On September 1, Plaza Bolivar, the symbolic heart of Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, was packed with members of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Western Hemisphere’s oldest guerrilla force. Top-ranking commanders and foot soldiers alike filled the plaza. The FARC’s new logo was projected onto the facades of the Presidential Palace, Congress, the Justice Palace, and the Cathedral. Balloons, roses and ballad singers had been arranged.
This was not the military takeover of power that Mono Jojoy, one of the FARC’s historic commanders, had envisioned when he famously said to his troops, “We’ll see each other in Bogotá.” It was the launch of the newly founded Alternative Revolutionary Force of the Common (the acronym, FARC, preserved) and it had the look of a party to which all of Colombia’s historically dispossessed, oppressed, and marginalized had been invited.
Whether the FARC can make good on its promise to represent them, and whether the state institutions housed inside the buildings surrounding the plaza permit it, remains to be seen.
The inaugural concert marking the launch of the FARC political party was the culmination of a four-year negotiation process between the guerilla force and the government that resulted in the 2016 Peace Agreements. The agreements put a definitive end to a fifty-two-year armed conflict which left over 220,000 dead and seven million people internally displaced. In Havana, these parties negotiated a comprehensive agreement that included rural reform, political participation, transitional justice and drugs policy, and planned the recasting of the Marxist guerrilla group into an electoral party, securing it ten spots in Congress through 2026 and the same funding available to all recognized political parties.
But the state’s failure to implement the agreements’ most basic points in its first ten months leaves the FARC caught between hope and fear for the future, both as a political organization and as individuals.
The Nom de Guerre
After six days of internal deliberations and the participation of thousands of delegates, a press conference was held to announce the party’s formal launch. Members of the secretariat, some of the most reviled names of the past twenty years, sat behind a table in a hotel in central Bogotá cheerfully answering questions. Near the end, one reporter asked how they would like to be addressed from here on, to which Pablo Catatumbo — historic commander of the Western Block — good humoredly spoke of the difficult negotiation he’d had with his mother to allow him to keep his nom de guerre of the past thirty years.
Like Catatumbo, the FARC chose not to change their name. Their most visible leader, Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko,” proposed to alter it to the less polemic “New Colombia,” but this only won a third of the delegates’ votes. The FARC may have given up their weapons, issued public apologies for the worst acts of violence they committed, and generally complied with the agreements reached with the government, but they enter the electoral political field defending their decades of armed struggle. Not only are they unapologetic about this past; they consider it the foundation of their values. As Timochenko said to the thousands who filled the plaza, “We have no letter of recommendation other than our history of over half a century of giving it all, even our lives, to create this opening through which all can pass.”
As was to be expected from a group whose blocs and fronts are dispersed throughout the country, discussions on the creation of the party statutes were tense; guerrilla members of peasant origins who had fought for fifty years found themselves alongside university students and members of the PC3, the clandestine party of the FARC. The orthodox hardliners wanted the statutes to have an explicit Marxist-Leninist orientation, while others called for a more tactical approach with a more inclusive language in the statutes that would facilitate the expansion of the party and the forging of alliances.
Such tensions can be traced to the group’s two separate goals, according an internal document titled “Preparatory Theses: For a party for the construction of peace and the democratic-popular perspective”: one is the strengthening and consolidation of the core FARC members — represented in the delegation — which involves keeping a strong party line, identity, and unity without the formal structures of an army. Another is its expansion into a broader population, through the growth of the new party, the constitution of an “Alternative Popular Bloc” alongside other anticapitalist movements and social organizations, and finally as part of a “great national convergence” in which broader progressive parties and social movements would align.
The lack of internal consensus marks a transition from the necessarily hierarchical chain of command distinctive of any army — what is referred to as the “orientation” — towards a more horizontal and democratic modus operandi. That transition poses serious questions about the values and identity of the party, but the FARC consider it a necessary step in what they understand as the continuation of their struggle and expansion into the broader population. The FARC’s broad aims to represent both remote rural and neglected inner city populations mean it needs to develop strong mechanisms for handling and even fostering dissent, while maintaining cohesion and unity.
A Rose in Arid Ground
The “party of the rose” is being planted in infertile soil. After a decades-long media war vilifying the guerrilla, many Colombians are unable or unwilling to forgive the FARC. A plebiscite held in October 2016 that intended to legitimize the Peace Agreements with a popular vote for peace backfired and resulted in a slim majority of “no” votes, unmasking the country’s profound social fissures and its population’s entrenched resentments of both the guerrillas and the political elites represented by President Juan Manuel Santos.
This is not the first time that the FARC has created a party and entered the legal political sphere. In 1985, the guerilla and the government reached an agreement that resulted in the creation of the Patriotic Union (UP), a party that worked alongside the Communist Party. The UP had significant electoral success. But soon enough, a deadly alliance between the political establishment, business interests, and paramilitaries formed in order to carry out an extermination campaign in which an estimated three thousand UP party members were murdered. This led many former FARC members to return to arms and break formally with the UP.
The “UP genocide” and past failed peace dialogues haunt the party congress and peace process alike as it encounters opposition and failure at every turn. The Peace Agreements face resistance and sabotage from within the state itself due to the entrenched interests they threaten, as well as financial constraints due to the commodity bust and fall in the price of oil, which represents 55 percent of the country’s total export revenue and was projected to be one of the main financial sources of the “peace fund.”
The plebiscite results and recent court rulings have not only slowed the legislation needed to implement the agreements, but also exposed them to modifications and led many to question the government’s political commitment to its implementation. Meanwhile, selective assassinations of 127 social leaders in 2016 alone, and killings of former FARC members, reflect the conflict’s continuation, as does the expansion of criminal bands known as Organized Armed Groups (GAO in Spanish), many of them successors of paramilitary structures.
One thing almost everyone can agree on is that the state structures are highly corrupt. Corruption scandals are so numerous it’s hard to keep track of them, and the deeply entrenched political networks make separating distinct cases problematic. In the past year, high government officials — including those running the current president’s reelection campaign — have been accused of receiving bribes from the Brazilian corporation Oderbrecht. Rampant graft has been exposed between judges of the highest courts and senators investigated for links with paramilitaries; things reached a point of absurdity when the US Drug Enforcement Administration requested the extradition of Colombia’s anticorruption public prosecutor, due to money laundering and blackmail.
The FARC are now launching their political party and platform at a moment when presidential candidates, like rats abandoning a sinking ship, are opting to run independently rather than be linked to any party, mired as they all are in corruption scandals. Despite their past participation in the armed conflict, the most recent Gallup poll reveals they have a higher approval rating than the other parties. To gain support, the new party must maintain the image of integrity and commitment to their core values that separates them from the rest of the political establishment, while continuing to position themselves as defenders of those marginalized by an elitist and corrupt system.
But making concrete proposals within the operational logic of the state and participating in the existing system will constitute a path riddled with challenges.
Peace From Below
Mauricio Gareca, with over thirty-five years in the Southern Block of the FARC, is not at the congress, but in one of the “Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation” in the remote jungle region of Carmelita, Putumayo. While members attending the congress are part of a rising political leadership, there are more than five thousand rank-and-file guerrilla members, many of whom have never even visited Bogotá, who are concentrated in these camps that the state still hasn’t finished after nine months. Their families, many of whom live nearby, are threatened more than ever with the FARC’s retreat.
These less visible guerrilla members feel particularly vulnerable. “We have no real guarantees that we will have protection of our lives,” says Gareca. “In this area they murdered an entire family of a guerrilla soldier who lived nearby. Without the security buffer zone provided by the army, police, and United Nations, there won’t be anyone preventing us from being killed.” But that’s just the beginning: the state has yet to pass the amnesty law, so technically they can still be arrested in any moment, while in many cases the “Territorial Spaces” were never finished and suffer food shortages.
For these and other reasons, many FARC members have simply left. While some of them returned to their families, the discontent generated by the state’s neglect led others to join a growing dissident movement in the country’s east, where the former commander of the 1st front Gentil Duarte — one of the strongest militarily and financially — continues to operate.
For those at the congress debating the party’s future, there’s no doubt that the base of the new party will come from the existing structure — guerrilla, civil militias, clandestine party members — while the transition away from military organization represents the “spinal column of the reincorporation process,” as internal documents put it. Many of the FARC’s foot soldiers are children of peasants, from the same abandoned rural territories where they once operated as guerrillas, and as such, are essential for establishing a connection between the FARC party and the marginalized communities the new party seeks to represent.
While years of prioritizing the military aspect of the struggle has left a vacuum in their political formation, the peace process has brought a new direction along with disarmament: the FARC’s official band “Southern Rebels” is putting out new songs; the FARC’s new press agency, Nueva Colombia Noticias, was seen reporting on the pope’s recent visit to Colombia; and ECOMUN — a cooperative for all former FARC members based on solidarity economics — is up and running.
"The Peace Agreements Are Our Weapon"
Though he sits inside a trendy pub in Bogotá, Julián Subverso shivers under his jacket; after fighting for five years in the jungles of the Urabá region, he’s still not used to the cold. Subverso — a name he chose upon entering the guerrilla and which he has chosen to keep — is the head of the FARC team for the National Integral Program for Illicit Crop Substitution in the department of Antioquia, one of the first points of the Peace Agreements to be implemented. He was chosen because the coca growers trust him; good looking and charismatic, his political sophistication and almost religious conviction help in winning distrustful peasants over to the Havana agreements after decades of state neglect.
Despite the cold, Julián gets heated when he recounts this same state’s failure to implement some of the most basic points of the current agreements. Funding for the program is insufficient, there are delays in payments, and the government makes decisions unilaterally without consulting the FARC or the communities. He recalls a grower who was upset because the army had forcefully eradicated his coca crop despite having agreed to a formal pact of voluntary crop substitution. Government representatives couldn’t understand why, after being assured he could still enter the substitution program, the man continued to protest. Subverso defended him: “They literally don’t understand that until the first payment, he has no money with which to live. As if it was news to them that people have to eat every day.”
This relationship is key to understanding the FARC’s electoral strategy. Drawing inspiration from the 1996 cocalero marches in Southern Colombia, they see the agreements as a chance to demand structural changes in the way the government relates to these territories. In the face of government inertia and violations, FARC members like Julián are empowering communities across the country to demand that the agreements be faithfully implemented. Their first obstacle is to change the mentality of cash handouts that previous governments used to complement military interventions in FARC-held areas. Instead, Subverso says, the FARC want to “put the agreements in the hands of the people.” In so doing, they position the FARC as the guarantors and representatives of the people’s demands on the government.
But this requires striking a delicate balance. If they’re too intransigent, the FARC risk being accused of violating the agreements, in a hostile political context in which the far right attacks them at every opportunity. On the other hand, unconditional acceptance of government demands might mean sacrificing their political capital and base.
If they’re successful in finding this balance, however, the Peace Agreements will become a frame through which state neglect stops being seen as natural, and starts to be politicized. The agreements could become a vehicle for demanding deep reforms without putting the FARC in a stance of total opposition. Thus, a former Marxist revolutionary army can base its political platform on the simple demand that the law be enforced, while the national government will have incriminated itself.
Speaking to the crowd in the plaza at the party launch in Bogota, Timochenko issued a reminder: “That this work will not be easy or fast, we know perfectly well. That we will be the targets of the dirtiest attacks, we do not doubt. Who knows better than us that perseverance overcomes all.” Perseverance — and a strong strategy — will be needed to build trust and change the narrative that many in Colombia still hold about the former guerrilla army, while retaining their sense of identity and inner cohesion, and demanding the agreements be respected.