Wednesday, July 9, 2008

FARC and Uribe

FARC has Become Uribe’s Best Friends: One Reading of the Hostage Rescue in Colombia

By Mario A. Murillo

It is no surprise that the dramatic rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages held by FARC guerillas in Colombian jungles is being universally applauded. Not only is the unjust, forced captivity of these human beings finally over, but unlike previous botched attempts by Colombian forces to rescue other hostages, this operation was carried out without a single bullet being fired, absolutely no bloodshed in a country that has seen its unbalanced share in over 60 years of civil conflict. For the individuals directly affected, it is a moment of great relief, if not outright celebration.

Or maybe not celebration, given the circumstances of the saga that everyone was forced to endure. As Ms. Betancourt herself pointed out in her first press conference after being rescued: “I saw the (guerilla) commander who was in charge of us for so many years, who was so authoritarian and brutal with us, … saw him on the floor, undressed, with his eyes blindfolded. And don’t think I felt joy, I only felt sadness.”

Perhaps it’s sadness for the ruthlessness of her captors, or more significantly, the conditions in Colombia that could have bred in them such a lack of humanity. Indeed, notwithstanding the storybook ending of this rescue – Colombian spies dressed as guerillas completely pulling the wool over the eyes of their armed enemies as they whisked off the 15 hostages out of the guerillas’ control – there are many questions that we must consider before moving on.

The first and perhaps most important is what should this episode represent to the millions of people in the country who still yearn for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and who are not happy with the social conditions that continue to displace so many families in the countryside? This is especially pertinent considering the huge tactical victory this event has been for the Colombian military, a victory that will most likely lead to more claims on the part of the security forces that they can defeat the FARC on the battlefield in order to avoid any political dialogue in the near future.

To raise some of these issues at this point is a very delicate matter within the Colombian context, given the upper hand that the government currently has, both strategically and politically. Furthermore, the pain and suffering of the hostages has become a rallying cry for much of the population, making it difficult to honestly critique the government’s actions. But to momentarily reflect on the short and long-term repercussions of the government’s rescue operation at this time should not be interpreted as a reflection of displeasure to see that these people, forcibly separated from their families for so many years under very difficult conditions, have finally won their freedom. And to criticize the FARC for their actions at this point should not be seen as yet another endorsement of the militarist approach that Uribe has taken in his six years in office, with the unconditional blessing of his supporters in the White House.

It goes back to the perennial question: what now for the FARC, and where do we go from here in terms of finally ending this decades-long conflict?

Which is why the words directed to FARC by Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Nicolas Sarkozy of France are resonating louder than ever. Two weeks ago, Chavez called on the FARC to disarm, describing them as an “excuse for the empire to carry out its interventions into the hemisphere.”

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, appeared on live television with Betancourt’s family on Wednesday, asking the guerillas “to stop this absurd and medieval conflict,” offering any FARC combatant who renounces violence refuge in his country. This internationalization of the conflict in Colombia is something that many in the Colombian solidarity movement have been seeking for years, in the hopes of putting an end to the violence and bringing all sides to the negotiating table.

Nevertheless, any talk about a political dialogue has become much more muted in most media circles, especially given the apparent weaknesses that currently afflict FARC.

Most analysts are today fretting about how FARC has been severely weakened militarily due to a military strategy composed primarily by President Alvaro Uribe’s benefactors in Washington. They point to the deaths of three of its top leaders in recent months, two by violence, and one, Manuel Marulanda Vélez, its long-time iconic leader, by “natural causes.” They emphasize the surrender of hundreds of combatants to Colombian authorities, and the infiltration of the guerilla high command by members of Colombian intelligence. All of these developments undoubtedly have had a negative impact on the capacity of the FARC to continue its war of attrition with the Colombian state, a war that the population is ever more tired of accepting.

But for genuine progressives looking for a fundamental transformation of Colombian society and its political system, a system polluted equally by the corruption and intolerance of the right as the militarism and intransigence of the guerillas, FARC should represent something much more sinister: they have become Uribe’s permanent crutch, his political justification for consolidating the Bush-Cheney-endorsed economic and security plans for Colombia. Any opposition to this strategy – whether personified in the leadership of Hugo Chavez, or Afro-Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba - has been systematically demonized by the Colombian political establishment, not to mention its friends in the corporate-controlled commercial media. Their efforts to move FARC’s new leadership in this direction have gone nowehere.

A few short weeks back, as a result of the risky political mediation of Chavez, Córdoba and Sarkozy in their diplomatic effort to win the release of Betancourt and the other high profile hostages, FARC had an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that it was serious about a humanitarian accord with the government that would have led to the release of many FARC-held hostages in exchange for guerilla combatants holed up in Colombian prisons. Although not a guarantee, this humanitarian accord may have opened the door to a broader peace dialogue between the rebels and the government.

Instead, once again, the empty-headed guerilla leaders hedged their bets on their precarious control of the situation, failing dismally to see the writing on the walls, even as their inner circle was being encroached by Colombian military intelligence. The relative intransigence of President Uribe in recognizing FARC as a belligerent force also played a role in jettisoning any humanitarian accord. But knowing what we do now, Uribe was deliberate in his calculations, however stubborn and inhumane it may have appeared. In the end, there is no question that FARC blew another opportunity to make some political hay.

There are other theories about the nature of the rescue, and that perhaps a ransom was paid, or that the military intercepted a EU diplomatic mission that was going to win their release anyway. This is hardly relevant, given the fact that ultimately the rescue only solidifies Uribe's position at the expense of democracy and resistance to the Bush Andean plan.

As a result, President Uribe, once again, can claim a big victory in the eyes of public opinion. His defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, enjoyed the priceless photo op of standing next to Ingrid Betancourt on the tarmac on the day of her release, leading immediately to speculation that he may be a perfect successor to the current President. Meanwhile, Uribe has successfully changed the uncomfortable subject of his 2006 reelection, which the Colombian Supreme Court recently ruled was facilitated by corruption and malfeasance, part of a much larger pattern of the political deal-making that has for all intents and purposes institutionalized the right-wing paramilitaries into the Colombian governing infrastructure.

Washington has openly embraced each and every one of these moves, including the extradition by Uribe of 14 top level paramilitary bosses who will face drug trafficking charges in U.S. courts, but never have to answer for the countless atrocities carried out in Colombia for over two decades in their counter-guerilla war. This will make it almost impossible to get to the bottom of the country’s “Para-Politics” scandal, which links top Uribe allies in the government with those same paramilitary bosses. It also makes it more than likely that the U.S. Congress will finally give in to Uribe’s ultimate wish of having a bilateral free trade agreement in his hands within the next year.

And in the process, the political, economic and social concerns that are constantly being raised throughout Colombia about Uribe’s governing policies, expressed in the demands of the democratic opposition in the Congress, in the principled protests of the indigenous, peasant, and trade union movement, and the calls for justice from the thousands of families who are victims of paramilitary terror, are once again, permanently put on hold. While not all of this falls on the shoulders of FARC, they now have a lot more to answer for.

Mario A. Murillo is Associate Professor of Communication at Hofstra University, and author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. A veteran radio journalist, he hosts WBAI Pacifica Radio’s “Wake Up Call” in New York City, and is currently finishing a book on Colombia’s indigenous movement, and its use of media in its organizing strategy.

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