Right-wing resurgence

Print edition : June 08, 2002

The victory of right-wing candidate Alvaro Uribe in the Colombian presidential election spells trouble for the peace process in the country.

THE victory of the right-wing candidate, by a big margin, in the presidential election in Colombia in the last week of May has come as no surprise. Pollsters had been predicting a victory for Alvaro Uribe Velez, the 49-year-old former governor, who till recently belonged to the Liberal Party. Uribe had the unabashed support of the right-wing paramilitary groups and the United States administration.

President Alvaro Uribe.-JOHN MOORE/AP

The runner-up was the candidate of the ruling Liberal Party, Horacio Serpa. Surprisingly, the candidate of the Left, Lis Eduardo Garzon, came a distant third. In earlier elections, the leaders of Left parties who had sought to run for high office were either liquidated or threatened. Guerilla groups which disbanded voluntarily and went overground to form political parties were annihilated by the right-wing paramilitaries with the tacit support of the Colombian establishment.

Even by the yardstick of Colombian politics, this year's presidential election process was extremely violent. In the last couple of weeks before the elections, the front-running candidate as also the candidates of other parties preferred to campaign from the safety of their homes. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had begun to hit urban areas with virtual impunity. They had engaged the paramilitaries in a ferocious battle near the Caribbean coast. The Colombian Army was nowhere in sight.

The FARC had decreed that Uribe and the parties that support him would not be allowed to campaign in areas controlled by it. The right-wing paramilitaries, on the other hand, had ordered that all votes in areas under their control go to their candidate - Uribe. That apart, the right-wing militias - which go by the name of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) - had issued warnings that entire communities would suffer in areas where there were either large-scale abstention from voting or where the verdict went against Uribe. This was not an idle threat; the right-wing militias are known for their ruthlessness. Sympathisers of the FARC and other left-wing groups often randomly executed in order to force others with similar leanings to acquiesce or leave a particular area.

The FARC, for its part, had vowed to liquidate Uribe. They nearly got him in April when a landmine exploded moments after his armoured car crossed a point on the road. The car was damaged but those inside escaped unscathed. After that, Uribe decided that discretion was the better part of valour. A "virtual campaign" through videotape and television became the preferred mode of electioneering in the month of May for most candidates, including Uribe. There has never been any love lost between the FARC and Uribe, and the enmity has all the characteristics of a blood feud. Uribe's father, a rich cattle-rancher and horse-breeder, was killed by the FARC in 1983. There were allegations that the senior Uribe had links with the notorious Medellin cartel that made billions of dollars out of narco-trafficking.

The President-elect has admitted that his father and the father of the Ochoa brothers, key players in the Medellin cartel, were good friends but that their dealings were confined to horse-breeding and related matters. There have also been allegations that the younger Uribe was a beneficiary of funding from the Medellin cartel when he ran for Governor. In the mid-1990s, when Uribe was Governor of the State of Antioquia he had supervised the creation of paramilitary groups under the guise of civilian patrol groups. These groups evolved into notorious death squads and succeeded in driving the FARC out of the State. The paramilitaries replicated their success in neighbouring States such as Cordoba.

The AUC is led by people known to have close links with the newly elected President. Prominent among them were the Castano brothers. The founder of the AUC was Fidel Castano, whose father, a prosperous cattle-rancher, was killed by the FARC. Fidel too met the same fate in 1994. His brother Carlos has since taken over, and is said to run the paramilitaries even more ruthlessly than his departed brother.

One of the important reasons for the failure of the peace talks between the government and the left-wing rebels to take off was President Andres Pastrana's seeming inability to combat or curtail the violence of the right-wing paramilitaries. Fidel Castano, a professional gambler and drug-trafficker, had after buying up huge tracts of cattle land, embarked on a campaign to kill civilians suspected of being FARC sympathisers.

The FARC had originated as a peasant movement in the 1950s, under the influence of the Communist Party. That was the period of "La Violencia" when peasants owing allegiance to the Liberal and Conservative parties fought against each other to occupy scarce land not yet appropriated by the elite. The FARC as a revolutionary grouping grew steadily until the late 1970s. But in the early 1980s there was a dramatic change. The Colombian political scene became distorted by the huge amounts of money generated on account of the insatiable demand in the United States for illegal drugs. The money generated through narco-trafficking began to leave a sordid trail. Virtually all sectors of society were adversely affected.

The poverty-stricken Colombian peasants, who constitute the FARC support base, had cleared up huge swathes of jungle land, to grow coca, which is a more profitable crop than even poppy. The peasants went to the edge of the rain forest, and each family cleared four to five hectares of land for coca cultivation. With the drug cartels offering huge amounts of money to the peasants for their produce, the FARC leadership, led by Manuel Marulanda, took the position that though it did not approve of drug-trafficking, it was not opposed to the peasants trying to improve their economic status through such business. More than a million-and-a-half of the peasants were displaced persons - most of them uprooted by the paramilitaries.

The aggressive land takeover by multinational oil companies and mining corporations, and their use of paramilitary death squads to drive away peasants from their lands, contributed to the rapid growth of insurgency side by side with the coca cultivation. The FARC levies a heavy unofficial tax on the traffickers. FARC officials say that U.S. demands for an end to coca cultivation are unreasonable till such time as the marginalised farmers are provided with an alternative crop and a market that would help them feed their families. The millions of dollars earned from the trade helped the FARC transform itself by the mid-1990s into a tough fighting force that took on the might of the Colombian Army. By 1998, the FARC could stage attacks and kidnap people in almost all corners of the country. Today, according to Western estimates, it has a battle-hardened force of 18,000 guerillas.

Andres Pastrana was elected President in 1998 on a campaign plank that promised peace to the people of Colombia. He did initiate some moves to end the 40-year-old civil war. The FARC was given an autonomous zone for itself as a prelude to full-fledged peace talks. But ingrained suspicions on both sides led to the peace process collapsing irretrievably in March this year. Among those who opposed the move from the outset was Uribe and the AUC. He along with those advocating a full-scale war on the FARC, and a smaller guerilla grouping called the National Liberation Army (ELN), had gained the upper hand early this year.

The Bush administration as well as its predecessor were also not too happy with Pastrana's peace initiative. They had a strong ally in the Colombian military, which has traditionally had a close relationship with the Pentagon. In the last year of his Presidency, Bill Clinton sanctioned $1.3 billion as aid to Colombia as part of the so-called war against drugs. But for all practical purposes, it was meant for the Colombian Army's war against left-wing guerillas. Today, Colombia is the fourth largest recipient of U.S. military aid, and the biggest such recipient outside West Asia. The Colombian Army has the latest equipment from the U.S. The Pentagon has dispatched "counter-insurgency specialists" to Colombia, and has supplied 72 helicopters and trained three of its army battalions.

THE Bush administration has announced an even greater quantum of military aid to the government in Bogota. It has been effusive in its praise for Uribe and was the first to congratulate him after the results were out. Uribe, who was educated in Oxford and Harvard, said that his first priority will be to defeat the left-wing guerilla groups militarily. While on the campaign trail he had said that he would raise a million-strong volunteer force to fight the guerillas. Many Colombians say that this sounds ominously like the right-wing vigilante groups he had helped create in his home State. Those groups in turn had led to the formation of the AUC, which today controls a big chunk of the drug trade.

It seems that the new President will forge even closer ties with Washington. The genuine attempt at social and economic reconstruction that is being attempted in neighbouring Venezuela is not appreciated by Bogota and Washington. Both had initially welcomed the right-wing coup attempt in Caracas. The Colombian government even gave political sanctuary to Pedro Carmona, the leader of the failed coup in Venezuela, who had escaped from house arrest to seek refuge in the Colombian embassy in Caracas.

The Colombian government has also been accusing the Venezuelan government of providing sanctuary and help to the FARC rebels, but this has been vehemently denied by the Venezuelan authorities. The Colombian Army is also threatening to go in "hot pursuit" of FARC rebels into Venezuelan territory in their anti-insurgency operations.

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