In February this year the Colombian army launched a cross-border raid on a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) camp within Ecuador, killing 18 people. One of the victims was the organisation’s second in command, Raúl Reyes. The Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, claimed the raid as a major victory in the 46-year war with the guerrilla organisation and announced that in the course of the attack three laptop computers had been found containing hundreds of thousands of confidential files. Uribe was unmoved by the furious protests of Ecuador’s President Correa, for whom this barefaced intrusion into Ecuador’s territory was a grim reminder of his country’s relative weakness in the face of a Colombian state whose role in the region continues to be as a stalking horse for US imperial intentions.
The raid and its murderous consequences raised a number of unanswered questions that perplexed the left across the world. Why had the second in command of this powerful guerrilla army allowed himself to be killed while he slept with no sign of armed vigilance and without his gun by his side? The raid was brief and devastating and conducted with precision electronic equipment that had clearly pinpointed the guerrilla camp and the people in it. Was it possible that laptop computers and USBs containing so much information could have been captured so easily by the Colombian state or held together and in such insecure conditions by an organisation that had so much experience of the murderous intents of successive Colombian governments? Was this really just a successful military operation or in fact the result of internal betrayals supplying a major intelligence network?
Uribe’s indifference to Correa’s protests and his obvious sense of having won a major propaganda victory over Hugo Chavez gave an inkling of the confidence he clearly felt and of the unstinting support he could expect (and got) from Washington in justifying and defending his actions. He had violated national sovereignty, raided the territory of a neighbouring state, paid civilian assassins to supplement the work of the 200,000-strong Colombian army (to murder a second Farc leader, Ivan Marquez), and enjoyed the full support of the intelligence services and counter-insurgency commands of Israel and the Pentagon as well as his own. In the aftermath of the raid it became clear too that a number of people at the highest levels of the government of Ecuador were also involved. Correa sacked his head of military intelligence, replaced his defence minister and accepted the resignation of the heads of all three armed services in the weeks that followed.
Clearly, this was no ordinary operation. Its purposes were far reaching and strategic. It was a critical moment in the Colombian state’s war with the Farc, and its impact on that organisation should not be underestimated. It was also calculated to undermine the role of Hugo Chavez in Latin America and to discredit him—serving the interests of Colombia, whose government was competing for regional hegemony as a representative of the long term interests of the US and global capital. More broadly, it was designed to change the balance of forces across Latin America at a time when the rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (the FTAA) by the majority of Latin American governments, and the emergence of an independent economic block around Venezuela and Bolivia, could represent a serious challenge to the neoliberal project.
All of these ends would be served by a defeat of the Farc. And beyond that, and whatever the criticism that might be aimed at the Farc’s strategic vision, Colombia remains a country where thousands of peasant and trade union activists are murdered every year by a state ruled by drug traffickers and their satraps. Thirty congressional deputies are currently under arrest for involvement with the paramilitary death squads directly linked to the drug barons, and a senator was recently exposed for accepting bribes in exchange for votes. But that is no more than the norm. The presidential campaigns of Uribe, like many by his predecessors, were financed by drug money.
The reality of a Colombia dominated by a military financed to the tune of $7 billion over the past ten years by the United States is the clear explanation for the continuing existence of the Farc. They are persistently described in the Western media as “narcoterrorists” whose activities and 10,000 or so members under arms are thus represented as little more than another form of criminality. But the Farc were formed in the late 1940s after a savage repressive assault on what was called the Independent Republic of Marquetalia—effectively a mass seizure of land by small peasants and agricultural workers led by the Colombian Communist Party. One of its leaders, Manuel Marulanda “Tirofijo” (Sureshot), set up the Farc after the raid as an organisation of rural self-defence. Marulanda died earlier this year at the age of 80. He had led the organisation throughout but the Farc’s role had undoubtedly changed. Over the years it had suffered corruption, desertion and some level of disillusion among its supporters. The guerrillas’ increasing use of kidnapping as a political weapon caused controversy and dissent among sections of the left. It brought down vicious reprisals against the ordinary population while disarming them politically.
Yet wherever the Farc has failed to maintain its hegemony, the brutal paramilitary death squads have continued to terrorise rural populations, seize their land and control local communities with an iron hand.
The Colombian state, far from acting against the paramilitaries, incorporated them into its repressive machinery—with the explicit support and approval of Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia of 1999. This gave their activities legitimacy, and the so-called “war on drugs” allowed large-scale military operations against a rural population. The accusations of “narcoterrorism” allowed that “war” to morph imperceptibly into the “war on terror” of the early 21st century. Against that background the Farc’s survival is explained by the necessity of some form of self-defence.
The raid on the camp in Ecuador came at a time when the release of hostages, including the high profile former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, was being actively negotiated through the mediation of Hugo Chavez. He had been photographed in the mountains with them and was later seen smilingly negotiating with Uribe. The main intermediary in those negotiations was Raúl Reyes, the man murdered in Ecuador.
It has been argued, convincingly I think, that the involvement of Chavez and Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, as well as several other high profile European mediators, led the Farc leaders into a false sense of security, causing them to let down their guard—persuaded, perhaps, by those amiable photo opportunities, that the Colombian government had somehow changed its spots. Yet the Farc knew from bitter experience that no Colombian state would allow them to score either a political or a military victory and that peace negotiations now, as in the past, would be likely to serve that state only as a screen behind which to prepare a deadly assault.
In the late 1980s the Farc negotiated with the then government to come in from the cold. The Unión Patriótica (UP) was formed to present candidates for the elections of 1990 and won major victories at all levels. The Colombian ruling class avenged itself, unmasking the peace initiative and murdering 5,000 UP members, including all its major leaders. Ten years later the Farc again embarked on a peace initiative, holding extensive public debates and developing strategies for democratisation. Once again the initiative was suddenly removed from the Colombian presidency and the process stopped on direct instructions from Washington. The US’s alternative strategy was set out soon afterwards in Plan Colombia, which saw the Colombian state as the bridgehead for US regional hegemony as well as an important testing ground for neoliberal economic strategies. Colombia became the bulwark against a rising tide of protest at the impact of ten years of globalisation.
The new initiative brokered by Chavez had much to do in the first instance with the increasing presence within Venezuela of the paramilitaries and the deepening instability that this implied on Venezuela’s huge and porous land border with Colombia along the Andes mountains. The Farc clearly did represent a kind of buffer against that intervention, but it was uncertain and unstable, particularly destabilising in Venezuela’s economically important state of Zulia. Chavez called on the Colombians to recognise the Farc as insurgents rather than terrorists, but by the same token he echoed the Cuban government in arguing that the time for armed struggle had passed and that resistance should move into the political terrain.
In the abstract, that is a convincing position to adopt when recent years have shown that the great political leaps forward occur as a result of organised mass activity—as they have in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. In practice, however, there was absolutely no reason to believe the Colombian government’s avowed commitment to a democratic process it had corrupted, undermined and ignored, attacking and repressing social movements, trade unions and collective resistance. It would seem that Chavez fell into a trap laid for him by the Colombians and their US and Israeli advisers. The release of hostages was at an advanced stage of negotiation when the Ecuador raid happened. But when the hostages were eventually released three months later through military action it was presented as an achievement of Uribe’s government. The Farc had in fact been actively preparing their release but had always insisted that the release must be part of a prisoner exchange for some or all of the 500 Farc prisoners in Colombian jails. None, of course, have been released.
Uribe paid a visit to Caracas for discussions with Hugo Chavez some weeks ago. There were major protests outside the Miraflores presidential palace, denounced by Chavez as “counter-revolutionary”. The disbelief among many of the most active and committed supporters of the Bolivarian revolution was palpable. The Farc, after all, now described themselves as a Bolivarian revolution so how could their bitter enemy be received as a statesman in the birthplace of Bolivarianism ?
The answer is diplomacy and realpolitik. The assault on the Farc and the manner of the release of Betancourt and the other hostages were political setbacks for Chavez. Venezuela’s border with Colombia is all the more vulnerable as the Farc is so severely weakened. Correa has cooled towards Chavez too and has stepped back from participating in his Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (Alba). He has also announced, however, that the US military base at Manta in Ecuador (established, paradoxically, as part of Plan Colombia) will be closed when its contract ends. There are strong rumours that a new base will be built within Colombia, near the Venezuelan border.
In the short term, the severe setback for the Farc has forced Chavez and Correa into negotiations with a Colombian government which represents not only US military interests but is also the spearhead for neoliberalism. Over ten years Colombia, a rich agricultural country, has become a net food importer as more and more of its agricultural land is given over to export agriculture or biofuels. And despite its long coastline and fertile rivers it now imports its fish from Argentina and Vietnam. This is in addition to the impact of cocaine production. It is also rich in oil and gas. Barrack Obama’s stated intention to lessen US dependence on Middle Eastern oil is a virtual declaration of intent to control oil and gas supplies in Latin America by any means necessary. And John McCain has direct connections with supporters of the paramilitaries. Colombia is an important oil producer, as is Ecuador. The US actively engaged in the so-called autonomy movements in eastern Bolivia whose objective is to undermine Evo Morales’s nationalisation policies. And the major prize, of course, is Venezuela.
The political issue is complex but clear. The Farc will continue to exist and to fight, but from a position of extreme weakness. Venezuela and Ecuador will not support the organisation though its weakness makes both vulnerable on their borders. Uribe will drive home his advantage by every means possible while pursuing a remorseless campaign to destroy the Farc. And for the Farc, history has shown what they can expect if they listen to the pleas to come down from the mountains and join the democratic process. Colombian democracy is a blood-soaked thing.
The attack on the Farc is a setback for the revolutionary movement in Latin America as a whole. The ground will not be recovered by more hostage taking or the arming or rearming of this or that guerrilla group. Seizing the initiative back from imperialism and its servants will be the result of a shift of power to the mass organisations like those that brought down governments in Bolivia and Ecuador, and defeated a right wing coup and a bosses’ strike in Venezuela. And the forging of a common political instrument that links and increasingly coordinates those struggles is the common task of the grassroots movements across the continent.
Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile, has called for Ingrid Betancourt to be given the Nobel Peace Prize; the Argentinian peace campaigner Pérez Esquivel, himself a Nobel peace laureate, has asked what she has done to promote peace. Betancourt’s memoirs are now in bookshops across the world, produced at dizzying speed. Her sponsors include the French, Spanish and Colombian governments. Sympathy for a long-term hostage should never blind us to how she is being used and by whom. It is not peace, freedom or democracy that they have in mind.