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The Colombian Left: Brief Comments About Evolution, Revolution, and Devolution

By Macros Restrepo - Miami IWW, February 13, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Eyes have been on Colombia recently with news of negotiations between guerilla organizations like the FARC and the Colombian government along with electoral attempts by the left to find a foothold in power. In South Florida, Colombia makes its impact both in our communities and the strong economic and political ties to the region. We are sharing a piece by Macros Restrepo that looks back at the process that led the left in Colombia to this moment and its impact on the potential for a more liberated society. His article highlights contradictions as sections of the left moving to integrate with the state and its living authoritarian practices. In exploring the counterproductive aspects of recent left history in Colombia he aims us at a better direction.  

The political left in Colombia faces major challenges from within as well as from outside enemies.

The murder of Carlos Pedraza in late January of this year once again puts the reality of armed violence against leftist social and political movements in Colombia up front. Pedraza, a member of Congreso de los Pueblos was forcefully disappeared on January 19 and shot to death with a bullet to the head 24 hours later.

Left leaning social and political movements are tangled in an old struggle, going back to the 1980s, to separate themselves from ongoing accusations of being nothing more than unarmed stooges or undercover agents of the remaining guerrilla movements, the FARC and the ELN.

These accusations from local, national political and private sector representatives, right wing media pundits, the military and paramilitary organizations continue despite the ongoing changes within Colombia’s political left.

Ten days before Colombia’s 2014 presidential elections the mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, who leads Movimiento Progresistas announced his support for President Juan Manuel Santos’ reelection. Petro is a former M-19 guerrilla/militant. Santos a member of one of Colombia’s most powerful families and as such a wholehearted supporter of capitalism was reelected to a second term.

There has always been a debate about the leftist credentials of M-19, but it was an armed organization that fought the Colombian state. Today the M-19 would be no different than the majority of the Colombian left that shifted from extra-legal and armed activities linked to non-negotiable revolutionary principles to peace negotiations and electoral politics. This shift is not new; as a matter of fact it has been going on for 30 years.

Slowly but surely many leftist militants drifted off the stage of historical anti-capitalist struggle as leftist leaders have been working to reform a traditionally repressive and violent state, as well as Colombia’s historically ingrained social economic injustice that stems from capitalism and not despite capitalism.

These reforms have taken shape in different electoral proposals that have become the center piece of leftist political action especially in this still new century. Young and old leftists are now more inspired with power sharing projects within the state.

Support for Santos from leftist leaders like Lucho Garzon and Clara Lopez, during the 2014 presidential elections exemplify those shifts. Santos faced a serious challenge from the extreme right with the candidacy of Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who had the full support of former president Alvaro Uribe Velez. The left publicly debated for or against support. In the end several leaders called on their voters/militants to vote for Santos worried a Zuluaga win would derail the ongoing peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba.

In another episode that played out over the last few years the Polo Democratico Alternativo that held the Mayor’s office in Bogota for 10 years was late to denounce the corruption of its Mayor Samuel Moreno. The day an order was issued by the Colombian judiciary against Moreno, who now sits in jail, the Polo leadership finally issued a statement reproving his actions. As we sped through Bogota a cab driver told me “who cares, it’s too late,” too little, too late.

If political modernization of leftist parties and movements is characterized by the defense of the current constitutional and judicial institutions, reformist rhetoric and electoral competition the Colombian left is modern. Most armed groups ceased to exist in the 90s, and the FARC the most powerful armed left leaning organization has been involved in several peace negotiation processes over the last three decades. FARC leaders are currently involved in yet another negotiation with Colombian officials in Havana, Cuba.

The push for peace understood as an end to armed political conflict is a theme that runs deep in Colombian society. An analysis of the current process and its impact on Colombian society escapes this piece, but it is clear that the political weight, electoral or not of this peace process cannot escape any organizations or individuals analysis. It is important to note that many powerful families, local businessmen as well those with ties to international investment do not accept the current armed conflict as a political struggle. They see it only as criminal activity, or in the language of the day, terrorism.

Over the last three decades many left leaning leaders abandoned the armed struggle and created think tanks and electoral movements. Leon Valencia is maybe the most famous tank thinker. Some leftists who did not take up arms against the State are now serving the Colombian state in different capacities. Lucho Garzon and Angelino Garzon (not related) are two interesting examples.

Lucho Garzon, once a Communist a la Soviet, and a radical union leader was the presidential candidate and elected Mayor of Bogota while a member of Polo Democratico. Garzon quit Polo joined the Green Party and then moved to actively work in 2014 for the Santos reelection. He now serves as Labor Minister to Santos.

But in honor to shifting politics within parties, movements and unions many leftists accuse other leftists of never having had real links to the left.

Very much like Conservatives in the U.S. In recent years Conservatives from the Tea Party have rebelled against GOP leaders, calling into doubt their conservative credentials. The Colombian left has a history of carrying out this type of public debates. Members of one party who supported the USSR took shots at the party that supported Mao’s China. The M-19 was called social democrat by members of both Soviet and Chinese supporters. And more nationalist leftists criticized all sides.

Today the different factions that make up the Polo Democratico Alternativo hold on to their old party acronyms, actions that at times put in doubt the unity of new left ideological speeches.

The electoral left is also allied with Liberals, and some former Leftists have shifted to the Green Party while putting their support behind conservative neo-liberal candidates. Camilo Romero a former member and Senator of the Polo Democratico now leads his own movement Nueva Ciudadania. Romero’s latest electoral bid within the Green Party ended in defeat at the hands of Enrique Peñaloza, a former ally of right wing darling and former president Alvaro Uribe Velez.

Gustavo Petro has served in Congress and despite continued efforts from different right wing political adversaries to oust him from office is the current Mayor of Bogota. Petro was also a member of the Polo Democratico and was that movement’s 2010 presidential candidate. Just weeks before that presidential contest some polls were giving Petro no more than six percent of the vote, numbers that turned out to be very accurate.

A very interesting fact is that the most voted Left leaning candidate in Colombia’s electoral history Carlos Gaviria Diaz of the Polo Democratico Alternativo, a former magistrate in the Colombian higher courts has always supported the existing institutions, while calling for reforms or just compliance with existing law by those in power.

This would point to a left that despite its rhetorical differences has slowly left behind radical anti-capitalist thinking and actions, not renewing these ideas, let alone plans. The left looks to fit a capitalist reformist electoral model. In that sense the left is very modern, heeding calls from the Liberal and Conservative thinkers and media machines that demanded the Colombian left grow up and provide Colombian electoral politics with a meaningful left leaning opposition. Leftist leaders have complied, using modern day social media, branding their campaigns, touting their social democratic credentials and talking about third ways, political reform, protecting the environment, discussing city planning and urban renewal along with references to class discrimination and social conflict that puts Colombia along with Brasil in the dubious category of having the most unequal societies in Latin America.

Colombian left leaders interested in elections seem to follow without saying so the Brazilian Workers Party electoral model, while others publicly praise the Venezuelan experience led by Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution over the last decade.

All these changes have not given way to a leftist media presence. While elite corporate media have strengthened their control not one left leaning rag of any meaningful distribution exists on the streets of any major Colombian city. There is a network of online left leaning news outlets like Colombia Informa, Desde Abajo, ANNCOL and some former leftists, intellectuals or ‘analistas de la coyuntura’ write op-ed pieces for modern corporate news outlets and or give interviews about the current ebb and flow of Colombian electoral competitions. The public TV channel Canal Capital merits a very close look and recognition for its progressive accomplishments.

Yet corporate outlets that would have been called in the combative past ‘los medios de la burguesia’ dominate the media landscape. As a show of the times Colombia’s major newspapers are no longer exclusive property of the families that run the country.

According to a 2013 Financial Times report:

Luis Carlos Sarmiento, who has a $14bn fortune, according to Forbes, in 2012 bought El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest-circulation daily and the newspaper of record. Alejandro Santo Domingo, with $12bn, owns El Espectador, the country’s second-biggest newspaper, and Caracol, one of Colombia’s two private television stations, which has production agreements with Univision of the US and Mexico’s Televisa. And Carlos Ardila, with $5bn, owns RCN television and radio, the country’s other private national network, which has a television joint venture with News Corp in the US, as well as being the originator of the Ugly Betty series.

Only a few weeks before the presidential elections Clara Lopez the candidate for the Polo Democratico challenged her cousin who runs the powerful weekly news magazine Semana to resign if she got more votes than polls indicated. All in the family!

The last week of April 2014 the online news outlet La Silla Vacia published a piece that asked how Clara Lopez could be so far back in the presidential election polls precisely at a time when many Colombians had been protesting the Santos administrations economic policies and free trade agreements. According to La Silla Polo Democratico members said that low numbers in the polls are not very meaningful because the left faces a major electoral and media machine that does not play fair. But the left wants in to that machine.

Another left leaning movement the Marcha Patriotica has been facing the killing of its militants and impunity is rampant. Marcha has also had to deal with accusations from members of the Colombian military and government officials about its alleged links to the armed organization FARC. In the hard facts and pragmatic world of reform politics in the midst of the 2014 campesino protests in different areas of Colombia the Liberal politician Piedad Cordoba, one of several leaders of Marcha said it was not time for strikes nor blockades, protests and marches were ok, but nothing as powerful as the actions that took place midway through 2013. In early January 2015 Cordoba denounced death threats aimed at her.

The violent action of the Colombian state and the elites must never be underestimated.

Even after embracing electoral participation these last 30 years thousands of left sympathizers, activists and militants have been murdered. Several thousand members and elected officials from the Union Patriotica were murdered. Almost three thousand union members have been murdered over the same three decades. Right wing paramilitary groups have carried out hundreds of massacres across the country during this same period in what has been understood as a tool to control social protest. In the last ten years the Colombian army was involved in the killing of at least 2,500 young men accused of being guerrilla fighters who died in combat. It has been proven that these young poor men were taken under false pretenses, job offers for example, and then shot dead. These murders gave soldiers and officer’s weekend passes and praise from higher ups.

In 2013 a series of very big strikes from the campesino sectors were met with traditional repression. In other words the criminalization of social and political protest and organizing continues. Colombian authorities repress, negotiate, break signed agreements and then use repression once protests commence yet again. It is a historical cycle that affects all social groups who are exploited, and that includes the political left. It is an intolerable environment in which to develop any political organization.

In early May 2014 the rural protests spear headed by Cumbre Agraria and Dignidades, two organizations that lead campesino protests forced the Santos administration, yet again, to the negotiating table. Cumbre Agraria not only leans left but has in its coalition traditional leftist organizations and leaders. This brings us back to the recent murder of Carlos Alberto Pedraza, who was also a leader in the rural protests.

With this brief description laid out it is very important to ask what the left has to say about transforming society. Is this electoral option just a ploy to increase its presence within the populace? Is the left planning a long-term strategy to transform capitalism?

Has the left’s commitment to electoral politics robbed it of its ability to think about transforming capitalist society? Does this radical transformation seem old and naïve for modern left leaders? Is there a meaningful base of rank and file militants and activists who want transformation and not reform? If so, does the leadership of the electoral left represent them?

And most important: has the left’s thinking on transformation changed in the face of international historical failures? Would the left be more open to bottom up leadership? What would a modern anti-electoral left sound like? How would that modern left, not seeking votes, interact with social movements that have taken up their own political narrative and practice?

In all fairness there are a variety of politically active social movements whose members have answers to some or all of these questions. That is material for yet another piece.

My own experience shows me that Colombian left leaning parties have a history of top down hierarchy. Everything was very compartmentalized because the Right was very keen on killing people. And let’s be very clear that state sponsored crimes are still a very powerful tool in the hands of state agents, as is the criminalization of social protest. People are arrested, charged and sent to prison. In short the left as do all of those in opposition to the current neo-liberal establishment must take clear measures to protect the lives and freedom of activists and militants.

All this cannot be used to avoid serious debate about the left’s top down model.

Everything was on a need to know basis. Those people in the lower ranks needed to carry out actions vital to the Revolution and not question the decisions made at the top. Political discussion was not on the agenda; creativity was mocked. If one advocated for creative proposals sarcasm followed. These attitudes cannot be generalized but they were very pervasive.

In one very telling experience a group of very committed activists questioned the armed guerilla group ELNs bombing of oil pipelines in the late 1980s and early 1990s. An important higher up ridiculed the group’s doubts about the political usefulness of blowing things up and mocked concerns about the environmental degradation that unleashing tons of crude oil over riverbeds and farm land caused. The leader in question did not address the concerns, he squashed the discussion and till this day those types of actions have never been publicly debated. It also must be said that the higher up would later go on to hold high office in a Colombian ministry. The left in Colombia has its elites who cannot and never were questioned when it made sense to do so.

The left’s proclivity for using the arts and culture as a ploy to draw people to events has never been discussed.

In a conversation in Miami with a member of the Polo Democratico and who at the time held a position of leadership in FECODE (the Colombian teachers union) it was brought to his attention that Polo Democratico was not THE leader of social protest. At best we stated it could help bring people to conversations and actions to increase the left’s organizational presence in a variety of popular social movements that exist in Colombia, without co-opting those movements. That conversation happened over four years ago and was never followed up by that leader, despite his promise to do so.

These are a few examples that illustrate old practices that seem very much alive: do not question politics as is, let the Leaders do their thing: Gusatvo Petro, Lucho Garzon, Jorge Enrique Robledo. And these are just the names of national level leaders.

The top down culture, where obedience is expected seems to have migrated from the radical and armed left to the electoral left, even when at least 50 percent of Colombian women and men do not vote.

The recent Colombian congressional elections were mired in accusations of fraud. The current presidential candidates who lead the polls represent the old machines and yet the left persists, even though they say the playing field is not balanced. Maybe it is better to have a seat in the bleachers, with no say in the game, because at least you have bragging rights.

Because maybe that’s what this left is left with, bragging.

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