[Marxism] Inerviw with Gustavo Petro

Anthony Boynton northbogota at yahoo.com
Tue Aug 14 21:20:24 MDT 2007

Below is another Garry Leech interview of a key player
on the Colombian left, this time Gustavo Petro. It was
published online interspersed with the interview with
Raul Reyes which I recently posted to this list. I
have edited out answers of Raul Reyes in this post
because they have already appeared on this list. 

For those of you who do not know who Gustavo Petro is,
he is a former M-19 leader who is now one of the
congressional leaders of the Polo Democratico
Alternativa in Colombia. Raul Reyes, a leader of the
FARC, harshly assesses Petro in the interview posted


Two Perspectives from the Colombian Left

by Garry Leech

In the context of the ongoing para-politics scandal in
Colombia, which has undermined the legitimacy of the
right-wing government, the left is rapidly emerging as
the new political force in the country. Colombia’s
largest leftist guerrilla insurgency, the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been
waging a war against the State for more than 40 years.
But for the first time since the 1980s, a
left-of-center political party is gaining prominence
on both the local and national level, illustrating
that Colombia is not immune to the electoral shift to
the left that is occurring throughout the region. The
presence of both the armed left and an electoral left
in Colombia has made the leftward shift in this South
American country particularly intriguing. In June, I
met with Senator Gustavo Petro of the Democratic Pole
in his office in Bogotá to obtain his perspective on
the para-politics scandal, the armed left, the dirty
war, neoliberalism and the country’s prospects for
peace. Six days after meeting with Petro, I
interviewed FARC Commander Raúl Reyes in a remote
jungle camp and asked him about the same issues. Petro
and Reyes provide two perspectives from the Colombian

Q: What is the significance of the para-politics
scandal for democracy in Colombia?

Gustavo Petro: Para-politics is a new word that we
Colombians have invented to express the links between
paramilitarism, the State and politics. Colombian
paramilitarism is a little different than that created
in Latin America in the context of the Cold War. At
that time, they were death squads, generally organized
with civilians, under the general direction of the
United States, to commit a series of human rights
violations to destroy the communist insurgencies of
that period. In Colombia, they were somewhat similar;
the death squads were created and it was called
paramilitarism. But unlike in other Latin American
countries, they were immediately linked to drug
trafficking, and the drug trafficking gave them a
completely different dimension. The death squads,
thanks to this financial muscle, became private armies
of thousands of men. And these private armies came to
control the local authorities where they were
situated. These private armies became an element of,
shall we say, dissuasion for society and the local
state. They used terror against the local population,
killed their leaders, destroyed their organizations,
and generated such severe violence that the human
beings who observed and survived those crimes were
filled with terror and remained silent. It was a
silent society that permitted the wealth to be
concentrated in the hands of the owners of the private

For thirty years, this model grew and today it
consists of 40,000 armed men. They not only gained
control of a third of the territory and the
population, but also two million votes out of the ten
million voters in Colombia, votes that were not free,
but were substituted or coerced. And they penetrated
many sectors of the State at the national level:
sectors of the police, the justice system, the
national army, and the Congress of the Republic
because they brought about the election of a secret
group among the political parties who all became
Uribistas. And then Alvaro Uribe Vélez initiated
negotiations with these private armies of
drug-traffickers, who are the main exporters of
cocaine. The negotiations were basically for total
impunity, a total amnesty for the wealth that was the
objective of their crimes; a demobilization of their
armies so then they could become civilian owners of
political power. These negotiations were translated
into what is called the Justice and Peace Law, which
was approved in the Congress by, among others, the
votes of their own congresspersons.

But then things began to change for various reasons.
First, the political shift in the United States that
changed the political majority in the Congress. The
Democrats began looking closely at the type of process
that was taking place. But because Bush approved of
the demobilization, it remained an internal electoral
discussion in the United States. Also, the Colombian
Constitutional Court looked at the constitutionality
of the Justice and Peace Law, and practically
transformed it from a political negotiation by
subjugating it to justice. The presidency and the
paramilitaries were no longer the negotiators. Instead
it was the Attorney General and the paramilitaries,
and the court ruling eliminated the political crime
that was an absurd part of the Law: that the
paramilitaries were political delinquents. It removed
the crime of sedition, leaving them as common
delinquents and they were obligated to confess the
facts, obligated to tell the truth. That
transformation of the Justice and Peace Law placed the
truth at the center of the discussion. Our activities
as the opposition initiated debates that showed the
links between politicians, politics and the
paramilitaries in order to send them to prison.

At this time we do not know exactly where this country
is going. President Uribe announced in one of his
recent speeches—after the paramilitary leader Mancuso
had spoken—the possible release of the
para-politicians and of the paramilitaries from
prison. It was a speech that was nothing short of
being a message of impunity; he did not speak of
reparations for the victims, or anything like that.
This suggests that the country would re-paramilitarize
if this occurred. And the elections in October would
be another episode of empowerment for the
paramilitaries and drug-traffickers in Colombia. But
many sectors of Colombian society and of the
international community are pressuring for truth,
justice and reparations for the victims. This would
necessarily cause a political crisis, but also a
de-paramilitarization of the country and a transition
towards democracy. Which of these two roads will this
country choose? We do not know.

Q: Some claim that the FARC is nothing more than a
criminal organization, that it is not politically or
ideologically motivated. What do you think of these

Gustavo Petro: The FARC is part of a different
phenomenon than paramilitarism. Although at times it
seems similar. It starts its history much earlier,
during the violence between Liberals and
Conservatives, the two traditional political parties
in Colombia that waged a civil war in the middle of
the 20th century leaving 300,000 dead. In the rural
areas, some of the Liberal peasants that suffered from
the violence became guerrillas. That is the origin of
the guerrilla warfare being waged by the FARC. The
agreement between the FARC and the government of
Belisario Betancourt in the 1980s permitted them to
found a legal political party, the Patriotic Union,
but it was exterminated when 4,000 of its defenseless
members were assassinated. There were two
consequences; firstly, it practically eliminated the
FARC’s political leadership, and secondly, the
realization that the Colombian government had betrayed
them created an enormous distrust that radicalized the

And then something happened in Colombia in 1993, when
the FARC was 30-years-old. The death squads, which had
been created by the drug-traffickers and the
paramilitaries, began hurting the FARC for the first
time. During those first 30 years, when the
paramilitaries confronted the FARC they were not
counter-insurgents, they were simply a drug
trafficking project. But when the guerrillas
themselves became involved in the export of cocaine,
then there was conflict.

In 1993, when the cultivation of coca diminished in
Peru and Bolivia, it increased in Colombia. The
counter-narcotics policies of the United States have
consisted in recent years of investing billions of
dollars in fumigating coca cultivations. The
fumigations had an impact on rural life. The peasants
who had begun to cultivate coca leaves did not possess
sufficiently profitable legal cultivations. That is to
say they were located, not in the fertile regions, nor
in the agrarian border near the cities, but on very
poor lands on the edge of the jungle that lacked
infrastructure. There they began to cultivate coca and
those zones were controlled by the FARC, and other
guerrillas too, but the FARC adopted the culture from
the start. From the start they did not confront the
incursion of coca cultivation, but instead took a
pragmatic attitude and charged a tax to finance

Since 1993 there has not been enough time for the FARC
to become exporters of cocaine, but it is only a
question of time. The thing that is certain is that
during these past 12, 14 years, these types of
activities have financed them. This caused changes in
the attitude of the FARC, from being peasant
guerrillas, revolutionaries of the old form; they
became an army, like the paramilitaries, that grew
because they could buy weapons and pay soldiers and
mercenaries, and become militarily powerful. They
defeated the army in many regions of the country,
above all during the government of Samper, as they
became an army of thousands of men formed in hundreds
of fronts. They acquired control over territory, but
in another way they lost, because their political
ideology and their methods grew increasingly distant
from society. They became more barbarous, carrying out
actions that didn’t even target the army but targeted
the society in its entirety. They became isolated.
They do not need the traditional support that
traditional guerrillas need, because the money allows
their army to be self-supporting and to expand. They
do not need popular support, and they are losing their
politics. Today, they are simply criminals.

However, the difference between the FARC and the
paramilitaries is that they are not linked to the
State or the landowners, the landed drug-traffickers;
their base is essentially rural. And the FARC cannot
really be accused of being large exporters of cocaine;
they have not arrived at that final link in the chain.
They still operate in the first links of the chain of
production: coca leaf cultivation, processing into
paste and taxation. There are indications that they
have started to traffic, but only on a small scale
with the Brazilians. They are dealing with the South
and not the North, which is more profitable. One would
have to say, that they will arrive there, it is only a
matter of time. But today, we believe it is still
possible to negotiate with the FARC, although it will
be difficult.

Q: Why do you think that members of the Democratic
Pole have not been massacred to the same extent that
members of the Patriotic Union were?

Gustavo Petro: The difference is paramilitarism and
the global context. Behind the shield of the Cold War,
the killing of the Patriotic Union was seen
internationally as the killing of communists. And in
the Cold War, it was done in alliance with what we
called “the free world.” However, it was genocide, one
of the many that occurred. But today that world does
not exist. Today they cannot hide behind that
discourse because a world culture that respects human
rights has evolved. The dictatorships in the Southern
Cone all fell and judgments against genocides and the
generals of war increased around the world.
Consequently, we are now in a different context. The
international community does not tolerate these sorts
of actions: crimes against humanity and the crime of
narco-trafficking. It is in this world context that,
during the demobilization talks, Uribe called on the
paramilitaries to stop killing, or not do it so
visibly, or so notoriously. But the OAS says that they
have killed more than three thousand Colombians since
they began negotiating with Uribe. The danger has
diminished a little, but it could increase again at
any moment.

Q: How is it possible to change the neoliberal
policies implemented by Uribe and previous goverments
in Colombia?

Gustavo Petro: One must change the relation of forces.
Neoliberalism in Latin America has been an accelerator
of inequality. Colombia needs to move towards
democracy and then it will manage to achieve a
political change, undoubtedly similar to the ones that
we have seen occur in other South American countries.
However, I do not believe that this will happen soon
in Colombia because here in Colombia the popular
movement that represents the root of those peaceful
proposals on the left is itself being destroyed
through assassinations. But I believe that there is
going to be a crisis in Colombia; today it is ethics,
but next it will be politics. This would allow us to
move ahead with political change.

Q: What needs to be done in order to achieve a just
peace in Colombia and greater equality between the
rich and the poor?

Gustavo Petro: One of the fundamental problems in
Colombia, which includes narco-trafficking, is social
inequality. A question we have to ask is, “What causes
one country to produce drug-traffickers and another
not to?” Why do the Venezuelans not do it and the
Colombians do, when the two peoples are relatively
similar? Geographically, there is not a lot of
difference; the climates are similar. I think that the
answer is social inequality. The Venezuelans have more
opportunities that allow them to generate wealth. Our
society has been unequal for a very long time and the
social inequality generates violence. We know there
are many poor countries, a lot poorer than Colombia,
but they are more egalitarian in their poverty and
they are more peaceful. The deeply unequal countries
always generate violence. Brazil, Colombia, the
Philippines and Guatemala head the social inequality
list; and we are violent countries. Now that violence
is amorphous, social violence and political violence
combined, and with drug trafficking, it flourishes

In countries where there is no opportunity to earn
money through work, as is often the case in Colombia,
drug trafficking is an option for excluded people and
it transforms into a culture, into an escape for many
people. Therefore, one counter-narcotics policy in a
society like this should be to seriously diminish the
social inequality. I am not saying that this would
eliminate violence but it would diminish it. A
democratization of the country is fundamental to
eliminating the culture of violence. That is our

The great difference between Uribe and us is that
Uribe has relied on the growth of the army to reduce
the violence. It is called “democratic security,” but
without democracy, right? If it doesn’t diminish the
social inequality, the policy is going to fail because
it can contain the violence temporarily, but in the
end the conditions that cause the violence still
exist. If we combined the strengthening of the army
and the monopoly of the public forces with
democratizing the country, redistributing lands,
democratizing the ownership of the land, and supplying
credits to create opportunities for the people that
have been excluded, which is the majority of the
population, we would be able to move down the path of

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