The first commander of the National Liberation Army, Antonio García, spoke about the possibility for peace amid a time of historic transformation in Colombia
Colombia is undergoing a period of radical transformation. The country which for decades had been dominated by conservative rule, and subject to the demands and needs of the United States government and foreign capital, will finally have a progressive government.
The victory of the Historic Pact ticket in June has opened up new possibilities for the country with regard to the guarantee of essential social, economic, and political rights such as housing, education, healthcare, and more for all communities and sectors in the country, many which have been historically denied and excluded.
It also puts the possibility of true and lasting peace back on the table. Under the rule of Juan Manuel Santos, enormous advances were made in achieving peace in the country, notably the signing of Peace Accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in Havana, Cuba in 2016 and the initiation of talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN).
However, under the government of Iván Duque, both of these achievements saw tremendous setbacks. The Havana Accords were systematically undermined and the programs underfunded by Duque. Over 330 signatories of the peace agreements, or reincorporated ex-combatants, were assassinated. Duque put the process with the ELN on hold indefinitely and during his presidency, no negotiations were carried out.
President-elect Gustavo Petro and vice-president-elect Francia Márquez have reiterated their commitment to building a lasting peace with social justice in the country, and rebuilding what Duque’s attempted to destroy. Most recently, during Márquez’s pre-inauguration tour of Latin America, she announced in a press conference that Chile’s president Gabriel Boric had offered to host the peace talks between the government and the ELN.
To understand more about the armed conflict in Colombia and what are the major issues at stake in the peace process, a group of independent media platforms obtained an exclusive interview with Antonio García, the first commander of the National Liberation Army (ELN). He shared his analysis of the current situation and perspectives for peace.
The ELN recently commemorated the 58th anniversary of its creation. What are some of the social causes that gave rise to this group that remains in arms today? What brought you to join?
Antonio García: Thinking about the origins is to recall the painful experiences of building revolutionary guerrillas that would accompany the struggles of the people after the violence (from 1948-1958 there was a period of violence between Liberal Party guerrillas and Conservative Party paramilitaries). The liberal-conservative oligarchy, in order to overcome the violence, made several pacts in 1957, which were polished until they defined the National Front. In May 1958, elections were held and on August 7 the first president was sworn in; from then on, the government would take turns every four years. The liberal guerrillas were deceived and betrayed in a negotiation that only sought their demobilization.
Then came a stage of trials in the construction of guerrillas based on the residues and groups that had been left over from the liberal guerrillas of the violence. During this time, several rebel leaders were assassinated by people from these groups as part of the oligarchy’s plan, as was the case of Federico Arango Fonegra and Antonio Larrotta.
A new revolutionary guerrilla independent of the oligarchic influence had to be born as a product of the reflection of these errors. This was the task taken on by leaders of the rebel youth, who joined forces with the movement of the oil workers of Barrancabermeja, university students and guerrillas who did not want to be amnestied and who had fought under the command of the liberal guerrilla of Santander Rafael Rangel Gómez. These three components gave birth to the first rural guerrilla front that marched for the first time on July 4, 1964, but the urban guerrilla of the ELN had also made incursions a month earlier in support of popular causes.
The causes for the emergence of the armed rebellion are of a social and political nature. The first are the injustices in which the national majorities face, product of a political system that favors an elite, which lives better, because of the poverty of the majority; it is the elite that has governed the country for centuries, which uses political, military, legal and media power to impose its will in favor of the economic power groups aligned with US interests. To achieve this, it politically excludes, persecutes, prosecutes and kills. It is these policies and practices that the existence of political prisoners, exiles, displaced, tortured, massacred, disappeared, and genocide come from. Some realities are denied by the governments, such as political prisoners, while others are only part of cold numbers in the statistics.
In a struggle of this nature, there can be no personal reasons, it is the same in all the people, one encounters this reality in one’s own life, one sees it in others, the pain and suffering; the need in every face and in every house; in the cities and in the fields. The human being is by nature a social being, from this understanding it becomes part of a community and has a commitment to a common destiny. This means it will not accept the injustices in the communities and feels moved to be part of the construction of a happier future for all.
From a very young age, I was a student leader in my school and I was committed along with other young people in the struggle for the demands of students, peasants and settlers in Mocoa, my place of origin in the early 70’s. Then I followed the student and popular struggle in the Industrial University of Santander; in those same struggles, in those same places, in the popular neighborhoods I met many other comrades with whom we ended up identifying with the aspirations of the people and we saw that the best option was to join the ELN and decided to seek it out.
What is the situation of the possible peace talks? Is there a real will for peace in the dominant sectors of Colombia? What mistakes or negative elements did the previous agreements have, and what conditions would the ELN not be willing to give up at a dialogue table?
AG: With the previous government, with Iván Duque, it was impossible, because it set impossible or unreal conditions. It wanted the guerrilla to exist legally in a sense, but that type of revolutionary guerrillas has never existed and will never exist, because taking up arms is already an illegal act, and ending it implies recognizing it and outlining a route to overcome such conflict.
There has been a limited will in the dominant sectors, since they understand that overcoming the armed conflict is the absence of armed confrontation and their process is centered on the demobilization of the guerrillas, disarmament and reintegration of combatants. Almost all peace processes have focused on this, and on giving certain political advantages to the demobilized combatants. However, very little or almost nothing has been done to attack the causes that have originated and reproduced the conflict, which are of a political and social nature, such as poverty, lack of support and social programs for the population, political exclusion, repression, and the absence of political participation in decision-making.
Since 1991, the ELN has been willing to talk with governments to build a political solution to the conflict; but it has been the governments who have abandoned the negotiations or have refused to sign the agreements and in the case of Iván Duque refused to respect agreements signed by the previous government and ignored the guarantor management of several countries. The ELN has never placed conditions to any government, it is understood that all issues can be discussed or examined at a table, if peace is truly desired.
In your opinion, what relationship should exist between the concept of peace and social justice? Can there be peace with capitalism? What is your assessment of the systematic violation of the Peace Agreements signed in Havana?
AG: Peace, in history, has been associated with a time before or after a war; as if those times of “peace” were better for a whole society, for all its members. Many times, wars were won or lost, but it is not for that reason the people managed to live better, this is because it is the poor who always make up the fighting force.
Peace is not always associated with social justice and the welfare of society; it is generally only associated with the absence of armed confrontation. Thus, the opposite usually happens, because authoritarian regimes have been erected to benefit economic and political elites who use power to continue enriching themselves. It is in this context that sectors of society are forced to take up arms, because there is no other option to achieve changes that favor the impoverished and excluded majorities.
The nature of capitalism is the exploitation of labor, of workers. Machines or raw materials alone do not produce wealth, that is why they need workers. When Capitalism is threatened, it opens itself to reforms or pacts, as it happened at the end of World War II, it agreed to a social capitalism, or welfare capitalism in Europe; because it felt threatened by the advance of socialism in Eastern Europe. But when the USSR disintegrated at the end of the 1980s, the pact between capital and labor came to an end; welfare capitalism came to an end, and the way was opened to brutal neoliberalism. Capitalism refused to advance along the path of agreements with labor to create a more equitable society. Today, we have broken societies and countries, social and political conflicts on all continents and the so-called first world has also been touched by social explosions. It has become clear that without struggles there will be no social justice.
Regarding the negotiation of the government of Juan Manuel Santos with the FARC, which ended in 2016, it is difficult for me to respond to the extent that I have been critical of what happened, both of the agreements and the way they were made. I only make this reflection: Can one be sure that the counterpart will comply with the agreements? The right thing would be to be able to elucidate this methodological doubt; if it was not done, it is the fault of those who negotiate in this way, because in this type of process one cannot act in good faith, since the lives of many people are at risk. The fact that people who participated in a peace agreement continue to die, raises further questions to those in power.
Last year we witnessed an astonishingly strong popular mobilization in Colombia with a tremendous variety of visions of change and social transformation, which the Colombian regime could not constrain to its traditional forms of violence and co-optation. How do you see this process in relation to the recent electoral victories? What consequences does it have for the achievement of truly revolutionary goals?
AG: What happened in these last three years of struggles and massive mobilizations of society is the product of a repressed situation, not because there were no struggles in previous years, but because the State managed to repress them by generating fear with the systematic use of violence by the military and police forces of the State, as well as with its paramilitary bands. Tens of thousands were murdered, disappeared and imprisoned, and millions were displaced, exiled and expropriated. Even so, the people kept on fighting and resisting; it was the perseverance of the fighters who never gave up that made us reach the great protests of 21-N (November 21) of 2019, 9-S (September 9) of 2020 and 28-A (April 28) of 2021.
It was not those who called for surrender who made possible this explosion of struggle that has made us all wake up. The new generations of young people learned from the previous generations, and in those great mobilizations, they joined body and soul, marching together three generations: grandparents, parents and children; what was most striking was to see them all fighting for the same thing they had fought for in their youth. New social actors such as women, indigenous peoples and black communities, peasants, workers, unemployed, urban dwellers and the LGTBIQ+ community; this force built in diversity contributed with their agendas and experiences, as well as with new forms of urban struggle, with expressions of defense and protection of the mobilized such as the guards and the First Lines.
Of course, there were expressions that wanted to demobilize, saying that if the protests were not suspended, the electoral process would be affected; the opposite turned out to be true, it was this new mobilized social force that placed in the hearts of Colombians the need for change and the confidence that it could be done, and that the real possibilities of change lie in the mobilized force of the people.
Indeed, there is a risk that the social movement may be captured by the institutions and give up its belligerence to continue with its struggles. But it must be understood that the new government has a very limited margin to fulfill its promises, due to its agreements with sectors of the oligarchy and the great scarcity of resources it will have. Therefore, many of the main transformations demanded by the people must be won through mobilization and what that the government can offer.
Taking into account the recent electoral result, with the victory of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez for the political force the Historic Pact, what evaluations can you make of this victory at the polls? What real possibilities of transformation does this government have and what will be the main obstacles?
AG: In Colombia there is a tiredness with the old politics, before there was apathy to political participation, because the electoral machines controlled the process and everything was already decided. Even today regional clientelism continues to maintain part of that control, something like half of the electoral force is in their hands.
The result is that, over half of the population supports the Historic Pact or joins it, because there is no other [political option] that attracts them. Rodolfo Hernandez was not a real candidate, but the result of a miscalculation of the right wing. They inflated him in order to take away Petro’s votes so he could not win in the first round and Federico Gutierrez could go to the second round, but Rodolfo ended up beating Fico and he was the one who went to the second round; life gives you surprises.
Of course, the Historical Pact has democratic proposals, in the economic, political and social spheres. However, in order to have a majority in the parliament it has had to make alliances with sectors of the center right. This means that it will have to negotiate reforms with such sectors, where the scope of such reforms will be at stake.
The main obstacles to carry out deep reforms are in the nature of the Colombian oligarchy, which got used to governing without allowing protests and used repression against the protesters to prevent changes. Now, it will try to block them in the parliament and then resort to the old manual dictated by the gringos, sabotage the economy, diplomatic and economic blockade and of course the old practices of intervention.
If this is not the case, we would be facing a change in the political nature of international capitalism led by the United States.
Of course, if there is a real change in Colombian society, the people will have to support it, and it can only be through popular mobilization, as they have done in the last three years, with force and strength.
Capitalism as a world system began to take shape since the Middle Ages, and works as a single system, with all its gears. Within it there exist highly industrialized countries as well as those with almost no industrial development. Some have States and political regimes with democratic tints and some social consideration, but with highly elitist circles of power; others have open dictatorships and others are like Colombia with disguised democracy. Capitalism will always generate backwardness, dependence, exclusion; that is why it is inevitable to move towards post-capitalist societies.
Petro proposes to modernize capitalism and give it a human face, but capitalism is essentially based on the exploitation and alienation of human beings and the depredation of nature. Modernizing the Colombian economy implies confronting the backward sectors of landowners, cattle ranchers and the launderers of narco-money, who have achieved an extraordinary primitive accumulation of capital in the last four decades, based on narco-paramilitary violence, and ended up taking over the Colombian State.
Petro will be able to manage a part of the government’s public treasury, but he will not be able to touch the deep State that controls power in Colombia. The alternative social and political movement will accompany Petro in the reforms that favor popular interests, but it must go far beyond the government’s initiatives, maintaining its proposals for transformations.
People’s Dispatch, August 2, 2022, https://peoplesdispatch.org/