Two Perspectives from the Colombian Left

In the context of the ongoing para-politics scandal in Colombia, which has undermined the legitimacy of the right-wing government, the left is rapidly emerging as the new political force in the country. Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been waging a war against the State for more than 40 years. But for the first time since the 1980s, a left-of-center political party is gaining prominence on both the local and national level, illustrating that Colombia is not immune to the electoral shift to the left that is occurring throughout the region.

September 4, 2007

In the context of the ongoing para-politics scandal in Colombia, which has undermined the legitimacy of the right-wing government, the left is rapidly emerging as the new political force in the country. Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been waging a war against the State for more than 40 years. But for the first time since the 1980s, a left-of-center political party is gaining prominence on both the local and national level, illustrating that Colombia is not immune to the electoral shift to the left that is occurring throughout the region.

The presence of both the armed left and an electoral left in Colombia has made the leftward shift in this South American country particularly intriguing. In June, I met with Senator Gustavo Petro of the Democratic Pole in his office in Bogotá to obtain his perspective on the para-politics scandal, the armed left, the dirty war, neoliberalism and the country’s prospects for peace. Six days after meeting with Petro, I interviewed FARC Commander Raúl Reyes in a remote jungle camp and asked him about the same issues. Petro and Reyes provide two perspectives from the Colombian left.

What is the significance of the para-politics scandal for democracy in Colombia?

Gustavo Petro: Para-politics is a new word that we Colombians have invented to express the links between paramilitarism, the State and politics. Colombian paramilitarism is a little different than that created in Latin America in the context of the Cold War. At that time, they were death squads, generally organized with civilians, under the general direction of the United States, to commit a series of human rights violations to destroy the communist insurgencies of that period. In Colombia, they were somewhat similar; the death squads were created and it was called paramilitarism. But unlike in other Latin American countries, they were immediately linked to drug trafficking, and the drug trafficking gave them a completely different dimension. The death squads, thanks to this financial muscle, became private armies of thousands of men. And these private armies came to control the local authorities where they were situated. These private armies became an element of, shall we say, dissuasion for society and the local state. They used terror against the local population, killed their leaders, destroyed their organizations, and generated such severe violence that the human beings who observed and survived those crimes were filled with terror and remained silent. It was a silent society that permitted the wealth to be concentrated in the hands of the owners of the private armies.

For thirty years, this model grew and today it consists of 40,000 armed men. They not only gained control of a third of the territory and the population, but also two million votes out of the ten million voters in Colombia, votes that were not free, but were substituted or coerced. And they penetrated many sectors of the State at the national level: sectors of the police, the justice system, the national army, and the Congress of the Republic because they brought about the election of a secret group among the political parties who all became Uribistas. And then Alvaro Uribe Vélez initiated negotiations with these private armies of drug-traffickers, who are the main exporters of cocaine. The negotiations were basically for total impunity, a total amnesty for the wealth that was the objective of their crimes; a demobilization of their armies so then they could become civilian owners of political power. These negotiations were translated into what is called the Justice and Peace Law, which was approved in the Congress by, among others, the votes of their own congresspersons.

But then things began to change for various reasons. First, the political shift in the United States that changed the political majority in the Congress. The Democrats began looking closely at the type of process that was taking place. But because Bush approved of the demobilization, it remained an internal electoral discussion in the United States. Also, the Colombian Constitutional Court looked at the constitutionality of the Justice and Peace Law, and practically transformed it from a political negotiation by subjugating it to justice. The presidency and the paramilitaries were no longer the negotiators. Instead it was the Attorney General and the paramilitaries, and the court ruling eliminated the political crime that was an absurd part of the Law: that the paramilitaries were political delinquents. It removed the crime of sedition, leaving them as common delinquents and they were obligated to confess the facts, obligated to tell the truth. That transformation of the Justice and Peace Law placed the truth at the center of the discussion. Our activities as the opposition initiated debates that showed the links between politicians, politics and the paramilitaries in order to send them to prison.

At this time we do not know exactly where this country is going. President Uribe announced in one of his recent speeches—after the paramilitary leader Mancuso had spoken—the possible release of the para-politicians and of the paramilitaries from prison. It was a speech that was nothing short of being a message of impunity; he did not speak of reparations for the victims, or anything like that. This suggests that the country would re-paramilitarize if this occurred. And the elections in October would be another episode of empowerment for the paramilitaries and drug-traffickers in Colombia. But many sectors of Colombian society and of the international community are pressuring for truth, justice and reparations for the victims. This would necessarily cause a political crisis, but also a de-paramilitarization of the country and a transition towards democracy. Which of these two roads will this country choose? We do not know.

Raúl Reyes: The para-politics scandal is the result of many years of the existence of drug trafficking in Colombian politics. Drug trafficking money circulates at every level of the government, in all the apparatuses of the State, all the governmental institutions. Drug trafficking has carried various presidents to the presidency. But aside from the money for presidential candidates, the money also funds congresspersons in the House and the Senate. Many judicial processes are also bought with drug trafficking money. Drug trafficking money has also penetrated inside the police, inside the army, inside the DAS, the SIJIN, that is to say, inside all the components of state security. The president is compromised with this money. This money is also found in industry, in commerce, in the pharmaceutical industry, in the chemical industry, in all of these.

For these reasons the situation in Colombia is serious. Here in Colombia, it is true what some say about it being a narco-democracy. I believe there is a narco-state, a narco-economy, but there is also a great hypocrisy in the Colombian political establishment because they sell the story that they are fighting drug trafficking. They go to the United States to ask for support to fight against drug trafficking. And they go to the European Union to ask for support to fight against drug trafficking. They organize forums and seminars about the fight against drug trafficking when they themselves are the drug-traffickers and the beneficiaries of drug trafficking. This is an extreme degree of hypocrisy, no?

Some claim that the FARC is nothing more than a criminal organization, that it is not politically or ideologically motivated. What do you think of these claims?

Gustavo Petro: The FARC is part of a different phenomenon than paramilitarism. Although at times it seems similar. It starts its history much earlier, during the violence between Liberals and Conservatives, the two traditional political parties in Colombia that waged a civil war in the middle of the 20th century leaving 300,000 dead. In the rural areas, some of the Liberal peasants that suffered from the violence became guerrillas. That is the origin of the guerrilla warfare being waged by the FARC. The agreement between the FARC and the government of Belisario Betancourt in the 1980s permitted them to found a legal political party, the Patriotic Union, but it was exterminated when 4,000 of its defenseless members were assassinated. There were two consequences; firstly, it practically eliminated the FARC’s political leadership, and secondly, the realization that the Colombian government had betrayed them created an enormous distrust that radicalized the FARC.

And then something happened in Colombia in 1993, when the FARC was 30-years-old. The death squads, which had been created by the drug-traffickers and the paramilitaries, began hurting the FARC for the first time. During those first 30 years, when the paramilitaries confronted the FARC they were not counter-insurgents, they were simply a drug trafficking project. But when the guerrillas themselves became involved in the export of cocaine, then there was conflict.

In 1993, when the cultivation of coca diminished in Peru and Bolivia, it increased in Colombia. The counter-narcotics policies of the United States have consisted in recent years of investing billions of dollars in fumigating coca cultivations. The fumigations had an impact on rural life. The peasants who had begun to cultivate coca leaves did not possess sufficiently profitable legal cultivations. That is to say they were located, not in the fertile regions, nor in the agrarian border near the cities, but on very poor lands on the edge of the jungle that lacked infrastructure. There they began to cultivate coca and those zones were controlled by the FARC, and other guerrillas too, but the FARC adopted the culture from the start. From the start they did not confront the incursion of coca cultivation, but instead took a pragmatic attitude and charged a tax to finance themselves.

Since 1993 there has not been enough time for the FARC to become exporters of cocaine, but it is only a question of time. The thing that is certain is that during these past 12, 14 years, these types of activities have financed them. This caused changes in the attitude of the FARC, from being peasant guerrillas, revolutionaries of the old form; they became an army, like the paramilitaries, that grew because they could buy weapons and pay soldiers and mercenaries, and become militarily powerful. They defeated the army in many regions of the country, above all during the government of Samper, as they became an army of thousands of men formed in hundreds of fronts. They acquired control over territory, but in another way they lost, because their political ideology and their methods grew increasingly distant from society. They became more barbarous, carrying out actions that didn’t even target the army but targeted the society in its entirety. They became isolated. They do not need the traditional support that traditional guerrillas need, because the money allows their army to be self-supporting and to expand. They do not need popular support, and they are losing their politics. Today, they are simply criminals.

However, the difference between the FARC and the paramilitaries is that they are not linked to the State or the landowners, the landed drug-traffickers; their base is essentially rural. And the FARC cannot really be accused of being large exporters of cocaine; they have not arrived at that final link in the chain. They still operate in the first links of the chain of production: coca leaf cultivation, processing into paste and taxation. There are indications that they have started to traffic, but only on a small scale with the Brazilians. They are dealing with the South and not the North, which is more profitable. One would have to say, that they will arrive there, it is only a matter of time. But today, we believe it is still possible to negotiate with the FARC, although it will be difficult.

Raúl Reyes: It is a campaign of the war, it is nothing more or less than a form of war. They use it to discredit the revolutionary struggle. This campaign has gained strength from September 11, right? When the twin towers fell in the United States and everyone began talking about terrorism, the Colombian government started calling the FARC and all the revolutionary organizations in Colombia and the world “terrorists.” Then they could liquidate them, intimidate them and force them to renounce the revolutionary struggle. And this has increased war in the world. But the results, in our judgment, have not favored the United States, nor Mister Bush, whose credibility today has been dramatically diminished. The popularity of Mister Bush is not the best at this time, because of the war against Iraq. Álvaro Uribe, to the shame of us Colombians, is the only ruler in our region—South America—that has supported that war. I believe that the American people will take measures to discontinue the wrong policies of their government. Fortunately, one sees some expressions of this now. Some Democrats are beginning to say “No, we are not going to support the deployment of our troops to Iraq, they have to return to United States as soon as possible. We are not going to approve the budget for the war. Neither are we going to approve more money for Plan Colombia without conditions. We are not going to sign an FTA with a government like the one in Colombia, which is a narco-paramilitary government, a corrupt government, a government that has fought an endless war against Colombians.” We don’t think that this is a solution, but is an important step that the FARC values. At least the Democrats are helping some thinking sectors in the United States to understand this phenomenon and to work to dismantle the machinery of war.

Many think that every American, by virtue of being from there, is an imperialist. For this reason the FARC has produced two or three documents indicating that we deeply respect and admire the American people, but we do have deep differences and are affected by the policies of the American State. Before the attack against Marquetalia in 1964, the embassy of the United States was contributing money for the war against the FARC and has always funded Colombian governments so that they can maintain the war against the FARC. And we recall what happened in the dialogues in San Vicente del Caguán with Pastrana. The government of Clinton was the first to oppose the dialogue, and Clinton is the father of Plan Colombia. The world has to know this and we cannot forget it in Colombia because it is part of our history. And what did we see happen with Plan Colombia, a continuation of the strategy of war, not only against Colombians, but also against the region. The United States seeks to expand into this region that contains the greatest biodiversity in the world; it’s called the lung of the world. There are geo-strategic interests that United States intends to achieve through crimes, killings, slander and lies.

Why do you think that members of the Democratic Pole have not been massacred to the same extent that members of the Patriotic Union were?

Gustavo Petro: The difference is paramilitarism and the global context. Behind the shield of the Cold War, the killing of the Patriotic Union was seen internationally as the killing of communists. And in the Cold War, it was done in alliance with what we called “the free world.” However, it was genocide, one of the many that occurred. But today that world does not exist. Today they cannot hide behind that discourse because a world culture that respects human rights has evolved. The dictatorships in the Southern Cone all fell and judgments against genocides and the generals of war increased around the world. Consequently, we are now in a different context. The international community does not tolerate these sorts of actions: crimes against humanity and the crime of narco-trafficking. It is in this world context that, during the demobilization talks, Uribe called on the paramilitaries to stop killing, or not do it so visibly, or so notoriously. But the OAS says that they have killed more than three thousand Colombians since they began negotiating with Uribe. The danger has diminished a little, but it could increase again at any moment.

Raúl Reyes: I believe that the massacre that the Colombian State perpetrated against the Patriotic Union, the communists, and important revolutionary and union leaders has been costly for Colombia. Above all, I point to the slaughter of the leadership of the Communist Party. At that time there was a large Communist Party, with very well developed, very well formed cadres. It would suffice to recall, among others, presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal and Manuel Cepeda Vargas, director of the newspaper Voz and a senator of the republic. They murdered them all. None of them had ever been involved in guerrilla warfare, never. The ones that were guerrillas, the ones the FARC sent to help with the work of the Patriotic Union, I ordered them to come back once the murders became evident. And they all came, among them Iván Márquez, who today is a member of the Secretariat but at that time was a representative in the House. The leadership of the Party continued because it was a legal party, but they continued murdering them one by one.

But with the Democratic Pole it is different. The Communist Party is part of the Pole, but it is a reduced Communist Party, a party that maintains the same political line, but has difficulty developing because it is frightened, struck by the orgy of blood that was the genocide against the Patriotic Union. And inside the Pole, there are different sectors. Inside the Pole there is the right, the social democrats and the left—the Colombian Communist Party, the Marxist-Leninist Party and other revolutionary expressions, some Trotskyists, but all too small and without much influence in Colombian political life. The social democrats have the largest presence in the Pole and they are taking advantage by trying to get to the presidency of the republic; to attain important positions inside the government, inside the State. Among these are several demobilized members of the M-19: Navarro, Gustavo Petro and others. Also, there are some who left the Communist Party to join the social democrats and they are proclaimed the “democratic left .” These include Lucho Garzón and Angelino Garzón, among others. These people have accepted the establishment, the State, because they calculate, and it’s a miscalculation, that they will be able to attract the revolutionary left. But it so happens that the revolutionary left cannot be attracted to the social democrats because we are conscious that social democrats end up favoring the right, the bourgeoisie.

In the fight for the New Colombia, “la patria grande” and socialism, we are indicating that any important change in Colombian life such as the search for a lasting and final peace, a peace without hunger, a peace with social justice, a peace with liberties, a peace with dignity and with respect for our sovereignty should include the FARC and the entire revolutionary left. But these social democratic sectors in the Pole want to sell the idea that they can resolve the country’s problems while excluding the left and by doing favors for the right. For that reason we do not see a great difference between the social democrats and the right headed by Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Within the Pole, the struggle for the revolutionary left—represented by the communists—against the social democrats is very hard, it is very difficult, because the social democrats have the support of the right. And now they are determining who is going to be the new mayor of Bogotá, the successor to Lucho Garzón. And clearly, nobody in the Democratic Pole wants Bogotá’s city hall to return to the hands of the extreme right. But the social democrats, united with the right, want to continue the same programs, the same politics that have been developed under Lucho Garzón and they don’t want anything to do with the revolutionary left, they want to try to exclude it. Therefore, Navarro Wolf and Petro proposed, without the consent, or without a consensus among the leadership of the Democratic Pole, the name of Maria Emma Mejía to be the candidate for mayor of Bogotá. Maria Emma Mejía is a Liberal who became close to the Pole, and finally joined the Pole, but she has never been on the left. What we see here is that, with this political maneuver, Navarro and Petro intend to flatter liberalism with the one hand and Uribismo with the other, while at the same time hurting the revolutionary left inside the Pole.

It so happens that the commitment is not to the people, the commitment is to fight for new possibilities to attain positions inside the government. However, within the Pole, some continue to fight to maintain it a little toward the left. They say that if the Pole cannot be maintained toward the left then later they are not going to be able to differentiate between the Liberal Party and the Pole. But it is going to be a very difficult fight.

I believe that for all these reasons, the Colombian State has not used the force, has not had the disposition to commit the assassinations that it did in the past. But nevertheless, it should be noted that they do continue murdering people, but they are selective murders of the people that truly are on the left. These people are union leaders, peasant leaders and teachers who are engaged in the struggle on behalf of the people. They murder them and as usual nobody is held responsible because it is terrorism by the State.

How is it possible to change the neoliberal policies implemented by Uribe and previous governments in Colombia?

Gustavo Petro: One must change the relation of forces. Neoliberalism in Latin America has been an accelerator of inequality. Colombia needs to move towards democracy and then it will manage to achieve a political change, undoubtedly similar to the ones that we have seen occur in other South American countries. However, I do not believe that this will happen soon in Colombia because here in Colombia the popular movement that represents the root of those peaceful proposals on the left is itself being destroyed through assassinations. But I believe that there is going to be a crisis in Colombia; today it is ethics, but next it will be politics. This would allow us to move ahead with political change.

Raúl Reyes: For the FARC the only way to change the neoliberal model and the policies of previous governments and of the current one is by taking power. It must begin with the formation of a new democratic, patriotic, diverse government of national reconciliation, which seeks to change the course of the country in a way in which it is truly the people, with their leaders, who build the future. Without this it will be impossible because Colombia has endured 50 years of war during which each of the governments did the same thing even before the neoliberal model appeared and they applied the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And then the neoliberal model appeared and they became wedded to neoliberal policies. This was before Uribe, it was those who preceded him in the presidency. Then they developed the terrorist state and this has increased the problems.

So we think that to truly achieve change, and the ones demanding this are the majority of the Colombian people, what is needed is to form a completely different government to that of Uribe and the previous governments. That is to say, a government that is committed to deep changes and that opens spaces of democracy in order to be able to build the New Colombia. A new Colombia where people would not be exploited and, of course, there would be no exploiters. But to achieve this is a task for titans, because Colombia has a mafia class and a corrupt murderous ruler. And as long as they continue controlling the destiny of our country it is going to be very difficult for the people to become controllers of their own destinies. This is the reason that the FARC continues its revolutionary struggle.

We spoke in a previous question about how they assassinated the Patriotic Union and they assassinated the communists, and how this closed spaces for the legal struggle. And we noted that they continue to murder popular leaders and continue to carry out some selective assassinations. We think this validates the revolutionary armed struggle, whose end is not war. The end of the revolutionary struggle being waged by the FARC is peace. For us, peace is the fundamental thing. We understand that peace is the solution to the problems that affect our people. We understand that peace means that in Colombia we have a true democracy. Not a democracy for the capitalists, but a democracy for the people, who can protest, who can participate, who have the right to live, who have the right to healthcare, to education, who have the right to communication, to electricity, to agrarian reforms, to fight corruption, to not have to kneel before foreign powers, but to be a country free, independent and sovereign with respectful relations with all countries on equal terms. Also, that the weapons of the army not be not used against the people, but just for the defense of our sovereignty and nothing more. To achieve that objective is why we are here in this jungle. And in search of that objective we are willing to continue for as long as is necessary. And our proposal for a “prisoner exchange,” which cannot be modified to the favor of Mister Uribe, is issued with the desire to solve one of the by-products of the conflict. Colombia suffers an armed, social, political, and economic conflict that no government has wanted to resolve. Therefore, we say, the signing of an agreement to liberate prisoners on both sides could also be the door to the beginning of a new dialogue to work towards achieving peace. As I already said, the FARC seeks peace, but not a peace that comes from surrender, nor a peace that accommodates the leaders of the organization and certain friends, but a peace for the people. It must be a peace that protects the life and the dignity of our population.

What needs to be done in order to achieve a just peace in Colombia and greater equality between the rich and the poor?

Gustavo Petro: One of the fundamental problems in Colombia, which includes narco-trafficking, is social inequality. A question we have to ask is, “What causes one country to produce drug-traffickers and another not to?” Why do the Venezuelans not do it and the Colombians do, when the two peoples are relatively similar? Geographically, there is not a lot of difference; the climates are similar. I think that the answer is social inequality. The Venezuelans have more opportunities that allow them to generate wealth. Our society has been unequal for a very long time and the social inequality generates violence. We know there are many poor countries, a lot poorer than Colombia, but they are more egalitarian in their poverty and they are more peaceful. The deeply unequal countries always generate violence. Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines and Guatemala head the social inequality list; and we are violent countries. Now that violence is amorphous, social violence and political violence combined, and with drug trafficking, it flourishes here.

In countries where there is no opportunity to earn money through work, as is often the case in Colombia, drug trafficking is an option for excluded people and it transforms into a culture, into an escape for many people. Therefore, one counter-narcotics policy in a society like this should be to seriously diminish the social inequality. I am not saying that this would eliminate violence but it would diminish it. A democratization of the country is fundamental to eliminating the culture of violence. That is our belief.

The great difference between Uribe and us is that Uribe has relied on the growth of the army to reduce the violence. It is called “democratic security,” but without democracy, right? If it doesn’t diminish the social inequality, the policy is going to fail because it can contain the violence temporarily, but in the end the conditions that cause the violence still exist. If we combined the strengthening of the army and the monopoly of the public forces with democratizing the country, redistributing lands, democratizing the ownership of the land, and supplying credits to create opportunities for the people that have been excluded, which is the majority of the population, we would be able to move down the path of peace.

Raúl Reyes: To achieve that objective there needs to be a change in attitude. The ruling class must understand that the best business is peace. That peace is a business and that business requires an investment, because the large amount of wealth that exists in Colombia, that results from the labor of the people, could generate much more wealth if there was peace. But since there is a war by the State against the people, they invest in the war and not for the benefit of the population, therefore Colombians are getting poorer. The gap between the rich and the poor grows and popular discontent grows and so does repression against those who dare to express their discontent through legal means. Often they are murdered, forced into exile, displaced by threats, or their goods are expropriated, then the number of guerrillas increases and the armed struggle grows. In the case of the FARC, it is a political-military struggle. Uribe Vélez claims that there is no internal conflict in Colombia. That is the first great lie that he tells to Colombia and to the world and according to that great lie there is nothing to resolve here. But there is a confrontation here in which people are constantly being killed, and for which he himself is asking for aid from all sides in exchange for mortgaging the sovereignty and the dignity of the Colombian people. And so one must ask, “If there is no internal conflict then why demand aid?” It is completely contradictory.

The attitude of the ruling class must be to declare, “From now on the best business for us is peace. And as the business for us is peace then we are going to invest in it. We are going to return part of what we have taken from poor Colombians and invest it in peace.” But I do not believe that the ruling class will arrive at such a decision easily because the essence of capitalism is something different: it is to obtain greater profits at the cost of the sacrifice of the population. For this reason, we are motivated to wage the revolutionary struggle. We are motivated to support actions by the popular masses, protests by the unions, by organizations, and likewise guerrilla actions. And this is what we call “the combination of all forms of struggle,” because the FARC is a revolutionary army and it does not only engage in the armed struggle. The FARC is characterized as a political-military organization. Its leadership is a political cell. All of the FARC is a political cell. Therefore, its work involves the formation of guerrillas who are strong both politically and ideologically so that they understand it is a fight for the structural changes that the country requires and not for the benefit of certain people. So that they understand that this fight requires making sacrifices including leaving one’s family to be in the jungle and exposed 24 hours a day to attacks by the enemy. We feel that with this sacrifice we are contributing to the revolutionary struggle of Colombia and other peoples of the world.

To read the entire interview with FARC Commander Raúl Reyes, click here.

Garry Leech is the editor of, where this article was first published, and the author, most recently, of Crude Interventions: The United States, Oil, and the New World (Dis)Order (Zed Books, 2006).

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.