The FARC are often described as “hermetic” or even “autistic.” Analysts are generally unable to explain why, where politics and the fight for public support are concerned, the guerrillas have not only lost the battle, but have largely failed to show up.
It could be that the guerrillas lost most of their best political cadres when the Patriotic Union party was systematically exterminated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leaving behind a rump army that – while well-armed and trained – is unable to express itself convincingly or win supporters for its cause. Also to blame could be the FARC’s income from the drug trade: their wealth made it less necessary to seek the population’s support, while the struggle for control of drug money caused them to act with great cruelty toward the same poor citizens whom a more ideologically disciplined insurgency would pledge to protect.
Whatever the reason, the FARC have become known not as Marxist visionaries or as defenders of the dispossessed, but as hostage-takers, attackers of poor rural towns, rigid and unyielding negotiators, and “hermits” who neither explain their actions nor respond to criticism. Politically, the FARC has consistently appeared to act against its own interest; President Uribe and the designers of the United States’ heavily military policy toward Colombia could hardly ask for a better “badguy” against whom to rally support.
It may be possible that Colombia’s 2006 elections may finally have given the FARC a long overdue jolt. The right-wing president who promised to fight them harder was re-elected in a landslide. The number-two candidate, making a historically strong showing, was a leftist who took every opportunity to distance himself from the insurgents.
Faced with overwhelming evidence of their lack of political influence, the guerrillas have taken a few steps since mid-May that might indicate greater concern for their public image and their political message.
- About two weeks before the May 28 presidential election, two FARC leaders said that, for the first time in about sixteen years, the guerrillas would not interfere with the voting. They in fact urged voters to participate and elect a candidate other than Uribe (without specifying whom). This contrasts with the guerrillas’ actions before the March legislative elections: blockading roads in three departments, killing nine passengers in a micro-bus in Caquetá, and murdering nine councilmembers as they met in Huila. “The FARC aren’t anti-election,” said guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes. “What happens is that the FARC analyze the moment in which to participate in elections, under what conditions and concrete purposes.”
- Following the elections, the FARC backed off of its stated refusal to hold any talks with Álvaro Uribe’s government. Guerrilla leaders said that they would be willing to hold peace talks, or at least to engage in negotiations to free over fifty prominent hostages in exchange for guerrillas in government prisons. This announcement, while important, was not a major step, since the FARC continues to insist on pre-conditions that the Uribe government has not been willing to accept. In order to talk about a prisoner exchange, the guerrillas demand a thirty-day pullout of armed forces from two municipalities (counties) near Cali. In order to hold real peace talks, the FARC demands a total military pullout from Putumayo and Caquetá departments, an area about the size of Pennsylvania and Maryland combined.
- FARC leaders appear to be making more public declarations and statements. They have granted interviews to reporters – or at least reporters from news services of a leftist bent, such as Venezuela’s TeleSUR and the Scandinavian solidarity website ANNCOL. Notably, they have revamped their own website to include far more frequent posting of statements, essays and analyses; new information is being posted several times per week, as opposed to the earlier pace of once every week or two. While the tenor of this content is little changed from the tone-deaf speechmaking we have come to expect, it is significant that they are making more of an effort to get their message out, such as it is.
If the FARC are indeed showing renewed interest in playing the political game, why might that be?
Some analysts, like those interviewed in a mid-May Boston Globe story, think that the Uribe government has so badly battered the FARC on the battlefield that the guerrillas, unable to launch a military campaign, are choosing politics and peace talks instead.
Others argue that the FARC remain quite strong militarily, but have begun to realize that their violence, instead of serving as a show of strength or a blow to Uribe’s policies, has been counter-productive. Its attacks and blockades have served only to increase public exasperation with the guerrillas and to strengthen the Uribista line. Leftist presidential candidate Carlos Gaviria said it well: “I believe that any FARC attempt to benefit a candidate would end up damaging exactly that candidacy.”
It is also possible that the FARC were caught off guard by Gaviria’s relative electoral success. It was a grave blow to the guerrillas that a peaceful leftist political party, the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), won 22 percent of the vote, finishing ahead of the long-dominant Liberal Party. As analyst León Valencia put it, “The banners that the guerrillas have waved for many years are now in the hands of the PDA, which is fighting a battle in the heart of democracy to win change through peaceful means.” The success of the non-guerrilla left made the FARC’s political marginalization humiliatingly evident.
Whatever the reason for it, any increase in the guerrillas’ concern for their image and message would be good news for Colombia. It would likely mean somewhat less abuse of civilian populations, more flexibility about negotiations, and more clarity about political demands. More contact with the outside world would likely moderate some of the FARC’s more extreme positions and strengthen the hand of less-radical leaders within the group’s internal power struggles.
However, it would not mean peace anytime soon. Even a more politically astute FARC would still attack military targets and target civilians whom it regards to be class enemies. Even a FARC that is campaigning for public support would still draw much of its income from the drug trade, use landmines freely, and recruit child soldiers. While a less autistic FARC would be more open to dialogue and maintain channels of communication with the government, real negotiations would still be very far off.
But even this would be an improvement over the FARC that Colombia has known – or in fact known little about – during the past several years.