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Forrest Hylton: The far right is not interested in a peace process

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

For almost 50 years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have been in one level of warfare or another with the government of Colombia. And now there is again talk of a peace process.

Now joining us from Bogotá to talk about the peace process is Forrest Hylton. Forrest is an associate professor of history at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He was recently awarded a postdoctorial fellowship at New York University’s [‘tɪmÉ™”mÉ›nthiÉ™n] library. Also he’s the author of several books, including Evil Hour in Colombia, Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy, and he’s coauthor of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics. Thanks for joining us again, Forrest.


JAY: So what are the most recent developments in these negotiations or peace process that is taking place in Colombia?

HYLTON: Well, we’re still a ways off from a peace process, but a French journalist who had been held in FARC custody for 32 days was released, which demonstrates the FARC’s commitment to keep its pledge to refrain from kidnapping for the purposes of charging ransom. So it’s pretty clear that the FARC is serious about refraining from using kidnapping as a tactic for—either, really, to gain political leverage or, you know, to get money. And FARC alienated an enormous swath of the Colombian public for decades using kidnapping either for political reasons or for the purposes of charging ransom as a tactic. And they have apparently abandoned that tactic, which may indeed open a door to serious negotiations

JAY: Right. And there was a car bomb that went off recently. What is the story about that?

HYLTON: The car bomb that went off here in Bogotá two weeks ago was detonated the very day that legislation was introduced to Congress that would regulate kind of the framework for a peace process with the FARC. So the timing was very curious, in the sense that nobody who wishes to see a peace process could possibly have been behind or in favor of that kind of attack. The former minister, Fernando Londoño, who was the immediate target of the attack and was injured in the attack, immediately claimed that the FARC had been behind it, as did former President Álvaro Uribe. And Fernando Londoño is indeed an important public figure on the far right. I believe he has a radio program as well as a newspaper column. And he and the sector of public opinion that he represents would certainly be among the staunchest opponents of any negotiation with the FARC and an end to the war in Colombia on any terms other than those of the victors.

JAY: Well, is there indication from FARC that they want this kind of process? And if there is some sense they do, why would they want to scuttle it with a car bomb?

HYLTON: Well, that’s the question that people who question the official version of events—that’s the question that immediately comes up. The FARC, indeed, at the highest levels, is in favor of advancing some kind of peace negotiations with the current government. It’s not clear how far that will get, given that current president Santos will be bucking for reelection in 2014. So it’s not clear how far the process is going to get before an election, although if Santos were able to make any kind of progress towards peace before the elections in 2014, that would certainly guarantee his reelection. So I suppose it depends on how much political capital he’s willing to risk. But he has made it clear, at least in his public statements, that he thinks the time has come to begin negotiating. And that’s very different from the posture of his predecessor, who was adamant about the need to defeat the guerrillas militarily before considering negotiations.

JAY: Right. Now, just in terms of a little bit of background for the people that aren’t too familiar with the story, can you give us a really quick sketch of FARC in terms of its development and what kind of organization, what the character of it is now?

HYLTON: Well, the FARC is an organization that has lasted for over 50 years. It was originally founded in 1966, but the FARC dates its founding to 1964. And historians can certainly see kind of the origins of the FARC going back even further, the late 1940s, when the Communist Party in Colombia set up self-defense forces that later morphed into guerrilla groups. So the FARC had been around for, you know, a good part of the 20th century in Colombia.

And they were originally composed almost entirely of frontier kind of—what would you call them?—settlers, frontier settlers. And over time, the FARC morphed from kind of a regionally-based guerrilla organization on the agrarian frontier that was rooted in a base of frontier settlers, it morphed into this gigantic military machine that managed to achieve a presence far beyond kind of the isolated jungle regions where it was born, and expanded throughout the country in the 1980s and ’90s. And it was largely taxes from the cocaine trade, as well as kidnapping, that provided money for the expansion of the FARC.

So the FARC’s tactics, in terms of its relationship to the drug trade, as well as kidnapping and extortion, have made the group deeply unpopular with the vast majority of the country’s citizens, who live in the cities, not in isolated rural frontier areas. So there’s a big disconnect between the FARC and the majority of Colombian public opinion in that respect, and only a peace process could begin to bridge it.

JAY: In the earlier days of the FARC, it was considered one of the groups that were part of the sort of national liberation struggles in Latin America, and even generally in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with kind of what people would call progressive or even socialist ideals. Is that true of it at some stage? And is there any of that left?

HYLTON: To the extent that the FARC continues to pledge allegiance to a vision of Colombia as more or less the Sweden of South America, you can say that there is a kind of for social democratic vision, if you like, or for social democratic program. Nationalist social democracy is more or less how I would describe the FARC in terms of program and ideology.

They were linked at the hip with the Colombian Communist Party for a very, very long time, which is to say, for most of its existence. And they were in fact considered, for better or for worse, to be a component of the Colombian left in the decades when such a thing existed.

But there’s really almost nothing of a Colombian left in the public sphere to speak of, and the FARC certainly are not part of it. In fact, they are one of the reasons why the non-armed left is so weak in Colombia, because the paramilitary right, which is armed to the teeth and linked to military intelligence, as well as, you know, other instances of the military and police apparatus, the paramilitary right has always considered the non-armed left to be fair game in its struggle against the FARC. So the FARC is very much like an elephant that the unarmed Colombian left has had to carry on its back for decade after decade, which is one reason why it’s so weak if you compare it to the left in countries like Venezuela or Ecuador or Bolivia.

JAY: Now, during the time of President Uribe, the relations with Venezuela and Hugo Chávez were pretty sour. There was even times where there was talk of war. Now with President Santos there seems to be a rapprochement with Chávez. But there was always this accusation, certainly from Uribe, at least, that somehow Venezuela and Chávez were secretly supporting FARC and all of that. What do you make of that relationship between Venezuela and FARC? And where are things at now with Santos there?

HYLTON: It seems to me that, you know, given that they have been saying, more or less since Chávez came to power in ’98, that he has ties to the FARC, you would think that those people who sustain that thesis would have been able to come up with some evidence to demonstrate it by now. But so far, since 1998, nobody has been able to come up with any evidence suggesting there are concrete ties between Chávez and the FARC.

Are there Chavistas, followers of Chávez, particularly at the regional levels along the border with Colombia, who have ties to the FARC? I don’t know, but I would imagine that there are. But that’s really different than any kind of systematic tie between the Chávez regime and the FARC.

And that systematic tie, which has never been demonstrated or proven by anyone at any time, remains kind of the heart of the discourse that people like Fernando Londoño and former president Álvaro Uribe use, you know, whenever they say that you really can’t negotiate with terrorists, you just have to destroy them, in order to try to scuttle any peace process with the FARC.

JAY: But President Santos has pulled back on some of that rhetoric himself, even though in his election campaign he practically ran on that, didn’t he. But since he’s been elected, he’s not really accusing Venezuela, Chávez of this anymore. Is that correct?

HYLTON: That is correct. Santos was Uribe’s minister of defense, and he appeared to be a Uribe clone when he ran for president. But as soon as he was elected and took over, he began to make some changes, the most important of which is surely related to foreign policy. Colombia’s foreign policy has switched rather dramatically from the time that Álvaro Uribe was president, because under Uribe, Colombia tied its fortunes so closely to those of the United States that it really isolated itself in the hemisphere with respect to other Latin American countries, particularly Brazil and Venezuela, of course. And as soon as Santos entered office, he righted that immediately. And I believe the first place he visited was not the United States but, rather, Brazil, and maybe the second place was Venezuela.

In any event, Santos is very keen to integrate Colombia into hemispheric developments, including developments that don’t pass through the United States. And therefore he’s been very active participating in organizations like UNASUR and the Organization of American States. Meanwhile, of course, he’s maintained very good ties to the United States as well. So the shift in foreign policy towards tighter integration with its neighbors hasn’t come at the expense of Colombia’s relations with United States, as evidenced by the passage of the free trade agreement.

But Santos in many ways does represent continuity with Uribe, in the sense that the lands that were stolen under Uribe have not been redistributed to the people they were stolen from. And in terms of kind of economic policy generally, there really hasn’t been much of a shift from Uribe to Santos. Santos is, however, politically quite different than Uribe in terms of being willing to negotiate with the guerrilla under certain conditions, as it was very difficult to imagine conditions under which Uribe would have negotiated other than total surrender.

JAY: Right. And he also broke with the U.S. on the issue of Cuba at the Summit of the Americas Meeting. He kind of stayed in solidarity with the rest of Latin America over that Cuba should have been at the conference. Is that right?

HYLTON: That’s right. And Santos has also been willing to take something of a leading role in bringing up the issue of legalization of drugs. And he’s certainly backed by presidents in Central America, as well as Mexico. But that’s a stance that, of course, Álvaro Uribe, his predecessor, would never even have considered. And those who advocate the legalization of drugs were in fact demonized under Uribe.

So there have been some important changes, especially at the level of kind of hemispheric relations, but also potentially at the political level of negotiations with the FARC under certain conditions, rather than just unilateral surrender, which is what Uribe more or less demanded.

JAY: Right. And in spite of the fact that Santos is not really accusing Venezuela of supporting and being connected to FARC, it hasn’t stopped the U.S. State Department for—when they do—or U.S. politicians, when they do talk about Venezuela, it hasn’t stopped them from continually accusing them of being supporters of FARC.

HYLTON: Well, both Venezuela—both the Venezuelan and the Colombian right are very active in Washington, and they certainly have their supporters in the United States in pushing kind of this line of thinking and interpretation. But, again, it’s been a pretty long time since these accusations have been floating around, and there’s never been any kind of conclusive evidence at all for anything, you know, not even the kind of yellowcake, you know, that we saw in the run-up to the Iraq War, sort of fabricated truths. We have even seen that. So there really hasn’t been a shred of evidence. And Santos has enjoyed very good relations with Chávez so far. And again, there are economic interests at stake which, you know, certainly are much more important to President Santos than the kind of ideological axes that President Uribe was [incompr.] trying to grind.

JAY: Which is that they’re very big trading partners, Colombia and Venezuela.

HYLTON: That’s right. Colombia depends on Venezuela almost as much as it depends on the United States as a consumer market. So bilateral relations, trading relations are extremely important. And Venezuela really has the leverage as the consumer, and Colombia as the producer, in those commercial relations. So Santos is in that sense very much a kind of shrewd strategist of what Colombia’s economic interests are. And when I say the country’s economic interests, of course what I really mean is the sort of business class here in Colombia. And Santos definitely wants to see the Colombian business class position itself as one of the leaders in Latin America.

JAY: We’ll come back to you soon, as this—if there is a peace process. And we know the vast majority of the Colombian people, and thousands of people, even, in demonstrations, have been demanding an end to this war. And we’ll come back to you soon, Forrest, as we follow the story. Thanks very much for joining us.

HYLTON: Good to be here, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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