'Rebels' is an exciting and innovative new series looking at contemporary rebel groups and their place in global politics. Written by leading experts, the books serve as definitive introductions to the individual organizations, whilst seeking to place them within a broader geographical and political framework. They examine the origins, ideology and future direction of each group, whilst posting such questions as 'When does a "rebel" political movement become a "terrorist" organization?' and 'What are the social-economic drivers behind political violence?'.
Provocative and original, the series is essential reading for anyone interested in how rebel groups operate today.
About the Author
Garry Leech is an independent jourbanalist and also teaches international politics at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada.
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The Longest Insurgency
By Carry Leech
Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2011 Garry Leech
All rights reserved.
The Roots of the FARC
In order to understand the FARC – its longevity as well as its successes and failures – it is important to recognize the historical context out of which this guerrilla group emerged. While Colombia's history resembles that of other Latin American nations in many ways, there are some unique aspects to the country that have impacted it politically, socially and economically. For instance, unlike in any other Latin American country, Colombia's principal cities – Bogotá, Medellin, Cali and Baranquilla – are separated from each other by vast expanses of towering mountain peaks and dense, lowland tropical jungles. Many of Colombia's provincial regions developed in relative isolation from the capital, Bogotá. Prior to the twentieth century, it took less time to travel from the Caribbean port city of Cartagena across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris than to the nation's capital – seated on a savannah 8,6oo feet up in the Andes mountains. Those rare occasions on which rural Colombians had to deal with the national government usually involved confrontations with military forces operating in the interests of Bogotá's political and economic elite. This geographic isolation for many Colombians bred a distrust of central government that still persists in rural Colombia. To this day, despite frequent claims made by mainstream analysts that Colombia is Latin America's oldest democracy, the government in Bogotá has never effectively controlled all of the national territory.
Following independence from Spain in 1810, local landed elites, primarily white descendants of Spanish colonial rulers, held political and economic sway throughout Colombia and retained control of the country's prime agricultural land. In essence, independence merely transferred rule from Spanish colonial administrators to an oligarchy comprising Spanish-descended Colombians serving their own political and economic interests. By the mid-nineteenth century, Colombia's new ruling elite had formed two political parties – the Liberals and Conservatives – which would dominate Colombian politics until the end of the twentieth century. Initially, the Liberals favoured a federalist system of government, separation of church and state, and laissez-faire economics, while the Conservatives preferred a strong central government, close ties between church and state, and a government actively involved in economic policymaking. But by the mid-twentieth century, there was little difference between the two parties, particularly regarding economic policy.
Despite the country's formidable geographic barriers, the two parties eventually managed to infiltrate many of Colombia's settled regions, although constituents usually displayed a greater allegiance to regional party officials than to national leaders. Political differences between the Liberal and Conservative elite, both locally and nationally, frequently resulted in outbreaks of violence, pitting party loyalists from each faction against each other. While peasants routinely took part in Colombia's many civil wars, these conflicts were fundamentally between the interests of the ruling elites and were not class-based liberation struggles. Peasants often fought to protect the interests of their Liberal or Conservative patrón, or local landowner, in return for moderate reforms that improved their own lot in life.
The turbulence of the nineteenth century culminated with the War of the Thousand Days (1899–1902). With Colombia's economy suffering from a decline in world coffee prices and Conservatives having held power since 1886, Liberals disputed the 1898 election that brought Conservative candidate Manuel A. Sanclamente to power, and took up arms against the government. The war proved to be the bloodiest of Colombia's many civil conflicts, with as many as 100,000 killed. By the end of 1902, the country's economy was virtually paralysed and government forces held the military advantage, causing the Liberals to agree to lay down their arms in return for amnesty.
The same year saw the Conservative government agree to the Hay–Herrán Treaty that gave the United States the rights to build a transoceanic canal across the Colombian province of Panama. But in 1903, the Colombian Senate unanimously refused to ratify the treaty on the grounds that US control over the canal was incompatible with Colombian sovereignty. In November of that year, Washington was presented with another opportunity to obtain the rights to build the canal when Panamanian secessionists revolted against Bogotá. President Theodore Roosevelt responded to the uprising on the isthmus by dispatching US warships and troops to prevent Colombian forces sent to quell the revolt from reaching Panama City.
Three days later Washington officially recognized Panamanian independence and signed a new treaty with Philip Buneau-Varilla – the former chief engineer of the Panama Canal Company – before legitimate representatives of the new Panamanian government could reach Washington. Roosevelt ignored Panama's protests over plans to establish a canal zone that would effectively cut the new country in half. Colombia also lodged official protests with Washington for supporting Panamanian independence, but was powerless to do anything about the situation.
While the loss of Panama caused many Colombians to resent and distrust the United States, some of the country's economic elite continued to push for expanded ties with their powerful northern neighbour. Political tensions were partially alleviated in 1922 when the US Senate ratified the Urrutia-Thompson Treaty that called for Washington to pay a $25 million indemnity to Colombia for the US role in Panama's secession.
The ensuing years became known as the 'Dance of the Millions', partly due to the $25 million payment, but primarily because Colombia's coffee production expanded dramatically and its banana, petroleum and manufacturing sectors experienced significant growth. But the huge majority of Colombians were not benefiting from the country's booming economy, and rural and urban workers, often organized by the Colombian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Colombiano, PCC), began demanding social and economic reforms.
In the late 1920s, the emergence on the political scene of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a dissident Liberal Party member, offered hope to millions of impoverished and downtrodden Colombians. Gaitán first gained prominence with his public denunciations of the Conservative government's role in the Colombian army's 1928 massacre of striking banana workers in the northern town of Ciénaga, accusing the government and the army of being in the pocket of the Boston-based United Fruit Company. Gaitán was also instrumental in the labour and agrarian reform movements that resulted in the introduction of Colombia's first modern agrarian reform law in 1936.
Gaitán's populist rhetoric gained him a substantial following and, by the late 1940s, following a short stint as mayor of Bogotá, he was the presumed favourite to win the 1950 presidential election. Meanwhile, in 1946, the newly elected Conservative government began using violence to reverse some of the moderate reforms that had been implemented by reform-minded Liberals over the previous sixteen years. On 9 April 1948, however, the low-intensity violence exploded when Gaitán was assassinated on a Bogotá street. The Liberal leader's death triggered the Bogotazo, a popular uprising by the Liberal lower classes that resulted in massive destruction and looting in the capital.
Many US officials, including Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who was attending the Ninth International Conference of American States in Bogotá when the violence broke out, believed the Bogotazo was a communist conspiracy to undermine the conference. According to Robert W. Drexler, who served as a US diplomat in Colombia during the 1950 s and again in the 1970s,
The rapidly growing obsession of the United States government with the Communist threat to Latin America can be dated from the Bogotazo, and it was a cruel irony of fate for Colombia that riots there arising from grave social ills led the United States to adopt militaristic anti-Communist policies in the area which generally ignored and sometimes even worsened those domestic problems.
The rioting in Bogotá led to Liberal uprisings throughout the country in what became known as La Violencia, or The Violence. Fearing that the violence might coalesce into a peasant-based social revolution, the national Liberal leadership backed the bloody repression used by the Conservative government to quell it. Despite this loose alliance between the two parties, alleged Conservatives assassinated two high-ranking Liberals in 1949. The Liberal Party responded by boycotting the 1950 presidential election, which was won uncontested by Conservative candidate Laureano Gómez.
Although rebellion had been effectively suppressed in Bogotá, armed peasant uprisings continued throughout the countryside. The increasingly authoritarian Gómez regime – supported by the Catholic Church, a popular target of rebellious Liberal peasants during the uprisings due to its traditional alliance with the Conservatives – elevated the military crackdown to new heights, which only further fuelled the violence. The chaotic conflict included battles not only between Liberal and Conservative peasants, but also between the oligarchy and land-starved peasants, leading many large landowners to abandon their properties for the relative safety of the cities. The United States viewed the Colombian Communist Party's support for the peasants through a Cold War lens and rushed weapons and training to the Colombian military. Close military cooperation between the two countries had already been established when Colombia became the only Latin American country to send combat troops to aid the US war effort in Korea.
In 1952, a 23-year-old Argentine doctor named Ernesto 'Che' Guevara arrived in Colombia after travelling throughout much of South America. During his brief stay, the man who would later inspire many Colombian revolutionaries noted, 'There is more repression of individual freedom here than in any other country we've been to ... The atmosphere is tense and a revolution may be brewing.' High-ranking military officials also recognized the possible political and social implications of the rural violence and the inability of Gómez to quell it. And so, in 1953, the Conservative president was ousted by a military coup that brought General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to power.
Rojas Pinilla, the former commander of a Colombian infantry battalion in Korea, issued an amnesty to all armed peasants in an attempt to bring an end to La Violencia. Many armed Liberal peasants accepted the offer. But shortly afterwards, the government began targeting demobilized Liberal guerrillas. And then, in 1954, Rojas Pinilla launched a major military offensive against communist peasants who had refused to lay down their arms, particularly those in the Villarica region of central Colombia. Thousands of peasants were displaced by the military offensive and, once resettled elsewhere, began forming self-defence groups at the urging of the Colombian Communist Party. The self-defence groups sought to protect themselves from the actions of both the military and large landowners who sought the newly settled lands in the peasant enclaves, or what some analysts have labelled 'independent republics'.
Meanwhile, the Conservative and Liberal elite, concerned about Rojas Pinilla's desire to retain power, organized widespread street protests that toppled the dictator. The two parties then implemented a power-sharing agreement called the National Front. Beginning in 1958, the Conservative and Liberal parties alternated four-year terms in the presidency and divided all government positions evenly between themselves. The National Front marked the end of the factional sparring between elites that had characterized Colombia's political violence from the nineteenth century through La Violencia; however, the new unity government had to contend with armed communist peasants that still sought to address the gross social inequalities so prevalent in Colombia.
The Role of the Communist Party
During the 1930s, the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) had proven effective at organizing – and politicizing – peasants in rural central Colombia, particularly in the department, or province, of Tolima and the south-western part of the department of Cundinamarca. Unlike most other communist parties in Latin America at the time, the PCC made organizing the rural population a priority. Not surprisingly then, during La Violencia, it was the armed communist peasants in Tolima and surrounding regions that posed the greatest threat to the hegemony of the Conservative and Liberal elite. Most armed Liberal peasants, who, like their communist counterparts, had taken up arms to defend themselves against the repressive actions of the Conservative government in the early years of La Violencia, remained loyal to the Liberal elites following the formation of the National Front government.
The PCC was instrumental in organizing the peasant self-defence movement. The peasant leaders of many of the armed groups were members of the PCC, including Pedro Antonio Marín in Tolima, who would later change his name to Manuel Marulanda Vélez and become the supreme commander of the FARC. Marulanda had grown up in a traditional Liberal family in the department of Quindío in central Colombia, but in his teen years he became a Marxist-Leninist. He began working with the PCC in the late 1940s and became a member in 1952 at the age of 24. Eight years later, Marulanda was elected to the PCC's Central Committee.
During the 1950s, Marulanda was a leading organizer for the PCC in Tolima, becoming instrumental in the establishment of armed peasant groups that sought to defend communities from government repression. According to Marulanda,
The resistance groups went through the logical and natural process of formation, strengthening and consolidation. It was a process of the emergence of a form of struggle that had no immediate predecessor, rising spontaneously, imprecisely, in which the peasants themselves were protagonists of their own history.
In the enclaves, the communist peasants sought to establish alternative political, social and economic structures to the capitalist model imposed on the rural population by the country's dominant political parties. By the early 1950s, notes historian Gonzalo Sánchez, the communist revolutionaries 'regulated the use of expropriations and the proceeds from them, subordinating individual appetites to the collective good of the resistance. ... In some regions of greatest control, production and distribution priorities were set for the civilian population.' According to the FARC's telling of its origins, both the PCC and the leaders of the self-defence groups
encouraged the peasant communities to share the land among the residents and created mechanisms for collective work and assistance to the individual exploitation of parcels of land and applied the movement's justice by collective decision of assemblies of the populace. These became areas with a new mentality and social and political proposals different from those offered by the regime. The decisive factor was the presence in power of the people themselves.
Father Camilo Torres, Colombia's famous revolutionary priest and one of the early proponents of liberation theology, also acknowledged the escalating level of organizing by the armed peasants:
Among the peasants, the emergence of violence creates circumstances which force them to abandon their individualism. Joint migrations, defense of the rural communities, organization of production, etc., encouraged a mentality of co-operation, initiative, and class consciousness. A new situation has transformed Colombian rural communities into social units with internal cohesion, initiative, and their own dynamics.
And while there are differing accounts regarding the degree to which peasants succeeded in establishing collective political, social and economic projects, it is clear that the very existence of these radicalized communities posed a threat to the country's ruling elite. This threat led to a shift in the nature of the conflict during the second half of La Violencia, away from a sectarian struggle along party lines to one along class lines. As Torres noted, La Violencia
started a social process that the ruling classes did not foresee. It has awakened the class consciousness of the peasant, given him group solidarity and a feeling of superiority and confidence to act. ... This will have the effect of constituting a social pressure group – economically and even politically capable of changing the social structure in the way least expected and least desired by the ruling class. It is very possible that, due to violence, political sectarianism will be changed into class sectarianism, as has already occurred in many rural areas.
Excerpted from The Farc by Carry Leech. Copyright © 2011 Garry Leech. Excerpted by permission of Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Map of Colombia Timeline of Events Introduction 1: The Roots of the FARC 2: The FARC's Political Front 3: The FARC's Social Project 4: The FARC and the Drug Trade 5: From 'Narco-Guerrillas' to 'Narco-Terrorists' 6: The FARC and Human Rights 7: The Future of the FARC