If there has ever been any question that the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is essentially a political organization — one that took up arms guided by a political vision and will abandon them when a new political strategy leads them to do so — that question may be forever laid to rest by the words and conduct of the FARC’s peace delegation that is now at work in Havana.
There, in the sunny island which was the theatre of a revolution that changed Latin America and the world, the FARC has assembled a sizable team of negotiators. That group has been in conversation with representatives of the Colombian government since November of last year. The 30-member body shows the depth of the organization and the quality — both in human and political terms — of the individuals who have decided to stake their lives on forging a democratic and just Colombia.
“The FARC has always wanted peace,” guerrilla leader Ricardo Téllez explained to us in the lobby of the Hotel Habana Libre. “Since our beginnings in the distant year 1964, we’ve maintained that we are revolutionaries who seek peace for the country in the least painful manner, which the Colombian state has often violently closed off.”
Téllez’s assertion that the FARC is an organization long committed to pursuing peace is backed up by the group’s repeated efforts to bring the Colombian state to the negotiating table: in 1982 under the government of Belisario Betancur; in 1992 with the dialogues in Caracas and Tlaxcala; most recently in Caguán with president Andrés Pastrana.
In none of these cases, Téllez explained, was there a genuine desire for peace in the government. In the Caguán process of 1999-2002, the government in fact chose to dialogue because of its difficult military situation and because of the rising social protest in the country. The establishment’s real aim was to rearm, as they did with the notorious Plan Colombia, paid for and organized by the U.S.
“Now in Havana we have come looking for that same peace,” Téllez continued, “not because the FARC is defeated, not because we have difficulties; rather our military apparatus has been updated . . . and we are accustomed to [a modern] kind of war.” Téllez maintains that what is correct in a situation in which neither guerrillas nor government can defeat the will of the other is that both should sit down, as equals, and look for a political and dialogued solution to the conflict.
Comandante Andrés Paris, also part of the team, illustrated in a separate interview the complex, multilevel character of the negotiating table by referring to other, unseen “tables.” Apart from the principal negotiating table, in which the government and the guerrillas dialogue, there is a “mediatic table.”
“Immediately, there was put in motion a powerful [mediatic] machine, both Colombian and international, in perfect coordination, and it started to reproduce the clichés and stereotypes that have always been used against us, the FARC.” This mediatic table is generally controlled by powerful business groups and represents a serious obstacle to the interests of the Colombian people to have a peace, according to Paris.
A third “table” is the military pressure on the guerrillas, because of president Juan Manuel Santos’s decision to continue the war during the dialogues. “We responded to this presidential announcement by doing a ceasefire [to which the government did not correspond]. What the government is doing with the military actions is criminal and dangerous, because of the possibility that one of those actions will be used as a pretext to get up from the table [and break the negotiations].”
Despite the adversity presented by military and mediatic interferences, the FARC’s delegation is united in a dream of a Colombia with long-lasting peace. It is common for the FARC’s negotiators to maintain that the concept of peace needs a “last name” — meaning it should be referred to with the complete phrase “peace with social justice,” because the roots of the conflict lie in the extreme social injustice in the country, represented for example by its GINI index of .89 in the rural areas.
Yet what one learns from the FARC’s delegation is not just numbers, examples, and arguments. There is also a powerful human narrative of lives given over to (and in some cases shattered by) a total devotion to the cause of the oppressed. Many FARC members were motivated to join the guerrilla army when close friends were assassinated by state or paramilitary forces. Others joined on seeing the extreme poverty in the country and the closure of other political channels for change.
Among the latter one may count the internationalist Alexandra Nariño (Tanja Nijmeijer) of Dutch origin, who incorporated herself after a long process of conscientization that began with a university exchange program that first brought her to Colombia. In explaining her motivation she refers to the experience of seeing entire families living in the street, indigents looking through her garbage, and also the state terrorism exercised in places where she lived and on university students.
“All of us fighting in the guerrilla have our dreams . . . we are not war machines.” What dreams does Alexandra Nariño have for Colombia’s future? “A country where all Colombians can live in peace, but a peace with education, a peace with food and health care . . . a country with equal opportunities for everybody, in which there is real and ample participation in politics.”
Havana, 12 April 2013
Chris Gilbert and Cira Pascual are professors of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.