Rebels With a Vanishing Cause: The FARC in Colombia

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On Sunday, July 20th, hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets to protest Colombia’s ongoing forty year civil war. Chants of “Libertad” echoed throughout not only Bogotá but also Paris, the home of recently-released FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt, a figure who could be of extraordinary importance to the nation’s future. Colombian immigrants also staged rallies throughout the U.S. to call for the unconditional release of all hostages by the armed group.

This latest explosive development marks just one more blow to what must now be seen as a foundering leftist guerrilla insurgency. With a widening pattern of defections and a growing vulnerability to bribes among some of its militants, the FARC already has been beleaguered by the loss of several members of the group’s ruling secretariat. This includes the killing of top leader Raúl Reyes and the later discovery of secret computer files after the bombing of his clandestine camp just over the border in Ecuador. Then, FARC leaders were faced with the hurtful words of disavowal and the increasing distancing of some of their strongest sympathizers in the region, including Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has moved on to frying bigger fish with his current visit to Russian President Medvedev. As emphasized by the demonstrations, it appears that the group can no longer claim to represent the “people’s struggle.” In fact, the only good news for the FARC comes in the form of a pro-forma endorsement by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. This is a somewhat controversial source of such support, given Nicaragua’s considerable domestic woes and Ortega’s divisive pact that he made with the country’s corrupt former president, Arnoldo Alemán, in order for him to win the Nicaraguan presidential race and thus be granted automatic judicial immunity for possible court proceedings that he could face.

Despite the high profile, expertly-executed rescue of 14 hostages by Colombian authorities on July 2, the FARC still holds hundreds more captive, including 25 prisoners considered to be of value and “exchangeable.” Sunday’s mass rallies throughout Colombia and in many other locations demonstrate that the FARC, in addition to losing their support from some of the Pink-leaning countries of the region, will no longer be buoyed up by civil society, where its popular support has become all but miniscule. In order to retain any amount of legitimacy or respect and restore significance to its crusade, it seems clear that the FARC, albeit in its weakest state ever, needs to come up with a grand gesture to the Colombian people. Guerrilla movements predicated on controlling a population through terror rarely succeed, as Peru’s Shining Path can attest.

The unconditional release of hostages seems to be the only logical step that the group can undertake in order to show that they are truly committed to a “people’s revolution.” If the FARC still adheres to its founding ideological principles, and has not simply disintegrated into an opportunistic drug trafficking mafia front, as many of its critics would suggest, it needs to take a dramatic step towards negotiating without any pre-conditions with the scandal-riddled Colombian government, no matter how repellant that prospect may be. With the capture of ten new hostages on Friday, July 18, the FARC seems committed to going in the opposite direction, contributing to its own inevitable demise. This may force it to face the only other viable alternative at its disposal, which is to continue to confront the wildly popular Uribe administration’s increasingly successful military onslaught – a prospect that is sure to be a negative for all involved. While military annihilation of the FARC may ultimately be possible, it will come at a heavy cost in blood and property for the country. It is little wonder that Ingrid Betancourt’s huge present popularity and speculation about her possible bid for the Colombian presidency are tantalizing to so many Colombians. Her desire for legitimate talks between the government and the rebels could be just what the country needs to achieve sustainable peace, and save it from simply embarking on more war without end.