Colombia: From Capitalist horror without end to the struggle for Socialism – Part Two

On more than one occasion the Colombian ruling class has entered into "peace talks" with the guerrillas, only to use these as a means of buying time and preparing even greater bloodshed. They used this situation also to conveniently cut across repeated waves of mass mobilisations.

Read the original in Spanish.

The fight for power and the deception of negotiation with the bourgeoisie

In certain moments in the history of Colombia, the prolongation of the climate of violence that we described previously, combined with the miserable living conditions the masses have been subjected to by the oligarchy, has provoked massive mobilisations of the workers and the youth in the cities, and the peasants in the countryside. These mobilisations were accompanied by an increasing questioning of the capitalist system. We have explained how the revolutionary situation that began with the assassination of Gaitán was lost because of the absence of a mass revolutionary workers' organisation, and was dispersed in peasant outbursts and guerrilla actions which, despite their extraordinary heroism, could not defeat the centralised power of the repressive apparatus built up by the ruling class.

During the 1970s and the early 1980s the crisis of Colombian capitalism and the discontent of the masses at their conditions of life created a very favourable correlation of forces for the revolutionary groups. The guerrilla leaders, as happened in Nicaragua, were seen as the principal point of reference at the time of the struggle against the system and therefore their support among the masses grew. This obliged a section of the bourgeois, led by the then President Belisario Betancur, to start a process of negotiation with them. However, the Colombian bourgeois did not want to give up anything fundamental. Their objective was to win time, to avoid the increased discontent and social mobilisation from finding a revolutionary leadership that could threaten their control over the state and the economy, and once the social situation permitted they could regain the initiative and pass on to the offensive against the revolutionary left.

If the leaders of the FARC and the M-19 (at the time the two most active and powerful guerrilla groups) had based themselves on the struggle of the masses and first and foremost the organisation and mobilisation of the working class, putting forward a socialist programme beginning with the struggle to resolve the most immediate problems (land reform, poverty, unemployment, etc.) linking these to the struggle for peace and explaining that this could only be achieved by expropriating the the oligarchy and substituting its state with a workers' state, they could have organised the vast majority of society and taken power.

Sadly, these leaders - although they had demonstrated great heroism and capacity for sacrifice - were influenced by the Stalinist idea of the previously mentioned two stage theory. This prevented them from taking advantage of the favourable situation. At the same time their fundamental method, especially (at that time) on the part of the M-19 was to plan spectacular urban guerrilla actions (stealing the sword of Bolivar, the seizure of the Dominican Embassy or the assault on the Supreme Court) instead of organising a revolutionary general strike that in the context of the class struggle would have completely paralysed the bourgeois and led to the collapse of the bourgeois state. As Engels explained, if a revolutionary opportunity is wasted, the counter-revolution will pass on to the offensive and it could be years, even decades, before a new similarly favourable opportunity can present itself.

The extermination of the Unión Patriótica

The declaration of a ceasefire on the part of the guerrilla leaders of the FARC in 1985 and the definite abandonment of arms on the part of the M-19 later in 1990, not based on the revolutionary struggle of the masses around a Marxist programme, but with the intention of negotiating with a supposedly progressive (or less reactionary) section of the bourgeoisie was to have a tragic outcome.

"In 1984 under the government of Belisario Betancur serious dialogue began between the government and the FARC guerrillas, to develop a strategic plan to finish the war. The UP (Unión Patriótica) emerged during this process. This movement brought together a whole series of organisations thirsting for and advocating peace. It included some guerrilla leaders who had given up arms and embraced political life. In the period 1985 to 1990 alone, thousands of UP activists were assassinated, and at any place and any time entire families were wiped out. Among these, three presidential candidates were assassinated in less than 8 months: Luis Carlos Galán, Bernardo Jaramillo, Jaime Pardo Leal (...) The result was thousands of exiles and a group of no less importance that took up arms again and rejoined the FARC. Among these were Ricardo Palmera 'Simón Trinidad', an ex-banker, today imprisoned in the United States. Different plans were developed to physically eliminate the Unión Patriótica. Operation Condor, the 'Red Ball' plan, the 'Esmeralda' plan, the 'Return' plan, and lastly the 'Coup de grace' plan. In 2002 the UP, already in its death throes, lost its legal status". (11)

The "eme" (M-19) met the same fate, after they gave up their arms in 1990. After they won 100,000 votes in the municipal elections, the main leader of the group, Carlos Pizarro Leóngómez, various national and local leaders and dozens of activists were also killed. In the 1990 presidential elections Antonio Navarro Wolf (who replaced Pizarro after he was killed) received 700,000 votes, and was the third placed candidate. This demonstrated the strength and will to struggle among the ranks of the revolutionaries, in spite of the terror unleashed by the ruling class and the mistakes of the guerrilla leaders. But it also highlighted the lack of confidence on the part of the guerrilla leaders in the masses and the lack of a clear and concrete programme with which to mobilise the workers and struggle for power.

Once the repression began, had the leaders of the Unión Patriótica, the FARC, the ELN or of the M-19 called a general strike around programme outlined above, this would have stopped the bourgeoisie in its tracks. If at the same time they had used the arms they already had and their military experience, not to return to isolating themselves from the masses, but to organising armed pickets in self-defence of each workplace in every working class neighbourhood and village, among the workers and peasants, they would have been able to both crush the paramilitary fascist groups and divide and paralyse the army along class lines.

But without such a programme and methods, the policy of insisting (in spite of the constant killings of militants and leaders) on calls to the bourgeois government to punish the guilty, while raising as a central objective of the struggle, in agreement with the (absolutely non-existent) patriotic section of the bourgeoisie, could only lead sooner or later to the gradual demoralisation of significant sections of the revolutionary layers. They received blow after blow but all they could come up with were constant protest marches, international protest campaigns in the press, etc. The idea that "we are right, but they have the force", raised by various UP activists in the documentary "The Red Ball" (12) began to spread. This idea had a particularly demoralising effect. Terror began to gain ground, and increasing layers of the masses found it more and more difficult to stop the spiral of repression and death. In the absence of a policy that could show that the only way of changing things was through the collective struggle of the masses, there was a tendency to resort to individual struggles to survive. One part of the activists (above all among the FARC) decided that the only way to resist the bourgeoisie's brutal campaign of assassination was to return to the jungle and the mountains.

For the revolutionary movement in Colombia and throughout the world, this is a lesson written in blood. But it is also a reply to the cynical bourgeoisie, and those unprincipled renegades who, while declaring themselves to be left-wing, depict the Colombian guerrillas as being "simply assassins" or "criminals". If the guerrillas lacked a social base, they would not have been able to resist for such a long time against the attacks of the mercenary bands funded by the landowners and the bourgeois army with the support of US imperialism. Thousands of youth, workers and peasants, faced with the crisis of capitalism and the repression of the oligarchy, have swelled the ranks of the guerrillas. This demonstrates the fighting spirit and the heroism of the masses, but it also confirms the fact that unless these qualities find a programme and methods that are capable of linking the advanced layers with the working class and the exploited and win their support, then the outcome will be anything but what they want.

From the 1998 negotiations to Uribe

As we have explained, the war - apart from being a nightmare for the peasants and workers - also has a political cost, in social and economic terms, for the ruling class. Tiredness and fear at different moments are expressed in mass mobilisations of sections of the population, calling for peace as well as increasing social unrest. The political instability and the military conflict affect trade and investment, not to mention the personal security for certain members of the ruling class.

All these factors have at different historical moments pushed sections of the oligarchy to open up negotiations with the guerrilla leaders. The latest (thus far) of these series of talks, which spread illusions and expectations among the Colombian masses, were opened in 1998. However, the opening up of these negotiations and their later collapse highlighted once again that not one section of the Colombian bourgeoisie - despite what they may occasionally say in public statements - is prepared to seriously negotiate anything other than the surrender of the guerrillas. Now they have started to talk again about negotiations, but it would be useful to recall who was responsible for derailing the so-called "dialogue" that opened up in 1998 and why.

Unlike in previous negotiations with guerrilla groups, in 1998 the bourgeois state even granted the FARC a large area of 42,000 square kilometres under its control (the demilitarized zone) in which they would develop the dialogue. This revealed the balance of forces that existed at the time. However, from the very beginning, the bourgeois - conscious of the risk presented by the existence of a powerful guerrilla organisation controlling a part of the country - at the same time as they held meetings with the guerrilla leaders in the Caguán to keep up appearances, they busily reinforced their military power (with the support of the Colombia Plan, implemented by US imperialism, with the consequent increase in military spending) and tried to undermine the FARC by every means in their power. At the beginning of 2002, the Colombian oligarchy decided that nothing could be gained by discussing with the guerrillas. US imperialism - in full warmongering euphoria after the 9/11 attacks - decided to include the FARC and the ELN in their list of terrorist groups and pushed for a policy of open war against them. Moreover, a certain degree of armed conflict - provided it doesn't get out of hand - can be of use to hold back and distort the class struggle in Colombia and strengthen their offensive against the Bolivarian revolution.

Paraphrasing Vito Corleone, the Conservative government of Pastrana made the FARC an offer that they could only refuse. They demanded a truce and the acceptance of military checkpoints in the demilitarised zone to allow further negotiations. In this way the bourgeois army was to gain time to strengthen its military position on the ground and to use the checkpoints to weaken and gradually fence in the FARC militarily. The guerrilla leaders, with the experience of the Unión Patriótica fresh in their minds and a military position that did not oblige them to surrender at that time, found it difficult to accept these conditions, especially when the link between the bourgeois, the state apparatus and the narco-paramilitary chiefs, far from being abandoned, persisted and was strengthened. The refusal of the FARC to accept these draconian conditions was used by the government to put the blame on the guerrillas for the breakdown of the negotiations (and the enormous frustration that this generated in society). On this basis the Colombian bourgeoisie and US imperialism launched an unprecedented military offensive, which was initiated under the Pastrana government, but has been maintained and intensified under Uribe.

Once again, the guerrilla leaders were caught between a rock and a hard place. The only way that they would have been able to break the media, political and military siege organised by the ruling class would have been to base themselves on the organisation and revolutionary mobilisation of the masses around a Marxist programme of transition to socialism. In Venezuela the Bolivarian revolution was in full swing and in Bolivia and Ecuador the struggle of the masses knocked insistently on the door. Without basing themselves on the methods of the working class and the struggle of the masses, the FARC and the ELN were obliged to fight in ever more difficult conditions, from the social and political point of view as well as the military.

The increase in the military budget by the Colombian state, with the excuse that they had to force the guerrillas to abandon their arms, has been exponential since the beginning of this century. Colombia is among the top ten countries in the world in terms of military spending. "In Colombia the military spending is higher than 5% of GDP, much higher than the Latin American average of 1.6% of GDP, and is only surpassed in the the world by Israel and Burundi. Even other countries with ongoing internal conflicts like Ethiopia, Angola, Pakistan or the Philippines, dedicate fewer resources to military spending (13)".

"As a percentage of GDP it grew to 4.7% in 2008, compared to an average of 2% between 1950 and 1989 and of 2.8% between 1990-98; if one includes the spending of regional and municipal bodies and spending on security and others that are mentioned in the Colombia Plan, these costs rise to 6.3% of GDP in 2008 (...) together with debt servicing, these absorbed 49.1% of the national budget in 2007 and in 2008 it will be even more. (...) 81.2% of the public employees paid out of the central government budgets in 2008 corresponded to defence, security and the police and 58.4% of the wages and salaries of the budget were for the ministry of defence (14)".

Furthermore, Plan Colombia and its successors (Patriot, etc.) have meant the most complete subordination of the government and the military leadership to the military, political and economic strategies dictated by US imperialism.

The intervention of imperialism

The most immediate objective of Plan Colombia was to weaken and corner the FARC and the ELN. From a more general point of view, this plan and its successors under different names (Patriot, etc.) flowed from the needs of US imperialism to intensify its military presence in its own back yard (and its economic presence) and to intervene against every threat to its interests. The result has been the increasing militarisation of Colombia and the strengthening of the Colombian army with the direct military presence of the USA.

Let´s go Alvaro, Attack, Attack. The moment has come
to reveal why I have kept you in South America.

In the context of a severe economic crisis, social inequalities, popular discontent in all of Latin America (and in the USA) and with the Venezuelan revolution upsetting the plans of imperialism and presenting itself more and more powerfully as a point of reference on an international scale, US imperialism decided it would base itself on the Colombian oligarchy with the aim of turning Colombia into the Israel of Latin America, a base from which they could crush every revolutionary movement on the continent, and primarily the Bolivarian revolution.

As we explained at the time, in an article written after Uribe came to power in 2002:

"The USA, as well as increasing its military presence in Colombia, has established military bases in Ecuador and other countries and has organised manoeuvres in conjunction with various Latin American armies such as the ‘Cabañas exercise 2001' and others most recently in Chile. It is significant that after various military experts studied these manoeuvres, they had all focussed on defeating a hypothetical internal enemy and not a supposed military conflict between countries.

"In reality this military offensive is not a symptom of the strength of the system but a reflection of its profound crisis; each time they have more problems maintaining stability and their domination through normal ‘peaceful' means, including the deception of bourgeois democracy, and they are preparing for the possibility that they will have to return to control by military methods. In the event that they should lose control of any one of the hotspots of revolutionary instability, they would be forced to intervene, including militarily.

"So long as they can, (due to the fact that the experience of Vietnam is still fresh in the memory of millions of US workers and youth), they would use the bourgeois armies of the region with the ‘logistical support' of the USA, as has happened with the Colombian army in the fight against the guerrillas. But this has its own dynamic and it is impossible to definitively stabilise the situation by these means, which would force them to intervene more directly each time. Similarly to the situation Vietnam, it would be a blind alley and would have revolutionary effects in the whole continent as well as in the United States (15)".

US imperialism uses the Colombian oligarchy in an attempt to stifle the recent growth of the revolutionary struggle of the South American masses and, first and foremost (obviously) to threaten, harass, and if it deems it necessary, attack the neighbouring Venezuelan revolution. However, as we have explained in other material: "The present correlation of forces in Venezuela and Colombia and throughout the rest of Latin America, means that if imperialism opts to seek confrontation between the two countries (whether with the excuse of the fight against the guerrillas or with a hypothetical destabilisation of the frontier states, especially Táchira and Zulia) as a means of opening up an intervention against the Venezuelan revolution, this would result in the opposite of what they are trying to achieve. According to some figures, some 5 million people of Colombian origin are living in Venezuela. The majority of these support the revolution. In Colombia, as we have said, in spite of all the crimes of the oligarchy, the workers' movement and the peasants are keeping their heads high, and enormous unrest is accumulating among the masses. The attempt to use the counter-revolutionary Colombian regime to crush the revolution would have the effect of opening the door to the revolution in Colombia and in all of Latin America. But for this, as with everything else, the key point is what policy the leadership of the Venezuelan revolution and the Colombian left adopt". (16)

For the moment, with imperialism bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and facing a developing revolution in Latin America, its fundamental strategy is to try and sabotage and destroy the Venezuelan revolution from within, using economic sabotage to lower the morale of the masses while resting on the "fifth column" of the bureaucracy and reformism to erode social support for the revolution. Nonetheless, they combine all forms of struggle and, as we have said, they are reinforcing also the military front with the tacit support of the Colombian bourgeoisie. For the moment, this is used basically to threaten, intimidate and discredit. But if tomorrow the situation changes and permits and pushes them, it is possible they will try to intervene against the revolution supported by the Colombian oligarchy.

This means that the development of the class struggle in these two "brother countries" is increasingly interrelated. Imperialism has understood this for a long time and has tried to strengthen the counter-revolution in Colombia to use it as a battering ram against the Venezuelan revolution. The leadership of the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela must develop a policy that has as its objective not to look for diplomatic accords with the counter-revolutionary Colombian government or to maintain the status quo, but a programme that wins the enthusiastic support of the mass of workers and peasants of the neighbouring country, which mobilises them and serves to extend the revolution to the other homeland of Bolivar. Further down, we will take a detailed look at the policy that has been applied up till now and which policy we believe should be applied in order to reach this objective.

Militarism and Paramilitarism: two sides of the same barbarism

The Colombian guerrillas, particularly the FARC, achieved a military force and social influence somewhat stronger than other guerrilla groups. According to various calculations they managed to organise between 15,000 and 20,000 combatants and control approximately 40% of the national territory (although the percentage of the population who inhabit these territories is much less). However, after decades of armed conflict, their support has fallen back significantly. The assassination of Raúl Reyes, Iván Ríos and other guerrilla commanders, the surrender of Karina and other leaders are a reflection of this.

The bourgeoisie, resting on their powerful propaganda machinery, used the tiredness of the masses with violence (which, as we have seen, was promoted by the bourgeoisie itself) to separate growing layers of the population from the guerrillas and to present these as being to blame for the violence. This tactic has allowed them to create a social base among the middle classes and also among a section of the most backward and desperate layers of the masses.

Uribe came to power precisely under the banner of strengthening the military struggle "to achieve peace". At the time he cynically and demagogically made all sorts of promises, swearing to struggle against corruption and poverty and even criticising the discredited official bourgeois political caste (which he himself has always been a part of). "Strong hand, big heart" was his slogan.

Cleverly using the enormous discrediting and rejection of the traditional bourgeois parties, he differentiated himself from them and presented himself as the strong man, who wanted to "unite" and "save" the country by rising above the classes and the parties. His primary base of support was evidently among the landlords and paramilitaries. As he said to his rival, the Liberal candidate Horacio Serpa "not all the Uribistas are paramilitaries, but practically all the paramilitaries are Uribistas". The votes that the landlords and narco-paramilitaries won through fear in many parts of Colombia were for Uribe. Also, his demagogy and the tactic of softening his image further distanced him publicly from the paramilitaries, such that by the end of the campaign this made it possible for them also to pick up some votes among the backward layers of the masses, who were very confused and tired of the violence and lack of security.

Many bourgeois who initially had not wanted to follow a politician with such close links to the narco-paramilitaries such as Uribe, but when the latter began to race past the candidates of the traditional parties in the polls, they began to see in him a leader capable of taking the offensive against the guerrillas to the end (and also against the living conditions of the workers), which is what they required. They continue to do everything possible to clean up his image and keep him in power. They modified the constitution - that did not allow for two consecutive mandates - so that he could present himself for a second and now a third time, buying votes to achieve this constitutional change after it had been defeated on various occasions.

Uribe won his first election in March 2002 with 53% of the votes, however, more than 50% of the population abstained. This reflected the rejection of official bourgeois politics by a huge majority of the population. On the other hand, this massive abstention was evidence of the glaring lack of a credible left alternative capable of seriously changing things there and then.

Guerrillas at the crossroads

Uribe exploits the struggle against the guerrillas and the demoralisation that the climate of violence and insecurity imbues among sections of the masses. However, this tactic can only have a certain success because of the absence of a revolutionary organisation that can present an alternative capable of making the masses, and in particular the working class, conscious of their power by indicating a way to radically transform the situation. One conclusion that can be drawn from the development of the Colombian internal conflict over the last period is that the method and programme defended by the leadership of the FARC and the ELN, far from defeating the strategy of the counter-revolutionaries, has made it easier to isolate them from the decisive sections of the masses.

FARCPartly because of the displacement caused by the war, and also partly because of industrialisation, 70% of the Colombian population now lives in large urban centres. As Marxism has always explained, all that the methods of the guerrillas can obtain at best is sympathy and passive support from the workers (at least for a period) but they tend to convert this into an appendage of the guerrillas and do not guide it in the direction of a struggle to transform society. Instead of making them conscious of their force, they push this into the background. In spite of all this, the working class is the only class which, because of its role in society, can lead the socialist transformation of society.

As we explained when we analysed the failure of the negotiations in 1984, if the leaders of the FARC, the M-19 or the ELN had adopted a genuine Marxist programme, based on the struggle of the working class, they could have taken power at some point. Instead of this, the extension of the guerrilla war over decades without leading to the defeat of the bourgeois state inevitably produced the sensation of stagnation and has had a demoralising effect on sectors of the masses and even on many of the guerrillas themselves. They kept the support of sectors of the exploited layers in the countryside, but the absence of a Marxist method and programme has facilitated the military and political campaign of the bourgeois (strengthening the army by way of Plan Colombia, Patriot, Balboa; extending paramilitarism demagogically, using the attacks by the guerrillas, etc.).

Due to the dynamic of an unequal military struggle against the combined action of the army, the paramilitaries and imperialism itself, the leaders of the guerrillas resort more and more to desperate methods, such as massive and indiscriminate kidnappings, attacking multinational installations and public infrastructure. The bourgeois uses these actions for propaganda purposes with the aim of whittling down the support for the guerrillas and discrediting them. The army and the fascist paramilitaries have organised massacres that that have then been attributed to the guerrillas to strengthen this campaign of manipulation.

Based on all these elements, the bourgeoisie - especially over recent years - has tried to present to large sections of the masses the idea that the armed conflict is a struggle between gangs on the extreme right and the extreme left, while the army and the state apparatus (which, as we have seen, has in reality supported and organised the fascist bands) are presented as guarantors of peace and internal security.

Under the so-called "doctrine of democratic security", Uribe intends to hide his true objectives: the militarization of the state and Colombian society, the introduction of a whole series of Bonapartist methods, repression against the left, etc. Under the banner of the struggle "for peace", "against the terrorists"... to the surprise and despair of many young people and workers, they have counted on the collaboration of various ex-guerrillas and ex-left intellectuals who - as in other countries - passed, without blushing, into the ranks of the counter-revolution after the collapse of Stalinism. Individual ex-leaders of the M-19, such as Rosemberg Pabón (the so-called Comandante Uno) or Ever Bustamente, have gone to the extreme of publicly supporting Uribe, contributing in this way to the ceremony of confusion organised by the Colombian oligarchy.

However, the key aspect that has prevented the leaders of the FARC and the ELN from countering this propaganda offensive of the bourgeois, apart from the guerrilla methods, is that they still have not abandoned the two-stage theory and gradualism that we criticised earlier. The central axis of this programme has been to force the ruling class (by way of direct military confrontation with the state by the guerrillas) to abandon repression and to open up the process of negotiation. But this is more difficult than the direct struggle for power. And once the bourgeois guarantees conditions to carry out a struggle in legal ways, the objective would be achieve a genuinely democratic and sovereign government, and in this situation there would be conditions to begin to raise the struggle for socialism. The reality is that each time the guerrilla groups have tried this method, the response of the oligarchy has been to physically exterminate the left militants and to continue the attacks on the rights and living conditions of the worker and peasant masses.



(11) "Una tragedia nacional y latinoamericana". F.J. Amaya

(12) Documentary shown by VTV 18/5/2008

(13) "Los costos del conflicto interno", por Mauricio Cabrera Galvis

(14)"El gasto en Defensa y Seguridad", por Helena Villamizar Garcia-Hereros.

(15) Tras la victoria de Uribe, ¿Hacia donde va Colombia?

(16) "Tras el conflicto con Uribe y la Cumbre de Río ¿Qué política exterior debe defender la revolución bolivariana?" El Militante nº10

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