The Farc, Chavez and the Colombian dilemma

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The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Farc, has existed since the late 1940s. But it has rarely received the kind of worldwide attention it has today.

In part, that is the result of an international campaign for the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, the French-born presidential candidate, who has now been a Farc hostage for a number of years. But the real reason for the new focus on the Farc is more sinister and more far reaching.

In February this year Colombian troops crossed the border into Ecuador in a surprise attack on a Farc camp. They killed the organisation's second-in-command, Raul Reyes, and seized significant information about the group. Its historic leader, "Tirofijo" (Manuel Marulanda), died shortly afterwards of a heart attack.

This was a serious setback in the war with the Colombian state. More importantly, it was a victory for Colombia's President Uribe who is heading US counter-strategy in Latin America.

Plan Colombia, formulated by Bill Clinton and enthusiastically continued by George Bush, gave over $2 billion in military aid to the Colombian government. The plan was sold as part of a "war against drugs", and some of its budget was supposedly for humanitarian and social spending. In fact, only around $6 million was allocated to non-military purposes. The reality was that these funds were designed to reinforce a heavily militarised Colombian state. And the war against drugs was unlikely to be taken forward by a man whose presidential campaign had almost certainly enjoyed financial support from drug cartels.

Uribe is now presented as a champion of democracy. Yet Colombia's record of human rights abuses, repression of trade unions and attacks on the peasantry is second to none.

Colombia has a key role in the US's regional strategy as the bridgehead for a military operation whose horizons are regional and not just national. That is why the Colombians walked into Ecuador - and why Plan Colombia itself included the creation of a US military base in Manta, Ecuador.

The last decade has seen the emergence across Latin America of new governments with mass support committed to control of natural resources, resistance to global neoliberal strategies, and new political alliances independent of US control.

Today Evo Morales in Bolivia is facing a highly orchestrated campaign by big capital to undermine the Bolivian state. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa has announced that he will not renew the contract for the Manta base. And in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez remains a key obstacle to global plans for control of oil distribution by the multinationals.

The Farc was born out of peasant struggles against a violent landowning class. It has survived and grown into the organisation it is because that situation has never changed.On the contrary, successive Colombian governments have protected the oligarchy and taken their hired thugs into the state police or military. However the politics of Farc may be judged, it was a line of defence against Uribe and his predecessors.

There is no doubt that it was weakened by recent events, and that Uribe and Washington feel that they have won an important battle. It makes Bolivia and Ecuador more vulnerable, not less so. The US is now talking of building a military base in Colombia itself, near the Venezuelan border. And a new "war on drugs", the Merida Initiative, launched in Central America, will extend southwards if Barack Obama has his way.

Against this background, Hugo Chavez's recent public call to the Farc to release hostages and lay down its arms is surprising, given his recent role as mediator between the Farc and the Colombian government. Chavez argued for the unconditional release of hostages and for an international commission to oversee peace talks, as they did in Central America in the 1980s. In fact the Contadora peace accords were designed to isolate the Nicaraguan Revolution rather than bring peace to the region.

The Farc has been negotiating for years for an exchange of prisoners with no response. In the late 1980s a generation of guerrillas came down from the hills to enter a political struggle - and they were massacred in their hundreds.

Chavez insisted that the existence of the Farc gives Uribe the excuse he needs to attack Venezuela. That may be the excuse, but it is not the reason. Without that pretext they would find another; and it is unlikely that the US will drop its plans for military expansion in the region in the hope of peace. Its interests are better suited by instability and economic crisis.

It is easy to imagine how much pressure Chavez is under at the moment. But it seems to me that this is the time to remind ourselves who the enemies are and whose interests they serve.