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An Open Letter to Jose Saramago

Nobel Laureate Suffers from a Bizarre Historical Amnesia

by JAMES PETRAS

Dear Jose Saramago,

In recent days, Colombia, (infamous for its government-sponsored death squads and peasant massacres) has become the favorite site from which some of the Western World’s best known intellectuals have dictated moral lectures condemning the Cuban Revolution (Susan Sontag) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (don Jose Saramago). Let me state from the beginning that I have no objection to your promoting your latest book anywhere in the world, but not if it involves scoring merit points with a regime which is responsible for thousands of deaths and 2 million displaced peasants. As a self-proclaimed man of the left, you are well read and conversant with the politics of the world, particularly with Latin America where you have frequently visited, lectured, published and spoken with numerous journalists, intellectuals, political notables and other ‘makers of opinion’. When you speak, interpret and judge politicians, political groups and countries, you do so on the basis of your selection of the facts and opinions which coincide with your values and interests. You do not speak from ignorance but from an ideological perspective, from which you make your judgments.

During your visit to Colombia you dismissed the two guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN: "In Colombia there are no guerrillas, they are simply armed gangs." You went on to claim that they are not true communists because, "they dedicate themselves to kidnapping, murdering, violating human rights." You generously allow that "perhaps in the beginning they were (communists) but not now." You then allow that guerrilla struggle is only justified when "a country is occupied by a foreign invader and the people must organize to resist."

Saramago, as you well know, there are many conditions under which people rise to overthrow their oppressors: military dictators, murderous civilian regimes, landlords and their death squads, etc. You surely remember the armed resistance against Franco, the successful overthrow of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, as well as the popular guerrilla resistance in Central America to the tyrannical ‘civilian regimes’ in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Or do you think that the guerrillas of Zapata, Farabundo Marti and Fidel Castro were leading "armed gangs" because they failed to follow your precepts of voting "en blanco"? They did not rebel against a foreign invader (though foreign capital, military advisers and sophisticated arms were in abundance). I am afraid that your political criteria would deny the great emancipatory figures and events of the 20th centuries. These revolutionary referents will continue to inform millions of people struggling against tyrants long after your interviews and opinions have been tossed into history’s dustbin.

But let us for a moment set aside your bizarre historical amnesia. Let’s discuss the guerrillas in Colombia, in particular, the FARC. The FARC was formed by 46 peasant activists in 1964, who, after numerous efforts to construct peaceful productive communities, suffered persecution and witnessed the military destroy their crops, homes, animals, while murdering their families, friends and neighbors. All under an elected civilian regime, oligarchical and repressive to be sure, under a Colombian command advised by US Special Forces. Should they have poured ashes on their heads, hidden in the bush and waited till the next elections to cast a blank vote?. Would you guarantee their lives as they walked from the voting registry? Yes, you do grant, in the beginning; the FARC might have been communistsbut later no? Twenty years later the FARC negotiated a peace agreement with then President Betancourt, so that many of its militants and some of its leaders could form an electoral party, The Patriotic Union, and compete in the presidential and congressional elections. Between 1984-1989 over 5,000 members and electoral activists were murdered by the Colombian military, police and death squads, including two popular presidential candidates. The FARC returned to armed struggle.

Is that the point in which they ceased to be communists? Should they then turn to casting ‘blank votes’? Where–from exile? From Lisbon? It is clear, is it not, that the guerrillas returned to armed activities because there was no other way to survive and continue the struggle for what you call an "effective democracy" and against the "economic plutocrats" who you verbally condemn. In 1999-2001, the FARC once again agreed to suspend the armed guerrilla struggle and pursue negotiations with the Pastrana regime. They insisted on a demilitarized zone–free of paramilitary and military troops. They put forth a political program of agrarian reform, national public control of strategic resources, and massive public works programs to generate jobs. This program was put on the table and became the basis for negotiating a peace and justice agreement. You surely remember those days, only a decade or so past and only 8 years before you were honored with the Nobel Prize.

ou surely remember that the FARC established a series of public forums and work-shops and invited academics, trade unionists, farmers and business people to present papers and proposals. You surely recall those reforms, especially the proposal to de-militarize the country, on both sides. Dr. Saramago, you as a worldly wise writer, do know that "armed bands" do not convoke forums, and listen and accept proposals from a plurality of sources on making Colombia an effective democracy.

With the backing of the US government the Pastrana regime abruptly broke off negotiations and launched an attack on the demilitarized zone. Should the guerrillas and their peasant supporters have responded by preparing to cast "blank votes"? Would they have survived? Was that the point at which, in your opinion, the guerrillas turned into "armed bands, kidnappers and assassins"? I am serious, Saramago. I want you to give me your answer because the FARC’s proposal for agrarian reform and de-militarization has the backing of millions of peasants, dispossessed and tortured by the Colombian government which you refused to name, which you obliquely referred to as the "situation in Colombia". Why such discretion when speaking of a government like the present terrorist President Uribe, who has launched a scorched earth policy throughout the countryside?. Jose, why the silence about Uribe? Why not condemn the vast US presence in Colombia — $3 billion dollars in aid, 800 military advisers, a dozen military bases and several thousand mercenaries paid for by the Pentagon? Doesn’t that count as a "foreign invasion"? Or do you need $10 billion dollars and five divisions of Marines to call it a US military occupation in order to consider the FARC and the ELN authentic guerrilla movements and not "armed gangs" of marauders and assassins.? I am not sorry in writing to you in this direct and forward mannerit is not only my style but because of the enormous political damage you have done. The terms you have used to slander the guerrillas echo the rhetoric of the Pentagon, Uribe and the rest of the Colombian oligarchy. But your political language disqualifying the guerrillas in Colombia is used throughout Latin America by the ruling classes against popular movements. In Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, the landlords describe the peasant and landless workers movements as "vagabonds", criminals and "armed gangs". Who has the original claim on the term, you or the landlords?

I will finish by telling you what I think.

The guerrillas–the FARC and the ELN–are today, and always were guerrillas. They are armed because they have to be, because Colombia needs basic changes and the political system does not allow other means, including elections to be held without terror and intimidation. You have a right to your opinion, but the circumstances, the context and substance of your remarks can only be seen as strengthening the terrorist leaders and military forces in Colombia. You claim to be communist–but there are many types of "communists" today: Those who stole the public patrimony of Russia and became notable oligarchs; Those who collaborate with the US colonial regime in Iraq; Those who have struggled for forty years in the factories, jungles and countryside of Colombia for a society without classes; And those "communists" who fear the problem (imperialism) and fear the solution (popular revolution) and make it all a question of personal preferences.

Ideas, as you know, have consequences and especially you, Dr Saramago, your words are followed by millions of your literary devotees. Think before you speak of "armed gangs" because you are justifying the murder of scores of thousands of Colombians who have chosen to take the most difficult and dangerous road toward the emancipation of their country. In the recent past we have shared opinions and positions. But from here onward we tread our different paths. I have lost my confidence and my hopes in you. You have defrauded my trust. You go your way and I will go my way.

Without sorrow or regrets,

JAMES PETRAS

JAMES PETRAS, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50 year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in brazil and argentina and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed). He can be reached at: jpetras@binghamton.edu