The Ghosts of Colombia

October 11 marked the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Jaime Pardo Leal, presidential candidate of the Patriotic Union (UP) electoral coalition formed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Colombian communists. The toll of murdered UP activists would eventually exceed 4000.  This year, also on October 11, the Colombian government announced that current members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Communist Party, always endangered, would be protected.

There was a catch, however. Protection must await a successful outcome of peace negotiations set to begin in Norway on October 17 between the Colombian government and the FARC.

Likely as not, other inconsistencies will be coming out of these negotiations, unless, of course, they break down beforehand. That’s because old divisions on both sides have left both sets of negotiators with limited bargaining powers.

The government, for instance, must cope with an old-guard of big landowners, agribusiness interests, narco-traffickers, and military chieftains. Ex- President Alvaro Uribe, a strident critic of negotiations, speaks for them.  They’re used to free rein in rural Colombia where civilian authority is weak and government services are in short supply.

Now, conservative President Juan Manuel Santos would end authoritarian rule and military repression in the countryside, also “gigantic scandals,” corruption, drug money in politics, and police violence.  Prominent human rights leader and Congressional Representative Ivan Cepeda says the Santos government is looking to restore Colombia’s international credibility and profit-making potential by reassuring foreign investors that criminal behavior won’t be tolerated. Toward that end, the government would abandon civil war.

No wonder investors are to be courted: the Colombian economy grew at an annual 4.9 percent rate from April through June 2012 thanks mainly to an 18.4 percent expansion in construction and 8.6 percent growth in the mining and energy sectors, the latter fueled by 46 percent direct foreign investment. Nevertheless, powerbroker heirs to a tradition of rough and ready autonomy have other priorities.

Nor will FARC negotiators work in isolation. Their cause is peace with social justice. For that the FARC requires collaboration from those with broader experience in popular struggle than theirs. From its start, the Marxist insurgency has focused on land use injustices stemming from concentrated land ownership left over from Spanish colonists and continued under large scale agricultural operators and drug traffickers. Early FARC recruits belonged to the sector known as “colonos,” those small farmers scratching out a living in areas far removed from state authority, or dispossessed.

On the day of its formation, July 20, 1964, the FARC issued its “Agrarian Program” calling “for a fundamentally changed social structure of the Colombian countryside [and] delivering land completely free to small farmers working or wanting to work the land.” Continuing that theme in February 2012, FARC Secretariat member Iván Márquez wrote that land “belongs to us, because we were born on it…Our own country has been converted into a treasure coveted by transnational piracy [and] land investment is a strategic pursuit today.”

British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s opinion on FARC revolutionary potential in 1986 may still hold. The recently deceased Hobsbawm had visited FARC encampments.  He seconded the insurgency’s goal of creating a “peasant – labor radical party” to exert pressure on urban liberals. Conditioned by the “wild west” aspects of its environs and by real power being lodged in cities, the FARC was ill prepared to take on independent political leadership within an entire society.

Recent social data are dismal enough to suggest that, indeed, all hands are required. Under Gini coefficient reckonings, Colombia is the third most unequal country in the world. Some 54 percent of Colombians live in poverty with higher rates in rural areas. Half of all Colombians lack “basic necessities,” including 60 percent of indigenous people and 68 percent of Afro Colombians. United Nations figures show that, annually, 20,000 Colombian children under five die of malnutrition and that 12 percent are undernourished.

FARC negotiators, therefore, require far – removed allies for help in settling crucial issues.  A recently staged nationwide “Week of Indignation,” for example, featured demonstrations, academic forums, encampments, and cultural events.  On October 12, its last day, 300,000 protesters demonstrated throughout the country on behalf of health care, quality education, better housing, bi-lateral ceasefire, and basic structural reforms.

Contradictions, however, persist. Peaceful protest triggered armed repression on the eve of peace negotiations: “Illegal arrests of peasants and stigmatization by military commanders were flaring up in time for the October 12 date when city and country people alike march for peace and to reclaim social, economic, and environmental rights for the excluded.” News reports on the October 12 outpouring highlighted multiple arrests and photos of bloodied demonstrators.

Not least among factors leading to potential ambiguities contained within any accord is U. S. government maneuvering. Relying upon cold war strategies and ownership inclinations over an entire continent, that government saddled Colombia with military and intelligence aid directed in large measure at beating up on the FARC. In 1964, for example, the United States contributed helicopters, military advisers, and $17 million toward “Operation Marquetalia,” an attempt to destroy a hundred or so armed peasants who then quickly established themselves as the FARC.

W. T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.