NACLA and Colombia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Dec 6 12:09:37 MST 2000


The most recent issue (Sept-Oct. 2000) of NACLA Report on the Americas is
devoted to Colombia. Since this is the most authoritative journal covering
Latin America in the USA--the country now preparing a Vietnam type
intervention in the region--it is necessary to review what it is saying,
especially since its coverage on Colombia has been so flawed in the recent
past.

First a few words about the political evolution of North American Congress
on Latin America (NACLA), the research group that puts out the magazine. It
has its roots in the student radicalization of the 1960s when graduate
students and left professors established working groups on a number of
questions falling within the general rubric of American imperialism. This
was around the time groups like Concerned Asian Scholars were also getting
started. In general these outfits were inspired by the Vietnamese and Cuban
revolutions.

Now that many of the original founders have become responsible tenured
professors with reputations to protect, the edge of some of these journals
has grown dull. This is especially true of NACLA, which suffers the
additional problem of identifying with a rightward drift in Latin American
politics following the defeat of the Central American revolutions.

The original impetus for this drift came from a layer of disillusioned
Sandinistas such as Victor Tirado, who decided that the era of
anti-imperialist revolutions had come to an end after the collapse of the
USSR. Basically this was a form of leftwing TINA that ruled out creation of
states based on the model of the October 1917 revolution. The alternative
proposed by the FSLN in Nicaragua and FMLN in El Salvador was a variant on
Swedish social democracy, in tune with the historical example of Costa
Rica. Unfortunately, the "neoliberal" direction of world politics and
economics over the past 10 years militated against such a possibility. In
point of fact the model for Costa Rica in this period has been El Salvador
rather than the other way around.

In the USA, the academics grouped around NACLA embraced this retreat but
put their own particular postmodernist spin upon it. Editorial board member
Roger Burbach, who heads the Latin American studies department at U. of
California at Berkeley, has been a forceful defender of this kind of
postmodernist 'socialism'. In "Globalization and its Discontents" (Pluto
Press, 1997) co-authored by FSLN intellectual Orlando Núñez and Boris
Kargalitsky, we learn that "the Central America experience in the 1980s
demonstrates even more conclusively the shortcomings of the 'actual
existing' national liberation movements." (Kargalitsky repudiated this book
shortly after it appeared on the shelves, claiming that he had no idea what
Burbach had up his sleeve.)

Not only does Burbach deny that lack of Soviet support was at fault, he
also claims that dedication to "armed struggle" condemned these groups to
oblivion. So what should the Latin American left try to do in the face of
such insurmountable odds? Basically Burbach counsels they should join with
NGO's in creating alternative, voluntary institutions in "civil society"
that might be described in George Bush's terms as a "thousand points of
light":

"In both the developed and underdeveloped countries, a wide variety of
critical needs and interests are being neglected at the local level,
including the building, or rebuilding, of roads, schools and social
services. A new spirit of volunteerism and community participation, backed
by a campaign to secure complimentary resources from local and national
governments, can open up entirely new job markets and areas of work to deal
with these basic needs." (Globalization and its Discontents, p. 164)

Examples of such initiatives include homeless men selling the monthly
newspaper "Street Spirit" in northern California to cover the costs of a
meal and a bottle of rotgut. (Globalization, ibid.) It would also include
soup kitchens and slum housing squats. Nobody could ever accuse Burbach and
company of raising the bar too high.

Not content to propagate this new vision of a postmodernist socialism,
NACLA has also gone out of its way to lecture an errant dinosaur left
oblivious to new realities. This included Fidel Castro who had the nerve to
crack down on NGO think-tanks in Cuba which had been advocating an end to
the planned economy and which were funded by US universities. It also
included the headstrong young US activist named Lorie Berenson who was
jailed by Fujimori after being caught in Peru working with the now defunct
Tupac Amaru guerrilla movement. A NACLA editorial lectured her the way a
parent would lecture a teenaged daughter who had been caught driving drunk.

It has been with respect to the guerrilla groups in Colombia that NACLA has
been most ideologically strident. Either the FARC, ELN and EPL armed groups
have allowed their subscription to NACLA Report to run out or are willfully
unmindful of the need to sponsor soup kitchens in Colombia's slums under
their own banner. Perhaps the presence of death squads in the cities might
have something to do with this. In any case, the animosity toward the FARC
in particular has been so pronounced that it allowed NACLA editorial board
member Mario Murillo to falsely report that the FARC had massacred Indian
villagers and burned their homes. This report was filed despite the
evidence provided by a church group in Colombia that the murders were
committed by rightwing militaries disguised as FARC combatants. NACLA has
never corrected this misinformation.

I am pleased to report that the current issue is a step in the right
direction. Perhaps criticism from friends and supporters of NACLA has had
an effect.

The most useful article is by journalist Alfredo Molano, who is a weekly
columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. His writing has
prompted death threats from the AUC in Colombia, the rightwing paramilitaries.

The article, titled "The Evolution of the FARC: A Guerrilla Group's Long
History," is a fair and informative overview of the group's origin and its
role in recent controversies, such as the coca trade. Basically, Molano
explains the growth of the FARC as a response to the 'hacienda' economy in
the countryside:

"In the 1970s, the National Front was still dominating political life, and
on the economic front, the government of Misael Pastrana (1970-1974)
adopted a rural development model that aimed to eliminate all obstacles to
free investment in the countryside. This led to concentration of land
ownership, the undermining of small-scale peasant producers and the rise of
peasant proletarianization. Because of Pastrana’s program, thousands of
desperate peasants were propelled into both organized and spontaneous
invasions of rural properties. On the Atlantic Coast, for example, peasants
invaded the large haciendas common to the region and distributed the land
among themselves. Property owners, backed by the area’s aggressive
political bosses, responded with public and private force, and succeeded in
recovering their land. Pastrana’ s economic development model also drove
many peasants to the cities, raising urban unemployment and setting the
stage for the great National Civic Strike of 1977 and the Draconian
Security Statute of 1978 that drastically reduced the right to protest and
organize.

"At the same time, there was repression of the peasant movement, expulsion
of small tenants from the lands they cultivated and, in general, expansion
of commercial agriculture to less populated parts of the country, as well
as colonization of unused lands. Many of the most popular destinations lay
in the same remote areas where the guerrillas were strong and where they
constituted the only authority. During this period the FARC consolidated
its influence, opened some new areas, and focused on training military
leaders. These were the days when many students, intellectuals, workers and
peasant leaders joined the guerrilla struggle."

There is also an excellent interview with FARC Commander Simón Trinidad,
who when asked why the FARC recruits children, answers:

"We recruit 15 year olds and up. In some fronts there may have been some
younger, but [recently] we decided to send them back home. But what is the
cost? During the last year a girl arrived ... 14 years old and wanting to
join the guerrilla... In March she was sent back home because the FARC's
Central Command said they would return to their parents all those younger
than 15.

"Two weeks ago I met this girl... She said she was working in a bar from
six p.m. until sunrise. I asked her what she was doing and she said, 'I
attend to the customers.' When I asked her [how], she lowered her head and
started to cry. She is a whore. She is 14 years old. A child prostitute.
She was better in the guerrillas. In the guerrillas we have dignity,
respect and we provide them with clothes, food and education. There are
millions of others like this girl in Colombia who are exploited in the coal
mines, the gold mines, the emerald mines, in the coca and poppy fields.
They prefer that children work in the coca and poppy fields because they
pay them less and they work more."

"It sounds beautiful when you say that children should not be guerrillas,
but children are in the streets doing drugs, inhaling gasoline and glue.
According to the United Nations: 41% of Colombians are children, 6.5
million children live in conditions of poverty, another 1.2 million live in
absolute poverty, 30,000 live in the streets, 47% are abused by their
parents, and 2.5 million work in high risk jobs. These children meet the
guerrillas and they don't have parents because the military or the
paramilitaries killed them, and they ask the guerrillas to let them join.
We are carrying out our rule that no children younger than 15 years of age
join."

Despite the presence of these and other excellent articles, there is a
piece by NACLA editorial board member and Georgetown University professor
Marc Chernick that demonstrates a shocking inability to understand the
nature of the conflict and--at least to his eyes--its intractability.
Titled "Elusive Peace: Struggling Against the Logic of Violence", it wrings
its hands over the FARC "overrunning small towns and pitting 200 guerrillas
against, at best, 20 policemen." What is particularly troubling is
Chernick's inclusion of this factoid in a paragraph with the leading
sentence: "The military conflict is intensifying, with civilians bearing
the brunt." Cops as civilians? Has anybody on NACLA's editorial board ever
read Lenin's "State and Revolution"? Or Karl Marx for that matter? Cops are
not civilians. A schoolteacher is a civilian, for pete's sake. If the
guerrillas are to achieve victory, it will be as a result of militarily
defeating the military, paramilitaries, and cops.

The articles stresses the need for peace since "No side has the firepower
or political to win militarily". Chernick looks to enlightened Colombian
politicians such as Noemi Sanin and Horacio Serpa to negotiate a peace
settlement. A "U.S. diplomacy of peace... could be crucial for pushing the
process forward." One wonders whether Chernick is so steeped in his Latin
American specialty that he has been unmindful of the aggressive posture of
the U.S. government in other areas of the globe, beginning with the Balkans
and Iraq.

Most bizarre of all is the notion that peace can be hastened by a weakening
of the paramilitaries through combined action of Colombia and the US
military, as Chernick proposes in pollyanna fashion. The notion of the
Pentagon being deployed to wipe out rightwing death squads is the height of
foolishness and makes me deeply pessimistic about the future role of NACLA
editors in keeping the American public informed about events in Colombia.
The United States has been the prime sponsor of rightwing paramilitaries in
Latin America for the past 40 years. It trains militaries in the use of
torture at the School of the Americas. The CIA helped Pinochet identify and
round up left wing opponents who were subsequently murdered. It also backed
the notorious ARENA party in El Salvador whose homicidal leader D'Aubuisson
was an open admirer of Adolph Hitler. What is the purpose of Chernick's
preposterous appeal? To look "sensible" to his colleagues at Georgetown
University, an institution whose tentacles reach deeply into the CIA and
State Department?

In reality, there can be no peace in Colombia as long as there is a
situation Marxists have described as "dual power". In periods of deep
revolutionary polarization, society tends to divide along class lines with
respective allegiances given to radically opposed state structures. In the
classic instance of Russia in 1917, the workers and peasants oriented to
the Soviets while the bourgeoisie and middle classes defended the
Constituent Assembly. When society confronts a situation of dual power,
peace can only come about with the defeat of one side. It will be in that
case either the peace of a victorious people or the peace of the graveyard.

The reason that Colombia does not readily present itself as this kind of
paradigm is that the insurgent forces seem fairly detached from the
traditions of October, 1917. Although the FARC began as the rural
detachment of the Colombian Communist Party, it has all of the
characteristics of a classic peasant insurgency.

Through a combination of fierce repression in the cities and its own talent
for mobilizing the peasantry, the FARC has been able to seize control over
a huge section of Colombia, about the size of Switzerland. The Colombian
press calls this Farclandia and it behaves virtually like a state within a
state. It taxes all businesses, including those involved in the cocaine
trade, and delivers social services.

In fact I would argue that the best prism through which to understand
groups like the FARC (and the ELN to a lesser extent) is the Mexican
revolution of 1910-1920 rather than Russia, 1917. If you read Trotskyist
Adolfo Gilly's "The Mexican Revolution", you will discover that Zapata's
forces stood in relation to the central government in much the same way as
the FARC does today. The problem in both instances is that the peasant
insurgencies lack the political and social orientation to the only class
force that can rule society: the urban working class.

Referring to Mexico, Gilly notes:

"But the peasantry could not rise to a nation-wide social perspective nor
offer a revolutionary solution for the insurgent nation. A national
revolutionary perspective, counterposed to the goals of the bourgeosie,
could only have come from the other basic class in society: the
proletariat. Yet the proletariat lacked an independent leadership, party
and class organization."

Obviously it will be up to the Colombian people to assemble such an
organization. Those of use in the United States have only one obligation:
to rally the American people against imperialist intervention and create
circumstances favorable to the revolutionary forces whatever their program
or class composition.

(The latest NACLA Report can be ordered at www.nacla.org)


Louis Proyect
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