Columbia: War and crisis

Unable to visit Bogota, Colombia’s capital, because it is considered too dangerous, Clinton was compelled to spend his brief visit in the costal resort of Cartagena. Protected by 350 US agents and 5,000 Colombian soldiers, Clinton met with Colombia’s President Pastrana to give benediction to ’Plan Colombia’. This plan has escalated US intervention into the civil war and social upheavals that are shaking this important Latin American country. The visit was followed by a series of military actions by FARC, the largest guerrilla army operating in Latin America at the moment.

The violence and social turmoil that is devastating Colombia is a condemnation of both capitalism and imperialism. The drugs industry has penetrated the heart of Colombia and is now consuming the rest of the body. Estimates vary but one calculates that more revenue is generated from the cocaine industry that the combined GDP. Together with other social consequences brought about by the free market it has devastated the lives of millions in Colombia in a brutal way.

Every year over twenty five thousand people are murdered out of a population of 40 million Colombia can now boast it amongst the most violent places on earth. An estimated 2-3,000 people were kidnapped last year. In the last twelve years more than 2,500 trade union activists have been executed and thousands more tortured and beaten by death squads such as the AUC (Self Defence Forces of Colombia) which are linked to the armed forces.

During the last decade, more than one million people have been ’displaced’ by the civil war. Western imperialism has remained silent about this human disaster which has seen more people displaced than in Kosova – forced to leave their homes because of "the war with no frontiers" as it is referred to in Colombia.

The devastating consequences of the economic recession that gripped the country during the last few years have worsened this catastrophe. Confronted with its worst economic recession for more than fifty years twenty percent of the labour force are officially unemployed compared with 8% in 1994.

Those that can try to flee the country – some 200,000 emigrate every year. During 1999 366,000 people applied for visas to live in the USA compared with 150,000 two years earlier. The country haemorrhaging to death as a consequence of the war – the out-pouring will only increase with an escalation of the military conflict.

Colombia now boasts the largest and oldest Latin American guerrilla army, FARC (Fuerza Armado Revolucionario) which has been involved in a military struggle for more than forty years. FARC currently has an estimated 15-20,000 armed fighters and with the ELN (Ejercito Liberacionh Nacional), the second largest guerrilla force, controls up to 40% of the country. The recent growth of FARC is a reflection of the social disintegration that capitalism has signified in Colombia.

FARC was given control of 16,000 square miles of Colombia in 1998. This was given to try and draw them into a peace process following the election of Pastrana as President. His election followed the removal of President elect Samper’s travel visa to the US. This was because the drug cartels funded his election campaign to the tune of US$6 million. Although on off peace talks have been held ever since, the fighting has flared up in one area and then another. The continued violence has meant that there has been no peace process for the mass of the population.

Into this cauldron of social turmoil, Clinton briefly ventured last week with US imperialism’s proposal to escalate its intervention, ’Plan Colombia’. This represents a stepping up of the direct participation of US imperialism into the crisis that is rocking Colombia. The US is effectively being drawn into a war that it is fighting by proxy that is likely to have devastating consequences throughout Latin America.

Some commentators have recently warned against another Vietnam, however, a more accurate comparison is US involvement in El Salvador during the 1980’s. In the 1980"s US imperialism sent military advisers, funds and equipment to the death squads and Salvadorean army which was used to brutally repress the mass of the population and FSLN guerrilla movement. However, it held back from a full military intervention such was undertaken in Vietnam.

The international situation and opposition to direct military intervention by US imperialism in to Latin America that would be aroused in the continent and in the US itself prevents this at the moment. However, an intervention to fund and equip a proxy war is currently taking place in Colombia.

The recent escalation of US intervention in Colombia represents a significant change in the recent policy adopted by US imperialism in Latin America, or at least in the north of the continent.

US imperialism is stepping up its intervention to defend its own numerous interests. These include the need to be seen to act against the drug cartels. The corrosive effects of the drugs in society is driving a section of the ruling class to try and take some steps to try and curb the quantity of drugs reaching the US. This is now a major question for capitalism.

According to the UN, in 1995 the illegal drugs trade amounted to US$400 billion which was equal to 8% of the value of world trade. This was more than world trade in iron, steel and motor vehicles and about the same as that in textiles, gas and oil. More recent reports point to a massive expansion of this "industry" during the last five years. According to a US think tank report the ‘Lugano Report’ (published as a book by Pluto Press in 1999), income from drug related trade amounts to 2% of the value of total world product. The lowest estimate is that illegal trade in drugs accounts for 10-13% of the value of world trade. If this were a national economy it would be larger than Canada’s. The shear size of the drug industry is driving sections of the ruling class to consider the possibility of legalising it. It is also forcing US imperialism to at least be seen to be trying to do something to deal with this problem at one source of supply – Colombia and Latin America.

For the first time El Salvador has agreed to allow the US to establish an anti-narcotics base in the country. This will be used as a base for operations into Ecuador and other countries. This policy has provoked widespread opposition by workers and youth who oppose US intervention. It is against the background of US backing for the death squads and military in the 1970’s and 1980’s which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands in El Salvador.

According to the Financial Times Colombian cocaine exports account for an estimated 80% of the US market, more than double the level of two years ago. The drugs industry has penetrated every aspect of Colombian society and a significant section of the "ruling class" is comprised of ’drug barons to a greater or lesser degree. According to one recent report, after twenty years in business, drug traffickers have amassed a total of US$75 billion – more than the entire GDP of Colombia!

The social catastrophe in Colombia and the surrounding countries is increasing the flood of refugees who want to cross the Rio Grande in order to try and escape the desperate conditions that exists in most Latin American countries.

However, the question of the drugs industry is not the only reason for US intervention into the region. Whilst this is a factor, US imperialism is also using this question as a pretext to justify its’ other motives for intervention. They want to inflict a defeat on the guerrilla forces that exist in Colombia, especially the FARC. These forces have rapidly grown in the recent period because of the social crisis.

This and other regional upheavals that are taking place have forced a change in US policy towards more direct intervention. The uprising in Ecuador, the processes unfolding in Venezuela around the Chavez movement, mass movements in Bolivia and in Peru against Fujimorri (despite the pro-capitalist policies of the main opposition) are of extreme concern to the strategists of US imperialism. The growth of FARC is linked to these processes.

These movements, and others, represent a new stage in the struggle of the Latin American masses and potentially threaten the interests of US imperialism. Radical populist regimes such as Chavez in Venezuela can be pushed by the mass social movements and the social crisis unfolding in these countries to take measures that conflict with the immediate interests of imperialism and sections of the ruling class. The rightwing in Venezuela denounced Chavez because of his links with FARC in Colombia. The US ambassador also protested on the same issue. The fact that Chavez banned US flights over Colombian air space reflected this conflict in interests between Chavez and US imperialism.

US imperialism is intending to inflict a major defeat on FARC. By doing this they hope to intimidate the masses of the region and also to warn populist regimes like Chavez not adopt adopt policies that conflict with their interests.

However, increased US intervention will not bring the stability hoped for by the US but will provoke further upheavals and crisis. It will have a devastating effect on the rural and urban poor and threaten to spill over into the bordering countries and aggravate the crisis that already exists.

The stepping up of US intervention into the region is certain to strengthen the anti-imperialist sentiment throughout Latin america. This was even reflected at the recent meeting of twelve Latin American Presidents. The major countries would not endorse ‘Plan Colombia’. This meeting rebuffed appeals from Clinton for Latin America to support a general US military and police offensive against drug traffickers in the region. This reflected the fears by the representatives of Latin American capitalism of a resurgent anti-imperialist awareness in the region. It also indicated their opposition to further US incursion into their region. As the International Herald Tribune (4/9/2000) pointed out, "Looming over the meeting was concern at what President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela described as the threat of ‘the Vietnamisation of the entire Amazon region".

Reflecting the contradictory position of Chavez he argued that, "We support ‘Plan Colombia’ so long as it does not generate combat activites that could complicate our situation". However, that is exactly what ‘Plan Colombia’ will do! Chavez went on to call for the establishment of a South American NATO that would organise its own policing of drug traffickers’ etc.

US imperialism has now committed US$1.3billion to this intervention. Even before this current "aid" package, Colombia was the third largest recipient of US military aid after Israel and Egypt. The vast majority of this "aid" will be for military hardware and training. It will include the use of fungal herbicides against coca leaves and poppy plantations. The areas targeted by the Colombian army are exclusively those in the south of Colombia controlled by FARC.

The hypocrisy of US imperialism is reflected by its failure to attack the right-wing paramilitary organisation such as the AUC that are heavily involved in the drugs industry. The AUC has a minimum of five thousand armed members. Their origins lie in disparate vigilante militias set up over decades, first by the army and later by rural landowners and drug traffickers to fight FARC and other guerrilla groups.

According to one AUC leader 70% of AUC income derives from drug money. The AUC also has its own territory where it refines coca leaves for the production of cocaine. Backed by banana growers and other sections of the ruling class these forces have carried out brutal massacres. Last year the AUC, by its own admission was involved in the killing of more than 900 people. In one incident a force of 300 murdered 28 people in the province of Bolivar. They tortured many in the town before beheading them. These forces will be left untouched by ‘Plan Colombia’.

It will hit the rural poor and guerrilla armies leaving the drug cartels untouched in the cities and will provoke a new flood of refugees and displaced people from the battle zones. As one of the FARC leaders, Simon Trinidad explained, "All of Colombia knows where the narco-traffickers are. They are in Medellin, in Bogota, in Cali…"

The corrosive effect of drugs in society was reflected earlier this year in an incident that reflected the hypocrisiy of US imperialism. Colonel James Heitt, the head of the US army anti-drug programme in Colombia, and his wife, were convicted on charges related to smuggling cocaine into the USA in a diplomatic pouch!

‘Plan Colombia’ cannot solve the problem of drugs that has exploded because of the social situation that has developed under capitalism. A similar policy was applied in both bolivia and Peru. Official figures of land used for coca production in Peru fell by 33% between 1995-1999. In bolivia it was a similar story. However, in colombia it has more than doubled since 1995. In other workds production was simply moved north and can be relocated again if the drug cartels are compelled to do so.

The proposals provide the resources for the coca crop growers and rural workers to develop alternative crops cannot be developed under the capitalist system. The massive expansion of farming of coca leaves by local farmers partly developed because of the crisis in other sectors of agriculture that drove them to produce coca leaves or starve. The price of coca leaves per kilo has tripled since 1998 and is now US$1.50 per kilo. Small local farmers and peasants have turned to its production because it is the only way to survive. Alternative aid programmes suggested by the US amount to a drop in the ocean when weighed against the fact that Colombia is in its deepest recession for nearly sixty years.

The indigenous peoples of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru have traditionally produced coca leaves to chew or drink as a tea. However, the vast plantations that currently exist in Colombia developed because of the crisis in other agricultural sectors and the demand for cocaine in the US, Europe etc.

It will need a programme of land reform and a democratic socialist plan of production for the region to allow small farmers and peasants to return to produce other traditional crops and allow them to cultivate enough coca leaves for consumption in the unrefined state. This traditionally has formed a part of their culture for centuries.

FARC policy

FARC has wrongly adopted a policy of levying taxes on the drug producers as it does on other rich landowners in the areas that it controls. A revolutionary socialist policy would include a programme of land reform based upon expropriation of the large estates and distribution of land to the peasants and driving out the drug traffickers and their backers. By linking this movement to the struggles of the workers in the cities it would be possible to overthrow the regime and establish a workers and peasants government with a socialist programme. Such a government would need to implement a democratic socialist plan of production for industry and agriculture and appeal to the working class of North and south America for support with a view to establishing a Socialist Federation of North South and Central America. This is the only way to resolve the problems of the peasants, small farmers and working class and solve the drug problem.

US tied to paramilitary

US involvement in Colombia already extends to the presence of more than 300 "advisers" at any one time, more than the number deployed in El Salvador in the 1980’s. The army brigades that are being trained by these US advisers are linked to the right-wing paramilitary death squads that have operated throughout the country. According the New York based human rights group, Human Rights Watch, more than half of the Colombian army’s 18 brigades are linked directly to para-military activity. These units operate throughout Colombia, including those areas destined to receive military aid from the USA. It means that the US is now involved in backing those fighting the drug cartels and also those who collaborate with them! There is no section of the ruling class that has clean hands in this conflict.

According to the US the heightened military conflict that will now result from ’Plan Colombia’ will create another 10,000 refugees. The main aid agencies working in the country estimate that the figure will be nearer ten times greater.

Moreover, the effect of aerial spraying of crops will be devastating. Intended to destroy coca it will destroy other crops forcing local peasants to migrate to other areas. One herbicide not excluded for use by the Colombian government is ’Fusarium’. This agent destroys not only crops but also the mortality rates for people infected by it are 76%. Not surprisingly the state of Florida for use against illegal marijuana crops. The Colombian government has recommended that it be studied "meticulously"! There have been reports that this herbicide was used in Peru and Bolivia clandestinely by the armed forces.

FARC has won a significant support from a section of young people and the oppressed layers who are desperate to fight the existing regime who have suffered at the hands of the army and the death squads. They have been criticised for recruiting young people as young as 14 or 15 into their ranks. However, even this is a comment on the misery faced by many young people who are savaged by capitalism. Young people of the same age are used in coalmines as cheap labour. Confronted with this issue Simon Trinidad of FARC argues claims that, "… we recruit from 15. Some of them who want to join we tell to go home. But for instance, we have a 14 year-old girl from San Vicente who wanted to join. Her mother implored her to go back. Then it turned out that she worked in a bar and was forced to be a prostitute for the customers. Now she has respect, a uniform, an education. There are 1 million children working in the mines who are being exploited…"

An indication of the desperation facing some of the most exploited sections of society in Colombia is illustrated by the struggles of the indigenous people, the U’wa. They are involved in a struggle against the US multinational oil company, Occidental Petroleum. The conglomerate has been give permission to exploit oil reserves found on the U’wa’s traditional land which if done would destroy their lands. 3,000 U’wa people have threatened mass suicide by leaping from a 1,500 foot high cliff in the jungle!

A major military offensive against FARC, that seems be very likely, is certain to strengthen its support amongst a layer of young people and poor peasants. The murderous acts of the death squads such as the AUC (Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) and the US trained army units will win FARC much sympathy throughout Latin America.

However, at the same time FARC, because of its wrong methods, absence of a revolutionary socialist programme and involvement with the drugs industry has also alienated big sections of the working class and urban population.

FARC was established nearly forty years ago as the armed wing of the Communist Party. It has established an important traditional basis of support in some rural areas of the country. Although, though the Communist Party historically it did have an important orientation towards winning support in the urban centre, amongst trade unionists and the working class this increasingly became an auxiliary to the military struggle in the countryside.

This policy was combined with the adoption of the stages theory of the Communist Parties internationally and at various moments the idea of forming coalition governments with a ’progressive’ wing of the ruling class. The idea of the two stages theory argues that in countries like Colombia it was necessary to win independence from imperialism and then develop national capitalism before it was possible to embark upon the idea of the socialist revolution. Therefore, the immediate task was not to struggle for socialism but to collaborate with the progressive sections of the capitalist class to develop capitalism.

Trotsky and subsequently Lenin rejected this idea and argued that the ruling class in the less developed countries could not develop society or complete the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution. These tasks include breaking free of imperialist domination, development of industry, solution of the land question and the unification of the nation together with the establishment of a stable parliamentary democracy. These tasks today can be completed as part the struggle to build socialism by the working class, which means spreading the socialist revolution to the more industrialised countries. In countries where the working class only forms a minority of the population, it still has the leading role to play in the socialist revolution. It can win support for its programme amongst the poor peasants and the middle class that are also exploited by the existence of capitalism and land-lordism.

In the socialist revolution, the working class has the leading role to play because of its collective consciousness and ability to act as a class. The building of socialism requires the conscious and active participation of the working class.

The leading role of the working class in the socialist revolution applies in countries where it is a minority of the population. The poor peasants in the countryside play an important role in the revolution through the conducting of a revolutionary war if their struggle is linked to the leading role of the working class in the cities.

Unfortunately, the FARC does not accept these ideas and the military campaign in the countryside assumed a primary role to the movement in the cities. Like other guerrilla organisations they view their army as a substitute for a conscious mass movement. This is reflected in their structures and the methods used in administration in the areas they control.

It appears they have support in the areas they control but there is not a democratic system of workers and peasants democracy. The military commanders rule arbitrarily. Even in conditions of war, a revolutionary socialist movement would establish democratic control by the workers and peasants over its own army.

After the USSR

Following the collapse of the former Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and the USSR the leadership, like other guerrilla forces of Latin America have increasingly dropped presenting the idea of socialism and have embraced the market. FARC have partly done this and have organised visits to negotiate with European business representatives and do not mention socialism in their propaganda.

In some other Latin American countries, this process has allowed some former guerrilla organisations to make their peace with capitalism and join the "political process". In Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and other countries some former guerillas are now members of parliament and even hold Ministerial positions. Even in Colombia M-19 was able to do this. This accommodation into "institutional political" life was attempted by FARC in the 1980’s but at a terrible price.

The party recommended acceptance of a peace offer and formed the Patriotic Union to enter the electoral process. 18 Mayors were elected. However, the death squads were not ready to accept such a compromise. An estimated 3,000 members of FARC and other guerrilla organisations were slaughtered – including the Presidential candidate and 13 of the 18 elected mayors. Such experiences combined with the deepening social crisis and the intervention of US imperialism complicates the acceptance of any "peace process".

A challenge to capitalism?

However, the FARC, because of the depth of the social crisis in Colombia and the continuation of the war with the military has maintained some of its "socialistic" features in the areas it now controls. Che Guevara murals, some red flags etc are still used. However, the programme put forward by both the FARC and its newly formed political wing do not put forward the idea of socialism.

The FARC recently launched a political organisation, "Movimiento Bolivarian por la Nueva Colombia". (The Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia). This partly echoes some of the ideas defended by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The ideas put forward by the leadership of these movements do not challenge the capitalist system. However, for the exploited masses they signify an opposition to the programme of neo-liberalism and a rejection of the effects of capitalism and the capitalist system. They reflect a new phase in Latin America following the 1990’s and the consequences of the collapse of the former Stalinist regimes.

The ’Movimiento Bolivarian’ (MB) demands social justice, a genuine redistribution of income, national sovereignty and independence and defence of human rights. It demands the application of new technology for national development and income from oil to be invested in the rural areas, industry, education, housing etc. It argues for the unity of the Latin American people against their common enemy in the "Bolivarian spirit".

It is this ’Bolivarian’ spirit, of uniting Latin America as an alternative to western and US imperialism that has been put forward by Chavez and has now been partly embraced by FARC and the movement in Ecuador. However, it will require the establishment of a socialist federation of the continent to achieve it.

This radical petty bourgeois nationalist programme articulates many of the demands of the exploited masses but does not attempt to break from capitalism. The crisis confronting Colombia means that this programme cannot be achieved with the framework of capitalism.

Moreover, FARC is also implicated in the drugs industry and allows traffickers to operate in its areas. Although they argue they are not directly involved in trafficking FARC imposes a tax on the drug cartels. An estimated 60% of FARC’s income comes from this source.

Together with the methods of "urban terrorism" and kidnappings that FARC has used, involvement in the drugs industry has undoubtedly alienated sections of the urban working class. Following years of slaughter and conflict there is a desire for peace and an end to the violence. This was reflected in the mass demonstration of 5 million people in 1999 in support of the peace process. However, the methods and polices of FARC have meant that they have been unable to lay the blame for the violence clearly at the feet of the capitalist state, right-wing death squads and US imperiaisl and have not won mass support from the urban population. Support and sympathy for FARC is however likely to increase, especially amongst young people if the planned military offensive begins.

Moreover, FARC has stood aside from some of the recent movements that encompassed big layers of the working class in the cities. Twelve public sector general strikes took place in Colombia during 1998/99. These were against the austerity packages that the government has implemented. FARC has largely abstained from these movements.

The escalation of US intervention into Colombia marks a new phase in the crisis in Latin America. It will worsen the conflict and threatens to spread it to neighbouring countries. Workers and young people throughout Latin America and internationally must oppose this intervention by US imperialism.

The struggle to build a genuine independent socialist alternative based on the working class that can defeat imperialism and capitalism is more urgent than ever in order to establish a socialist federation of Latin America.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


September 2001