Will Colombia’s Democratic Left Seize the Initiative from Uribe and the FARC?

April 11, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Flooded with foreign journalists who venture into the recent political history of the country as unequipped explorers, Colombia has again attracted worldwide attention in recent weeks, on account of rumours regarding the state of health of FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt. Luis Eladio Pérez, one of the hostages freed by the FARC towards the end of February, was the first to express serious concerns about the health of the former presidential candidate in the hands of the guerrilla group.

Her pall and dismal appearance in the video circulated by the rebels only weeks before seemed to confirm the suspicions already advanced by many. Since then, various sources have provided details which indicate that Ms Betancourt (pictured) is seriously ill and in need of an urgent blood transfusion. Witnesses from the Guavire region are reported to have seen her in various villages, where the FARC have allegedly tried to get some urgent medical help. In particular, she is said to suffer from Hepatitis B and Lesmaniosis, a tropical disease caused by a mosquito bite.

The political chameleonism of Uribe, supported by Sarkozy, whose involvement is to be linked to the clear political gains he would obtain at home to overshadow an unimpressive domestic record, had produced a new conjuncture before the rapid deterioration of Betancourt’s health. All of a sudden, the intransigence hitherto shown by the Colombian president towards the FARC has switched to a milder attitude, with talk of ‘prisoners’ release’ on the one hand and ‘political asylum in France’ on the other, in exchange for the permission of a French mission to supply medical care to the ex-leader of the Oxygen Green Party. This twist is related to a clear political logic. Uribe has always shown little interest in the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt – a fact often pointed out by Ms Betancourt’s family – for two main reasons. The first is that her captivity is a good propaganda instrument to be constantly employed against the FARC, which can easily and rightly be accused of barbarism, thereby giving a moral boost to the hard line so far adopted. The second, instead, has to do with the risks implied in her possible return to political activity. The enormous popularity she has attained in these years could make her a dangerous rival for Uribe. As the party she founded no longer exists, her potential entry into the Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA) would render the left-wing coalition extremely appealing.

Who better than somebody who has been imprisoned by the FARC to put an end to their activity? Provided she has not changed her mind over the course of the years, the authority conferred by her tragic experience would make the negotiated solution all the more attractive again. However, her death could be seen as a terrible blow to the uncompromising politics of “democratic security’ carried on by Uribe. If one side of this politics has rendered much of the country much safer, many other aspects have been neglected, among which the question of the hostages. Public opinion would not receive well the news of the death of a hostage who has attracted attention from the whole globe, even worse without the Colombian government having made some attempt to save her. It is under these lenses that Uribe’s move should be read.

However, the answer of the rebels has not been accommodating. After days of waiting, the Falcon 50 sent by the French government to locate Ingrid Betancourt in the jungle, has sadly made its way back to Paris. In a statement of 4th April, released only on the 8th by the Bolivarian Press Agency, the FARC declared: “We do not act under blackmail nor under the impulse of mediatic campaigns. If at the beginning of the year the president Uribe had cleared Pradera and Florida for 45 days, Ingrid Betancourt, as well as the soldiers and the guerrilla fighters would have recovered their freedom, and it would be the victory of all.”

Moreover, the FARC blame the government for the killing of Raúl Reyes, and attribute to this and other gestures the unwillingness to proceed to a humanitarian exchange. As admitted by the governments of France and Ecuador, Raúl Reyes was the likely negotiator of any possible agreement. The measures taken in the last few months by the Colombian president do not seem to have been very conciliatory at all. The unilateral moves of the FARC have not been followed by any real good intention of the government. If on one side, the clearing of military control from Florida and Pradera, two municipalities in the Valle del Cauca, a department situated in western Colombia, is a critical request, which could well hide the rebels’ intention to regroup after the severe losses recently suffered, on the other the strong position of the president should induce him to pursue a more balanced approach to find a real solution to the hostage crisis. But he simply shows to have little interest in that beyond narrow political calculations.

Exactly sixty years after the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the historic political leader whose murder constituted the spark of the infamous La Violencia period, which is at the basis of the current conflict, Colombia must rediscover his contribution. The civil war that has plagued the country for so long is the product of the systematic exclusion of the masses from the political system, but also the materialisation of the tensions brought about by a profoundly unjust economic model. If the violence has distanced the poorest sectors to which the rebels appeal, the material conditions of the country still require a much-needed change. The neo-liberal social paternalism of the current government coalition cannot be fought with arms, but through a democratic affirmation of progressive forces. In the same way as the Communist Party was outflanked by the FARC in the 1980s, the PDA should gain the hegemony of the left, making clear that the old tactic of the ‘combination of all forms of struggle’ (i.e. including violence) is dead. Only by understanding that the democratic and non-violent path can be successful in changing the country for good will the FARC allow their struggle to benefit of the whole left and the whole country.

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This post was written by Samuele Mazzolini

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