NACLA and Colombia

The most recent issue (Sept-Oct. 2000) of NACLA Report on the Americas is devoted to Colombia. Since this is the most authoritative journal covering Latin America in the USA--the country now preparing a Vietnam type intervention in the region--it is necessary to review what it is saying, especially since its coverage on Colombia has been so flawed in the recent past.

First a few words about the political evolution of North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), the research group that puts out the magazine. It has its roots in the student radicalization of the 1960s when graduate students and left professors established working groups on a number of questions falling within the general rubric of American imperialism. This was around the time groups like Concerned Asian Scholars were also getting started. In general these outfits were inspired by the Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions.

Now that many of the original founders have become responsible tenured professors with reputations to protect, the edge of some of these journals has grown dull. This is especially true of NACLA, which suffers the additional problem of identifying with a rightward drift in Latin American politics following the defeat of the Central American revolutions.

The original impetus for this drift came from a layer of disillusioned Sandinistas such as Victor Tirado, who decided that the era of anti-imperialist revolutions had come to an end after the collapse of the USSR. Basically this was a form of leftwing TINA that ruled out creation of states based on the model of the October 1917 revolution. The alternative proposed by the FSLN in Nicaragua and FMLN in El Salvador was a variant on Swedish social democracy, in tune with the historical example of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the "neoliberal" direction of world politics and economics over the past 10 years militated against such a possibility. In point of fact the model for Costa Rica in this period has been El Salvador rather than the other way around.

In the USA, the academics grouped around NACLA embraced this retreat but put their own particular postmodernist spin upon it. Editorial board member Roger Burbach, who heads the Latin American studies department at U. of California at Berkeley, has been a forceful defender of this kind of postmodernist 'socialism'. In "Globalization and its Discontents" (Pluto Press, 1997) co-authored by FSLN intellectual Orlando Núñez and Boris Kargalitsky, we learn that "the Central America experience in the 1980s demonstrates even more conclusively the shortcomings of the 'actual existing' national liberation movements." (Kargalitsky repudiated this book shortly after it appeared on the shelves, claiming that he had no idea what Burbach had up his sleeve.)

Not only does Burbach deny that lack of Soviet support was at fault, he also claims that dedication to "armed struggle" condemned these groups to oblivion. So what should the Latin American left try to do in the face of such insurmountable odds? Basically Burbach counsels they should join with NGO's in creating alternative, voluntary institutions in "civil society" that might be described in George Bush's terms as a "thousand points of light":

"In both the developed and underdeveloped countries, a wide variety of critical needs and interests are being neglected at the local level, including the building, or rebuilding, of roads, schools and social services. A new spirit of volunteerism and community participation, backed by a campaign to secure complimentary resources from local and national governments, can open up entirely new job markets and areas of work to deal with these basic needs." (Globalization and its Discontents, p. 164)

Examples of such initiatives include homeless men selling the monthly newspaper "Street Spirit" in northern California to cover the costs of a meal and a bottle of rotgut. (Globalization, ibid.) It would also include soup kitchens and slum housing squats. Nobody could ever accuse Burbach and company of raising the bar too high.

Not content to propagate this new vision of a postmodernist socialism, NACLA has also gone out of its way to lecture an errant dinosaur left oblivious to new realities. This included Fidel Castro who had the nerve to crack down on NGO think-tanks in Cuba which had been advocating an end to the planned economy and which were funded by US universities. It also included the headstrong young US activist named Lorie Berenson who was jailed by Fujimori after being caught in Peru working with the now defunct Tupac Amaru guerrilla movement. A NACLA editorial lectured her the way a parent would lecture a teenaged daughter who had been caught driving drunk.

It has been with respect to the guerrilla groups in Colombia that NACLA has been most ideologically strident. Either the FARC, ELN and EPL armed groups have allowed their subscription to NACLA Report to run out or are willfully unmindful of the need to sponsor soup kitchens in Colombia's slums under their own banner. Perhaps the presence of death squads in the cities might have something to do with this. In any case, the animosity toward the FARC in particular has been so pronounced that it allowed NACLA editorial board member Mario Murillo to falsely report that the FARC had massacred Indian villagers and burned their homes. This report was filed despite the evidence provided by a church group in Colombia that the murders were committed by rightwing militaries disguised as FARC combatants. NACLA has never corrected this misinformation.

I am pleased to report that the current issue is a step in the right direction. Perhaps criticism from friends and supporters of NACLA has had an effect.

The most useful article is by journalist Alfredo Molano, who is a weekly columnist for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. His writing has prompted death threats from the AUC in Colombia, the rightwing paramilitaries.

The article, titled "The Evolution of the FARC: A Guerrilla Group's Long History," is a fair and informative overview of the group's origin and its role in recent controversies, such as the coca trade. Basically, Molano explains the growth of the FARC as a response to the 'hacienda' economy in the countryside:

"In the 1970s, the National Front was still dominating political life, and on the economic front, the government of Misael Pastrana (1970-1974) adopted a rural development model that aimed to eliminate all obstacles to free investment in the countryside. This led to concentration of land ownership, the undermining of small-scale peasant producers and the rise of peasant proletarianization. Because of Pastrana’s program, thousands of desperate peasants were propelled into both organized and spontaneous invasions of rural properties. On the Atlantic Coast, for example, peasants invaded the large haciendas common to the region and distributed the land among themselves. Property owners, backed by the area’s aggressive political bosses, responded with public and private force, and succeeded in recovering their land. Pastrana’ s economic development model also drove many peasants to the cities, raising urban unemployment and setting the stage for the great National Civic Strike of 1977 and the Draconian Security Statute of 1978 that drastically reduced the right to protest and organize.

"At the same time, there was repression of the peasant movement, expulsion of small tenants from the lands they cultivated and, in general, expansion of commercial agriculture to less populated parts of the country, as well as colonization of unused lands. Many of the most popular destinations lay in the same remote areas where the guerrillas were strong and where they constituted the only authority. During this period the FARC consolidated its influence, opened some new areas, and focused on training military leaders. These were the days when many students, intellectuals, workers and peasant leaders joined the guerrilla struggle."

There is also an excellent interview with FARC Commander Simón Trinidad, who when asked why the FARC recruits children, answers:

"We recruit 15 year olds and up. In some fronts there may have been some younger, but [recently] we decided to send them back home. But what is the cost? During the last year a girl arrived ... 14 years old and wanting to join the guerrilla... In March she was sent back home because the FARC's Central Command said they would return to their parents all those younger than 15.

"Two weeks ago I met this girl... She said she was working in a bar from six p.m. until sunrise. I asked her what she was doing and she said, 'I attend to the customers.' When I asked her [how], she lowered her head and started to cry. She is a whore. She is 14 years old. A child prostitute. She was better in the guerrillas. In the guerrillas we have dignity, respect and we provide them with clothes, food and education. There are millions of others like this girl in Colombia who are exploited in the coal mines, the gold mines, the emerald mines, in the coca and poppy fields. They prefer that children work in the coca and poppy fields because they pay them less and they work more."

"It sounds beautiful when you say that children should not be guerrillas, but children are in the streets doing drugs, inhaling gasoline and glue. According to the United Nations: 41% of Colombians are children, 6.5 million children live in conditions of poverty, another 1.2 million live in absolute poverty, 30,000 live in the streets, 47% are abused by their parents, and 2.5 million work in high risk jobs. These children meet the guerrillas and they don't have parents because the military or the paramilitaries killed them, and they ask the guerrillas to let them join. We are carrying out our rule that no children younger than 15 years of age join."

Despite the presence of these and other excellent articles, there is a piece by NACLA editorial board member and Georgetown University professor Marc Chernick that demonstrates a shocking inability to understand the nature of the conflict and--at least to his eyes--its intractability. Titled "Elusive Peace: Struggling Against the Logic of Violence", it wrings its hands over the FARC "overrunning small towns and pitting 200 guerrillas against, at best, 20 policemen." What is particularly troubling is Chernick's inclusion of this factoid in a paragraph with the leading sentence: "The military conflict is intensifying, with civilians bearing the brunt." Cops as civilians? Has anybody on NACLA's editorial board ever read Lenin's "State and Revolution"? Or Karl Marx for that matter? Cops are not civilians. A schoolteacher is a civilian, for pete's sake. If the guerrillas are to achieve victory, it will be as a result of militarily defeating the military, paramilitaries, and cops.

The articles stresses the need for peace since "No side has the firepower or political to win militarily". Chernick looks to enlightened Colombian politicians such as Noemi Sanin and Horacio Serpa to negotiate a peace settlement. A "U.S. diplomacy of peace... could be crucial for pushing the process forward." One wonders whether Chernick is so steeped in his Latin American specialty that he has been unmindful of the aggressive posture of the U.S. government in other areas of the globe, beginning with the Balkans and Iraq.

Most bizarre of all is the notion that peace can be hastened by a weakening of the paramilitaries through combined action of Colombia and the US military, as Chernick proposes in pollyanna fashion. The notion of the Pentagon being deployed to wipe out rightwing death squads is the height of foolishness and makes me deeply pessimistic about the future role of NACLA editors in keeping the American public informed about events in Colombia. The United States has been the prime sponsor of rightwing paramilitaries in Latin America for the past 40 years. It trains militaries in the use of torture at the School of the Americas. The CIA helped Pinochet identify and round up left wing opponents who were subsequently murdered. It also backed the notorious ARENA party in El Salvador whose homicidal leader D'Aubuisson was an open admirer of Adolph Hitler. What is the purpose of Chernick's preposterous appeal? To look "sensible" to his colleagues at Georgetown University, an institution whose tentacles reach deeply into the CIA and State Department?

In reality, there can be no peace in Colombia as long as there is a situation Marxists have described as "dual power". In periods of deep revolutionary polarization, society tends to divide along class lines with respective allegiances given to radically opposed state structures. In the classic instance of Russia in 1917, the workers and peasants oriented to the Soviets while the bourgeoisie and middle classes defended the Constituent Assembly. When society confronts a situation of dual power, peace can only come about with the defeat of one side. It will be in that case either the peace of a victorious people or the peace of the graveyard.

The reason that Colombia does not readily present itself as this kind of paradigm is that the insurgent forces seem fairly detached from the traditions of October, 1917. Although the FARC began as the rural detachment of the Colombian Communist Party, it has all of the characteristics of a classic peasant insurgency.

Through a combination of fierce repression in the cities and its own talent for mobilizing the peasantry, the FARC has been able to seize control over a huge section of Colombia, about the size of Switzerland. The Colombian press calls this Farclandia and it behaves virtually like a state within a state. It taxes all businesses, including those involved in the cocaine trade, and delivers social services.

In fact I would argue that the best prism through which to understand groups like the FARC (and the ELN to a lesser extent) is the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920 rather than Russia, 1917. If you read Trotskyist Adolfo Gilly's "The Mexican Revolution", you will discover that Zapata's forces stood in relation to the central government in much the same way as the FARC does today. The problem in both instances is that the peasant insurgencies lack the political and social orientation to the only class force that can rule society: the urban working class.

Referring to Mexico, Gilly notes:

"But the peasantry could not rise to a nation-wide social perspective nor offer a revolutionary solution for the insurgent nation. A national revolutionary perspective, counterposed to the goals of the bourgeosie, could only have come from the other basic class in society: the proletariat. Yet the proletariat lacked an independent leadership, party and class organization."

Obviously it will be up to the Colombian people to assemble such an organization. Those of use in the United States have only one obligation: to rally the American people against imperialist intervention and create circumstances favorable to the revolutionary forces whatever their program or class composition.

(The latest NACLA Report can be ordered at