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Colombia Taking the revolution on the campaign trail

JOHN HAYLETT reports on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia's (Farc) electoral mission which kicked off at the weekend

COLOMBIA’S liberation movement  Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Farc-Ep) former military commander Rodrigo Londono, known by his nom de guerre Timoleon Jimenez or Timochenko, hit the campaign trail at the weekend as his organisation’s presidential candidate.

He eschewed the traditional media-oriented campaign launch in a posh Bogota hotel in favour of addressing hundreds of supporters, many wearing shirts with the party’s rose logo, in a community centre car park in the impoverished district of Ciudad Bolivar in the south of the city.

Giant posters proclaiming “Timo president” surrounded the venue, as participants were greeted by confetti and a catchy new campaign song repeating the message: “Timo president. For the people.”

The former guerilla leader promised to build “a new Colombia” by offering progressive policies to motivate erstwhile abstainers to vote.

“I promise to lead a government that propels the birth of a new Colombia — a government that at last represents the interests of the poor,” he declared.

“Colombia needs a new way of doing politics that focuses its attention on the worker. We came to propose a wake-up call,” Timochenko told the crowd.

“May the voice of those below, those millions and millions of poor who have never counted, may they be listened to, may they decide their future.”

The Farc also introduced the 74 candidates it is standing in the March general election, hoping to win more than the 10 seats guaranteed it until 2026 under the terms of the peace deal negotiated with President Juan Manuel Santos in Cuba in 2016 that put an end to 52 years of war.

The party’s platform includes free university education, improvements to healthcare paid for by the rich, an improved roads network for rural areas, expanded provision of electricity and spending on scientific research.

Other policies floated include the construction of a Metro in Bogota and a basic monthly income.

Candidate Griselda Lobo, alias Sandra Ramirez, characterised the Farc ideology as based on “principles of unity, solidarity and honesty” rather than attached to a particular political philosophy.

“That is what has characterised us as guerillas and that is what we will bring society,” she said.

Timo’s organisation retains its Farc initials, but they now represent Revolutionary Alternative Common Force rather than Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

While the Farc was at war with the Colombian state, the US State Department offered a $5 million reward for anyone who helped secure Timochenko’s capture, accusing him of directing cocaine trafficking on behalf of Farc and responsibility for “the murders of hundreds of people.”

Washington put its money and aerial power behind its Plan Colombia to defeat Farc, resulting in the assassination of a number of key leaders, but its failure was illustrated by President Santos’s decision to break with his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, under whom he had served as defence minister, and to opt for peace talks.

Timo insists, as do all Farc leaders, that their organisation was never involved in narcotics but simply “taxed” those who grew, processed and transported coca products on territory they controlled.

Under the peace agreement, former combatants are committed to appear before a special peace tribunal to come clean, as in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, over their wartime deeds and consequently to face no criminal charges.

Opponents of the peace deal and of former guerillas being allowed to take part in elections cite the reality that half a century of war left at least 250,000 people dead, another 60,000 missing and more than seven million displaced.

Opposition leader Uribe, whose family was closely linked to large-scale cocaine trafficking and to death squads funded by ranchers, drugs gangs and big business to murder peasant leaders, trade unionists, teachers in rural areas and others seen as a threat to their untrammelled power, is one such opponent.

He plans to file a complaint with the International Criminal Court to try to halt Timochenko’s candidacy.

As bloody as the Farc-state conflict was, it reflects Colombia’s 20th century history in which conservative and liberal bourgeois parties fought a 10-year civil war, beginning in 1948 and known simply as La Violencia. It cost the lives of at least 300,000 Colombians, mainly civilians.

Almost 20 per cent of the peasant population was displaced, losing their plots, farms and other possessions.

As they moved into other regions — notably Marquetalia, Riochiquito, El Pato and Guayabero — the rich landowners designated them the “internal enemy,” mobilising the army to drive them off the land.

Peasant self-defence groups came into existence, supported by the Colombian Communist Party (PCC), fighting back and creating liberated zones that resisted all efforts to liquidate them.

In his new year address earlier this month, Timo forecast that 2018 would be a year of change and transformation.

“The heroic resistance of 48 peasants produced the formidable guerilla force of the Farc-Ep that was deployed throughout the country for more than 50 years, putting the reactionary powers in Colombia in check,” he recalled.

“Half a century after the bloody confrontation, the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Farc-Ep guerillas, together with the international community as guarantor, signed a peace agreement, which was received and welcomed with joy by the vast majority of the Colombian people.

“At gunpoint in Colombia we learned the value of democracy, of social justice and the cost of economic backwardness. We learned and changed.”

This is not the first time that Farc has laid down its arms to pursue its aims through peaceful means, doing in 1984, setting up the Patriotic Union (UP) electoral vehicle in conjunction with the PCC the following year and engaging fully in the political process.

Its candidate Jaime Pardo came third in the May 1986 presidential race, with 350,000 votes, 4.5 per cent of the total, while UP mayors were successful in 14 out of 1,008 local authorities.

He was assassinated the following year at the behest of drug lord Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez, revealed by the PCC paper Voz as having close links with army officers.

Pardo’s successor as UP presidential candidate was PCC member Bernardo Jaramillo who demanded government action in February 1989 against the death squads, declaring: “You cannot talk about peace if you do not fight effectively against paramilitary groups.”

He acknowledged prophetically: “I believe, and I say it with all sincerity and at times coldly, that I know they are going to assassinate me.”

Jaramillo was shot dead while waiting inside Bogota airport in March 1990, as the death squads murdered 21 UP legislators, 70 local councillors, 11 mayors and no fewer than 5,000 supporters in a slaughter calculated to intimidate Colombians into understanding that desiring change was futile.

Farc members Wilmar Asprilla and Angel de Jesus Montoya were shot dead a fortnight ago in the municipality of Peque, in western Antioquia, while preparing an election campaign meeting for Farc House of Representatives candidate Wilman de Jesus Cartagena Durango.

Black community leader Temistocles Machado, who was renowned for his leadership in conflicts with transnational corporations in the port of Buenaventura and with the Bogota government, was gunned down on Saturday.

Machado, who was one of the most threatened leaders in Valle del Cauca province, was involved in negotiating an investment deal with the government last year after a strike shut down Buenventura.

More than 170 community leaders have been killed since the beginning of a peace process with the Farc in December 2016, according to independent investigators.

It is clear that, whatever the government claims, the death squads have not been stood down. Those wealthy elements who still expect their crimes to go unpunished are not reconciled to political activity by those who create Colombia’s wealth.

Farc candidates and supporters will have to be on guard, as will friends of Colombia overseas who wish to see the country’s peace agreement and commitment to democracy succeed.

John Haylett is political editor of the Morning Star.

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