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Colombia's elite, FARC, and the "root causes" of terrorism

By Joseph Bressano
web posted June 2, 2003

"I have two questions for the upper class of this country to respond to. First: Are your sons, nephews or grandsons in the army? ... Who makes the sacrifices in this country when there is combat? Second: How much tax do you pay? How much on property that you have outside the country or on land that you own? Could this be part of the reason that there is such an inequitable distribution of wealth in this country and therefore so much poverty and armed conflict?"

"…the backbone of the FARC is between 1 000 and 1 500 men and women with a long history of 15 to 30 years of political activism. It has a serious political-military leadership".

James LeMoyne
LeMoyne (right)

With the few sentences above, spoken during a recent interview with the respected Bogota daily El Tiempo, UN special envoy to Colombia James LeMoyne has single-handedly "shocked and awed" Colombia's elite. His comments, made in the context of the full-scale war between the Colombian armed forces and the 16 000 strong guerrilla army of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have caused a huge commotion in official circles in Bogota.

The angriest response came from Colombia's Defense Minister, Martha Lucia Ramirez, who responded to LeMoyne by accusing him of defending the interests of the FARC. She was followed by the head of the National Confederation of Chambers of Commerce, who was quoted as saying that Colombians were getting tired of listening to LeMoyne, and that the whole debate should end because it was clear that FARC was destroying the country.

Now, along with most other Colombians both inside and outside the country, I'm totally opposed to FARC and its Marxist vision for the country. I'm probably even more opposed to the leftists in North America and Europe who insist on viewing the FARC through rose-coloured glasses. In fact, the first piece I wrote for ESR was about Canadian leftists who were inexplicably romanticizing FARC.

But after reading the full interview with LeMoyne on El Tiempo's web site, it's clear to me that his position is more balanced than the official reaction would indicate, and that this is actually a case of a Colombian elite that -- to paraphrase the bard -- is "protesting too much".

Rather than justifying FARC's violence, which he in fact explicitly condemns, LeMoyne makes some pertinent points in the interview. True, they're uncomfortable points, the type that would raise the ire of any self-conscious Third World elite, but they're accurate observations about Colombian society and the nature of the violence that's plaguing the country.

Who pays the price?

LeMoyne's first question aimed at Colombia's elite, about whose children are on the front lines in the war against FARC, is a no-brainer: it's always the poor that do the fighting and dying. As Col. David Hackworth (Ret.) once put it with regard to the US military, it's "…[the] kids who are primarily from the wrong side of the railroad tracks where the used pickup trucks are parked…". This is even more blatantly the case in Colombia, whose conscript army is drawn not from the exclusive barrios in Bogota but from peasant towns and urban slums. As happens all over the world, the children of the elite can always find plenty of reasons to avoid the call up.

But while this may be an obvious, and distant, fact to most of us here in North America, mention of it still rankles the elite in Colombia, for whom it's a much more immediate question. Simply put, the truth hurts. And so they refuse to admit they don't want to see their children fight and die in a war they consider necessary. They're even just now beginning to admit the need to increase the pay of those that are doing the fighting and dying against FARC and a smaller guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

The new found willingness to raise the wages of Colombia's front line soldiers is not due to a burst of egalitarianism but to a recent, and unfortunately not unique, incident involving two of the Colombian army's elite counter-insurgency units -- an incident that reads like something out of that George Clooney movie, Three Kings.

While clearing a farm area that had been recently occupied by FARC, members of these two units found what some estimates say is up to $14 million US dollars in plastic bags and buckets: FARC profits from taxing Colombia's drug lords. According to one soldier later arrested and quoted in El Tiempo, they then decided to steal the money and proceeded to divide it up according to rank. The entire units then deserted, and the soldiers went on a spending spree, buying cars and luxury goods, along with visiting brothels and fancy restaurants, before they were finally arrested (some of them that is, many are still at large).

This incident speaks volumes about the problems that the Colombian government has had in waging the war against FARC. And it points to some of the problems that are eating away at Colombian society: official corruption, widespread poverty, and a generalized collapse of morality and ethics among the population as a result of the rise of the violent, easy-money "narco-economy". This last factor is perhaps the most nefarious, as it exacerbates the violence and social tensions that already exist.

While we'll never see the children of the elite on the front lines against FARC, increasing the pay of Colombia's soldiers is at least a step in the right direction. I couldn't think of a bigger mistake than continuing to demand that the poor in the regular army risk their lives fighting the poor in the rebel army for a mere $175 dollars a month. That's a situation that can lead to bigger problems than just thievery, especially when trying to quell an insurrection by a socio-economically similar but more ideologically motivated force….

"Root causes"?

This brings me to LeMoyne's second and more controversial question, about what responsibility the Colombian elite bears for the present conflict and the rise of FARC. Behind his question lies LeMoyne's view that FARC is a response to the glaring inequalities in Colombian society, as well as to the political exclusion by the elite of those seeking socio-economic reforms. His implied position is that the way to deal with the FARC's terrorism is to address these underlying factors.

This would appear to be the same "root cause" argument that when applied to al-Qaida and the current wave of Islamist terrorism, is considered by many, including myself, to be profoundly mistaken if not outright dangerous. Applied to al-Qaida, it is mistaken both factually, since Osama bin Laden and his henchmen are anything but impoverished, and strategically, since the argument is often accompanied by a proposed weakening of the military fight against Islamist terror. Most importantly, the "root cause" argument fails to capture the radically new nature of Islamist terrorism that makes it much more dangerous than "traditional" politically/nationalistically oriented terrorism.

But in the case of FARC, the "root cause" argument does in fact carry some weight and does shed some light on the situation.

No serious analyst of the Colombian situation could deny that widespread poverty (64 per cent of the population) and years of violence against the legal political left first created, and today continue to replenish, the ranks of FARC. In Colombia there has never been the type of political space that, for example, allowed Lula to emerge in Brazil. Attempts to address the inequities in Colombian society within legal boundaries have always been met with state-sponsored or state-condoned violence. This deadly combination of poverty and political exclusion lies at the heart of the existence of FARC, an organization whose origins go back more than 40 years to the period known as La Violencia, when peasants formed self-defense units during a war waged by Colombia's landowners against rural reformers.

At the same time, no serious analyst could deny that FARC today has become a brutally violent terrorist organization, with negligible support among those it claims to want to "liberate", and whose main source of funding comes from Colombia's illegal drug trade. It has been deeply corrupted by an unsavory combination of Stalinism, militarism, and its dealings with the country's narco-elite. And there's no question that its political programme, a mix of Marxism and "Bolivarian" Nationalism a la Chavez, is a real recipe for disaster.

Further contributing to the deadly cycle of violence, the terrorism of FARC diminishes what little space there is for a genuine exercise of democracy in Colombia. It's in response to FARC that the scourge of paramilitarism first emerged. Only their targets are usually not FARC itself, but rather anyone who wants to even discuss the possibility of changes to Colombian society. Perhaps the best way to understand what the "paras" mean for Colombian democracy is to imagine what it would be like for us in North America if the left-liberals that dominate the media and the universities set up shadowy groups to actively murder conservatives!

Hitting the nail on the head

If idealistic leftists cling to the first statement above about the root causes behind FARC, the Colombian elite for its part focuses exclusively on the second statement about FARC's terrorism and corruption. And predictably so, as the first statement is a direct indictment of its (mis)rule.

But those who oppose FARC and its outdated Marxist vision of a "new Colombia" have no reason to deny the reality that LeMoyne points to. For example, it doesn't lessen the thugishness or political bankruptcy of FARC in the least to acknowledge that many of its current mid-level leaders--the "backbone" that LeMoyne refers to--would today be participating in electoral politics if the party set up by FARC during the peace accords in the 1980's had not been annihilated by death-squads (3 000 members and two consecutive presidential candidates murdered) when it started winning civic elections.

What acknowledging a fact like this does though, is make us realize that there are very real root causes behind FARC and the violence in Colombia that cannot be simply brushed aside or ignored. And it means acknowledging that the Colombian elite has been particularly inept in ruling the country and bears a great deal of the responsibility for the current war. By pointing to these things in his interview, LeMoyne has hit the nail on the head—even if his approach of "how much tax do you pay" is overly simplistic and leaves a lot to be desired.

So should the Colombian government be supported in the war against FARC? Absolutely. The current military campaign, the "reinsertion" program (which encourages members of all terrorist factions, from FARC to the paramilitaries, to lay down their arms), and the recent attempt by President Uribe to have the UN negotiate a solution, all show the government's strong commitment to eliminating terrorism and should be supported. But unless this is accompanied by substantive economic and political reforms that modernize and further democratize the country, and in particular that address the massive inequality that exists, I doubt very much we will see a lasting end to terrorism and violence in Colombia.

The history of past civil wars in the region shows that terrorism of the type represented by FARC, essentially a peasant-based insurgency, is rarely defeated by just military means. If FARC were to be defeated militarily without the necessary reforms to Colombian society, it would only be a temporary defeat, until they or a group similar to them reappears. It's worth remembering that it was a full 30 years after the murder of Sandino that Daniel Ortega's Sandinistas appeared in Nicaragua. And that's the type of situation nobody wants to see happen again.

Joseph Bressano is a former trader for one of Canada's major banks. He was born in Colombia.

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