Clandestine politics and bottom-up organizing in Colombia

Alfonso Cano, leader of the Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia.

Photo: Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
For most of the 20th century, the political voice and popular representation in Colombia was silenced by state-imposed terror. During this period, the Colombian ruling class was able to rule through a political two-party apparatus while imposing its military muscle throughout the countryside. This dual campaign was backed financially and administratively by successive U.S. governments.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the result was an increase of land centralized in the hands of the domestic rural elite. At the same time, millions of laborers poured into the urban centers, easy prey for the urban capitalists.

The outcome for the rural population, the recipients of such injustice, was forced displacement, the abandonment of subsistence economies, an increase in urban-based wage-labor coupled with pauperization, and an organized silencing of progressive political movements. Also during this period, the state’s only presence in the rural areas was the coercive offensives aimed against the peasantry. Little, if any, socio-economic support was available for regions that were not in close proximity to the larger cities—even less if they were suspected of supporting antagonistic political social movements like the Communist Party.

But in the face of the state’s dual policy of military repression and social apathy toward the rural inhabitants, the campesino population was able to construct an organic response to the state. The response based itself on a peasant-based communal social ideology emphasizing cooperation and collusion. It was from this class organization that political consciousness grew throughout much of rural Colombia, ultimately giving rise to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP)—what is now a powerful, armed revolutionary force struggling for socialism in the Western Hemisphere.

The FARC-EP: Not just an army

Beyond acknowledging the unquestionable military strength of the FARC-EP, it is important to not lose sight of the insurgency’s political program for implementing a socialist state. The FARC-EP has always presented itself not only as a compelling ejército del pueblo (people’s army), but also as an instrument for political action throughout Colombian society.

From its inception in 1964 until today, the FARC-EP could easily have attempted a military seizure of power or coup not based on social support. From 1999 through 2001, the guerrilla presence completely encircled the capital city of Bogotá, maintaining a consistent distance of 25 to 40 miles from the city. It would have been quite plausible at this time for the insurgency to simply attempt to take over the government through a major military offensive.

Such actions, however, would not coincide with the movement’s Marxist-Leninist political orientation, which aims for political power based on a class-conscious movement of workers and peasants. During 2002-2003, the guerrillas pulled back from their encirclement of the capital, aiming to consolidate their political power through first extending class-based political consciousness at local municipal levels. As class awareness increasingly coincides with class conflict, the conditions for political-military victory over the existing state structure will be created.

Political scientist Nazih Richani described this perspective: “The guerrillas shifted their strategy to the short- and mid-term. Rather than seize political power by assuming the state central apparatus and institutions, they deconstructed state power at the village and municipal levels and moved upward. The guerrillas are responding to the state’s failures in mitigating rural conflicts and are filling a hegemonic void left by the state.” (Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia, 2002)

Building a new state

According to the FARC-EP, the Colombian state is a system that perpetuates the interests of Colombia’s ruling class. So while the FARC-EP is building schools, providing literacy programs for adults and children, and constructing political meetings and information sessions in order to promote class unity, they aim at political restructuring in opposition to the currently existing (although often absent) state model.

The FARC-EP proposes that revolutionary change is needed in Colombia. Writing in their international magazine Resistencia (Issue 26, 2001), they state: “A radical transformation of crime policy and the whole legal apparatus; in line with the political, economic and social changes Colombia requires, and the overcoming of the inequalities between humans, while destroying the retrograde Colombian penal and penitentiary legislation that alone favors the petty interests of the dominant class; this is the proposal of the FARCPeople’s Army.”

The guerrillas believe that the “ideal-rational state should represent the people’s interest as a communal collectivity, rather than the narrow selfish interests of parts of society.” (Resistencia, Issue 25, 2000-2001) To do so, however, means that the existing state must be abolished so as to make way for a socialist model by way of objective political conditions.

An underground movement

In 2000, the FARC-EP launched a clandestine political party called the Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia (MBNC). The party has been underground due to the outcome of past attempts made by the FARC-EP to enter into the national political arena. “No other way is possible at the present time,” they announced.

In the 1980s, a peace process involving the insurgency and the Colombian government took place. The FARC-EP took part in creating a political party known as the Patriotic Union (UP), whose goal was to lead Colombia without arms to a peaceful democratic juncture in which all people of the Andean country could be represented and heard.

However, the political and economic needs of the ruling class took precedence over popular desires for representation. Between 4,000 and 5,000 members of the UP were assassinated by government death squads.

From this, the guerrilla movement concluded that no solution other than armed conflict could be applied in the Colombian situation. The state had demonstrated that it would not allow change to be implemented peacefully. Currently, between 3,000 and 4,000 Colombians are killed each year due to their political beliefs.

Given these circumstances, the FARC-EP decided that clandestine activity is currently the most efficient method for organizing political activity. The insurgency’s strategy is to establish a broad-based movement to respond to the existing capitalist state in Colombia, thus indirectly hampering the U.S. empire in one region of Latin America.

The FARC-EP established the MBNC with the aim of providing the political groundwork and foundation needed to contend with the present two-party bourgeois political scene that has dominated Colombia for decades. While there has been much attention paid to supposedly “independent” candidates in Colombian elections over the past several years, these “independent” candidates still come from the Liberal and Conservative party-dominated structures. They are entrenched in ruling class ideology, supporting the counter-insurgency war, and fulfilling the economic interests of the elite minority within domestic circles and their imperialist supporters abroad.

To demonstrate the revolutionary climate within the country, the FARC-EP has addressed past elections by encouraging their supporters not to support the present political structures within the elections. The response can be seen in the minimal turnout rate for recent presidential and municipal elections. In the 2002 presidential elections, the abstention rate was over 62 percent of eligible voters—the highest percentage abstaining in Colombian history. Within territory dominated by the FARC-EP the abstention rate was between 80 percent and 100 percent. (It should be noted that people in many rural areas of Colombia were directly threatened by the paramilitary death squads if they did not vote for Alvaro Uribe. The incredible abstention rate in these areas illustrates extensive support for the FARC-EP.) The result: Uribe was elected president, but with the support of a miniscule 24 percent of those eligible to vote.

Poverty in Colombia is fueling resistance.

Photo: Pablo Serrano
A bottom-up structure

The structure of the MBNC is the opposite of “democratic” political structures that dominate capitalist and imperialist states. It is based on a strategy of formation “from below.”

While Alfonso Cano and Iván Ríos, both members of the FARC-EP Secretariat, were intimately involved in overseeing the creation and execution of the political movement, the MBNC has maintained itself through grass-roots efforts that create a voice for the people. In addition to providing a political space for popular participation, it gives a mechanism for bringing concerns to the FARC-EP. This is aimed at discouraging top-down policies. Creating such a program is designed to ensure that the FARC-EP responds to the people and not vice versa.

Such practices have proven widely popular. Thousands of small furtive groups called “Bolivarian cells” have been established throughout rural Colombia. In the last four years, every major urban city in the country has seen an increase in “cell” formation. Millions are estimated to belong to one of these cells, according to research I have conducted with R. James Sacouman. Members of cells have developed processes allowing easy communication, while secretly organized meetings present political positions to communities throughout the country without being detected. This has allowed groups and community leaders protection from the kind of violence that was seen in the UP experience of the 1980s and 1990s.

This structure has allowed a broad range of supporters from all vocations, educational backgrounds, and ethnicities to become actively involved in solidarity with the FARC-EP. In turn, the insurgency maintains a protective shield in case of state-sponsored paramilitary violence.

FARC-EP Commander-in-Chief Manuel Marulanda Vélez stated that Colombians “must make changes to the government through the Bolivarian Movement in cities and the countryside with the help of the FARC to avoid what happened to the UP.” The connection between the FARC-EP and the Bolivarian Movement is more direct and is both ideological—maintaining its socialist position—and material. The UP, by contrast, was ideologically close to the FARC-EP but materially separate.

The FARC-EP plans to remain fully linked to the MBNC so that its full revolutionary potential can be realized. As a result of the close relationship between the two groups, along with the security measures and the clandestine model, the sustainability of the MBNC shows important signs of viability.

The FARC-EP is playing a different role in organizing the people of Colombia. It is promoting a revolution from below. As stated by the Secretariat, “What must really change are the Regime and the State, which are deeply rooted in the corrupt and anti-democratic customs that have submerged Colombia in the present.”

The MBNC is a very interesting process of undogmatic political change. It is a different model from many existing political movements, while simultaneously maintaining that state power continues to be the most important avenue to constructively implement subjective and objective societal transformation.

James J. Brittain is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and lecturer at the University of New Brunswick, Canada. He is the author of numerous articles on the social struggles in Colombia, and currently studies how rural and urban Colombians are responding to neo-liberal dislocations and imperialist expansion.

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