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Issue 51

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Issue 51, October 2000

The US Plan for Colombia

    The US goes to (proxy) war
    Tackling the drugs industry
    The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
    A new phase of Latin American struggle

US president Bill Clinton flew into Colombia on 30th August to finalise a £1.3bn 'aid' package to the beleaguered Colombian government. Headed by a senior American general, over 300 US military 'advisors' - the largest number since the Vietnam war - will train the Colombian armed forces for a new counter-insurgency offensive against the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups. TONY SAUNOIS writes on the real meaning of 'Plan Colombia'.

UNABLE TO VISIT Bogota, Colombia's capital, because it is considered too dangerous, Clinton was compelled to spend his brief visit in the coastal resort of Cartagena. Protected by 350 US agents and 5,000 Colombian soldiers, Clinton met with Colombia's president Andres Pastrana to give benediction to 'Plan Colombia'. This plan escalates the US intervention into the civil war and social upheavals that are shaking this important Latin American country. The visit was followed by a series of military actions by the Fuerza Armado Revolucionario (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - FARC), the largest guerrilla army currently operating in Latin America.

The violence and social turmoil that is devastating Colombia is a condemnation of both capitalism and imperialism. The drugs industry has penetrated the heart of Colombia and is now consuming the rest of the body. Together with other social consequences of the free market, it has brutally devastated the lives of millions of Colombians.

Colombia is now amongst the most violent places on earth. Every year over 25,000 people are murdered, out of a population of 40 million. Last year, an estimated two to three thousand people were kidnapped. In the last twelve years, more than 2,500 trade union activists have been executed, and thousands more tortured and beaten, by death squads such as the Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which are linked to the armed forces.


During the last decade, more than one million people have been 'displaced' - forced to leave their homes because of 'the war with no frontiers', as it is referred to. Western imperialism, however, has remained silent about this human disaster, which has seen more people displaced than in Kosova.

The devastating consequences of economic recession have worsened this catastrophe. Confronted with its worst economic downturn for nearly sixty years, 20% of the labour force are officially unemployed, compared with 8% in 1994.

Those that can try to flee the country - some 200,000 emigrate every year. During 1999 366,000 people applied for visas to live in the USA, compared with 150,000 two years earlier. The country is haemorrhaging to death, and the out-pouring will only increase with an escalation of the military conflict.

Colombia now boasts the largest and oldest Latin American guerrilla army, FARC, which has been involved in a military struggle for more than forty years. FARC currently has an estimated 15-20,000 armed fighters and with the Ejercito Liberacion Nacional (Army of National Liberation - ELN), the second largest guerrilla force, controls up to 40% of the country. The recent growth of FARC is a reflection of the country's accelerating social disintegration.

In 1998, following Pastrana's election as president, FARC was given control of 16,000 square miles of Colombia, to try and draw them into a 'peace process'. Although on-off peace talks have been held ever since, the fighting has flared up in one area after another. There has been no 'peace process' for the mass of the population.


Into this cauldron of social turmoil, Clinton briefly ventured last month with US imperialism's proposal to escalate its intervention. 'Plan Colombia' means a stepping up of the direct participation of US imperialism in the crisis. In effect, the US is being drawn into fighting a war by proxy, which will have profound consequences throughout Latin America.

top     The US goes to (proxy) war

SOME COMMENTATORS HAVE recently warned against 'another Vietnam'. A more accurate comparison, however, is with the US involvement in El Salvador during the 1980s. Then the US government sent military advisers, funds and equipment to the Salvadoran army, and its satellite death squads, which were used to brutally repress the mass of the population and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrilla movement. However, the US held back from a full military intervention such as that undertaken in Vietnam.

The international situation, and the opposition to direct military intervention by US imperialism that would be aroused in Latin America and in the US itself, prevents this at the moment. An intervention to fund and equip a proxy war, however, is underway. This is a significant change in the recent policy adopted by US imperialism in Latin America, or at least in the north of the continent.

The US is stepping up its intervention to defend its own numerous interests. These include the need of US politicians to be seen to be acting against the drug cartels. The corrosive effects of drugs on society is driving a section of the ruling class to try and take some steps to curb the quantity of drugs reaching the US. This is now a major question for capitalism.


According to the UN, in 1995 the illegal drugs trade amounted to US$400bn, equal to 8% of the value of world trade. This was more than world trade in iron, steel and motor vehicles, and about the same as that in textiles, gas and oil. More recent reports point to a massive expansion of this 'industry' during the last five years. The sheer size of the drug industry is driving sections of the ruling class to consider the possibility of legalising it. It is also forcing US imperialism to at least be seen to be trying to do something to deal with one source of supply - Latin America and, in particular, Colombia.

For the first time El Salvador has agreed to allow the US to establish an anti-narcotics base there, to be used as a base for operations into Ecuador and other countries. This policy has provoked widespread opposition by workers and youth, however, with the memory of US backing for the death squads in the 1980s, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of El Salvadorans.

According to The Financial Times, Colombian cocaine exports account for an estimated 80% of the US market, more than double the level of two years ago. The drugs industry has penetrated every aspect of Colombian society and a significant section of the 'ruling class' is comprised of 'drug barons'. According to one recent report, after twenty years in business, drug traffickers have amassed a total of US$75 billion - more than the entire Colombian GDP!

Drugs, however, are not the only reason for US intervention into the region. It is also being used as a pretext to obscure other motives. The US wants to inflict a defeat on the guerrilla forces, especially the FARC. In addition, other regional upheavals are also pushing the US towards more direct intervention. The January uprising in Ecuador, the processes unfolding in Venezuela around the Chavez movement, mass movements in Bolivia, and the ousting of Fujimori in Peru (despite the pro-capitalist policies of the main opposition), are all of extreme concern to the strategists of US imperialism.


These movements, and others, represent a new stage in the struggle of the Latin American masses and potentially threaten the interests of US imperialism. Radical populist regimes such as Chavez in Venezuela can be pushed by the social crisis, and mass social movements, to take measures that conflict with the immediate interests of imperialism and sections of the ruling class. The rightwing in Venezuela denounced Chavez because of his links with FARC in Colombia. The US ambassador also protested on the same issue. The fact that Chavez banned US flights over Venezuelan air space reflected this conflict in interests between Chavez and US imperialism.

US imperialism intends to inflict a major defeat on FARC. By doing this they hope to intimidate the masses of the region and also to warn populist regimes like Chavez not to adopt policies that conflict with their interests.

Increased US intervention, however, will not bring the stability hoped for by the US but will provoke further upheavals. It will have a devastating effect on the rural and urban poor and threaten to spill over into the bordering countries.

The stepping up of US intervention into the region is also certain to strengthen anti-imperialist sentiment throughout Latin America. This was even reflected at the recent meeting of twelve Latin American presidents, where the major countries refused to endorse 'Plan Colombia'. The meeting rebuffed appeals from Clinton to support a general US military and police offensive against drug traffickers, indicating their opposition to further US incursion into their region. It also reflected the fears of the representatives of Latin American capitalism of a resurgent anti-imperialist awareness in the region. As the International Herald Tribune pointed out, "looming over the meeting was concern at what President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela described as the threat of 'the Vietnamisation of the entire Amazon region'." (4 September)


Showing his contradictory position, however, Chavez argued that, "we support 'Plan Colombia' so long as it does not generate combat activities that could complicate our situation". But that is exactly what 'Plan Colombia' will do! Chavez went on to call for the establishment of a 'South American NATO' that would organise its own policing of drug traffickers.

top     Tackling the drugs industry

THE US GOVERNMENT has committed US$1.3bn to this intervention. Even before this current package, Colombia was the third largest recipient of US military aid after Israel and Egypt. The vast majority of this new 'aid' will also be for military hardware and training, targeted at areas in the south of Colombia controlled by FARC.

The hypocrisy of US imperialism is shown by its failure to attack the right-wing paramilitary organisations such as the AUC, which are heavily involved in the drugs industry. The AUC, with at least 5,000 armed members, arose from disparate vigilante militias set up in the 1980s, first by the army and later by rural landowners and drug traffickers, to fight FARC and other guerrilla groups. According to one AUC leader, 70% of the right-wing paramilitaries' income derives from drug money. The AUC also has its own territory where it refines coca leaves for the production of cocaine. Backed by banana growers and other sections of the ruling class, these forces have carried out brutal massacres. Last year the AUC, by its own admission, was involved in the killing of more than 900 people. In one incident a force of 300 murdered 28 people in one town in the province of Bolivar, torturing victims before beheading them. These forces will be left untouched by 'Plan Colombia'.


Also untouched will be the drug cartels in the cities. As one of the FARC leaders, Simon Trinidad, explained, 'all of Colombia knows where the narco-traffickers are. They are in Medellin, in Bogota, in Cali...'. Moreover, the army brigades being trained by US advisers are linked to the right-wing paramilitary death squads. According to the New York-based human rights group, Human Rights Watch, more than half of the Colombian army's 18 brigades are linked directly to para-military activity. It means that the US is now involved in backing those fighting the drug cartels and also those who collaborate with them! There is no section of the ruling class that has clean hands in this conflict.

The all-pervasive, corrosive effect of drugs in society was reflected earlier this year when Colonel James Heitt, the head of the US army anti-drug programme in Colombia, and his wife, were convicted on charges related to smuggling cocaine into the USA in a diplomatic pouch!

'Plan Colombia' cannot solve the problem of drugs, which has exploded because of the social situation that has developed under capitalism. A similar coca production eradication policy was applied earlier in both Bolivia and Peru. Official figures of land used for coca production in Peru fell by 33% between 1995-1999. In Bolivia it was a similar story. Over the same period, however, land use for coca production more than doubled in Colombia. In other words, production was simply moved north - and can be relocated again if the drug cartels are compelled to do so.


The 'social development' proposals in 'Plan Colombia', to provide the resources for coca crop growers and rural workers to develop alternative crops, cannot be developed under the capitalist system. The indigenous peoples of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru have for centuries produced coca leaves to chew or drink as a tea. The vast plantations that now exist in Colombia, however, developed because of the crisis in other agricultural sectors and the demand for cocaine, particularly in the US and Europe. The price of coca leaves per kilo has tripled since 1998, and is now US$1.50 per kilo. Small local farmers and peasants have also turned to its production because it is the only way to survive. The alternative aid programmes suggested by the US amount to a drop in the ocean when weighed against the fact that Colombia is in its deepest recession for nearly sixty years. It will need a programme of land reform, and a democratic socialist plan of production for the whole region, to enable small farmers and peasants to return to producing other traditional crops (while allowing them to cultivate enough unrefined coca leaves for traditional consumption).

FARC's policy, (wrongly) is to levy taxes on the drug producers, as it does on other rich landowners in the areas that it controls. A revolutionary socialist policy, in contrast, would include a programme of land reform, based upon expropriation of the large estates and distribution of land to the peasants, and the driving out of the drug traffickers and their backers. It would be possible, by linking such a movement to the struggles of the workers in the cities, to overthrow the Colombian regime and establish a workers' and peasants' government. Such a government would need to implement a democratic socialist plan of production for industry and agriculture and appeal to the working class of North and South America for support, with the aim of establishing a Socialist Federation of North, South and Central America. This is the only way to resolve the problems of the peasants, the small farmers and the working class and solve the drug problem.


According to the US, the heightened military conflict that will now result from 'Plan Colombia' could create another 10,000 refugees. The main aid agencies working in the country estimate that the figure will be nearer ten times greater. Moreover, the effect of aerial spraying of crops will be devastating. Intended to destroy coca, it will also destroy other crops, forcing local peasants to migrate to other areas. One herbicide not excluded for use by the Colombian government is 'Fusarium'. This agent not only destroys crops - the mortality rate for people infected by it is 76%. Not surprisingly the state of Florida banned its use against illegal marijuana crops. The Colombian government, on the other hand, has recommended that it be studied 'meticulously'! There have been reports that this herbicide was used clandestinely by the armed forces in Peru and Bolivia.

top     The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)

FARC HAS WON significant support from a section of young people and the oppressed layers who are desperate to fight the existing regime, and who have suffered at the hands of the army and the death squads. Indeed, one criticism made of FARC is that it recruits people as young as 14 or 15 into its ranks. Even this, however, is a comment on the misery faced by many young people who are savaged by capitalism, with one million children, for example, being exploited as cheap labour working in the mines. Confronted with this issue, Simon Trinidad of FARC argues that most of those of this age 'who want to join, we tell to go home. But for instance, we had a 14 year-old girl from San Vicente who wanted to join. Her mother implored her to go back. Then it turned out that she worked in a bar and was forced to be a prostitute for the customers. Now she has respect, a uniform, an education'.


Another illustration of the desperation facing some of the most exploited sections of society in Colombia is the plight of the U'wa indigenous people. The U'wa are involved in a struggle against the US multinational oil company, Occidental Petroleum. This conglomerate has been given permission to exploit oil reserves found on U'wa traditional land which, if done, would destroy their lands. In response 3,000 U'wa people have threatened mass suicide by leaping from a 1,500 foot high cliff in the jungle!

A major military offensive against FARC, which seems very likely, is certain to strengthen its support amongst a layer of young people and poor peasants. The murderous acts of the death squads and the US-trained army units will also win FARC much sympathy throughout Latin America.

At the same time FARC, because of its incorrect methods, its failure to advance a revolutionary socialist programme, and its involvement with the drugs industry, has also alienated big sections of the working class and urban population.

FARC was established in 1964 as the armed wing of the Communist Party and has built up an important basis of support in many rural areas. Although historically, through the Communist Party, it aimed to win support in the urban centres amongst trade unionists and the working class, this increasingly came to be viewed as an auxiliary to the military struggle in the countryside.

This policy was combined with the adoption of the 'stages theory' (including the idea of forming coalition governments with a 'progressive' wing of the ruling class), which was adopted by the Communist Parties internationally. The main idea of the 'stages theory' is that, in countries like Colombia, it is necessary to win independence from imperialism and then develop national capitalism before it is possible to embark upon the idea of the socialist revolution. The immediate task, therefore, (from this point of view) is not to struggle for socialism but to collaborate with the 'progressive' sections of the capitalist class to develop capitalism.


This idea was rejected by Leon Trotsky, and subsequently Lenin, who argued that the ruling class in the less developed countries could not develop society or complete the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. These tasks include breaking free of imperialist domination, the development of industry, the solution of the land question, and the unification of the nation, together with the establishment of a stable parliamentary democracy. These tasks today can only be completed as part of the struggle to build socialism by the working class, which means spreading the socialist revolution to the more industrialised countries.

Even in countries where the working class only forms a minority of the population it still has the leading role to play in the socialist revolution, because of its collective consciousness and ability to act as a class. It can win support for its programme amongst the poor peasants and the middle class, who are also exploited by capitalism and landlordism, and the poor peasants in the countryside can play an important role in the revolution through the conducting of a revolutionary war, if their struggle is linked to the leading role of the working class in the cities. But the building of socialism requires the conscious and active participation of the working class.

Unfortunately, the FARC leadership does not accept these ideas and the military campaign in the countryside has assumed a primary role in relation to the movement in the cities. Like other guerrilla organisations, the FARC leaders view their army as a substitute for a conscious mass movement. This is reflected in the structures of FARC and the methods used in administering the areas they control. In these areas the FARC undoubtedly enjoys broad support but there is not a democratic system of workers' and peasants' democracy. The military commanders rule arbitrarily. Yet even in conditions of war, a revolutionary socialist movement would establish democratic control by the workers and peasants over its own army.


top     A new phase of Latin American struggle

FOLLOWING THE COLLAPSE of the former Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and the USSR other guerrilla forces in Latin America have increasingly embraced the market. Although it has maintained some 'socialistic' features in the areas it controls - with Che Guevara murals and red flags still used - FARC too have partly done this, organising visits to negotiate with European business representatives and not mentioning socialism in their propaganda. In other Latin American countries, this process has allowed some former guerrilla organisations to make their peace with capitalism and join the 'political process'. In Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, El Salvador and other countries some former guerrillas are now members of parliament and even hold ministerial positions.

Such an accommodation into 'institutional political life' was attempted by FARC in the mid-1980s, but at a terrible price. Following peace talks, the party formed the Patriotic Union to enter the electoral process, getting 18 mayors elected. However, the death squads were not ready to accept such a compromise. An estimated 3,000 members of FARC and other guerrilla organisations were slaughtered - including the presidential candidate and 13 of the 18 elected mayors. This experience, combined with the deepening social crisis and the growing intervention of US imperialism, complicates acceptance of any 'peace process'.

The FARC recently launched a political organisation, the Movimiento Bolivarian por la Nueva Colombia (The Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia). The movement takes its name from Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary leader of the early-19th century independence movement, which liberated the five Andean countries from Spanish control. FARC's new political front partly echoes the 'Bolivarian' ideas defended by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. These ideas do not challenge the capitalist system, but for the exploited masses they signify opposition to the programme of neo-liberalism and a rejection of the effects of capitalism. They represent a new phase of radical populism which has developed in the 1990s, a form of consciousness which reflects the set-backs to the workers' movement and socialist ideas following the collapse of Stalinism after 1989.


The 'Movimiento Bolivarian' demands social justice, a genuine redistribution of income, national sovereignty and independence, and the defence of human rights. It demands the application of new technology for national development and for income from oil to be invested in the rural areas, industry, education, and housing. It argues for the unity of the Latin American people against their common enemy, in the 'Bolivarian spirit'. It is this 'Bolivarian spirit', of uniting Latin America as an alternative to Western imperialism, that has been put forward by Chavez. To succeed in uniting Latin America, however, would require the overthrow of the different ruling classes, each with their own national interests, and therefore the establishment of a socialist federation of the continent.

The radical petty-bourgeois nationalist programme of the 'Movimiento Bolivarian', however, articulates many of the demands of the exploited masses but does not attempt to break from capitalism. Yet the crisis confronting Colombia, in all its aspects, means that this programme cannot be achieved within the framework of capitalism.

The drugs problem, for example, is intricately bound up with the general social crisis that has developed under capitalism. Moreover, FARC itself is implicated in the drugs industry. Although FARC maintains that its forces are not directly involved in trafficking, it allows traffickers to operate in its areas and imposes a tax on the drug cartels. An estimated 60% of FARC's income comes from this source.


This, together with the methods of 'urban terrorism' and kidnappings that FARC has used, has undoubtedly alienated sections of the urban working class. Following years of slaughter and conflict there is a desire for peace and an end to the violence. This was reflected in the mass demonstration of five million people last year in support of the peace process. The methods of FARC, however, have meant that they have been unable to lay the blame for the violence clearly at the feet of the capitalist state, the right-wing death squads and US imperialism, and have not won mass support from the urban population.

Moreover, FARC has stood aside from some of the recent movements that encompassed big layers of the working class in the cities. Twelve public sector general strikes took place in Colombia during 1998-99, in protest at the austerity packages that the government has implemented. FARC largely abstained from these movements.

The escalation of US intervention into Colombia marks a new phase in the crisis in Latin America. It will worsen the conflict and threatens to spread it to neighbouring countries. Workers and young people throughout Latin America and internationally must oppose this intervention by US imperialism. At the same time, the struggle to build a genuine independent socialist alternative based on the working class, that can defeat imperialism and capitalism and establish a socialist federation of Latin America, is more urgent than ever.

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