than be the passive beneficiaries of an elite guerilla army.

Right-wing commentary generally oversells the idea that FARC has completely degenerated from its founding ideals into mass drug trafficking and indiscriminate extortive kidnappings. But leaving aside the fact that those same tactics have been staples of the Colombian government and its backers in the CIA, one must acknowledge that FARC has engaged on those reprehensible activities.

As Leon Trotsky eloquently explained on his writings on terrorism, political strategies employing violence on behalf of the masses does not aid the development of their political consciousness. As a consequence, there is a wide disconnect between FARC and the majority of the population.

Moreover, there is no reason to believe that FARC--a rural military organization with a very limited mass base among the urban population--has democratic mechanisms in place to govern Colombia in case of an eventual victory.

TO BE fair, FARC does seems to have an organic social network in regions under its influence. It is in recognition of this fact that one of the items of the peace negotiations is the implementation of moderate land reforms via Rural Development Zones (ZRCs). The establishment of ZRCs gives FARC a plausible claim of victory--or at least a face-saving measure for its supporters that it has gotten something in exchange in return for laying down their weapons.

The peasantry in areas under FARC control might reap an economic benefit from the deal and become the electoral base of a new FARC political party--assuming that the peace deal succeeds in allowing their open participation in the political arena. In any case, it is only in an atmosphere of peace and political openness that we will be able to assess FARC's real political strength.

Beyond the strengths and weaknesses of FARC's strategy and tactics, demographic changes over the past 70 years, during which time Colombia has gone from having a mostly rural to an overwhelmingly urban population, has led to a decrease in its influence over the population.

In contemporary Colombia, land struggles are not as significant as they were when FARC was born. It this sense, the main weakness of FARC is not that it has become corrupted, but that it simply represents fewer people than it once did.

Aside from some very narrow triumphs, there is little to celebrate from seven decades of war. Today, Colombia has one of the most skewed distribution of land ownership in the world, the highest level of internal displacement in the world, little protection against land-grabbing by multinationals and an economy increasingly dependent on mining.

The war has prevented neither the privatization of state assets nor the "economic opening" that destroyed an incipient industrial sector.

As peace negotiations have progressed in Havana, foreign investors have salivated at the possibilities. They will find a country rich in natural resources and ripe for exploitation. For the capitalist classes, peace is now more profitable than war.

Some of those who demand that the current peace talks deliver more than modest reforms that facilitate some access to land and a minimum of political participation overestimate FARC's potential to address Colombia's disgraceful inequities.

FARC has proven itself unable to deliver social change or defend the population against the neoliberal agenda. One could even argue that social victories have been achieved not because of FARC's existence, but despite it.

For this reason, it would be a mistake to demand that the peace talks deliver on issues beyond their modest agenda at the risk of derailing negotiations, because peace is a necessary first step to open up the space for broader social forces to advance the many fights for justice in Colombia.

THERE ARE and have been many political actors in Colombia who are too often ignored in the shadow of the government's war with the FARC.

FARC supporters have justified their strategy by pointing to the history of the Unión Patriótica (UP), a political party formed by former members that faced murderous repression when it attempted to participate in electoral politics. The extermination of the UP was effectively a genocide. But it's important to know that there have also been more successful examples of peace agreements.

In 1990, the M19 guerilla movement signed a peace treaty with the government, and today, several of its member occupy important positions at different levels of the Colombian government. In 1993, a dissident group of the ELN (Colombia's second guerrilla force) negotiated with the government and founded the Current for Socialist Renovation (CSR), which later helped to create the Foundation Nuevo Arco Iris, an important think-tank that denounces human rights violations. It has been a key promoter of a negotiated solution to the war.

Other leftist parties have participated in electoral politics without facing the same level of persecution. And it should also be acknowledged that in some cases, the FARC itself has assassinated left-wing candidates competing against their choices for office. There is no possible justification for these actions.

Beyond electoral politics, there are other social forces that have successfully confronted the neoliberal push of the political elites: The indigenous movement successfully expelled both FARC and the army from its territories; the student movement prevented the passage of education reform that would have put public education out of reach of the majority of students; doctors are confronting "health reform" that would reduce salaries for the benefit of financial institutions; and human rights organizations are bringing high-ranking officers to justice.

In summary, there are a variety of social movements learning how to win victories against the government. It is from these struggles that a democratic revolutionary group can emerge.

IN 2013, many of these political forces combined to engage in a massive agrarian strike, which forced the government to slow down implementation of the free trade agreement with the U.S.

Three days after dismissing the strike as nonexistent, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had to apologize and acknowledge the demand of movement for the dignity of agrarian workers (Dignidad Agropecuaria). This indicates the potential of forces other than FARC to change society.

To empower and magnify those voices, several organization of Colombian expatriates are organizing tours for individuals immersed in those movements. In New York City, the Movement for Peace in Colombia (MPC) is organizing an October symposium with representatives of five organizations at the lead of those struggles. The MPC and the International Socialist Organization will also host a talk by Oscar Gutiérrez of Dignidad Agropecuaria on November 12.

During the agricultural strike, the roads of Colombia filled with an inspiring chant: "Amigo mirón, unase al montón, su abuelo es campesino, y usted trabajador." (Friend, looking from the fence, join us in the crowd, your grandfather was a farmer, and you are a worker)

This cross-class solidarity. along with the reaction to state repression, dispelled the notion that security forces were there to protect the population from FARC. During the strike, the main tactic was the road blockade by "sittings" of tractors and people on key intersections. At the sittings, Dignidad Agropecuaria engaged in discussions to educate campesinos in the consequences of free trade agreements. The process of struggle constituted a unique educational opportunity for rural workers to understand the consequences of free trade.

Something similar occurred when MANE, the leading student organization, led a 2011 student strike opposing regressive policies by the Ministry of Education. As a result of the neoliberal state abdicating its role of guarantor of education, families have had to incur crippling debt to pay for tuition.

The strike gained cross-generational solidarity and the Ministry plan was defeated on the city streets. That these struggles of students and farmers are interconnected is evident when the solidarity calls are put side-by-side.

At the doorsteps of the campus, students would chant: "Amigo mirón, unase al montón, su hijo es estudiante, y usted trabajador." This is nearly identical to the chant heard during the agricultural workers' strike, only the students changed, "your son is a student," instead of "your grandfather was a farmer."

The similarities of the chants reveal the solidarity among movements, while the differences confirm the realignment of forces caused by the demographic shift. The son is a university student, the grandparent is a farmer, and both are calling for help from an onlooker on the outside: the worker.

Isn't this a confession of these two separate movements that the key force needed to win is the working class?

The peace agreement won't solve Colombia's biggest problems, but other forces will be heard more clearly once the noise of cannons is gone. There will be an environment where people will more openly organize and strengthen the networks among different struggles. And if the working class joins and leads the struggles, we may perhaps start to win.

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