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Behind Colombia's Civil War

by richard Monday, Mar. 25, 2002 at 1:25 AM

James Petras is one of the world’s best known authorities on Latin American politics. He has recently retired as professor of sociology at the State University New York. While he was on a CISLAC (Committees in Solidarity with Latin America and the Caribeean) -organised speaking tour in January last year, he was interviewed for a forthcoming CISLAC documentary on Colombia. The following is from that interview.

Interview with Professor James Petras:

What are the origins of the guerrilla movement in Colombia?

The origin of the guerrilla movement has to be traced back to an incident that occurred in Colombia in 1948 when all the progressive forces were organised and mobilised in support of the candidacy of [Jorge] Gait. He was a populist leader and a tremendously popular leader in Bogotá who was assassinated, prompting a major uprising which was called the Bogotazo.

Out of that came the emergence of a civil war in Colombia between the Liberals, who vaguely posed liberal ideas, against the Conservatives, the rigid oligarchs. Now there were oligarchs in both parties and there were popular classes represented in both parties but there was a division around the figure of Gaitán.

In the ‘50s, this civil war degenerated into partisan warfare with very little substance. However, there were early supporters of Gaitán who took to guerrilla warfare to defend Gaitán’s ideas — separation of church and state, and some politics of redistribution, land reform etc.

By the late ‘50s, more than 50,000 people had died in this pretty useless war so the Conservative oligarchs decided to form a pact [with the Liberals] of alternating government which took turns ruling the country and exploiting their common peasantry.

So there was a great deal of disillusionment among the peasants and some of the poorer people who were supporting the Liberals. They moved towards the Colombian Communist Party which was basically an urban party but had made some overtures to the peasantry. It was a pro-Soviet party.

By the early ‘60s, these radicalised liberals and proto-communists had created a region where they were farming and living their lives, apart from the national life and the deprivations of landowners. This was identified by counter-intelligence, and people were already working with the United States as this was the height of the mania of Kennedy who was really savage both in Vietnam and elsewhere. The image of Kennedy as a kind president really doesn’t fit in Latin America. So they sent the army in and destroyed these communities. Out of the destruction of that community and out of the attempts of the peasantry to create a peaceful alternative to the dominant system, you got the first coming together of what later became the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

On the basis of that there are two important lessons about the guerrillas. One is that with a peaceful strategy it is virtually impossible to survive. That lesson was reinforced in the 1980s when sectors of the left signed a peace pact with government and engaged in electoral politics. This led to the assassination of 5000 activists and leaders, including two presidential candidates.

The leadership of the guerrillas remains forever sceptical about the willingness of the Liberals or Conservatives to accept the legitimate reform movement which wants to make structural changes.

The second conclusion that the guerrillas draw is that they have to take matters into their own hands in the country. They really can’t count on other groups — professionals in the city who will be inconsequential in the defence of rural interests.

So you have a move towards extra-parliamentary politics and a digging in and developing of a movement based in the countryside for the peasants. These became two defining characteristics of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia which went through a process of ups and downs in the ‘60s.

One of the legends in Colombia is that their leader [Manuel] Marulanda has got magical qualities because every six months the military announce they have caught him and then he issues another communiqué.

But the key point is that they build networks — communities of support. So when you talk about the Colombian guerrillas you talk about 70% of the sons and daughters of peasants who operate in adjoining areas near where they grew up. They can understand rural issues and rural violence.

Colombia’s violence is first and foremost governmental violence and landlord violence which has its roots in the ‘50s but has been promoted by the US counter-insurgency programs which have been extraordinarily bloody; bloody because the US has promoted the paramilitary phenomena which they promoted in Indochina. They go in and do the dirty work and then there’s what the US calls "plausible denial" — loose cannons which are out of the control of the government.

There is no climate for any kind of understanding that would allow the peasants as a leading force to take any kind of initiatives in the electoral arena.

There are basically three guerrilla groups in Colombia today. There’s the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, there is the National Liberation Army, the ELN, and there’s the People’s Liberation Army, EPL.

The FARC has the longest history and is the biggest movement. It has approximately 15-17,000 militants and they control about 40% of the municipalities of the country. They are engaged in actions approximately 40 kilometres from the capital. They are a formidable force. They have several hundred prisoners of war from their conflict with the military. They have a superb logistical and communications system.

The ELN have between 3-4000 armed militants. They are more influential in the oil producing areas. They derive their origins from the ‘60s where there were dissident priests and people who were sympathetic to the Cuban revolution. Their strategies have evolved over time but they specialise in blowing up oil pipelines and extracting taxes from British Petroleum and other operators in the region.

The third group is a former Maoist group, the EPL. They are the smallest group, numbering a few hundred and confined to a very small area. They have gone through several splits and divisions and have lost the majority of their members but they claim a small influence in the armed struggle.

What urban based movements exist and what is their orientation to the guerrilla movements?

There are and have been urban movements which have had varying responses to the guerrilla movements. Those movements that express any sympathy for the guerrilla movements have been annihilated. Leaders of groups that articulate demands very close to the guerrilla movements have been assassinated — electoral groups, trade unionists etc. So from conviction or fear, the great majority of urban movements do not identify themselves with the guerrilla struggles.

They have been extremely active, particularly in the ‘90s, in opposing the so-called free market political and economic measures. The freeing of employers from responsibilities, vast cutbacks in social programs plus inflationary movements, etc. have multiplied the number of former workers who have become street vendors. The informal sector has the fastest growth.

This has led to two types of activity. One is that the trade unions have been radicalised, particularly the public sector workers who are facing budget cuts, salary freezings and firings.

The private sector has been affected by the imports which have undermined some of the local industries. The situation has precipitated a certain kind of radicalisation, even among the more moderate unions.

Along with that has been the fact that the government has neglected public services and investments which has resulted in very successful civic strikes. Business men and professionals have aligned themselves with the trade unions and engaged in civic strikes protesting government policies.

This has been very evident in the last year. [President] Pastrana has two faces — towards the peace process where he appears to be more conciliatory, to set aside territories to negotiate with the guerrillas, on the other hand, he has taken a very extreme position on free market policies and liberalisaton. So he’s going in two different directions.

The guerrillas put at the centre of any peace negotiations the social and economic issues. There could not be any peace unless these fundamental issues are resolved. They want a U-turn in the government’s approach to public ownership and social welfare etc., so it’s hard to see, given the government’s commitment to Clinton and the IMF, how this thing is going to play out.

I think the most significant indicator of where things are going is not Pastrana’s peace negotiations, it’s his agreements with Washington to militarise the country even more. Clinton provided US0 million in aid in 1998, US0 million in 1999 and the figures that have been tossed around for the next three years are US.3 billion.

That includes helicopters. The US already has 300 military advisors who are in operational activities. So it’s very clear that despite the peace overtures which look promising, I really think the US and Pastrana are going for an all out war which means that the 25,000 people that have been killed in the past years, is going to double, triple with unforeseen consequences. Unforeseen because the guerrillas total about 20,000, and military conscripts are in no mood to take on a disciplined and highly motivated guerrilla group that knows the terrain that it’s fighting on.

The US special forces have been mauled in several confrontations so it’s not a predetermined outcome because the US is making a big commitment.

What is the meaning of the war on drugs which Washington is promoting in Colombia?

I think the war on drugs is one of these issues that has many facets. The most important figures in facilitating the drug trade, the laundering of money etc. have been the military and the banking and other institutions.

In the conflict areas, many of the landlords pulled out and sold their land to drug traffickers who in turn have been funding the paramilitary groups who work with the military in savaging what they consider hostile peasant villages.

So, in part, a serious effort against the drug trade would require the US to tackle its allies, which it is not willing to do. So they focus on eradication campaigns at the lowest level of the chain, that is, the peasants who grow the leaves and transport it. They don’t deal with the big financial magnates or the military that protects the routes, the clandestine airports etc.

Occasionally there’ll be an officer who doesn’t play by the rules and pursues the drug trafficker. Those people in turn have a double role. That is, while they may pursue the drug war, they are also involved in the civil war.

The idea that Washington is promoting a strictly anti-drug campaign is not taken seriously by any observers today. Washington is up to its neck in the civil war, in the counter-insurgency programs, and uses the rhetoric as a cover.

In recent years there has been less effort to define their role strictly in drug terms, admitting that it is the drug war plus the security issues, and that’s their formula. They tried mobilising Ecuador and Peru to join as some sort of multilateral effort under Washington’s tutelage to attack the guerrilla's on the borders but it's not going to pan out because there's not much Peru or Ecuador have to offer. Peru is in the grip of one of its frequent uprisings.

There seems to be very little awareness of the situation in Colombia internationally.

There is a certain collective knowledge which has filtered out and that is identifying Colombia with narcotics trafficking — Washington’s moralising. There is very little knowledge about how Washington is involved with the paramilitaries and the destruction of human rights and the eradication of villages. I think that’s the information that isn’t getting out. What is getting out is the US pursuing drugs and that the Colombians are involved in drugs.

What should be the demands of progressive people around the world?

One thing is that the US arms supplies should be withdrawn.

Then there’s the issue of looking at the drug issue in a western context. About 35 banks in the US have been charged with drug money laundering in the last ten years. Miami is one notorious place where the laundering goes on.

If you get the drug money laundering out of drug trading then you will kill off the most lucrative part of the whole drug trade and that involves the US banks. Investigate and jail the US bankers who are involved in laundering the dirty money.

A third issue is to expose the human rights abuses and to connect the paramilitaries with the Colombian state and unmask the political discourse of Pastrana who talks peace and prepares for war. I think those are essential issues.

The fourth thing to understand is that the guerrillas are not some exogenous phenomena here but have a long history with fundamental democratic changes in Colombia and not demonise them as some sort of violent predators as, I think, some of the media present them.

We need to do educational and solidarity work, particularly against the militarisation of Colombia — the central part of US policy is to try to destroy a movement which has profound roots in Colombian politics and culture.

What are the main social movements in Colombia and what role do they play?

The main social movements today are the trade union movements. I would say particularly the oil workers, metal workers and banana workers. These play a very important role in the struggle through the trade unions.

The peasant movements have been decimated by the paramilitary groups. There are peasant organisations that operate but they are under enormous pressure and many of them are literally clandestine operations that surface on particular issues.

The banana workers in particular have lost three leadership groups because whole labour councils have been assassinated. Similarly with the oil workers — they have lost whole leadership groups.

The other group that is interesting is the urban poor that have organised and protested over conditions in the city. But they have also been decimated. Off-duty police go in and kill off any anti-social elements, as they call them.

The church is a very influential group but it is very divided and most of the Colombian church hierarchy is very reactionary. There are some independent priests who have been teaching the doctrine of liberation. The most famous was [Camilo] Torres who joined the ELN in the ‘60s and was eventually killed.

So I think the main forces in this are unions, the civic groups that are involved in regional protests about dissatisfaction with the concentration of resources in the city and the starving of resources in the country, public sector workers, school teachers, health workers. These are the dynamic sectors.

The reason for the assassination and persecution of trade union leaders, squatter settlement leaders and human rights lawyers is that the oligarchies in Colombia have a fragile base of support. Even their patronage machines can only pull in about 35% of the electorate. So the elections are really decided by very small minorities.

What they are afraid of is that this highly exploitative system with such tremendous inequalities will begin to have a very dense civil society of popular organisations that will challenge that dominance. So repression is what keeps this system going.

I think the assassinations are an attempt to inhibit the congealing of these movements into a national political challenge to the two party oligarchy which controls Colombia.

So the assassinations are linked to the economic system and the fact that they cannot tolerate an open, genuinely competitive political system. In order to maintain this phoney two party system, which is really a one party system with two expressions, they have to intensify their repression and engage in assassinations which keep their system going. It is a totally anachronistic system which doesn’t resonate with the Colombian people. The level of political alienation of Colombian people is extremely high.

What is the strategic importance of Colombia?

It is the fourth biggest country in Latin America, a country with major resources in agricultural and oil. It’s next to Venezuela — the main supplier of oil to the United States. It faces the Panama Canal and the Caribbean. It adjoins Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela. It has a substantial population. So it's not a minor player. What happens in Colombia has great impact for rest of Latin America — a beacon for the rest of Latin America.

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