Solidarity delegation meets FARC leader

Greg Butterfield gregb at SPAMwwpublish.com
Fri Dec 15 17:47:10 MST 2000


-------------------------
Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Dec. 21, 2000
issue of Workers World newspaper
-------------------------

REPORT FROM COLOMBIA: SOLIDARITY DELEGATION MEETS
WITH FARC LEADER

By Carl Glenn
San Vicente del Caguan, Colombia

Just a week before a Dec. 7 deadline for the expiration of
peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the
revolutionary movement, an International Action Center
delegation headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey
Clark traveled to the demilitarized zone in Colombia. It met
with the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP).

The trip's urgency was heightened by the fact that massive
U.S. military intervention legislated in "Plan Colombia" is
scheduled to go into effect in January.

Clark met with Raul Reyes, a top leader of the largest and
oldest revolutionary force in Latin America, for discussions
that lasted several hours. The meeting's objective was to
help open a channel of communication between the people of
Colombia and the people of the U.S. independent of the high-
powered and high-pressure opinion-molding corporate media.

'HISTORIC DRAMA'

The other major objective, according to IAC Co-director
Teresa Gutierrez, was to obtain a first-hand acquaintance
with the situation in Colombia. Gutierrez accompanied Clark
on the trip, along with videographer Elisa Chavez and this
reporter, who served as interpreter.

"The only way to get a more objective picture was to speak
to the players in this historic drama who are ordinarily
ignored by the pro-government media. The media reports focus
exclusively on the interests of the very rich in both
Colombia and the United States," Gutierrez said.

In the 36 years since the FARC's founding, only four other
U.S. visitors had been invited to any of the insurgent
encampments.

[The interview between Clark and Commander Reyes, as well as
other footage from the trip, was screened for the first time
Dec. 12 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center of the
1199/Service Employees union in New York.]

IN THE DEMILITARIZED ZONE

In addition to discussions with the revolutionary
commanders, the delegation also met with labor leaders,
environmental experts, rank-and-file FARC soldiers and
residents of San Vicente del Caguan, one of the
municipalities within the zone from which Colombian army
forces have been withdrawn.

The demilitarized zone is about one hour south of the
capital, Bogotá, via an airline that is the commercial
branch of the Colombian Air Force. The zone is slightly
smaller than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Colombia
itself is roughly the size of Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma
combined.

The meetings took place in a FARC encampment some distance
from San Vicente del Caguan. A FARC official known as Lucas
picked up the visitors and drove them to the camp. He had
formerly worked as an accountant in one of Colombia's large
cities.

Lucas said that in the mid-1980s he had run for public
office as a member of the Patriotic Union party. Somehow he
managed to survive three right-wing assassination attempts.
Rather than die a useless death, he decided to join the
revolutionary army and fight for social change. The most
painful thing was not being able to see his children grow
up.

Lucas is also a singer-songwriter. During a cultural
activity in the evening, he sang a number of songs in a
startlingly clear and appealing voice. His songs, both
romantic and political, were interrupted at 7 p.m. The
assembled young soldiers turned on the television news, as
they do daily. They laughed at the predictable references to
themselves as "drug traffickers."

During the day, the visitors had seen yucca and plantain
cultivations and chicken coops and pigpens, of which the
soldiers were extremely proud. "This is what they refer to
as our 'drug crops' on the news," a guide told the group
with amusement.

GOV'T CLOSED OTHER DOORS TO STRUGGLE

What led the government to recognize the demilitarized zone?

On many occasions during the decades-long conflict, rebel
groups have called for a negotiated settlement or a
political opening to allow them to participate in a peaceful
political process.

The government response until recently had been either a
flat rejection, treachery, or a military ambush followed by
annihilation of revolutionaries who were branded as "armed
bandits."

The most extreme example of this phenomenon came during the
mid-1980s, when a broad coalition of groups representing the
rural and urban working classes of Colombia formed a legal
opposition party to contest local and national elections.
The need for this kind of representation was so great that
within months, the Patriotic Union was on its way to
election victories at every level, from city council posts
to the national presidency.

However, within a few years, over 4,000 leaders of this
group were assassinated. They ranged from small-town mayors,
trade-union leaders and rural community leaders to senators
and presidential candidates. This left no opening for
political opposition other than the path of armed struggle.
Colombia had become a democracy of assassins.

With all other options for political representation closed,
many Colombians and leaders of popular organizations turned
to the FARC as a realistic alternative. As support for the
revolutionary movement has grown, the government of Colombia
was finally forced to agree to the FARC's demands for peace
talks aimed at a political solution.

PEOPLE SPEAK OUT AT HEARINGS

Part of the FARC's approach to the peace talks has been to
set up regularly scheduled hearings where people from all
over the country can present issues they want FARC
negotiators to raise on their behalf in talks with the
government. This includes everything from money for building
the local infrastructure in San Vicente to a halt to
compliance with International Monetary Fund demands for
privatizing the administration of health care and social
security.

A major concern raised at these hearings has been the danger
of spraying Fusarium Oxysporum. This is a fungus the
Pentagon has already been using in Colombia, supposedly
aimed at wiping out coca plant cultivation. Plan Colombia
intends to implement the spraying of this fungus on a
massive scale.

Environmental scientists who spoke with the delegation
stated that the consequences of such a campaign could be
devastating and far-reaching.

The department of Putumayo and other areas where initial
massive sprayings are anticipated are Amazon Basin
watersheds. They said it is impossible to predict the
results of the widespread introduction of an alien fungus
into one of the planet's most biologically diverse
ecosystems.

GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE?

San Vicente del Caguan is a town of approximately 30,000
people. Their main source of work is the many cattle ranches
in the area.

During the period of demilitarization, a number of dramatic
changes have occurred. Residents said that prior to the
demilitarization, between nine and 15 homicides took place
in the town per week. Some said they were mostly due to
barroom fights and personal disputes. Others said that many
of the deaths were at the hands of right-wing paramilitary
squads who killed people suspected of sympathizing with the
revolutionary cause.

After the zone was cleared of government troops,
paramilitary squads and police, the homicide rate dropped to
zero. Residents attributed this turnaround to a new climate
of optimism and confidence.

The visitors arrived in San Vicente on a Tuesday night. They
found the plaza crowded with people. Vendors at dozens of
small wagons sold cooked meats, young people buzzed around
on motor scooters, youths shot hoops in the parks. At a
firehouse with doors open wide, a group of women, presumably
the firefighters on duty, played cards.

People were friendly, eager to engage the visitors in
conversation and make them feel welcome.

The contrast to the tension in Bogotá was notable. There, at
a hotel in an upscale part of the city, alarmed hotel staff
had run after the delegates when they ventured outside to
hail a cab. The workers insisted that, for security
purposes, they should call a cab instead.

The only armed authorities in San Vicente are occasional
FARC patrols. These are usually a pair of disciplined and
friendly uniformed revolutionary soldiers carrying automatic
weapons. Frequently, one of these soldiers is a young woman.
The civilian authority continues to be the local officials
elected prior to the demilitarization.

As soon as the Colombian army cleared out of San Vicente,
the FARC assisted civil authorities in a series of projects,
including road paving and the construction of a modern sewer
system. By agreement of the local town council, roads were
paved in the poorest neighborhoods first. The crews that
actually performed the digging, leveling, mixing and paving
were made up of local residents and FARC soldiers.

The removal of government forces from this zone was
recognized as a necessary precondition to serious talks
between the government and the revolutionaries. The fact
that talks took place at all was a major victory for the
rebels. It had taken several years of uninterrupted rebel
military victories to convince the government that it had to
participate in negotiations towards a political settlement.

The rebel victories demonstrated to Colombians that the FARC
was not only a viable military force, but also that the
rebels were receiving enough active assistance from people
throughout the country to make their growth and victories
possible.

- END -

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