“From above, they looked like a white river flowing through the streets of Colombia’s capital. They wore white T-shirts that read, ‘Yo soy Colombia (I am Colombia). Stop the kidnappings, the lies, the murders. No more Farc’.”
So gushed the Christian Science Monitor in the US, reporting mass demonstrations in Colombian cities last week against the leftist guerrilla force Farc, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
These were undoubtedly mass demonstrations, mobilising hundreds of thousands. Most were better off Colombians and supporters of president Alvaro Uribe’s government.
The president spoke at one of the rallies and they were heavily promoted by the private pro-Uribe media and by his backers in the US and elsewhere. Slogans were explicitly for Uribe and often against the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. State institutions backed the marches, with schools often shut to encourage participation.
Uribe is the US’s favourite Latin American leader and Colombia is its frontline of intervention in the continent. The US has provided a massive financial and military “assistance” programme, first under the cover of the “war on drugs”, then seamlessly converted into the “war on terror”. Colombia has become increasingly important to the US since the elections of Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia – both of whom speak out against US imperialism.
Uribe is currently trying to get favoured trading status with both the US and the European Union. The anti-Farc mobilisations are another attempt by him to emphasise his government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the West.
Uribe’s government has an appalling human rights record. It has systematically persecuted social movements and trade unions. Its supporters have engaged in large scale murder and intimidation. The army, the police and right wing paramilitary groups have organised a reign of terror, especially in the countryside.
The right wing paramilitary groups still operate freely, often with the support of the state. Colombia remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a trade unionist, with killings, death threats and disappearances still common.
By far the greatest violence in Colombia comes from the state and state sponsored death squads. Yet it is kidnappings by Farc which are the focus of the current marches. Farc holds about 40 political hostages. It is also alleged to hold several hundred others for ransom.
Chavez was recently involved in an operation to release two of Farc’s hostages. Chavez afterwards called for serious peace negotiations and the recognition of Farc as a legitimate political force, but Uribe and the US are desperate not to give credit to Chavez or make concessions with Farc.
Any serious peace process in Colombia must involve negotiations with both Farc and the other major rebel group, the ELN. Many ordinary Colombians want an end to the civil war which has brought appalling violence. Uribe seems set, however, on defeating the rebels. But there is no serious prospect of this – huge areas of the country are outside government control.
The US not only backs Uribe’s hardline stance, but is desperate that Chavez is not seen as instrumental in any peace process.
Farc has been fighting corrupt and elitist Colombian governments for decades. It is undoubtedly involved in drug production and trafficking, though we should not fall for the hypocrisy of the state’s denunciations of this. Establishment politicians, the armed forces and much of the ruling class are up to their eyes in drugs, corruption and organised crime.
Author Forrest Hylton describes a situation where “Colombia’s establishment political parties have become so addicted to drug profits that they have relegated their traditional allies in the church and the old-money establishment for the huge monetary resources that drugs bring.”
Farc emerged as a result of the establishment violence against the poor and any political organisation which sought to represent the excluded. They do offer some protection for the farmers in the areas they control who face chemical crop spraying and violence from US-backed “counter-insurgency” programmes. However, Farc is not based on a mass democratic movement, and social and economic conditions in their areas are not significantly better for the poor. Farc also taxes the peasants and sometimes enforces recruitment into its militia.
So Farc’s guerilla strategy will not offer the political progress ordinary Colombians badly need. But against all the odds and in a climate of fear, the Colombian trade union and social movements – including women’s groups, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people – are fighting for change. Among municipal workers, food processing unions, oil workers, miners and others there is a brave and well-organised resistance to neoliberalism. A progressive electoral voice for these movements is also beginning to emerge, despite the repression and a long tradition of abstention from electoral politics on the Colombian left.
These progressive forces generally have no links to the guerrilla fighters, though this has not stopped the right from using this as a pretext for bloody attacks on them. These movements offer the future for working people in the Colombian cities and countryside.