Monday, March 03, 2008

Why they fight. 

Several weeks ago we had occasion to look at why there hasn't been a Colombian equivalent of Hugo Chavez. Simply put, because anyone who advocated for socialism (not just social democracy) and had the gumption to run for office would likely be killed exactly as happened with those who tried - the leftwing Patriotic Union. Later we saw documentary which put faces to the horrific numbers.

Now that Colombia, and the Colombian insurgency led by the FARC, are once again headlining the news it would be good to revisit how we got here. After all, the internet is good for many things but granting historical perspective to events is not one of them. To make up for that I will discuss a book that delves into the history of what happened when leftists tried to compete in the electoral arena via the Patriotic Union: Walking Ghosts by Steven Dudley.

In Colombia armed conflict has a long history with short periods of relative peace shattered by long periods of fratacidal conflict. Although there are numerous motives for people to fight in Colombia much of the violence has broken down along class lines with a landed elite and rural peasentry engaged in much of the fighting.

The FARC (Armed Forces of the Colombian Revolution) weren't formed until the mid 1960s. But before the term FARC was ever heard Colombian leftists had a long experience with government deceipt and brutality. In 1953 leftist rebels negotiated a peace with the government and no sooner had they disarmed then they were killed by the Colombian army under general Rojas Pinilla - the very same general who had offered them amnesty. In the early 1960s the Communist Party controlled several small municipalities in the province of Tolima. They too were attacked and militarily crushed.

In response to this the Colombian Communist Party established a military wing to carry out armed struggle against its violent adversary - the Colombian state. The armed wing was called the FARC and is the same guerilla group that fights on to this day.

Yet there have been attempts to end the fighting. The most notable was the 1984 Uribe peace agreement (named for a town, not the current president) in which the government of then president Bentancur was to allow the FARC to form a political party to contest for electoral power. In turn there would be a ceasefire between the government and the FARC with the FARC ceasing kidnappings and bombings. Although it was specified in the peace agreement that the FARC did not need to disarm if all went well with the new political party this would eventually lead to disarmement and an end to the war.

This new party, the Patriotic Union, was given the following guarantees by the government:

The Government, in accordance with the Constitution and the laws, will give the Union Patriotica the guarantees and security it needs so that it can campaign as well as participate in the elections in the same way other political parties do. The government will use all the force of the law against any citizen or authority that inhibits these rights or denies, ignores, or refuses to recognize the rights that they have.

With that the new party was up and running. The party organized rapidly after its 1985 founding and by 1986 its first presidential candidate, Jaime Pardo garnered 328,000 votes. A number of congress people were elected along with many municipal offices.

Unfortunately, no sooner did the party have these initial electoral victories than it started being massacred by right-wing paramilitaries with the assistance from the very same government that had offered them guarentees. Jaime Pardo himself was dead by 1987, killed in a hail of bullets as would come to happen to thousands of other leaders of the Patriotic Union. In less than a decade a sizable political party was wiped out at the barrel of a gun.

Dudley offers a thorough account of this horrific massacre even if he can't hide his own biases. In fact, his rather strange perspective on all this appears in the very first paragraph of the prologue:

In Colombia there are walking ghosts, people who have crossed death's frontier. They're still alive, but many of them wish they were dead. Living, as it stands, is a burden. They're not suicidal. They're just suffering because their enemies have them cornered. The time they have left is short, and they know it. They're surrounded by threats and bodyguards. Not only is death beckoning but guilt. These walking ghosts live in a world of wakes and funerals. They have survived when so many others have perished. What's left of them is often used to hasten the end, to take that final step into the other world. While some search for safety, most of them search for a perch where they can die with dignity. They would rather be considered martyrs than cowards.

In fact, this first paragraph gives what is the most common theme throughout the book - that the people who were in the Patriotic Union had a death wish, that the FARC wanted them obliterated so they could have an excuse to keep fighting, that they weren't practical enough to make alliances with new powers like the drug traffickers, etc. In short however tragic what happened to the Patriotic Union was they largely had themselves to blame, or everything was such a confused muddle no-one is to blame.

For example, Dudley makes much of the rebels having a strategy named "la combinacion de todas las formas de lucha" - the combination of all forms of struggle. This, Dudley makes it seem, somehow implies that any attempt to negotiate peace or engage in electoral politics by the FARC and communists was somehow insincere and fake.

Yet there is no reason it means any such thing. One doesn't unilaterally disarm and disband militarily as a precondition to negotiations or even immediately following them. That, especially in a place such as Colombia, is just plain suicide.

Further, the government certainly dind't disarm and disband its military. The Colombian defense minister went so far as to say "The government and a armed forces aren't going to give a cease-fire, the political vacuum, the power vacuum that there would be in the country side would be filled by the guerrillas".

Worse, even if its one thing for the state to have armed force, the Colombian right wing, with the assistance of the Colombian military, was already building up large and extremely violent para-military forces.

In fact, the paramilitaries, initially called "auto-defensas", were set up in 1981 in a joint effort between the military, land-owners, politicians and business leaders. Even the U.S. oil company Texaco got in on the act and helped participated in the start up of these groups. Yet as Dudley notes these groups were anything but "defensive". They soon began slaughtering hundreds of people - anyone suspected of being a FARC collaborator, a communist, a union supporter, or harboring leftist sympathies in general. School teachers were specifically targetted because it was assumed they were leftists and as a result school enrollment plummeted in some towns.

Of course, as no sooner than the Patriotic Union was formed than the para-militaries turned their guns on it. Before it was even a year old the new party started having its militants assaninated, its offices bombed, its newspaper raided and many of its supporters threatened and harrassed.

Despite this, the Patriotic Union pushed ahead and participated in elections. The 328,000 that Jaime Pardo garnered for president were the most ever for a leftist presidential candidate. The party had also elected three senators, four congressional representatives, 24 provincial deputies and 275 municipal council representatives.

Unfortunately, 300 hundred Patriotic Union leaders had also been killed. By the end of the next year it would be 500 - killed at the hands of the paramilitaries and drug traffickers with active assistance from the military.

The para-militaries met with the local military commanders regularly to cordinate actions. The military would supply the death squads with names of those to be killed and stay out of the way as they did their work. Israeli mercenaries were brought in to train both the para-militaries and the drug dealers private armies. The techniques learned were then used against the un-armed Patriotic Union. Sometimes (probably if the para-militaries were too busy) the military would carry out the assasinations itself.

In the rural middle Magdalena valley elected leftist mayors and council people were exterminated just as if there had never been any peace accord. Read one para-military leaflet distributed to the population:

We would like to remind everyone just as our colleagues cleaned the communist filth from Puerto Barrio, we will exterminate the pro-Castro ELN, and we will liquidate the subversive Union Patriotica, and we will end the cease-fire with the FARC... We have the support of the police, the Colombian army, and the prominent sons and daughters of the region that occupy high government posts.

We recognize and value the effort that our allies in the United States are making under the guidance of President Ronald Reagan to fight international communism. We cannot disgrace them given that they've put millions of dollars into our country

This was no idle threat. Shortly thereafter the town of Segovia, which had elected leftists and had a strong union tradition, was attacked and 43 civilians killed. The local army outposts helped planned the attack and stood by as it occurred.

After the presidential candiate Jaime Pardo was killed the pace of the killings quickened and included congress members and mayors. Jaime Pardo was replaced by Bernardo Jaramillo, who was elected to the Colombian Senate. He was gunned down in the Bogota airport in 1990 which led to an exodus from the party. Ultimately upwards of 4,000 leaders of the party were killed and the Patriotic Union effectively ceased to exist. Most of those who weren't killed fled the country, dropped out of politics or went into hiding.

The same fate befell other guerrilla groups who entered electoral politics. The presidential candidate of M-19, Carlos Pizarro, was assasinated on a commercial airliner in mid flight.

Although some of the survivors fought in Colombia's legal system for justice it was largely in vain. Very few of the murders ever resulted in prosecution. And as the widow of Bernardo Jaramillo noted, Colombia's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, "frequently insinuates, suggests, or explicitly says that because of the action of the guerillas, the representatives of the legal opposition can be Objects of Extermination".

While the author himself may not take that view he certainly does blame the victim. In his final chapter instead of focusing on the murderous collusion of the Colombian elite, government, military, and drug traffickers he instead focusses on the supposed death wish of those killed. Hence he approvingly quotes one relative of a slain Patriotic Union member as saying:

To be threatened was to get more prestige. That's why they took risks. Risk is what gave them importance. The one who was the most threatened would be the most important..I dont' know what it was - sympathy for death, sympathy for martyrdom.

Later he says of a meeting he had with some Communist Party and Patriotic Union widows:

These women felt betrayed by the FARC and the Communist Party. Their husbands had died for the UP, and they got nothing but a life of misery and longing in return. Some sought revenge for the way the UP, the Communist Party, and the FARC had used their husbands.

"I wish I could get the leaders of the FARC together," on of them told me.

"I would sit them down and have a political trial."

If guilty, what would be their punishment? I asked.

"I would let them die like dogs" she said.

Although the woman is quoted it is difficult to tell who is really speaking here - the women or Dudley. Instead of blaming the slaughter of people contesting their ideas at the ballot box on those who murdered them he attributes their deaths to their own supposed failings or shortcomings or their own death wish.

What a perfect excuse to dismiss with the back of your hand what has been called a "political genocide". A more sophisticated apology for murder could hardly have been written.

Still, for those interested the book does lay bare the facts and outlines of what happened. And if fact, it even inadvertantly gave the intellectual underpinnings of these events when it quoted U.S. war stategist Paul Linebarger who mentored the Colmbian military:

A people can be converted from one faith to another if given the choice between conversion and extermination.

Indeed, that was exactly the choice the Colombian elite and government gave Colombian leftists - convert or be exterminated.

Of course, not all of them converted or were exterminated. Some of them fight on for their ideals to this day in the Colombian jungles. For those not wanting to convert or be exterminated it was the only option left.


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