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July 25, 1999
Colombia’s Cautious

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After the Cold War ended, Colombian authorities and U.S. intelligence expected that the FARC gradually would disintegrate.

For poor Colombians, drug trafficking seemed a far more promising route to social mobility than armed revolution. There seemed to be little pay-off in following Marulanda through endless years of struggle in the mountains and jungles.

In 1992, to speed FARC's demise, President Cesar Gaviria offered amnesty to all rebels as well as the right to participate in the constitutional assembly.

Marulanda, however, countered with demands for broad social, political and economic reforms.

Given the FARC’s international isolation, Gaviria chose to take the offensive, striking powerful military blows against the FARC. But the aggressive maneuver backfired, leaving the FARC less willing to negotiate and prolonging the civil war.

Colombia also suffered an economic collapse in the countryside driving even more farmers into the illicit production of coca. The middle class suffered reversals, too. A long recession drove unemployment up to 20 percent, while interest rates shot up to more than 40 percent.

Meanwhile, Colombia's governing class sank deeper into narcotics corruption itself, with more than half of former congressmen indicted on various corruption and money-laundering charges.

Government resistance to popular social reforms and military brutality added to the public discontent while also breathing new life into the FARC.

The FARC benefited, too, from Colombia's lucrative drug trade, a reputation that has long dogged the FARC as a guerrilla movement. Marulanda has denied the charge for years, although acknowledging that the FARC does protect small farmers who rely on coca cultivation for survival.

"The FARC wants to show the world and the United States as well that it is not involved in drug trafficking, that it does not grow drugs, and that it does not live off the drug business," Marulanda said in the Semana interview.

"The FARC is willing to invite them to come to Colombia and see for themselves the reasons why peasants plant these drugs; to see, first hand, the problems these people confront and why there is nothing else they can do."

As the FARC expanded its guerrilla activity in the 1990s, the military increased its brutality. Parallel to the army emerged paramilitary "death squads" that received training from the U.S.-financed Colombian army. The paramilitary force, known as the AUC, committed massacres against suspected FARC supporters.

The AUC's tactics were brutal. The paramilitary forces assembled peasants in the main square or in a church, with men, women and children separated. Suspected guerrilla collaborators were then picked out and executed on the spot.

Leading human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, condemned Colombia's record for atrocities. The political slaughter grew so severe that even the U.S. State Department, known for its tolerance of anti-communist counterinsurgency, "decertified" Colombia for its human rights record.

For its part, the Colombian government reported in 1998 that 194 massacres claimed the lives of 1,231 civilians. The AUC was blamed for 47 percent of the killings, with 21 percent attributed to the FARC and three other guerrilla organizations.

Though eliminating many FARC supporters, the bloodshed deepened Colombia's political polarization and undermined the government's reputation. In the countryside, peasants came to see the FARC and Marulanda as alternatives to corrupt Bogota politicians and their murderous henchmen.

Rather than fading away, the FARC consolidated its base of support and became the effective government over large tracts of Colombian territory.

Marulanda and his "boys" were no longer seen as simply delinquents and drug smugglers -- as they appeared in government propaganda.

They gained grudging respect as an effective guerrilla army with mobile forces, military schools and sophisticated political training.

Marulanda adapted his ideology to the changing times. Like Fidel Castro, Marulanda advocated a nationalistic socialism that combined social reforms with a tolerance of small-scale capitalism.

In the Semana interview, Marulanda explained that it was "the large capitals" that he felt "must be curbed. We cannot allow our people to continue dying of hunger, without a home, without a car, without a roof over their heads, without education, without health, while others have huge buildings filled with dollars. No. That must be changed."

One of the secrets of the FARC's success was its self-sufficiency. Unlike other leftist movements that relied on foreign support, the FARC built an economic infrastructure that could sustain the movement indefinitely.

The FARC raised substantial sums of money from taxes paid by coca growers in FARC-controlled areas. The FARC's drug-related income was estimated at $170 million a year.

But another lucrative source of revenue came from extortion and ransoms estimated at $160 million a year. The FARC collected taxes on landowners and industrial interests in exchange for protection of their businesses and their lives.

As the FARC demonstrated its resilience, U.S. military observers grew pessimistic about the possibility for a decisive government victory or even a satisfactory negotiated settlement.

The State Department opened talks with the rebels about possible recognition of the FARC as a "belligerent force," a status that would give Marulanda's forces increased legal standing under international law.

The Clinton administration began pressing both sides to take action against coca plantations.

Facing the reality of a military standoff, Washington decided that it needed the FARC's cooperation if any anti-drug program was to succeed.

U.S. officials and Marulanda shared the public goal of substituting other profitable agriculture for coca production. In public statements, Marulanda indicated a willingness to support such a transformation as part of a larger effort to address the needs of the peasants.

"We believe that if the government wants to eradicate the drug problem then it must first draft a development plan for the peasants," Marulanda told Semana.

"That is all we want. Thousands of peasants need to produce and grow drugs to live because they are not protected by the state. This is why we come before the government to say, 'Mr. President, draft plans that will allow the eradication of coca on the basis of alternative crops.' …

“We can get a group of agronomists, good agronomists, to tell us what other crops can be grown in those areas. It could be rice, cacao, corn or cotton."

FARC Commander Ivan added that other U.S. strategies, such as spraying herbicides to kill the coca, will fail.

"We do not want drugs in our territory," Commander Ivan said. "But we protect the interests of the peasants. They cannot survive on plantain or coffee. They grow coca leaf to survive. The government then comes using illegitimate herbicides banned in the United States a long time ago and sprays their plantations. This only prompts the peasants to extend the agricultural frontier, and deforest an even more ample territory."

For the United States, the Colombian crisis has sparked new fears of regional chaos. Colombia borders on nations with fragile political systems and important U.S. strategic interests.

To the northwest is Panama and the Panama Canal. To the northeast is Venezuela, the largest source of U.S. imported oil.

Venezuela also has elected a new president, Hugo Chavez, whose populist programs are worrying major corporate investors and causing concerns in Washington. [See iF Magazine, May-June 1999.]

Meanwhile, in Colombia, Marulanda is fast becoming the aging poster boy for all the aphorisms about the value of patience. He is at least proving the old saying that showing up is half the battle.

For the septuagenarian guerrilla leader, time appears finally to be on his side.

Andres Cala is a Colombian journalist based in Costa Rica who has covered the Colombian conflict since 1996.

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