|Interview with the Commanders of the FARC Secretariat in Havana
“We are optimists: It’s time now to search for peace.”
They haven’t given up their morning routine, even in Havana. “We rise at 4:30 AM to wake up the roosters so they’ll crow,” Richard Tellez, better known as “Rodrigo Granda,” tells me with a smile. I was ready at 7 AM to interview three members of the FARC secretariat, the guerrillas’ top leadership authority.
They are the ones heading negotiations the insurgent organization is pursuing with a Colombian government delegation in Havana. “Iván Márquez” and “Pablo Catatumbo” also show up in this big meeting room in a [protocol] house where they are staying located in Havana’s “El Laguito” section. (1) Granda lights a cigarette and drinks a second cup of coffee, Márquez is holding a large Cuban cigar he will light up “after breakfast.”
Sipping coffee, Catatumbo asks me: “If we three are going to say almost the same thing, why interview me?” It’s the first time a journalist has managed to confer with these three guerrilla leaders as a group.
Hernando Calvo Ospina: Commanders, you’ve been negotiating for six months, talking with the government commission for the sake of a peace process. Are you still optimistic?
Iván Márquez: It’s because of the FARC’s optimism that we are determined to seek a political solution to this confrontation, which now is approaching fifty years. Inasmuch as they can not defeat us militarily, nor us them, we must look for an alternative. Furthermore, the circumstances and realities of today, in Colombia and throughout the continent, suggest this is the right time for a peaceful solution. Wars are not eternal. This is the perspective we have in making every necessary effort to reach an understanding with the government.
HCO: How do you feel about having people you characterize as enemies so close by?
IM: We are two groups with very opposite, almost antagonistic views. We are sitting at the same table and have to tolerate each other to achieve mutual understanding. At a negotiating table one has to show respect for counterparts, and that’s a reciprocal process. There are moments when discussions are cold and hard, but quite soon things fall back to a baseline level, because we know we have to reach understandings.
HCO: Negotiations during wartime go back and forth between two rivals. It seems to me there has to be more emotion involved than you indicate.
IM: You’re right. The government has always shown a tendency to look for peace as the result of the guerrillas’ submitting rather than from structural changes. They want peace at no cost to the oligarchs. We ourselves are making great efforts to have it understood that an atmosphere for peace has to be created, and that it can be achieved by means of institutional and political transformations. We are sure that what’s most important for Colombia is to guarantee a real democracy where sovereign people determine political strategies; where people’s opinion is taken into account without their being stigmatized or assassinated.
HCO: Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that on several occasions President Juan Manuel Santos has wanted to turn back.
Rodrigo Granda: I don’t think he wants to go back, but he does seem to be intimidated. It’s as if he’s afraid of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, the cattle ranchers, the narco-paramilitary power bloc, and the cave-dwelling sector of the armed forces. Despite support from bankers, the Church, and an important sector of industrialists, Santos is afraid. For example, according to reports we see, Sarmiento Angula, one of the most powerful men in Colombia, is backing the dialogue process. (2) Polls say that 87 percent of Colombians want peace. That forces are coming together in favor of peace is undeniable. No one speaks of war any more, except for Uribe’s followers. But it looks like Santos prefers not to confront those sectors loyal to Uribe. Instead he makes a show of taking us on militarily and assumes intransigent positions that keep dialogues from staying on course.
We know that Uribe has prepared 13,000 paramilitaries known unofficially as the “anti-land restitution army.” Could it be that the armed forces and Santos are unaware? Of course, they know about it! Is Santos afraid of that? Or does he accept the paramilitaries as an element of maneuvering against us?
HCO: It’s clear that Uribe is trying to torpedo the negotiations. Is it possible he wants to regain the presidency?
RG: And he wants it again in order to shield himself; he is afraid of being sent to Miami for narco-trafficking; or to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. It would suit him fine if the negotiations failed so he could present himself to the country as the solution – even though during eight years of his government the guerrilla “problem” was never resolved.
Pablo Catatumbo: Santos and Uribe have the same idea about negotiations: part of a peace process through submission. They are blind, deaf, and way off base, although they are assumed to be very intelligent. And that’s the point at which, with fact-based analysis, we can show them they are quite mistaken and that their way means continuing war.
HCO: It seems to me from declarations you have made and most documents I have read that you are asking for state institutions to be reformed and the state itself to be modernized. For a Marxist – Leninist and communist guerrilla organization, that could be contradictory.
IM: At the table we aren’t proposing radical changes to the political and economic structures of the state. Here we don’t speak of socialism or communism. What we are looking for is to generate conditions favorable to arriving at an understanding with the government – a space where we can find a variety of views. We realize that some organizations on the left– and not just those in Colombia – are already claiming we are turning ourselves into a reformist insurgency.
We have offered minimum proposals such as those dealing with the agricultural system, one hundred of them. Yes, as you indicated, they add up to little more than a project for modernizing the Colombian countryside. But the fact is that we are still living under feudalism here. Imagine, even at that point we find the government resisting!
HCO: What’s been signed so far between the parties?
RG: We’ve signed some things here, but they are not definitive signatures because nothing is agreed to until agreement is reached on everything. There are some points where we failed to agree, and we leave them to return for more discussion in the future.
HCO: Dialogues in Havana, yet serious military confrontations in Colombia. …
RG: It’s the government that doesn’t want a ceasefire, and so the situation prevails of both parties negotiating under fire.
We are sustaining heavy combat every day with a daily average of three encounters. We have carried out big military actions, news of which is kept from the nation. Now, both parties have decided that things happening away from the table must not enter into our discussions here.
We have shown signs of our good will such as the unilateral truce at Christmas time, although we did have to fend off attacks by the army. And what has been hidden also is that during that period when the trans-nationals were not experiencing any pressure from us, they were able to increase their profits. It seems, therefore, that one of the essential motives for finishing off the guerrillas is for the trans-nationals to be able to rob anyone they want to in absolute tranquility
HCO: What has been the main sticking point so far on the government side in these negotiations?
IM: Without a doubt, it’s their determination not to touch property of the big landowners, most of which was taken over through violent dispossession. That makes them afraid. In interchanges with us, their representatives threaten that “the demons of paramilitarism could be unleashed.” They fear the cattle ranchers and the big landowners. They won’t even lay a hand on the one third of their 75 million acres they don’t use for cattle – ranching.
But any agrarian reform not dealing with big properties is no reform at all. We have to impose limits on ownership of land. The government has not even thought of using a tax as a form of penalty aimed at discouraging tenancy of unproductive land. Whenever we propose to assess those large holdings, the government responds that there is no reliable census, so they don’t know where they are and how extensive they are. Then the government suggests that a land registry must be established first, but which can be delayed for 7-10 years. What they don’t say is that during this time the landowners could rent out or sell those lands to trans-nationals, which is the strategy they are thinking of.
HCO: If the Colombian government decided to negotiate with the FARC, it was because Washington agreed. You know I am not exaggerating. What is the political attitude there at present?
IM: Recently 62 congresspersons in the United States headed by Jim McGovern, two Republicans among them, signed onto a letter of support for the dialogues. This letter was sent to Secretary of State John Kerry. We saluted this altruistic gesture. But also the White House and the Department of State have expressed their backing.
Of course, their divided interests are obvious here also, especially because the Colombian conflict generates money. The powerful armament manufacturers don’t want to allow that business to be lost.
HCO: You have decided to abandon armed struggle. What does the government have to offer you so that can happen? And in regard to yourselves, what changes would you anticipate?
RG: During the initial exchanges he had with us, President Santos said he wanted to open the floodgates to a real democracy in the country. That caught our attention, because we have never said armed struggle is the only way to change the country. We did rise up in arms and have kept on that way, but that was because they used violence to close the door to political participation.
But if they open up the possibility of engaging in legal politics, without the ever-present threat of assassination, under conditions of equality, and if they make some political reforms that could turn the country toward participatory democracy, we will sign on. That’s because unity of forces could be created favorable to a revolutionary movement, one that would show the way to necessary radical transformations. We accept that challenge.
PC: It’s necessary to build a strong mass movement that will impose changes since the establishment does not just hand them over. It’s a job for us, militants of the left and democrats alike. It will take wisdom to build a power bloc that will bring together all those who are for a new Colombia. That is the challenge and it’s not small.
But look: while we are speaking of this at the negotiating table, repression continues throughout the country. The government has varied not a whit as regards its handling of social protest. There are shootings and stigmatization, and to be able to criminalize protest, the government associates it with the guerrillas. If there is anything we are most clear about, it’s that we don’t want to repeat the experience of the Patriotic Union where they murdered almost four thousand militants and leaders (3).
History, when it’s not manipulated, doesn’t lie: they’ve been the violent ones. When we remind the government envoys of this in these negotiations, they tell us they are not here in order to learn that. Why? How come they are afraid, or embarrassed? If the history of political violence in Colombia remains unknown, how are we going to know why we are in the present situation, and know how to resolve it?
IM: There are three agenda items to deal with now: guarantees for engaging in political activity, political participation, and a definitive, bilateral ceasefire. In regard to this last consideration, we’ll speak about abandoning arms and under what conditions. But understand this well: we are not handing over arms. We can not elaborate on these points now. They will be discussed at the table, and will be last on the agenda.
HCO: And what’s going to happen with the paramilitaries?
IM: Para-militarism has to be eradicated in a definitive manner, because without that taking place, an insurgent organization about to enter legal political life would gain no certainty [of being safe]. That is one unavoidable condition for being able to reach a peace agreement. And it’s the government that has to order its generals to stop this state-sponsored counterinsurgency strategy.
HCO: You are decided to seek pardon in regard to suffering that you caused in this war?
PC: We have committed errors, some of them serious. That’s certain. But whatever the propaganda says, the FARC has never used aggression against the population as a strategy. On the contrary, we have defended the people from the army and its paramilitaries, mainly in the countryside.
I have no problem in telling a wife or a family: “I feel the pain we caused with the death of your loved one.” But it’s much more complicated. Do we have to ask for a pardon? Very well! Then let economic associations that financed war and the paramilitaries feel our pain. May all state institutions do likewise, since they are structured for repression and impunity! That goes also for the mass media because they parroted security organizations’ stigmatization that ushered in assassinations and massacres. The political parties of the right also have to sit themselves down and confess their great responsibilities, and so too ex-presidents of the republic who gave the orders. Not even the Catholic Church is blameless! Nor can the governments of the United States, Israel, certain European countries, and the rest be removed from this act of taking responsibility. They all backed various criminally-inclined governments of Colombia. Sitting them all down, we surely can figure out who the terrorists were, and murderers of the people.
HCO: You all identify, and for good reason, the government, its armed forces, and the mass media as being responsible for psychological war and propaganda used against the insurgency. But I think that an important sector of the so-called intelligentsia is now adamant against armed struggle, which it used to support.
PC: Most intellectuals in Colombia, and surely in the world, suffer from cowardice, accommodation, or both. Almost all allowed the system to insert them into the center of the lie. They are used for “theorizing” and to create and repeat falsehoods. Many spend time making speeches against manipulation by the media, but when the system starts up a campaign against this or that target, they turn into parrots.
In the case of Colombia, the system has turned people’s heads to the idea that the guerrillas are guilty of everything. Even though many of them were shaped, or are being shaped, by the left, they sing out that we are responsible for violence, drug trafficking, kidnapping, poverty, and high prices for gasoline and plantains. I assure you that if tomorrow the birds stopped singing, those “intellectuals” would repeat what the government and its media say, that the guerrillas are responsible. They have fallen into such investigative poverty. Their reasoning produces analysis and theories such that even the most minimal debate with them becomes unendurable, at least for us. Indeed, they think that if they argue with us, we’ll kill them. They aren’t even capable of figuring out that if that was the case, then there would be mighty few “intellectuals” left in Colombia now. Their brain doesn’t allow them to observe that whoever retains intellectual and political independence is identified by the government as being a friend or accomplice of subversion.
HCO: I have to acknowledge – and this is by way of finishing up – that I am not very optimistic about these dialogues. I think that Colombia and the Colombians deserve peace with social justice, but I do know the Colombian state. And I know the United States, its sustainer, who in the end will decide. Let that long night that brought us state terrorism be over, and the dawn come. This I desire with all my heart.
PC: Look, the political conditions in Latin America have changed. Who would have imagined what happened in Venezuela and Bolivia with the arrival of Chavez and Evo? Who would have imagined that other Latin American governments would emerge to demand that the United States respect their sovereignty? Unforeseen things do exist. The end of the Soviet Union was one of them.
There is an accumulation in Colombia of hunger, exclusion, injustice, and repression. At some point, however, the people will endure no more. Embryonic processes are accumulating that could burst forth at any time. There is a boiling point that could explode tomorrow.
Furthermore, problematic Colombia is not an island. Neighboring countries are pressuring the government there because they are now tired of the impact of the conflict on them. Some four million displaced Colombians are living in Venezuela; almost two million, in Ecuador. We think that from 13 to 15 million Colombians are living in nearby countries. That’s one third of the Colombian population. These countries have to provide housing, food, and health care – and for how long? There are also expenses for defending borders. All because the Colombian state insists on refusing to negotiate a conflict it can’t win! We have asked representatives of those nations to require Colombia to make peace so our compatriots can return.
We are optimists. Revolutionaries have to be optimists, even in the worst situations. And we believe peace will come to Colombia, because it is our due. The other perspective is of total war. That’s why I say the moment is now, although it’s not easy. This peace process is far too complicated, but we think it’s possible. We insist on fighting for peace, so we refuse to just cross our arms and sit by.
I certainly am hopeful in spite of the fact that the powerful Colombian oligarchy lacks the bigness of heart and humility it needs to begin to solve this conflict.
1. “El Laguito” signifies a residential compound in Havana. Its houses, two stories most of them, are separated by trees and gardens. There is a little lake in the center. The delegations of the FARC and the Colombian government have been lodged in these peaceful surroundings since November, 2012.
2. According to Forbes magazine, (2012 edition) Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo figures as the top multi-millionaire in Colombia and he ranked 64th place in the world.
3. The Patriotic Union emerged in 1985 as the result of negotiations between the government of Belisario Betanccur and the FARC. According to the Colombian judicial system, the group faced “political genocide.”
W. T. Whitney Jr. translated.
Hernando Calvo Ospina is a Colombian journalist and writer living in France. He writes for Le Monde Diplomatique. His web page: http://hcalvospina.free.fr/