The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 61 (Summer 2000).
As we go to press, the Clinton Administration and Congress are adopting a $1 billion-plus aid package to Colombia, already the third-largest recipient of U.S. military funds. The bulk of the money will go to the military. Once again, Colombia could become the stage for a major military action by U.S. imperialism.
Washington claims that this aid is directed primarily against Colombia’s rampant drug production and trafficking. (Colombia has been for many years the foremost producer and exporter of cocaine and also much heroin to the U.S.) But in reality the war against drugs is a transparent pretext for fighting the two main groups in Colombia’s 40-year-long guerrilla war: the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which inflicted several major defeats on the government’s armed forces in 1999, and the smaller Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). The FARC was founded by the Communist Party of Colombia; the ELN traces its inspiration to the Cuban Revolution.
Negotiations between the government of Conservative Party president Andrés Pastrana with the FARC have been dragging along for about a year. In April the government finally gave in to the demand of the ELN and granted it, like the FARC, an extensive zone demilitarized of governmental forces. These zones were agreed to against substantial opposition from right-wing forces, including much of the military high command, in order to start talks for a cease-fire and peace with the guerrillas.
Behind the U.S. campaign against the guerrillas lies a more fundamental aim, openly acknowledged by Bill Clinton himself. On May 2, the president warned in apocalyptic terms of the possible consequences of the collapse of the Colombian regime: “Make no mistake about it. If the oldest democracy in South America can be torn down, so can others.” The real issue emerged when Clinton told assembled corporate executives that defeat of the guerrillas was essential for the realization of a Free Trade Area of the Americas that would stretch from Alaska to Argentina by 2005:
We have to win in Colombia. We have to win the fight for the free trade area in the Americas. We have to prove that freedom and free markets go hand in hand.
That is, the U.S.’s overriding concern in the Colombian civil war is to prevent any interference with its efforts to intensify imperialism’s exploitation of Latin America. In June 1999, at a meeting of the Organization of American States, the U.S. proposed creating a multinational force to guarantee the “security” of the Western Hemisphere. The Pentagon already has hundreds of military “advisers” in Colombia, despite official denials.
The U.S., of course, has a long history of military intervention in Latin America, most recently in 1989, when it invaded Panama, and throughout the 1980’s, when it supported the contras against the Nicaraguan revolution and sent advisers to back death squads in El Salvador. The theft of Panama from Colombia in 1903 was its first imperialist assault south of Mexico and the Caribbean.
Both guerrilla groups are labeled “narco-guerrillas” by the U.S., but the drug trade is far more an imperialist-run operation. The main drug profiteers are a sector of the Colombian ruling class close to the military. Consumer demand in the United States ensures that there will be a constant supply, if not from Colombia then from another country; the partial success in eradicating coca plantations in Peru, for instance, led production to shift to Colombia. Years of anti-drug operations by both the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the local governments have not reversed this trend. It also must not be forgotten that processing cocaine and heroin needs chemicals imported from the imperialist countries, which thus get their share of the profits out of drug trafficking.
Further, the main ports for the export of Colombian drugs are controlled by the paramilitary forces, which are run by sections of the international corporations, along with the national bourgeoisie and its armed forces. By arming the Colombian government and its armed forces under the pretext of fighting drugs, the U.S. is setting the fox to guard the chickens. And it knows it, since both the CIA and the DEA have long experience in dealing fraternally with international drug traffickers. In August 1999 the news broke that the wife of the U.S. Army colonel in charge of anti-drug operations in Colombia had shipped hundreds of thousands of dollars of cocaine through diplomatic mail.
While it is true that much of the coca crop is grown in regions controlled by the guerrillas and that the guerrillas tax the drug traffickers, both the FARC and the ELN claim they want to get rid of this business. However, in order to do so there must be an alternative for the great number of poor peasants, since the open market forced on Colombia by imperialism has undermined the prices for ordinary crops.
Whatever the U.S. administration really believes about the “communist insurgency,” an analysis of the FARC and the ELN shows that these organizations do not fundamentally endanger capitalist interests in Colombia.
The FARC was formed in the 1960’s on the initiative of the Colombian Communist Party (PC). The Stalinist PC, ever since the popular front days of the 1930’s, had always been a staunch ally of the bourgeois populist Liberal Party. It attracted many peasants during the period of “La Violencia,” from 1948 to 1953, when the Conservatives and Liberals fought a bloody civil war in which over 200,000 were killed. The PC had taken over large parts of the guerrilla army of the Liberals, which betrayed its peasant supporters by forming a National Front government with the Conservatives.
The FARC remains a major force defending peasants against eviction by Colombian landowners and multinational corporations. However, as followers of the Stalinist two-stages theory, the PC talked about socialism as its final goal but fought for nothing but “true bourgeois democracy,” linked to the Soviet Union rather than the U.S. Thus the PC and later the FARC looked for an alliance with the “democratic” wing of the bourgeoisie against the right-wing oligarchs, in order to integrate into the legal parliamentary game.
The bourgeoisie had lured the FARC and other guerrilla organizations into legality under Conservative president Betancourt in 1984. They declared a cease-fire, and the FARC founded a legal party, the Unión Patriótica (UP). But the ruling class soon showed its true colors. Thousands of UP cadres were killed by death squads on the payroll of the cattle barons, the multinational corporations, drug traffickers, the army and police. After the UP’s elected representatives were also assassinated, the FARC broke the truce in 1987.
There is no doubt that the origin of the ongoing guerrilla war is the unwillingness and incapability of the ruling class to put on a less bloody face. Strikes by workers are regularly met by state violence. Colombia is the country with the largest number of murders, after Mexico. Human rights organizations have noted that about 80 percent of all the murders and human rights violations are the work of the paramilitaries and the state’s repressive forces backing them—the victims being mostly unarmed peasants or union activists.
The pro-liberal bourgeois position of the FARC has always been clear. But the ELN in the past rejected talks with the government because of the experience of bourgeois treachery, particularly the case of the UP. Yet it too has sought to use the influence of the arch-conservative German Conference of (Catholic) Bishops to meet with “leading representatives of public life in Colombia,” among them many capitalists, in order to call for a “national convention."
The programs of both the FARC and the ELN call for a mixed economy, which means capitalism with a large state sector. That shows that their openings toward the liberal bourgeoisie are not tactical initiatives to play on the partially contradictory interests of different enemy forces. The recent announcement by the FARC that there is a “democratic sector” in the armed forces, which according to spokesman Raul Reyes was “opposed to the paramilitary movement, because this sector loves the army” (El Tiempo, Bogotá, March 20), was another political sign, as was the tour in February of a FARC delegation through various European countries to learn how bourgeois democracy functions.
The FARC, like the UP, calls for “dialogue as a possible tool for realizing peace with social justice and the introduction of a series of political, economic, social and structural measures that eliminate the deep social inequalities expressed by the crisis that affects the nation.” The ELN, which in the past defended the Chinese and Vietnamese strategy of “prolonged peoples war” and demanded a fundamental structural transformation, now says that it doesn’t matter whether this transformation would be brought about by overthrowing capitalism or not. Thus both the FARC and the ELN have made plain that their armed struggle is not waged to topple the bourgeoisie, but rather as a reform effort to force the bourgeoisie to allow them to sit at the table.
Until the 1970’s the FARC and especially the ELN were not strong movements. But the repression of legal political activities in the cities and towns gave them a boost. The two guerrilla fronts now control about half of Colombia—albeit the most thinly inhabited parts of the countryside. Nevertheless, guerrillas have operated near or even inside the cities too, and they have political influence among the trade unions and other social forces there. But in the past they often tried to distance themselves from the militant labor movement, for example by not supporting strikes or raising the unions’ demands in their talks with the government.
The question remains why the U.S. is so eager to fight the guerrillas. The counterinsurgency strategy at this point seems to be to put pressure on the guerrillas by both keeping them engaged in endless peace talks and at the same time upgrading and professionalizing the Colombian army and supporting the government. Meanwhile Pastrana boosts his standing by advertising his willingness to talk peace.
Although recently the government has claimed a small economic recovery, the overall economic situation has worsened. Last year saw the deepest recession since the 1930’s. This is hardly a basis for giving handouts to the workers and the peasants, hundreds of thousands of whom are forced to live as displaced people within Colombia itself. So there is no reason to believe that the negotiations aim at fulfilling any of the basic demands of the guerrillas, let alone the needs of the working class and peasantry. Because of this, and because the Colombian guerrillas are based on a peasant movement, simply integrating them into the system is not likely to happen soon. (Unlike the Colombians, many other Latin American guerrillas have given up, been marginalized like the Peruvian MRTA and PCP (SL) or have collapsed.)
However, Colombia is a much too important country for U.S. imperialism to just stand by. Colombia is the most populous South American country after Brazil. Its borders are near the Panama Canal, and it controls an important part of the Trans-American Highway. It produces oil in large quantities; its oil fields are exploited mainly by foreign companies like BP Amoco and Occidental Petroleum. There are also resources of coal, gold, platinum, silver, bauxite, manganese, radioactive cobalt, tin, chrome, copper and nickel.
Profits are extraordinary and will tend to become even greater, as the Pastrana government has been lowering the state’s take—production sharing, royalties and taxes—in the oil sector from 84 percent to about 70 percent last year. Besides this, Colombia takes a loss on part of its own oil production. In 1990 the country produced about 400,000 barrels a day, of which 200,000 were needed for internal consumption. Because the state-owned Ecopetrol refined only 80,000 barrels, Colombia had to buy 120,000 from the multinationals. But while the oil had been sold for $1 a barrel, the repurchase price was $17! This is supposedly a reason why the oil pipelines are regularly sabotaged by ELN units: the ELN argues that under these conditions, oil production is a negative gain for Colombia. The same is true for the Cerrejón coal mine, one of the world’s largest strip-mining sites.
There is real potential in the Colombian class struggle—and therefore serious cause for concern for imperialism and its lackeys like Pastrana. September 1999 saw a massive two-day general strike, with the main Colombian trade union federation, the CUT, bringing its 1.5 million members out accompanied by non-union workers. During the general strike, the countryside was racked by massive protests against the murder of peasants and rural proletarians and the lack of alternatives to coca cultivation.
In the Southwest, peasants blockaded a stretch of the Pan-American Highway for two weeks, demanding more government aid for the region. The immediate results of the peasant protests were government offers of compromise, accompanied by heightened death squad attacks. The U’wa indigenous people have also fought courageously against the theft, occupation and despoliation of their lands by corporations like Occidental Petroleum. Clearly, the masses are willing to fight; the central question is leadership.
While the military strength of the guerrillas is basically unbroken, and while the trade union and peasant movements can still fight hard, they have not been strong enough to halt the government’s privatization, deregulation and political attacks against them. More importantly in the long run, neither the guerrillas nor the militant but class-collaborationist trade unions are able to offer an alternative to the present crisis, which flows from worldwide capitalist dynamics.
Against this background must be seen the recent announcement by the FARC that it would now be willing to agree to a truce parallel with the ongoing peace negotiations, something it had constantly rejected in the past. Moreover, on April 30 the FARC founded a new political front, the Bolivarist Movement for a New Colombia. According to the FARC’s European representative, Juan Antonio Rojas, “all relevant forces” of the country—"Liberals, Conservatives, Socialists, Communists, sympathizing people and non-party members ought to work together in order to jointly deal with the problem of poverty, criminality and violence in our country.” (Junge Welt, Berlin, April 28.)
While the FARC is not prepared to let the new movement work in the open, in order to avoid the fate of the UP, the foundation of this new national front is a further step to the right to get together with a section of the ruling bourgeoisie. The Spanish daily El País cites reports that President Pastrana’s projected referendum to cleanse the Congress of corruption and oust representatives linked to drug trafficking is aimed to deal the Liberal Party a death blow. The theory is that Pastrana has been so compliant with the FARC because he would like to make them the second national party in place of the Liberals. The new Bolivarist Movement would be part of that scheme. For his part, in June Pastrana declared a six-month extension of the FARC’s demilitarized zone and granted formal negotiating status to the ELN.
Colombia would not be the first Latin American country in which erstwhile guerrilla leaders become part of the ruling “democratic” system. Guerrillaism cannot fulfill the fundamental hopes of its peasant supporters, let alone of the working class. What is missing above all is a revolutionary party which breaks with the bourgeois “anti-imperialism” of the Stalinist leadership of the guerrillas and the unions. Such a party will be based in the working class, since only the workers’ anti-capitalist struggle can point the peasant masses to a solution not based on collaborating with bourgeois governments. Only the proletarian socialist revolution can fulfill the social demands of the ranks of the guerrilla movements.
Such a party would give military support to the FARC and ELN as long as they are fighting the government and death squads. It would oppose a negotiated sellout and fight for the arming of the masses of workers and peasants. Such a step, necessary today for simple self-defense against the murderous paramilitaries, could pave the way for workers’ and peasants’ militias tomorrow.
The revolutionary proletarian party would fight against the Stalinist misleaders of the FARC and ELN for leadership of the armed struggle against the government and its U.S. imperialist sponsors. The workers and peasants of Colombia have shown abundantly their willingness to fight. Revolutionary leadership would work to ensure that their heroic struggle would lead not to a sellout deal and more state-sponsored slaughter but to international socialist revolution.