Saturday, April 11, 2009

A History of the FARC and Reviewing The FARC Revolutionist by Renate Vanegas

A Review by Mac McKinney

The FARC Revolutionist by Renate G. Vanegas

Xlibris, paperback: $19.95, hardback: $24.95 (264p)

ISBN13 (TP) 978-1-4415-0316-9

ISBN13 (HB) 978-1-4415-0317-6

Author website

Purchase here

(also at Barnes and Noble or at Amazon)

Both of Renate Vanegas's published books have dealt with fascism and war. The first, Hitler's Prisoners: Seven Cell Mates Tell Their Stories, which she co-authored with her late father, Erich Friedrich, who was one of the actual prisoners in the book, peels open the grim reality of repression and tyranny that German citizens themselves experienced during the Third Reich.

Her new book, The FARC Revolutionist, focuses on stark realities in Colombia, which, while on the surface a democracy, also has a long-standing Right-wing/fascist oligarchy pulling strings behind the scenes when not actively intervening in a more brutal, overt manner. This has, unfortunately, been the traditional way of political life throughout South America for many decades until more recently, when populist movements began to sweep away the deep inroads of oligarchy in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia especially. Colombia, however, remains mired in economic and social inequality, drug lords, poverty, crime, murderous Right-wing militias and an elitist-dominated two-party system, although the Liberal Party has championed such causes as the abolition of slavery and land reform in the past, while the Conservative Party, strongly allied with the Catholic Church, has always attempted to hold onto as much land, privilege and profit as possible, while promoting the unity of church and state.

Brief History of the FARC

(click on the photo to see the entire image) From TIME/CNN: Female Fighters It is estimated that women make up 30% of FARC's force. Photographer: Alvaro Ybarra Zavala (source)

Because legitimate political expression and the redress of grievances have been so repressed for the lower strata of Colombian society for decades, it was inevitable that more violent ideologies and movements would come to the forefront. Here is a decent account of this evolution posted on the website Third World Traveler entitled, "Colombia: Origins of the FARC" by Jan Bauman, MITF Report, April 4, 2001:
The 20th century began in violence as landless peasants, joined by their reformist allies, battled the landowning oligarchies who were backed by the conservative hierarchy of the Catholic Church. These early struggles form the backdrop to today's civil war in Colombia. The peasant struggles bore fruit when from 1930 to 1946 a series of Liberal Party administrations initiated land reform that triggered furious political opposition from the Conservatives. When the internally divided Liberal Party was defeated in 1946, the new Conservative government resorted to political violence to regain the lands of the oligarchy. In 1948 a charismatic progressive Liberal and land reform leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was gunned down in Bogota. His assassination set off a popular insurrection in the capital and in almost every city where the Liberals were strong. In response brutal gangs funded by leaders among the elitist wing of the Liberals and Conservatives roamed the countryside committing atrocities against civilians. During the decade La Violencia claimed the lives of between 200,000 to 300,000 Colombians.

La Violencia came to an official end in 1958 with a National Front that allowed the Liberal and Conservative elites to share public office and alternate the presidency. Nothing in the agreement addressed the plight of Colombia's landless peasantry. In 1964, the army unleashed a major land and air attack against Marquetalia, a rural resistance community that had been established as an independent republic during the violent decade. Under attack, 48 guerrillas fled to the mountains in the southwest state of Cauca where, later that year, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) was founded. In the same period other guerrilla groups, the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the EPL (People's Liberation Army) were established. (source)
As was quite natural at this point in time, given the model and success of the fresh Cuban Revolution in overthrowing its own oligarchy, the FARC embraced the Colombian version of Marxist-Leninism, its principle intellectual leadership coming from the Colombian Communist Party, led by Manuel Marulanda, nicknamed Tirofijo or "Sureshot". He only just died of a heart attack in 2008 according to the FARC, still in charge to the end.

As social and economic realties continued to remain polarized in Colombia, the FARC gradually grew into a formidable guerrilla movement of perhaps as many as 18,000 fighters by the end of the 20th Century, while controlling as much as 20% of the country, The FARC was initially quite popular to a wide cross-section of Colombians because their manifesto demanded equal opportunities for all and a more equitable redistribution of land. But over time the FARC lost popularity within some sectors of Colombian society, which critics attribute to two key policy decisions: 1) to raise funds from coca production in Colombia and 2) to raise funds through kidnappings, particularly of wealthy ranchers. Jan Bauman also discusses the origins of both with the FARC in her article:

(click on the photo to see the entire image) From
TIME/CNN: Guerilla Portraits Matumba (left) and Patricia - Photographer: Alvaro Ybarra Zavala (source)
Forced off their lands, many of the campesinos fled to some of the mountainous areas where the FARC had their strongholds and began to cultivate coca, a plant that needs no pesticides or fertilizers. At first the FARC resisted the cultivation of coca but the leadership realized that banning of the crop would alienate peasant support. Thus began the gramaje, a coca-trade tax, a tax levied by the FARC on coca growers and drug-traffickers. The US government has often alleged that the FARC are narco-trafficker but in a recent meeting Colombian President Andres Pastrana and Mexican President Vicente Fox agreed that, for the moment, no proof or evidence exists that the FARC is a drug cartel (April 6, 2001 meeting in Barrancabermeja, Colombia - Mac).

Through the mid-1980s the FARC was active in staging raids against government forces while also kidnapping wealthy Colombians and holding them for ransom. In 1984 the FARC declared a truce with the government and attempted to enter the political arena through the establishment of a legal party, the Union Patriotica (UP).

The cease-fire with the government was short lived. In early 1987, after having an estimated 3,500 (not confirmed-Mac) of the UP members killed or disappeared by the government or paramilitary forces, the FARC once again took up arms. According to Rafael Pardo, president of the Bogota based Milenio Foundation and former civilian minister of defense, the UP killings "not only increased rebel suspicions but lowered the prospects for the eventual creation of a democratic leftist political party." (ibid.)
In a communiqué to me, Renate Vanegas also described the sad history of the FARC's attempt at peaceful political representation in Colombia through the Union Patriotica, as well as commenting on the FARC's venture into drugs and kidnapping. Note that her numbers for the UP membership are different from Jan's above and are considered the most reliable figure:
As you know, the FARC came into existence by an indigenous movement started by the Colombian Liberal party fighting the ruling Conservative party government, which at the time was persecuting the Liberal party. The civil war started right after the 1948 assassination of Liberal party leader Jorge Gaitan. Several years later, the FARC made peace with the government and for some time it participated in the political arena of Colombia, but unfortunately all the members of the political arm known as the Union Patriotica were assassinated by Right-wing groups. I heard this in detail during the three trials of FARC guerilla commander Simon Trinidad that I attended, where Trinidad testified on his own behalf. Out of the 1500 UP members only three survived, one being Simon, another Imelda Daza, a woman professor who escaped with her family to Sweden and another member also living in exile in Europe. The prosecution and judge would not let the woman professor testify for the defense.

Nevertheless, the FARC continued their armed struggle; however, in my opinion, two major tactical actions by the FARC changed its character. The FARC resorted to kidnapping and collecting protection payments from ranchers and businesses throughout the country. The other mistake they made was getting involved in drug trafficking to finance their activities, although not to the extent as other groups had, such as the paramilitaries who worked for the traffickers and rich land owners in conjunction with Colombian authorities and other plain criminals. Apparently there is also a great division of opinion among the FARC about kidnappings and drug trafficking.
Despite the betrayal the FARC has experienced in the past at the hands of the Colombian government and the oligarchy with its death squads, they have still been willing to negotiate over the years. Intransigence, however, continues to come from the Colombian Establishment, the FARC complains (although the government in turn argues that it is the FARC who is intransigent). Note this May 2000 communiqué from their mountain headquarters by the FARC Central General Staff:
[the war] is an option that has been imposed upon the Colombian people by the ruling class which follows the orientation of the government of the United States of America. We do not wage war for its own sake. Everything has been put in the service of a political solution that would open the course toward reconciliation and reconstruction and establish the basis of the New Colombia. But invariably we have come up against the stubbornness and intransigence of a ruling class that only thinks of making use of these spaces to get us to submit. (source)
FARC's Waning Fortunes

With the swearing in of George Bush as President of the United States in 2001 and the 9/11 debacle that same year, the Right-wing in Colombia experienced a new surge of support for more extremist measures in dealing with the FARC. Capitalizing on the paranoia and vindictiveness being promulgated with George Bush's ultra-violent "War on Terror" the oligarchy successfully promoted the election of hardliner Álvaro Uribe to the presidency. Uribe was keen to begin, with the full backing of the White House of course, the demonization of the FARC as evil "terrorists," now suddenly more subhuman than ever, and worthy only of annihilation at his hands. To the CIA and the Pentagon, always eager to support oligarchy anywhere it seems, the FARC must have now seemed like the ultimate evil fantasy characters, "Comunistas Terroristas". Never mind that the FARC itself was created as a reaction against brutal state terrorism against the Columbian masses; any hot-button propaganda sound bite will do for the Right-wing to rationalize slaughtering one's enemies. The problem is that this just compounds the original injustices, setting the stage for more conflict in the future even if one is successful in the short run in annihilating the opposition. There can never be real peace without justice.

The FARC, realizing the wave of intensified violence, aided by American technology, intelligence and weaponry, being launched against them by Uribe, made what appeared to be a strategic withdrawal from several departments after suffering military setbacks and the capture or desertion of a number of fighters. Their numbers have been reduced possibly by as much as half, leaving them with, perhaps, some eight or nine thousand guerrillas at present. It is very hard to get a real grip on correct figures. The FARC has also suffered media embarrassments and psychological defeats from the escape or liberation of hostages, as well as assassinations of some of its leadership. Is this bad Karma from the kidnappings catching up with them?

FARC commander Raul Reyes speaking to his guerrilla fighters.

Photo: Garry Leech (source)

However, Uribe has had his own setbacks. His successful, yet controversially ordered raid into neighboring Ecuador to murder key FARC leader/negotiator Raúl Reyes in his sleep and almost everyone else in the camp, including four Mexicans, sparked a regional crisis that could have easily escalated into war with Ecuador and or Venezuela. At the same time Uribe and his administration have been damaged by the "Parapolitics Scandal," centering around revelations of strong links between government officials and politicians on the one hand and Right-wing militias like the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) on the other.

AUC members - Right-wing paramilitaries are responsible for more than 70 percent of the human rights abuses in Colombia.

Photo: Garry Leech (source)

Meanwhile the FARC, displaying a measure of self-confidence, has just recently called for a prisoner exchange, as reported by the news agency, China View: BOGOTA, March 29 (Xinhua)
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said it is ready to make a swap of hostages for rebel prisoners, the organization Colombians for Peace said Sunday.

"We are ready for exchanging war prisoners and not making the dialogue an unsurpassable obstacle," FARC said in a letter sent to Colombians for Peace.

Colombians for Peace is a group led by opposition senator Piedad Cordoba, who helped broker the release of politicians Alan Jara and Sigifredo Lopez in February.

"We are analyzing the proposals from senator Piedad Cordoba leaded to energize the path to the peace with social justice," the FARC said. (for the full article click here)
Definitely the FARC has suffered many setbacks since Uribe came to power. But who is going to outlast who? Has the FARC reached its nadir and begun to reconsolidate, or will they continue to decline. But even if the FARC were to eventually fall apart, so long as the political and socio-economic life of Colombia is marred by repression, oppression, the exploitation of workers and glaring extremes of poverty and riches, there is going to be motivation for other guerrilla movements like the FARC to rise up.

Segueing into The FARC Revolutionist

Renate's book itself plunges into all these controversies as they were evolving back in 1981 and onwards. This is largely a fictional account, but not completely so, because the experiences of one of the main characters in the book, Alberto, a well-to-do, elderly rancher kidnapped in the book, actually really happened. In fact, Alberto is really the author's uncle on her husband's side, and he indeed was taken hostage and trekked off into the jungle by the FARC. The recounting of his story actually inspired Renate to write this book. Needless to say, there is no shortage of realism in this novel!

There are three major characters in The FARC Revolutionist. Besides Alberto, we have the main protagonist Carlos Zipante, a FARC comandante, handsome and charismatic, well-educated as a lawyer despite his peasant upbringing, whose passion for social justice brought him into the FARC. And then there is beauteous Anne Henderson, a Washington D.C. lawyer herself, the daughter of Robert Henderson, a senior partner in an international insurance conglomerate, whose wife Ruth is a refined woman of enduring Virginian lineage dating back to plantation days.

Over the course of the novel there is a slow, inevitable dance between Carlos and Anne into each others arms that brings great passion and sensuality to the novel, along with the equally great passion of revolutionary struggle, for at core, this novel is about the evolution of Carlos from a young child in a Colombian mountain village who experiences a traumatic injustice by the Colombian Army, through his struggles to become a brilliant college student and then law student, all the while becoming more incensed against the political injustices crying out for redress in Columbia, to the point where he finally joins the FARC, gradually rising in the ranks to become a senior commander.

The novel sweeps through the hemisphere, beginning with a Colombian freighter laden with both contraband and Carlos steaming in high seas toward Cuba, where Carlos will hopefully rendezvous with contacts who will commandeer him on into Miami to begin secretive and illusive efforts through an American-based drug lord to negotiate the purchase of a large cache of weapons and ammunition. As the plot twists and turns, Carlos eventually finds himself hiding out in northern Virginia and Washington DC, slam-dunk in the middle of "Narcos" with all their vanities, fears and ruthlessness, before fiery circumstances once again whisk him away back into the jungles of Colombia, where we are suddenly trekking through the hot and humid tropics, sweating in our imaginations alongside Carlos and his guerrilla unit, swollen with green recruits, as they go on forced march after forced march to evade the Colombian Army and its spotter planes, before reaching a base camp or setting up a temporary new camp.

I might add that the author has tremendous descriptive powers that are put to great use in recreating, down to smallest details, the jungles, villages and savannas of Columbia. Renate Vanegas is a multi-talented writer with strong research credentials that only enhance the believability of the novel.

Moreover, the very factors that have created the greatest controversy about the FARC, their involvement with the drug trade and their kidnapping of rich landowners, are tackled head-on in this novel, and are indeed central sub-plots in the book. Indeed we find Carlos wrestling with the ethics of these controversies throughout the piece.

The breadth and intensity of The FARC Revolutionist makes it perhaps one of the best-written novels of the Latin American revolutionary anti-hero genre since Harold Robbins' best seller, The Adventurers, written way back in 1966, introduced us to the memorable Dax, another child grown to manhood and destiny amidst revolutionary struggle. Now we have the memorable Carlos. But at the same time this novel is much different, a more serious literary work than Robbins' jet-set sensationalism, more committed to revealing the humanity and complexity within each character in the novel.

This is an historical political novel, a romantic novel and an adventure novel all rolled into one, a serious work that also helps us delve into the human side of one of the oldest revolutionary movements, with all its contradictions, in South America, the FARC, and a good antidote to all the dangerous demonization going on against them. Highly recommended.


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