Here to stay

The FARC: The Longest Insurgency
Garry Leech
2011, Zed Books
178 pages

AT A TIME when the ideological commonplaces of global capitalism are being examined with increasingly critical scrutiny, space is again opening up for a debate about the relevance of the revolutionary left.

It is all too easy to dismiss the role played by guerrilla organisations after the nominal transitions to democracy in Latin America and the rise of left-of-centre governments in the region with a commitment to greater equality and a more social capitalism, if such a thing is possible.

Colombia’s FARC has been a victim of this dismissal, now only making in into the headlines according to a state-directed narrative of inevitable decline. As its setbacks mount, so does the political premium on declaring it irrelevant, defeated, a thing of the past.

In the US and Britain, this narrative has been accepted uncritically by a media that lacks the most basic understanding of Colombian and Latin American politics and history, and so the damage is easily done. The revolution is over. Let’s go shopping.

But as Garry Leech demonstrates convincingly, the FARC cannot and should not be written off as an actor in Colombian politics, not least because of its enduring ability to adapt to shifting military conditions. And for as long it is active, FARC’s influence will extend beyond the country into regional politics as a whole.

Moreover, elements of the victory narrative do not stand the test of close examination: in some areas FARC activity is increasing; Colombian military claims about the level of casualties thay have inflicted on the organisation have been grossly inflated (in some cases by dressing up civilians they have killed as guerrillas and then claiming FARC scalps); it has cost the Colombian and US governments billions to contain the organisation, and there is clearly no guarantee that these levels of spending can or will be maintained; and Colombian politics itself remains uncertain and there are signs that the political left are gaining the upper hand over the forces of conservatism that have made war with FARC and other guerrilla groups almost the state’s political raison d’etre since the 1990s. By waging their war at all costs and regardless of the consequences for human rights, they have greatly discredited the very alternative to FARC that they have, apparently, championed. All the signs are that the Colombian right will simply not be able to live with a viable socialist party that has any chance of participating in electoral politics fairly. Even if FARC demobilised, the right would still attempt to eradicate its leadership.

As Leech points out, neoliberal reforms in Colombia that benefit the wealthy and US corporations have important implications for the poor in resource-rich regions. Given the growing number of social struggles in the region under governments that are nominally to the left, it is highly unlikely that the rural poor threatened with dispossession will start to view FARC as somehow ideologically irrelevant.

Rightwing establishment

Leech, an intrepid journalist and author with a long track-record in this part of Latin America, has written the essential reference book for understanding the Colombian guerrilla organisation and its long war with the state. He explores its roots, politics, and relationship with other socio-political actors such as the drugs trade.

His central argument is that FARC offers a political alternative in a country in which the poor and marginalised have long been, and remain, excluded from politics and the fruits of economic growth, and he lays this squarely at the feet of Colombia’s ruling, rightwing establishment. Given that, Leech writes:

“While independent parties and candidates, including Uribe, successfully shattered the stranglehold that the Liberal and Conservative parties had over Colombia’s political affairs, there remains no evidence that a party palatable to the FARC and those on the non-violent left will achieve power – or even be permitted to exist – in the foreseeable future. This reality greatly diminishes the possibility of achieving a negotiated settlement to the conflict.” [pp. 147-8]

However, despite its ideological relevance, FARC has become a strategic embarrassment to the left, which now believes that its continued mobilisation provides a convenient justification for repression by the Colombian government that are peacefully struggling for justice, and for the US to intervene in Latin American politics. Colombia has become vitally important for US geopolitics, given the swing to the left across the region.

At the end of the day, Leech points out, government after government has refused to address the root causes of the conflict – and the FARC has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in a country where the terrain greatly favours guerrilla conflict that it is willing and able to survive. There is, he says, a real possibility that it will continue its armed struggle for many years to come.