Understanding Colombia and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC)

Former FARC guerilla pregnant and in civilian clothes at the eve of peace. Source:  qz.com

Former FARC guerilla pregnant and in civilian clothes at the eve of peace.
Source: qz.com

Interviewee: Professor Medofilo Medina (professor, National University of Colombia)
Interviewer: Dae-Han Song (English Chief Editor)
Edited by: Lillian Hexter (Editor)

This past March, in Venezuela, at the solidarity event Todos Somo Venezuela, I met Medófilo Medina, a columnist from the online publication razonpublica.com and a professor of history at the National University of Colombia. I talked with him about Colombia’s role as the United States’ closest military and political ally in the region. Furthermore, we discussed the historic peace accords that will potentially end an over 60-year military conflict between the government and the armed guerillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), guerilla forces born out of the peasant struggle for land. A month later after meeting Medina, on April 10, I continued the conversation to learn more about the FARC, an armed group often portrayed as Colombian terrorists and drug smugglers. How will peace transform Colombia?

While the content of the interview is historical in nature, the recent presidential elections necessitates an update. On May 27’s presidential election, conservative Ivan Duque of the Grand Alliance for Colombia won 39% of the vote and the progressive Gustavo Petro of the List of Decency won 25%. Since neither won the majority vote, a runoff took place on June 17. Duque won with 54% of the vote with Petro receiving 42%. As Medina mentions in a recent article, a positive result from the elections was Petro’s great support, despite his defeat. This has created a greater opening for Colombia’s left. However, at the same time, the Duque administration is threatening to collapse this opening by attacking the peace process, a crucial condition in expanding political freedom (as explained below). This is despite the fact that the FARC has completed its third and last round of disarmament.

Colombia plays an important role in Latin America since it is geographically close to Venezuela and politically close to the United States. What happens in Colombia has a large impact to the rest of Latin America. How did Colombia become the way that it is?

Colombia is in the Caribbean with access to the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean together with the Panama canal. This places it in a strategic military position. As regards to its past, the beginning of the 21st century saw the rise of progressive governments in Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and, to a certain degree, Chile. However, politically, Colombia remained looking backwards. If we were to look beyond the current situation and further back into Colombia’s history, even before its independence from Spain in the 19th century, its politics are very isolated and inclined towards the conservative. For over two centuries, the liberal and conservative parties dominated. They simply switched power between each other. They would even discuss their platforms with each other. Thus, the Colombian oligarchy didn’t need a military dictatorship to impose a regressive course.

On the other hand, in the 20th century, especially from the late 1970s, the internal conflict known as the confrontation between the guerillas and the state became a pretext for the government to further repress social movements. With no participatory democratic or concern for redistributing wealth, starting in the 1990s, the government adopted neoliberal policies. This is what has led to our current situation.

At this moment, the “post-conflict” period after the Dec. 2016 agreement with the strongest guerilla forces, the FARC, has many contradictions and vacillations. While the bourgeoisie of the Colombian state have signed a peace accord, they have not clearly shown that they will fulfill these accords. Nonetheless, I believe the peace accords have effectively demobilized the FARC guerillas. It’s my hope that the resolution of this conflict will create better conditions for the grassroots sectors and political alternatives.

What was the reason for the FARC taking up arms? What is its relationship with social movements? What was ultimately the reason that they gave up their arms?

The FARC was created in 1964. In the period before its inception, between 1946 and 1964, there was a civil war that we call “The Violence” which was a confrontation between the liberals and conservatives. During The Violence, landowners took advantage of the situation to reclaim lands that had been conquered by farmers in previous struggles. This gave the struggle an agrarian context. In order to take land, the landowners started to kill peasants. In order to defend themselves, farmers banded together. In 1964,  they came to be known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). They took action in various parts of Colombia, especially where agrarian conflicts were strongest. Land took an important role in understanding the guerillas.

These guerillas expanded. In the 1980s and 90s, the bourgeoisie viewed them as a powerful military and political threat. As a result, Colombia was unable to achieve an accord through peace processes. Finally, peace negotiation from 2010 to 2016 produced an accord. Many of these involved conversations and negotiations in Havana. The accord was signed in Bogota at the Teatro Colon in November 2016.

As regards to why the FARC engaged in the peace process, we have to go back to the end of the 1990s. In 1999, under Plan Colombia, the United States supported a military offensive against FARC in which they provided naval and air force support for the Colombian Army. In addition, Alvaro Uribe became president and dedicated a large part of the state budget to war. Calling for a secure democracy, he trained peasant soldiers. The FARC began to lose military terrain. Ultimately, by 2010, they concluded that armed struggle was not the path towards power since the conditions at the time were not conducive to achieving fundamental change in this way. As one of its commanders, Catatumbo, stated: it was not about their inability to resist or survive, but about the conditions not being present to achieve fundamental change through armed struggle. Thus, when the peace process formally started in 2012 in Oslo, Norway, the FARC had a firm resolve to demobilize. In the ensuing years, they negotiated the conditions for their demobilization.

What is the current strategy of the FARC in reaching power? Is it through the elections?

Currently, such a question has little importance: The FARC today has very little political space. As a result of the accords, the FARC was guaranteed five seats in the Senate and five in the Chamber of Representatives, regardless of how many votes they received in the election. In March of this year, the Congressional elections were carried out, and the FARC received very few votes. Thus, we can conclude that, today, sectors seeking political alternatives are not congregating around the FARC (which has maintained its acronym but with the different meaning of Alternative Revolutionary Force for the Common People). Personally, I believe that they made a mistake in retaining their old name instead of creating a new ambitious alternative. Thus, the current political scenario is not in favor of the FARC party.

In the presidential election there are various candidates, at least three or two are from the right, two are from the center and one is from the left. The right-wing candidates include Vargas Lleras who was an official in the administration of the current President Santos and Ivan Duque who represents the Democratic Center, Uribe’s party. These two parties are critical of the peace accord. At the center is Sergio Fajardo and Humberto de la Calle who represented the government in the peace negotiations. In the alternative progressive position is Gustavo Petro who was a former member of the M19 guerilla and gave up arms and entered politics in 1991. He was a mayor of Bogota and has a program of social reform. That’s our current situation.

How should we understand the left in Colombia? What is its relationship with the FARC?

As I’ve said before, the FARC as a political party does not have much political power. Today, that party does not represent the left as a grassroots political movement. There are other parties like the Alternative Democratic Pole that is a coalition. We also have the Green Party. In the current situation, Gustavo Petro represents a progressive position and is currently in second place with Ivan Duque in first place. We have our first set of elections at the end of May. Then, we will see which candidates go to the next round. The grimmest scenario would be if the conservative candidates are the two candidates that make it to the runoff.

In 2016, when a referendum was carried out around the peace accords, 53% of people voted against it. In your article, you noted that 62.5% of people hadn’t voted. What is the current mentality of the Colombian?

I think that the internal conflict between the government and guerillas, which also involved the ELN, played a negative role. Instead of bringing peace and hope and creating openings for the left, the oligarchy exploited this conflict as a fear tactic and of course it was also used by the United States to accuse the guerillas of being drug smugglers. This created a lot of confusion. My hope is that overcoming the internal military conflict will open up better possibilities for social mobilization and more possibilities for political organization in the alternative sectors of Colombia.