The Colombian state’s chief antagonist for over half a century has been the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC. After experiencing unprecedented growth in the 1990s they posed a serious threat to Colombian security especially after, then Colombian president, Andres Pastrana ceded a switzerland-sized piece of territory to the left-wing guerrillas in the hope they would attend the negotiation table.
Coupled with this swell in revolutionary zeal in Colombia, was the rise of populist left-wing politics in the Latin American region, spearheaded by the exuberant Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Unpopular already with the U.S. owing to his propagandising anti-American speeches, revelations of his political and material support for the FARC did not sit well with Colombia or their U.S. allies.
In 2000, Olga Marin, the daughter of FARC leader, Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda attended the Latin American Parliament held in Venezuela’s legislative chamber. Colombian officials claimed Venezuelan lawmakers had organised the forum. This confirmed to skeptics Venezuela’s sympathy towards the marxist guerrillas – by this time termed terrorists by the U.S. State Department – and willingness to provide the FARC with political legitimacy.
But what does Chavez’s death mean for the FARC, and what obstacles do his death conjure for the revolutionary forces of Colombia?
Chavez’s sympathetic overtures to the FARC earned him the nickname, “Angel” in FARC circles. His country had welcomed the guerrillas, providing them with refuge and an opportunity to resupply; far away from the jurisdiction of the Colombian military. Venezuela is to Colombia and the FARC, what Pakistan is to Afghanistan and the Taliban, or al Qaeda. One of the greatest obstacles to campaign success in counterinsurgency is porous borders; international law does not legislate for invading “neutrals” or neighbouring allies. The hysteria in Pakistan following the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s luxury villa is testament enough to this. With FARC rebels fleeing into Venezuela, the Colombian military with it’s U.S. assistance was not able to follow. This kind of maneuverability is an explanation for FARC’s longevity despite Colombia’s status as the third highest recipient of U.S. aid. Without this kind of collusion, the FARC would still be able to disappear into the likes of Ecuador, however it would still prove disastrous to the organisation should Chavez’s replacement lean closer to the U.S. and tighten the Venezuelan border.
Diego Arria, a former Caracas governor and Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations claims that Chavez asked that the FARC be removed from the list of terrorist organisations, insisting they had “deserved recognition” for their “political project”. Yet he later attempted to chair the negotiation for the release of FARC hostages. Whether this was with genuine humanitarian intention is debatable. However it can certainly be interpreted as a further attempt to enhance the FARC’s political status. Most of us are aware of the mantra: “We do not negotiate with terrorists”. Chavez’s actions rendered this slogan moot and provided them with a legitimacy and respect that by definition they shouldn’t have ever received. Again, should Chavez’s replacement be less disposed to campaigning for FARC’s recognition they risk being further embroiled in the war on terror with no political ally.
Chavez also allegedly assisted the FARC materially with high-tech weapons, ammunition and substantial funding. This provided the marxist rebels with some chance against the increasingly U.S.-aided Colombian military. In this respect, both forces were able to up their game. There is no doubt that U.S. aid will continue to pour in, yet question marks certainly arise with Chavez’s death in regards to Venezuela’s commitment. If a protege of Chavez fails to enter office, the FARC face losing extensive military and financial support. This is especially worrying for them as Colombian president Alvaro Uribe continues his successful hardline crackdown on the rebels with impressive results. Many of it’s leaders have been put down in recent years and it’s numbers have halved in numerical strength. Dwindling outside support in addition to dwindling numbers does not bode well for Colombia’s revolution.
What will happen in Colombia is impossible to tell so soon, but Venezuela’s link to the stability of Colombia is undeniable. If Chavez’s death equates to the expiry of his brand of populist socialism, Colombia’s government could be provided with an unexpected boon in their fight against the FARC. Any successive leader that can be more closely influenced by Obama and the U.S. government would be a devastating blow to an organisation already facing a bust, to their boom in the mid 90s. Colombia will watch proceedings in Venezuela very closely – that’s for sure.
Find the published article at MouthLondon here.