An Interview With the FARC-EP Peace Delegation
Even in Havana they get up early. “We get up at 4:30 to wake up the roosters so that they can start singing,” grins Ricardo Tellez, better known as “Rodrigo Granda.”I have an appointment at 7am to interview three members of the Secretariat, the highest authority of the FARC. They are at the forefront of the dialogues between the insurgent organization with the delegation of the Colombian government in Havana. In a great hall of a house in “El Laguito” (1), where they live, “Ivan Marquez” and “Pablo Catatumbo” arrive, too. Granda lights a cigarette and drinks his second cup of coffee. Marquez has a big Cuban cigar in his hand, which he`ll start “after breakfast”. Catatumbo is sipping coffee and says to me: “If the three of us are going to say almost the same, why would you interview me?”
It is the first time a journalist has the opportunity to talk to these three guerrilla leaders together.
Hernando Calvo Ospina: Commanders, you have been talking for seven months, negotiating with the government’s commission in this peace process. Are you still optimistic?
Ivan Marquez: The optimism of the FARC is determined by our willpower to find a political solution to this confrontation, which has lasted for almost fifty years. Because they haven´t been able to defeat us militarily, nor have we, we must seek an alternative. In addition, the circumstances, today’s realities, both in Colombia and on the continent, indicate that it is time to find a pacific solution. Wars are not eternal. And that´s why we make any necessary effort to come to an understanding with the government.
HCO: How does it feel to be so close to your enemy?
IM: In spite of sitting at the same table two groups with very different views, almost antagonistic, we have to tolerate and understand each other. At a negotiating table one should respect the other party, and I think that respect should be mutual. There are moments of algid, strong discussions, but soon things turn back to normal because we know that we must come to an understanding.
HCO: Negotiations in war move between two opponents. It seems to me that you put more emotion on it.
IM: You’re right. The government has always had a tendency to seek the subjugation of the guerrillas as a synonym for peace, not peace through structural changes. The oligarchy wants peace for free. We are making great efforts for them to understand that you need to generate an atmosphere for peace, and that it can be achieved through institutional and political transformations. We are sure that the most important thing for Colombia is to ensure real democracy, where the sovereign people can determine strategic policies, where the opinion of the people is taken into account without being stigmatized and murdered.
HCO: Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that at various times President Juan Manuel Santos has wanted to pull back.
Rodrigo Granda: I don´t think he wants to withdraw, but he does seem afraid. It’s as if he were afraid of former President Alvaro Uribe, of the cattle-breeders, of narco-paramilitary power and the obscure sector within the Armed Forces. Santos recoils despite having the support of a significant sector of industrialists, bankers and churches. For example, according to reports we have, Sarmiento Angulo (2), one of the most powerful men in Colombia, supports the dialogue process. Surveys say that 87% of Colombians also want peace. The correlation of forces in favor of peace is indisputable. Uribe aside, nobody speaks about war anymore. But it seems that Santos does not want to face those sectors led by Uribe, he wants to fight us militarily, and assumes intransigent positions that do not allow a correct development of the dialogues. We know that Uribe has prepared 13,000 paramilitaries, known unofficially as the “anti-land restitution army.” Is it that the Armed Forces and Santos don´t know about that? Of course they do! Is that what Santos is afraid of? Or is he taking it as part of a possible move against us?
HCO: Clearly Uribe tries to torpedo the negotiations. Do you think he wants to return to presidency?
RG: And he wants that to protect himself, because he’s afraid of being sent to Miami for drug trafficking, or to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. It would be favorable for him if the negotiations failed, so that he can appear before the country as the solution. Although he wasn´t able to resolve the “problem” of the guerrillas during the eight years he was in office. Pablo Catatumbo: Anyway, Santos and Uribe have the same idea about the negotiations: a peace process by submission. They are blind, deaf and quite wrong, but think they’re smart. And that is where we must continue with wisdom to prove that they are wrong, and that like this, the war will continue.
HCO: In statements you´ve made and documents I’ve read, you are asking for reforms in state institutions and the modernization of the State itself, which may be contradictory for a Marxist-Leninist communist guerrilla.
IM: At the table we are not proposing radical changes to the political or economic structures of the state. Over there, we don´t mention socialism or communism. We try to create conditions to reach an understanding with the government. A place where two different views can meet. We know that some leftist organizations, not only in Colombia, say that we became a reformist guerrilla.
We have made minimum proposals, for example the hundred proposals about the agrarian system, which as you´ve already said, are nothing more than a modernization of the Colombian countryside, but fact is that we are still living in feudalism there. Imagine that even this way, the government puts obstacles.
HCO: What has ever signed between the parties?
RG: We have signed some things, but they are not final signatures because nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. There are points on which we haven´t agreed yet, and we let them out to discuss them later on. Otherwise there won´t be any progress.
HCO: Dialogues in Havana, and strong military confrontations in Colombia …
RG: The government doesn’t want a ceasefire, so both parties have to dialogue under fire. We are having heavy confrontations every day, to an average of three per day. We have done large-scale military actions, which they hide to the nation. Now, both parties have decided that what happens in Colombia is not going to affect the Table.
We have made some gestures of peace, as was the unilateral truce for Christmas, although we had to defend ourselves against the attacks of the army. And what has been hidden is also in that same time span multinationals could increase their profits, they did not have our pressure. That’s why one of the major reasons for ending the guerrillas is that the transnationals can steal whatever they want without any problem.
HCO: So far, what has been the main government’s intransigence in negotiations?
IM: Without any doubt, the determination not to touch the property of the big land-owners, most of which has been obtained through violent dispossession. They`re afraid of that. Their representatives, when they talk to us, have said that that could “unleash the demons of paramilitarism.” They are afraid of cattle-breeders and landowners, to touch one third of the 30 million acres they own, although not even the cows occupy them.
But land reform without touching the big property isn’t reform. There must be set limits for land property. The government has not even thought about putting taxes as a punishment for unproductive land tenure. When we proposed taxing these big properties, the government responded that there is no reliable census; that nobody knows where they are or what their extension is. They suggest that first there should be a census, which can take up to 7 or 10 years. What they don’t say is that during this time the landowners can lease or sell the land to multinationals, which is their strategy.
HCO: If the Colombian government decided to negotiate with the FARC, it was because Washington agreed. You know that that is not an exaggeration of mine. What is the current political attitude?
IM: Recently, 62 U.S. congressmen, including two Republicans, led by Jim McGovern, signed a letter of support for the talks. This letter was sent to Secretary of State John Kerry. We welcomed this altruistic gesture. The White House and the State Department have also expressed their support. Of course, there are always different interests because the Colombian conflict produces money. The powerful arms industry doesn´t want to let loose of that business.
HCO: You are determined to stop the armed struggle. What should the government offer you for this to be achieved? And you, what would you become?
RG: President Santos, during the initial interchanges with us, said he wanted to open the floodgates to a real democracy in the country. That struck us because we have never said that the armed struggle is the only way to change the country. We got up in arms, and we still carry them, because violence has closed the doors to political participation. If the possibility of doing politics legally becomes real, without the constant threat of assassination, in equal conditions and with political reforms that could lead the country towards participatory democracy, we are there. Because there could be created a favorable correlation of forces for the revolutionary movement, which routs the necessary radical changes. We accept that challenge.
PC: You need to build a strong mass movement to impose changes, because the establishment doesn’t give away anything for free. That is a task for us, leftists and Democrats. It is important to create a power block of people who want a new Colombia. That is the challenge, and it´s not a small one.
But you see, as we talk about it at the conversation Table, the repression continues all around the country. The government hasn’t changed anything regarding the treatment of social protest: they are stigmatized, associated with the guerrillas to criminalize them and attack them with bullets. And if there is something we have very clear is that we are not willing to repeat the experience of the Patriotic Union, during which nearly 4000 members and leaders (3) were killed.
History, if it’s not manipulated, doesn´t lie: they have been the violent ones. When we remind the governmental team of these facts, they tell us that they are not here to talk about that. Why? What do they feel ashamed or afraid about? Without knowing the history of political violence in Colombia, how are we to know why we got to the current situation and how to resolve it?
IM: There are three items on the agenda to be discussed: guarantees to exercise political activity, political participation and bilateral and definitive ceasefire. The latter discusses the surrender of weapons and under what conditions. But let it be understood: that´s not handing over weapons. We cannot talk about these points until they are discussed in the table, and they will be the last ones on the agenda.
HCO: What will happen with the paramilitaries?
IM: They must definitively be eliminated; if not, there would be no certainty for an insurgent organization to incorporate into legal politics. That’s an insurmountable condition to reach a peace agreement. And it is the government who has to give the order to his generals to stop the state’s counterinsurgency strategy.
HCO: Are you determined to apologize for the suffering you have caused in this war?
PC: We have made mistakes, some serious, indeed. But whatever official propaganda says, aggression to the population has never been a strategy of the FARC. On the contrary, we have defended them against the army and its paramilitaries, mainly on the countryside.
I have no problem in saying to a woman or a family: “I feel sorry about the pain we have caused with the death of your loved one.” But this is much more complex. Are we going to apologize? Very well. Let´s also invite the economic associations that financed the war and paramilitaries; let´s invite all State institutions, because they guarantee repression and impunity; let´s invite the mass media, too, because they reproduced the stigmatization made by security agencies, which have led to the murders and massacres; the rightist political parties should also sit down and assume their great responsibilities; the former presidents of the republic who gave the orders. Not even the Catholic Church can deny its responsibility! And the governments of the United States, Israel, some European countries and others that have supported various criminal governments of Colombia cannot be left outside of this ceremony. All together, we can decide who the terrorists and murderers of the people are.
HCO: You point out, and rightly so, that the government, its armed forces and the mass media are responsible for psychological warfare and propaganda against the insurgency. But I think an important sector of the so-called intelligentsia have savaged the armed struggle they supported before.
PC: Most intellectuals in Colombia, and probably in the world, are suffering from cowardice, accommodations or both things. Almost all were put by the system in the matrix of lies, and are used to “theorize”, create and repeat falsehoods. Many of them spend time writing discourses against media manipulation, but when the system starts a campaign against someone or somebody, they start talking like parrots.
In Colombia, the system told them that the guerrillas are guilty of everything. Although many of them believed, or believe, they are from the left, they repeated in unison that we are responsible for violence, drug trafficking, kidnapping, poverty, rising gasoline and even the high price of the bananas. I assure you that if tomorrow the birds stop singing, these “intellectuals” repeat what the government and their media say: the guerrillas are to be blamed. They have fallen into such poverty regarding research and argumentation, that their analyses and theories don’t endure any discussion, at least with us. They think that if they discuss with us, we´ll kill them afterwards. They are not even capable of realizing that if that was true, in Colombia there would be very few “intellectuals” left right now. Their brain doesn’t have the capacity to see that those who safeguard their intellectual and political independence are those who are said by the government to be friends or accomplices of the subversion.
HCO: I must admit, and I´m about to end, that I’m not very optimistic about these dialogues. I believe that Colombia and Colombians deserve peace with social justice, but I know the Colombian State, I know the United States, who support that State and who ultimately decides. Hopefully the long night, imposed by State terrorism stops and finally dawns. I wish it with all my heart.
PC: Look, political conditions in Latin America have changed. Who could have imagined what happened in Venezuela and Bolivia with the arrival of Chávez and Evo? Who would have thought that other Latin American governments one day would demand respect for their sovereignty from the U.S.? There are unpredictable things, like the end of the Soviet Union for example.
In Colombia there is an accumulation of hunger, exclusion, injustice and repression. The time will come when people simply won´t take it anymore. There is an accumulation of ongoing processes that can make a leap any time. There is a boiling that could explode tomorrow.
Besides, Colombia is not an island. The neighboring countries are pressing the government because they are tired of the conflict that affects them. Venezuela received about 4 million displaced Colombians, Ecuador almost two million. We believe there are 13 to 15 million Colombians in neighboring countries, that is, the third part of the Colombian population. And these countries must provide housing, food and health. For how long? Apart from the budget they spend to protect their borders. Just because the Colombian government insists on not negotiating a conflict they will never win! We have asked the representatives of those nations to demand for peace, so that all our compatriots can return to their country.
We are optimistic. Revolutionaries must be optimistic, even in the worst situations. And we believe that peace will come to Colombia because we deserve it. The other possibility is total war. That´s why I say the moment has come, but that doesn’t mean it´s easy. This peace process is too complex, but we believe it is possible. We insist on striving for peace, so we will not fold our arms.
I do have hope, although I think the authorities and the Colombian oligarchy lack greatness and humility to start solving this conflict.
Hernando Calvo Ospina is a Colombian journalist. He can be reached through his website.
1. “El Laguito” is a residential complex in Havana. Their houses are separated by trees and gardens. In the center is a small lake. Since November 2012, the delegations of the FARC and the Colombian government are located in this peaceful scenery.
2. According to the magazine Forbes (edition 2012). Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo listed as the first billionaire in Colombia, and would rank 64 in the world.
3. The Patriotic Union was born in 1985, as a result of the talks between the government of Belisario Betancur and the FARC. According to the Colombian justice, there was a “political genocide” against the Patriotic Union.