PETRAS ESSAYS IN ENGLISH

December 11, 2001

Colombia: The FARC and the Trade Unions

James Petras

Colombia has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of trade union leaders and activists assassinated in the world (180 in the first 11 months of 2001). Almost all these murders are committed by paramilitary forces closely associated with the Colombian Armed Forces. Over 30,000 people mostly workers, peasant, human rights advocates, leftist political leaders, teachers and health workers have been killed by the Armed Forces and their backers among paramilitary allies over the past decade. Brutal state terrorism is supported by two identical parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, who in turn, purchase protection for their narco trafficking bankers, landlords and industrialists. The oligarchical dictatorial regime, passed off as a democracy in the Western media, is responsible for the emergence of the two guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia Peoples Army (FARC-EP) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Thirty six years ago, in Marquetalia in the rural interior of Colombia, a group of poor peasants cultivated subsistence farms in a remote area of the country. They attempted to avoid the violent civil war and terror which predominated in the country following the assassination by the Right-wing of populist progressive leader, Eliecer Gaitan. The government however, saw these independent peasant communities as a threat and sent in the army to destroy their settlements and drive them off their land. Among these subsistence farmers there was a young peasant named Manuel Marulanda. Together with 14 other small farmers he began organizing the FARC, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia which grew over the next 36 years into the biggest and most successful guerrilla army in the Third World, with 16,000-20,000 armed combatants and millions of supporters. Experts claim the FARC is a major influence in over 50% of the country's municipalities. Over the past 3 years Washington has poured over $2 billion in military aid to bolster the regime under the pretext of fighting the "drug war", while the major banks in the U.K. and the U.S. launder the bulk of the Colombian elite's drug profits. To bolster Washington's and the UK's war efforts against the FARC, the mass media have jumped in with a propaganda barrage designed to justify the bloody state repression by demonizing the FARC and the ELN. The Bush-Blair propaganda line disseminated by the mass media includes the following arguments.

(1) The "guerrillas" are opposed by the majority of the Colombian people; they are merely armed terrorists defending their lucrative drug trade and destroying democracy.

(2) Colombia is a democracy which is under military siege and has a right to seek outside support form the U.S. and the EU, including military aid, to defeat the FARC.

(3) Colombia's free market economy and electoral system is best for the Colombian workers and peasants, and the FARC, who oppose it, are enemies of democracy.

Let us examine each one of these propaganda messages. Colombia has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the world: less than 40% of the electorate votes. The reason is they have no choice. Back in the mid-1980s an alternative Leftists electoral coalition, the Patriotic Union (UP), ran successfully for office and was subsequently destroyed: two Presidential candidates were murdered and over 5,000 activists were killed - all "unsolved" cases. Many of the trade unionists and other activists who supported the UP either fled the country, went under underground or joined the guerrillas. While the FARC is mostly based in rural areas, almost one third of its fighters come from the cities and many of these are former trade unionists. The majority of Colombians oppose the Pastrana regime's socio-economic policies of privatization, regressive labor legislation, cuts in health and education spending, pay reductions and easy firings (20% of the labor force are unemployed, and 30% are underemployed). Opposition to the Colombian version of Thatcherite policies is evident in a number of general strikes, massive protests and major highway blockages that have paralyzed the economy.

In contrast, thousands of trade unionists have attended open forums organized by the FARC in a demilitarized zone to discuss alternative job creating programs, social budgets increasing public investments in health, education and welfare. The great majority of trade union leaders' socio-economic demands coincide with the program of the FARC and not with President Pastrana's "free market" program.

Programatically the Pastrana government and the death squads support the same reactionary landlords and bankers, which explains their close military relations, while the FARC's close ties to peasant and worker unions is based on the similarity of their program.

Almost all of the death squad killings are directed at peasants not landlords, trade unionists not bosses, human rights lawyers not government officials, resistence sympathizers not U.S. military advisers. Colombia could best be described as a "death squad democracy," in which the electoral facade provides a political cover for a murderous regime.

While the social base of the Pastrana regime has shrunken to less than 15% of the population, mainly big business, landlords, drug bankers and the upper-middle class, the FARC has expanded its base of support throughout the country, from the countryside to the cities. The results published in the press regarding so-called public opinion polls are totally unreliable. Under conditions of high levels of state sponsored paramilitary terror, no group or individual is willing to express their true loyalties. The widespread terror unleashed by the paramilitary forces throughout the major provincial cities, towns and villages against trade unionists and community activists (killing an average of 250 people per month) indicates that vast confluence of views between the peoples' demands and the FARC. For the Armed Forces and their paramilitary allies, the coincidence of socio-economic reforms proposed by FARC and the similar demands of the trade unions is sufficient reason to kidnap and murder trade unionists as "suspected guerrilla sympathizers."

The greatest repression - kidnaping, torture and murder of trade unionists takes place where the government troops predominate, and the death squads have a free hand. In the regions and municipalities where the FARC is strong, the trade unions are free to successfully carry on their struggles. In the demilitarized zone - the size of Switzerland - where the FARC rules, not a single trade unionist has been assaulted. In adjoining regions scores have been killed, with impunity. In Army controlled zones, assassinations and kidnaping of trade unionists take place in broad daylight on major roads a few meters from military headquarters. No one is ever arrested nor prosecuted. In FARC regions, the guerrillas actively pursue death squads responsible for murders of trade union and other popular activists, and bring them swiftly to justice.

It is abundantly clear to the majority of working class Colombians who are the "terrorists" and who support their class interests. They know from their experience what system of justice exonerates the assassins of the poor in defense of the rich and who defends their rights to organize and demand a decent standard of living. They know the difference between the current death squad democracy run by the oligarches and the military, and the open, pluralistic democratic forums organized by the FARC in the de-militarized zone. Experience has taught the working class to distrust the regime and sympathize with the FARC.

The Government's free market policies have devastated the economy. Foreign imports, low prices for primary commodities and the destruction of peasant livelihoods via fumigation have sent Colombia's economy into its worst economic recession in the last 70 years. The regime floats on foreign loans and rules by force. Its economic program is designed by U.S. and EU bankers and the IMF. Its military policies are dictated by the Pentagon and implemented by the local generals and mercenary U.S. helicopter pilots.

In contrast the FARC grows out of native soil of Colombia: its volunteers are the daughters and sons of the peasantry and the working class, who hate the violence and poverty and humiliations which their families and neighbors suffer under the free market death squad democracy. No guerrilla movement can survive for 36 years, defeat several U.S. sponsored counter-insurgency programs and grow to nearly 20,000 fighters without a vast network of organized supporters in the villages, towns and cities.

The Colombian state survives because it has been colonized by the U.S. military. The FARC thrives because of its solid class and family links to the peasants and workers. The regime supports the millionaire drug cartels; the guerrillas tax the traffickers and protect the peasants while at the same time proposing plans from drug free alternative agriculture, which the U.S. and the Colombian regime refuse to discuss.

Behind all the rhetoric about fighting drugs (with drug dealers and traffickers in command), the Colombian state's real objective is to impose the harsh class rule of the financial and big business elite on the working people, and to force them to bear the cost of the economic crises. With millions of unemployed crowding the streets and squares, with masses of peasants driven off the land by state terror and crowded into hovels and cardboard shacks on the periphery of the big cities, with hundreds of thousands of trade unionists marching and striking in the capital and with the FARC engaging in military confrontations 60 kilometers from the Presidential Palace, it is clear that the death squads are a main prop for sustaining the regime.

No one except the Government and its local and overseas elites believe that the free market benefits Colombia. It is precisely the abysmal failure of Thatcherite free market policies which has provoked trade union opposition, escalated state violence and expanded the base of support of the FARC. The greatest fear of the Government is that the FARC and the trade unions will be able to cross the bloody barriers, imposed between them by the Armed Forces - and their paramilitary allies, and create a unified leadership to overthrow the regime and create a new democratic, independent socialist regime. To forestall this, the regime is calling for and receiving military and economic support from the U.S. and EU governments. The trade unionists and the FARC need international support form trade unionists in the U.K. and elsewhere to counter the imperialist counter-offensive. A victory for the death squads will weaken the popular struggles throughout Latin America and beyond. With international solidarity and unity of purpose within Colombia a victory would open new vistas for struggle throughout the world.

Colombian Peace Association
London, England