Colombia: Bolivarians and the state

By IAN CAMPBELL, UPI Economics Correspondent  |  Feb. 28, 2002 at 2:30 PM
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QUERETARO, Mexico, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- The Bolivarian Movement. We must be talking of President Hugo Chávez's government in Venezuela. But no, there is another Bolivarian Movement, next door to Venezuela in Colombia. The Bolivarian Movement for the New Colombia is the progeny of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC.

The FARC, like Chávez, claims to draw its inspiration from Simón Bolívar, the great 19th century independence fighter. And the FARC and Chávez appear to be close not just to Bolívar but to each other: that is one of the allegations made against the Venezuelan president by his growing number of enemies.

The FARC writes on its Web site of "a dominant elite, selfish and mean" which has betrayed the ideas and aims of Bolívar the Liberator "so that the present State "does not represent legitimately our historical destiny." The Bolivarian movement is transnational and seeks "Latin American integration, national independence and social justice."

The FARC's words paraphrase the discourse of Chávez, when he campaigned for office and now that he is in it. The discourse has an obvious appeal. For is it not true that the State has let down the population of almost all the Latin American countries? Is it not true that Latin America has disappointed its inhabitants?

Distribution of income in Latin America is extremely unequal. There are supremely rich Latin Americans, and a majority of poor people. It is also, by tradition, a violent region, and it has been the poor, not the rich, that have been most vulnerable to that violence. Colombia has long been notorious for violence against workers, perhaps nowhere more than in the poor and hot Urabá banana-growing region in the northwest. To join a trade union there has been to invite assassination. Hardly surprising, then, that the words of the FARC carry far in the wild lands they have made their own.

It is in the countryside that the FARC thrives and gains its recruits: the big pockets of land isolated by high mountains, deep valleys, and thick jungle that characterize this geographically diverse and beautiful country. To peasant farmers who are poor, ill-educated -- for the state has not brought good schools to them -- vulnerable to violence -- for the state does not protect them -- the FARC's ideas of tearing down the state and rebuilding it makes sense.

On the FARC's Web site,, the organization asserts yet another identity. It is the Ejército del Pueblo, the army of the people, as opposed, of course, to the regular Colombian army, which is often linked to the paramilitary death-squads that play a prominent part in Colombia's web of violence. The army of the people, the FARC suggests, is close to the people. And indeed it sometimes draws people close to it, whether they want it or not.

Last week the FARC kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt, candidate of the Oxygen Green Party for the presidential elections to be held in May and June. Betancourt had foolishly driven into the Switzerland-sized zone into which Colombian President Andrés Pastrana had sent troops days before, having previously demilitarized and conceded the zone to the FARC three years ago to encourage progress in peace negotiations. The FARC also kidnapped a prominent senator, Jorge Gechem Turbay, Feb. 20, after hijacking an airplane.

Wednesday, the FARC said that Betancourt, Turbay "and others that are in our power" will be added to the list of those who may be exchanged for captured members of the FARC. It gave the government one year in which to make the exchange. The FARC currently holds "in its power" five other congressmen and about 80 army and police officials.

Kidnapping, in which Colombia leads the world, is one of the activities which the FARC and other Colombian guerrilla groups employ to exert political pressure and raise money for the cause. The guerrilla groups are also involved in drug trafficking. Guerrilla leaders describe these activities as regrettable but necessary. The guerrillas, after all, must arm, clothe and feed themselves. Within Colombia such arguments hold little sway. A poll on the site of El Tiempo, the leading Colombian newspaper, finds that 94 percent of those who responded approve of Pastrana's move to re-enter the demilitarized zone and break off dialogue with the guerrillas.

Perhaps we should find nothing surprising in this. The FARC, after all, represents the poor rural population not the educated elite that reads El Tiempo on the Internet. And yet the poll would seem to reflect a wider perception that the guerrillas, perpetrating violence, kidnapping and extortion of their own, are not the answer to Colombia's problems and, more than that, are part of the country's decline into a miasma of violence.

Pastrana's new tougher line on the FARC and the other guerrilla groups reflects the fact that part of the appeal of Alvaro Uribe, an independent, who leads the presidential opinion polls by a wide margin, advocates taking a tougher line on the guerrillas. It is not impossible, according to Robert Wood, Latin American Senior Economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, that Uribe will take 50 percent of the vote and win the presidential election in the first round.

In Washington, meanwhile, there is also growing support for action to back the Colombian government's struggle with the guerrillas. At present military aid to Colombia may only be used to fight drug-trafficking, not the guerrillas. That policy can only be changed with congressional approval. President George W. Bush said Wednesday that "if the Colombian government decides to take military action against the FARC, which it looks like they may decide to do, that's their business to do so."

Seeking a military solution to the guerrilla problem raises many questions. Could a war against the guerrillas be won? What costs might it have? If war is declared on the guerrillas there is a danger that it will be undisciplined and that the paramilitaries will kill more of those they deem to be guerrilla sympathizers. That, in turn, only serves the guerrillas' cause.

Colombia moves toward its elections with big decisions to be made. As it seeks a solution to the guerrilla plague, it must address the violence and injustices that have helped to foster the guerrilla groups. When, in the mid-1980s, the FARC turned from guns to political campaigning, hundreds of its election candidates were simply murdered. In the zone reoccupied now by Colombian troops there is fear that paramilitary murders will occur.

The state and the guerrillas: it is the failure of Latin American governments to provide safety and a livelihood for their citizens that has helped to promote the modern-day Bolivarians with their dreams of tearing things down and starting afresh.

In Venezuela, a Bolivarian has reached the presidency and is doing only harm to his country. In Colombia the Bolivarians hide in the hills and forests and dream of the power Chávez now holds. The allure of the Bolivarians is a false one. But there will be more of them if the State in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America cannot reform itself.

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