Colombian elections: servants of imperialism strengthened

ELN fighters

In the final vote for the presidential elections on 17 June, Senator Ivan Duque (Democratic Centre Party) standing for the Grand Alliance for Colombia coalition was elected President of Colombia. He defeated Gustavo Petro, a prominent leftist, ex- member of the disbanded M-19 guerrilla group and former mayor of Bogota, representing the List of Decency coalition. Petro took 41.81% of the electoral votes while ex-banker Duque won with 53.98%, in a turnout of 53.04%, the highest in 20 years. The FARC’s (Common Alternative Revolutionary Force) presidential candidate Rodrigo Londoňo, known as Timochenko, suffered a heart attack and was forced to withdraw from the campaign on 8 March.  FARC then declined to field another presidential candidate. FARC’s legal political activities were obstructed from the day peace negotiations finished, and the new president will intensify the attack against it, an attack that undermines all socialists in Colombia.

This election returns key legislative power to allies of the ‘Uribistas’, conservative and far-right politicians tied to ex-president Alvaro Uribe, the country’s seventh richest person. As in Brazil, the right wing’s voting base is in the rural areas, whilst the coast and Bogota support Petro’s coalition. Uribe is being investigated on multiple murder charges by the Supreme Court and the International Criminal Court. A close substitute, Duque, had to be found.  Like Uribe, Duque and his deputy, the ex-defence minister Ramírez, oppose the peace and reintegration process negotiated by outgoing president Santos with the now demobilised FARC military (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The reactionary Liberal Party, housing the Uribista faction, and which gained the most seats in the House of Representatives - thirty five -  backed Duque’s presidential campaign.

The attack on FARC

FARC, now a legal political party, chose its new name in August 2017. This is ‘The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force’, with which it campaigned for the May 2018 parliamentary elections and the presidential primaries.  It fielded 74 legislative candidates. It had ten seats guaranteed in the peace agreement, five in each of the 108-member Senate and the 172-member lower house. However, Duque has pledged to remove the FARC leadership from congress and to scrap the agreed remit of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which provides for alternatives to imprisonment for those accused of crimes during the civil war.

Both during and after the long process leading to the peace accords, there was no let-up in either the government or its anonymous allies’ killings of FARC members, their civilian sympathisers, and in particular their leaders, even when the government formally recognised ceasefires. Although the communist FARC military demobilised after the peace agreement, its now legalised political activity is attacked systematically by both the dominant media and physically. Discontent among the voters with living conditions, political corruption and organised crime forced the conservative establishment to defend itself by focusing a campaign of lies and distraction directed at FARC. Colombia’s GDP grew at only an average of 0.99% a year between 2001 and 2017, and fell from an all-time high of $380.19bn in 2013, down to $282.46bn in 2016, reviving by only 0.3% at the end of 2017.

The demonisation of the new FARC distracted attention from these fundamental economic problems. Three companies control 57% of the market in print, television and radio. Their three owners are among the 200 richest persons in the world, and despise and fear socialism. The four largest Colombian newspapers together account for two-thirds of total readership, and the two largest television channels have about two-thirds of the market. Stage-managed anti-FARC demonstrations, with rocks being hurled at candidates, were given front-page coverage. Social media threats circulated photographs of the homes of FARC activists. FARC was forced to run a ‘defensive’ parliamentary campaign, and on 4 February FARC’s presidential candidate Timochenko’s car suffered a heavily publicised assault by right-wingers in Armenia. He later suffered a heart attack and underwent emergency surgery, forcing him to withdraw from the campaign.  FARC then said it would stop campaigning because of such attacks, declining to field another presidential candidate. The Electoral Observation Mission of the Organisation of American States (EOM/OAS) in Colombia expressed ‘its concern regarding the attacks suffered by some presidential candidates and other political actors involved in campaign activities… [and] … strongly condemns these acts and calls for their prompt investigation’.

These assaults, physical and above all in the mass and social media, severely limited FARCs electoral effectiveness.  In the May parliamentary elections it took only 35,140 or 0.21% of the votes for the lower house, 20th out of a list of 26 contesting parties. In the Senate they took 14th place out of 16 national parties running, with 52,532 or 0.4% of the votes. Fifty years of systematic lies and abuse by the ruling class cannot be undone in a six month election campaign. A campaign of hatred and studied violence continues to be directed against the new FARC.

Many political prisoners remain unreleased, and demobilised FARC fighters remain stuck at the peace assembly points because of the drawn out demobilisation processes, despite amnesty laws and decrees. The state has failed to suspend arrest warrants for many FARC members. A social leader is killed on average every four days despite the agreed peace process. The number of such assassinations spiked dramatically after the 2016 accords, so that in 2017 more than 162 local workers and peasant leaders, including 50 FARC members and their relatives were murdered after they disarmed.

The new FARC is inevitably faced with serious internal discussions about these assaults and what their response should be. Sections of the old FARC military have understandably refused to disarm in the face of continued anonymous murderous assaults and the fact that the entire agreement is threatened by the new president.  As many as 1,200 FARC dissidents remain in the field, one fifth of the rebel force when peace was agreed. ‘We have tried to convince the government on several occasions that if they want to stop the guerrilla, they need to take away the arguments for our existence,’ said one of these fighters.

Political oppression and extradition

In April, to give his support for this sinister process, the wretched US Vice President Mike Pence went to Colombia following the eighth Summit of the Americas in Peru. Also in April, Jesus Santrich (Seusis Hernández Solarte) a former senior FARC commander, and key negotiator in the peace talks, was arrested in a US Drug Enforcement Agency sting on a US warrant for allegedly ‘conspiring’ to arrange a ten-ton shipment of cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel. This ruthless process of undermining the new FARC political party could now spread to the whole of the new FARC’s senior staff. In signing a peace deal in 2016, its leaders - all wanted as so called ‘drug traffickers’ in the US - were promised immunity for ‘past crimes’ if they declared their opposition to drug dealing. The US has an even more senior FARC member Iván Márquez targeted, also using a ‘drug trafficking’ charge.  To avoid another setup, Márquez left Bogotá for Miravalle, a rural camp in the south for ex-guerrillas, indicating his whereabouts to the UNIPEP and UPC (the special police body charged with enforcing peace in conflict zones, and the National Protection Unit of Colombia, respectively). He insists that he would continue efforts to implement the full Peace Agreement despite the new president’s promise to wreck it.   

Santrich was jailed, went on hunger strike and was moved to hospital on health grounds. Importantly, both Márquez and Santrich were among the FARC leaders chosen to take up the ten seats reserved in Colombia’s new Congress. However, under the peace terms, the FARC cannot replace Santrich following his arrest. President Juan Manuel Santos then met with the FARC’s principal leader Timochenko, who reaffirmed his support for the peace process. ‘We are drifting towards war with our eyes closed … We’re throwing away peace,’ said Humberto de la Calle, who negotiated the government’s complex peace deal with FARC-EP. 

Given these circumstances, the ‘big political convergence that redefines the limits of the left’, sought by FARC secretariat member Pastor Alape, will be the next step that the legal party is likely to take. The formation of a united front with the small Alternative Democratic Pole seems the most obvious, but such is the slander and bile hurled at FARC leaders, the ADP may be unwilling to agree.

The fate of the countryside and the new paramilitaries

As FARC has moved out of the forests, capitalism has moved in - including logging, gold mining and cattle grazing. Deforestation increased by 44% in the year of the peace accords. In 2017 deforestation affected 219,973 hectares, an area larger than Bogota. Battles are now taking place over fracking, a further threat to water sources.

In the countryside, criminal gangs and paramilitary groups, promoted over many years by sections of the ruling class, are jostling into the areas now left unprotected by the old FARC military. Groups such as the new and little known United Guerrillas of the Pacific (GUP) are establishing strongholds. Recently, Mexican mobs, including the Zetas, Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels have entered at least ten different regions, ensuring their supply of cocaine through partnerships with unrestrained local gangs. The trade is worth about $13bn annually, equal to more than 4 per cent of the country’s legal economy, with 188,000 hectares cultivated in 2016, over twice the area of 2013. Thus in Tumaco, where unemployment is at 70%, and most of its 200,000 residents are of African and indigenous descent, these vicious gangs are enlisting members and exacting levies in areas previously free of such action when they were protected by the old FARC.

The drug trade is expanding, rural extortion is growing and illegal mining is flourishing. The peace agreement’s crop substitution programme barely reached 30% of its goal in 2017, and this is angering farmers who want the promised support. Fields are left bare as 80,000 armed police and soldiers sweep areas to destroy coca crops in a continued and poorly disguised programme of forced rural depopulation, strengthening the hands of the land owners, the bulwark of reaction in Colombia. The Colombian National Police mobile riot squad (or ESMAD) continues to repress poor communities. The displacement of non-combatants from homes and entire communities already totals more than 67,000 people since the peace accords were signed. The Peace Agreement is proving a disaster for these communities.

Since the peace accords were signed and FARC’s restricting hand was removed, armed drug gangs have sought to gain control of areas fit for mechanised small-scale gold mining, the processing of cocaine paste, and other illegal acts. In 2015, 649 tonnes of coca were shipped out of Colombia, yet in 2016, once FARC had withdrawn from its areas of control, 866 tonnes were exported.  The Colombian government has allowed this to happen. Cocaine production has soared, demolishing the lie central to imperialism’s massive support in the civil war, that the Colombian government had been fighting ‘narco-terrorists’ and not communist revolutionaries. The UN reported that 2016 saw an increase of 52% in coca production. Tumaco is the key area with 23,000 hectares of coca growing. Right wing terror operations such as the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC), also known as the Urabeños, the Gulf Clan and the Úsugas, are on the rise where locals get in the way. This has pitted the Urabeños against the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The same violence is used against local populations living close to roads and highways granting access to ports and lucrative Pacific Ocean drug trafficking routes.

The ELN

The ELN took up arms in 1964 and is the last armed active revolutionary group in Colombia. Interviewed on teleSUR's ‘EnClave Politica’ show, Pablo Beltran, central committee member of the ELN since October 2016, urged the government to end the killings of social leaders. On 29 September 2017 the ELN announced a temporary and bilateral cease-fire with the Colombian government from 1 October 2017 to 9 January 2018, during the fourth round of peace talks in Quito, Ecuador. The parties analysed the agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC.  Timochenko, along with other FARC representatives, travelled to Ecuador to participate in the talks.  On 29 January the talks were suspended by the government. Then on 12 March, after a six week pause, marked by deaths on both sides, Santos announced that peace talks with the ELN would resume. In the regions where it holds sway, the ELN remains a powerful actor. Armed resistance is one of the ELN’s core principles and expecting them to give that up without the changes they are fighting for is pointless. Duque has now arrogantly declared that the fifth round of discussions in Havana, without a government truce on the ground, can only continue if the ELN give up ‘all forms of crime’. The ELN are still seeking a peace deal which attacks the root cause of the conflict: poverty. Now with roughly 1,500 fighters, down from as many as 5,000 in the 1990s, the ELN is growing again. There remains no shortage of poor, rural youth and many unsatisfied former FARC fighters willing to be recruited.

Alvaro Michaels

 

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