. Interview: Antonio Navarro Wolff talks to London Progressive Journal | London Progressive Journal
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Interview: Antonio Navarro Wolff talks to London Progressive Journal

Fri 19th Dec 2008

SM: Tell us a bit about the peculiarities of your department, Nariño, in relation to the big questions that afflict Colombia.

ANW: Until a few years ago, Nariño was a peaceful department, but as coca growers were pushed to the South by Plan Colombia at the beginning of 2000, armed groups have followed suit. Hence, they have reduced coca and poppy plantations on one side, and enhanced them on another. With these products, FARC guerrillas have appeared. They already had a front, but it was small and more dedicated to political action. In these years instead, we have had five fronts.

With them, paramilitaries have arrived, as well as other criminal groups linked to narco-traffic, and a small group of the ELN also expanded. From 2001 onwards, the homicide rate has increased in this department to 49.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, a rate which is much higher than the national average. Of the five groups of the FARC, four are still left, paramilitaries have been dismantled, but two groups have re-organised, and there is a quite big group of bandits directly linked with coca that is active in the coastal region of the department. This makes for a paradoxical situation: we have more democracy in land property as compared to the rest of the country, with 70% of peasants owning their own land, and only a few persons possessing more than 100 hectares. At the same time though, some people have taken the easy money shortcut, the evident contagion of the culture of this zone of the country. These problems were considered to be of exclusive concern to the peasants and the state by local authorities, because it was a duty alien to the the tradition of municipalities, apart from being very dangerous. My arrival to the governorship has marked various differences, of which this is the firt: these are top priority issues that need to be tackled and we have to face this at a local level.

Being a border department, how does Nariño live with the problem of the displaced people who travel to Ecuador? And what about the fumigations that the central government carries out?

With respect to the conflict, Putumayo (another border Amazonian region) has a more complicated picture. The very problem of the conflict lies there, our department has a certain complexity, especially in the coastal region, but compared to the Amazonian border it is much lighter. As for displaced people, no doubt there are a lot of them. If we look at the internal displacement in Nariño, statistics say that there are 100,000 accumulated displaced people here, and this makes it the department with the biggest number of refugees.

But if we look carefully at the causes of this phenomenon, we come to the conclusion that it is not because of the conflict that we have so many refugees. It is a displacement that has two origins: the first one is poverty, and the second one is the stimulus given by state funds that are handed over to those who hold the status of refugees. I would say that of the most recent refugees, 80% are attributable to these two factors, and 20% to the conflict. Speaking of people in transit to Ecuador, I would not be able to give you precise details on the fluxes and the causes. But in Nariño the phenomenon of people trying to reach Ecuador is not very big.

As for the fumigations, it has been the anti-drugs policy of our government and of the United States in recent years. It is exclusively a policy of repression. This is the department which has been most fumigated in this decade. So far, they have fumigated 300,000 hectares. I have spoken about this with the government and with the American Ambassador. The latter has given me the frankest answer: 'We fumigate because it is the most economic solution'. The truth is that if there is contact with the peasants, if you do not look for the collaboration of the peasants, there will be no solution. This is why we are trying to develop an important program here. It is a voluntary substitution program of the illegal cultivations. We have agreed with the government that two municipalities will not be hit by fumigations, and these will benefit from a series of new and highly political elements. It will essentially be a socio-political program.

Your party has grown a lot in recent years at a national level, but it is composed of different 'lefts'. What are the prospects of staying united?

Polo is certainly a gathering of all 'lefts' and something similar in Latin America can only be found in Uruguay, with Frente Amplio. This gives strength, but also heterogeneity. In Polo, we have two big currents: one which is centre-left and the other of a more classical left. It is evident there is always the risk of a fraction. Nevertheless, equilibrium has been maintained through internal democracy, so that our candidates have been selected via democratic processes. If we continue to be successful, it will be easier to stay united.

However, in my own opinion the party has lacked initiative recently and this is starting to harm it before the eyes of public opinion. It is likely that, unless we take political initiative again, the situation in 2010, when general elections will be held, will be different from that in 2006 (Polo's candidate took 20% of the vote). This problem notwithstanding, if primary elections are kept as the mechanism to choose the candidate, Polo's unity is guaranteed.

Some people within the Party accuse you and others of searching a pact with the Liberal Party.

Gramsci, speaking of theory, has come up with a concept called hegemony. In Nariño, we have established our hegemony and in this hegemony the Liberal Party is inserted. But who is leading the political process is not the Liberal Party, it is us. The fact is that we need an alliance to face Uribe. This means building up a bloc, and this bloc should be hegemonised, I mean not in terms of domination, but in terms of leadership.

We should bring forward our politics, our principles, our program. The pact does not entail any moderation of the latter. If we are not able to maintain the initiative, Cesar Gaviria, the current President of the Liberal Party, who is not a random person, could take the new leadership within the country and through some maneuver he may establish a third coalition. Polo must be smart about this.

Why does Uribe maintain such a high popularity despite all the scandals that involve him, his family and his political allies?

Partly it is the safety issue. The right has declared itself as the main enemy of the FARC and it is having success in that. Since we have had popularity polls for a President, the highest point has been reached when Ingrid Betancourt was freed. The other is that he has been lucky after all. He has governed during a big expansion of the world economy which has resulted in a certain growth for the Colombian economy, superior to the historical average.

What solution does Polo propose to the armed conflict?

Our approach is that of negotiation. The thing is that to negotiate two parties are needed. Had I been the President, I would have certainly been different from Uribe, but the need to advance public authority and strengthen state forces is out of discussion. But the way out is not a military one, it is the negotiation, a political solution. What the guerrilla needs to engage in negotiation is to understand that it cannot win the war, and I am saying that to you because I have been in a guerrilla group. Proving to us that we could not win the war was essential. The fact is that Uribe has fought the FARC with a certain ideology, his aggressive language, and his personal style. In the name of security, we want authority to be respected, but the adversary must be respected. However the relationship between the state and peasant society, between public policy and the society in conflict is also important. We are very clear on the fact that without delivering social problems among the rural population, there is no solution to illicit drugs nor to the armed conflict.

Of course, the results of democratic security have importantly increased desertions, the intelligence has become a real intelligence, but the relationship between the state and the peasants keeps on being an unsatisfactory one, to a great extent because it opposes cocaine and this pushes peasants towards the guerrilla. Polo must push for authority, but with a totally different relationship with the peasant population and the abandonment of fumigations. Fumigating is a historical mistake; apart from all the environmental and ecological damages, it is an unhappy method for solving the problems of the illegal crops.

How is the government trying to cope with the emergence of social and economic discontent?

In Latin America, we are faced with a natural clientelistic way of combating poverty: subsidies for poverty, the repartition of money to citizens from which no government is exempt, both on the right and the left. I am not a good friend of those kinds of solutions. Poverty reduction through cash money repartition has had an impact, especially in the case of Brazil. How sustainable is that? How long does it take to break free from that? That is what makes for the strong need of social education. To make a little example: as I started my electoral campaign, they distributed cash to 16,000 families here. A week before the elections, they passed from 16,000 to 100,000, with a message included saying: 'If you vote for Navarro, this is going to be over.' This is to say that direct subsidies give a very big advantage to those who hold the power.

What is the best method for fighting poverty then?

In our case, a department where 70% of peasants dispose of their own land, what we do not have is economies of scale, as that requires technology and financing. Of course the poorest of the poorest would need some type of more direct help, but I believe in agrarian reform and structural reform more generally, such as augmenting tax pressure. Basically we do not need assistance changes, but structural changes.

Here in Nariño inequality in land tenancy is not big, what we are trying to do is to solve the problem of economies of scale. But in the rest of Colombia agrarian reform cannot be postponed, it needs to be done, and to be done well. It is not just about distributing land, it needs to take care of peasants as economic agents. When the economic surplus diminishes, there is very little to redistribute in terms of assistance, and we are back where we started.

You have been a guerrilla fighter with M-19, a group which laid down its weapons some time ago. Tell me a bit more about its political trajectory.

We never entered the Soviet socialist camp. We never allied with Moscow, Albania or China. We were nationalist, and back then it was quite exotic in Colombia as opposed to now. We were of a moderate left, which was quite strange as very few armed groups were moderate. We were born out of an electoral fraud against a right-wing general. But that was very telling: if a fraud is organised against a right-wing general, who are they going to respect, electorally speaking, in this country? That is why it was called M-19. Because on the 19th April 1970 a fraud was organised against Rojas Pinilla, the right-wing and populist general. Fortunately we were not orthodox. The M-19 was the most popular guerrilla group in the history of Colombia.

How did you join the M-19 and how and which actions did you take part in?

I am not among the founders, but when the M-19 took Bolívar's sword I decided to get involved with them. Back then at the beginning of the 1970s, I was a professional engineer, and I was shocked by the event that the elections of 1970 represented. Rapidly, I managed to become quite well-known. Indeed, a bit of everything happened to me; I was Urban Commander, Rural Commander, I was jailed, tortured, I have a prosthesis, etc. Later we started to sustain a lot of dead and casualties, and the main concern became survival, as in the 1980s from seventy-two members of the High Commission of the M-19 in 1972, there were only eight of us left. This is my main virtue: I was not the most import one, I am just one who survived, and probably of this small group I am the one who had more responsibilities.

Antonio Navarro Wolff is a member of the Colombian Polo Democratico Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Pole).
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