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Is the FARC-EP (Really) a Terrorist Organization?

By James Brittain

In the Foreword to sociologist James Brittain’s Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP, Pluto Press, 2010, James Petras states that during the period 1999-2001 the FARC-EP was recognized as “a belligerent force,* a legitimate interlocutor in peace negotiations by all major European and Latin American regimes. During this period FARC-EP was invited to France, Spain, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Mexico, and elsewhere to discuss the peace process. During the same period, top US leaders and businesspeople, along with dozens of trade unionists and electoral politicians from across the spectrum, engaged the FARC-EP in a demilitarized zone in Colombia, where the United Nations mediated peace negotiations between the FARC and then President Pastrana. While Washington opposed the entire peace process and President Bill Clinton secured the passage of the huge multibillion dollar military package (Plan Colombia), the United States was not able to scuttle the process or pin the narco-terrorist label on the FARC-EP. It was only after Washington went to war against Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US-dominated mass media launched a massive and sustained propaganda blitz labeling all critics and adversaries of US global militarism that the ‘terrorist’ label was pinned on the FARC.” Testing the accuracy of the “terrorist” label, among other beliefs about the FARC, James Brittain embarked on an extensive examination of existing works, public documents, and other material, as well as five years of field studies in FARC territory.—Editor’s Note

*A belligerent force is defined as a state or entity engaged in war, a status recognized by international law. In report after report, it is not the FARC-EP, but state military and paramilitaries that have been named as by far the most egregious perpetrators of human rights violations in Colombia.

Is the FARC-EP (Really) a Terrorist Organization?

By James Brittain

In light of the recent activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) throughout sectors of the social justice and peace movement within the United States, it is increasingly apparent that even those interested in solidarity with sociopolitical organizations struggling with issues of marginalization and equity are viewed as a domestic threat or, at the very least, a target of national significance. For example, longtime peace and justice activists have been subpoenaed by the FBI as a result of their work, which critiques the economic and militaristic involvement of their government and military in Colombia.

In many respects, prominent state officials (and popular media outlets) have succeeded in demonizing the struggle of impoverished peasants, marginalized workers, and political dissidents in this Latin American country as terroristic (and then attempt to link international solidarity as acts of assisting terrorism), especially those belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP). Yet what all these mechanisms fail to exhibit (or understand) is that the resistance movement in Colombia is a national struggle of emancipation that structurally exists to change the societal conditions within its own country’s borders.

To try and classify the FARC-EP as a threat to the United States is preposterous due to the fact that the insurgency has been engaged in a half-century of struggle that has solely remained in the confines of Colombian territory and has been directed at the dominant class therein. Garry Leech, editor of Colombia Journal, has suggested that “while there is little doubt regarding the global reach of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, there is no evidence that the FARC is anything but one of the armed actors in Colombia’s long and tragic domestic conflict” (see Killing Peace: Colombia’s Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention. New York, NY: Information Network of the Americas, 2002, p.86). Even conservative analysts like Peter Chalk have come to recognize that “the FARC-EP cannot be considered an international terrorist organization akin to al-Qaeda, for it does not demonstrate the intent nor desire to engage in a transnational terrorist campaign against antagonists” (see Trends in Terrorism: Threats to the United States and the Future of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. Washington, DC: Rand, 2006. p.11n.1).

The FARC-EP “are subnational actors that direct their political violence against domestic operations” (Michael Kenney. From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007. p. 251 n.37). Noting this is important, considering that external forces beyond Colombia’s borders have been systematically involved in military operations against the FARC-EP, yet the insurgency has sustained a principle of self-determination based on the need for Colombians to structurally change the inequitable conditions in their country and not target other nations in the periphery (even when those nations have targeted the guerrillas).

In light of such realities, how can (or why is) the FARC-EP then perceived to be a threat to any government outside Colombia? Coletta A. Youngers, with the Washington Office on Latin America, responded to this question by describing how “the U.S. government now views the Latin American region almost exclusively through the counterterrorist lens, though the region poses no serious national security threat to the United States … little evidence has been put forward to substantiate such claims, and whatever activity is taking place there appears to be minimal” (“Dangerous Consequences: The U.S. “War on Drugs” in Latin America” in Latin America after Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century, E. Hershberg and F. Rosen (eds.). New York, NY: The New Press, 2006, p.76). While she does not trivialize their revolutionary tactics, Youngers does posit that the FARC-EP cannot be correctly framed in the concept and rhetoric of global terrorism. Rather she clarifies how the insurgency is not a direct threat to the governance of administrations in the United States, Canada, the European Union, or any other foreign nation-state because FARC-EP activities “are targeted inward, not outward”; hence, “applying the terrorism concept to these groups negates their political projects” (Youngers, 76-77).

All this begs the question as to why so many state officials perpetuate the FARC-EP as a threat to the interests of the US, Canada, and the EU. The answer lies in the fact that the insurgency poses a potential harm not to the national security of citizens, but rather to the geopolitical interests of the aforementioned states and their economic allies. The FARC-EP proposes a socialized economy based on public ownership, which counters the (failed) neoliberal development strategies of contemporary capital. Former Colombian Army Colonel Carlos Velasquez, a U.S. security–not an NGO do-gooder–put it to me more succinctly in a conversation last year: “Of course the FARC haven’t lost their ideology. That’s why they’re still dangerous” (quoted in Adam Isacson. 2005. “ The End of the FARC's “Retreat”?”)

Hence, it is their praxis that makes the FARC-EP a threat: the insurgency does not subscribe to apolitical acts of violence to instill fear in the lives of the general masses, but rather structural targets–state forces and corporate infrastructure – in its quest to radically alter Colombian society for the betterment of the general population, not the continuity of the minority in power.

Contrary to dominant media outlets, numerous countries around the world have refused to recognize the FARC-EP as an international terrorist organization, as they see the struggle for peace with social justice in Colombia as an internal necessity (see ANNCOL. 2004. “ Duro revés para Uribe Vélez en la cita Americana de Defensa”). Dating back to 2004, numerous Latin American governments opposed the United States’ call for a multinational defense initiative to combat the FARC-EP (see Kintto Lucas. 2004. “ Defense Ministers Reject Intervention in Colombia”). In recent years numerous researchers, scholars, and politicians have supported the call for the FARC-EP to be declared a legitimate force fighting against a corrupt Colombian state (Alberto Cruz. 2008. “ Ante-room to Peace: Recognizing the FARC as Belligerents”; Bill Weinburg. 2008. “ FARC: “terrorists” or “belligerents”?”; Wolf, Paul. 2008. “ Bolivar’s Sword: Venezuela’s Recognition of the Colombian Insurgency”).

Ecuador is an example of this: in January of 2008, Maria Isabel Salvador, who was then Foreign Minister, argued that the FARC-EP should not be depicted as a terrorist organization. This sentiment was backed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who announced that the FARC-EP are far from a terrorist force but rather are a real army, which occupies Colombian territory and shares in a Bolivarian vision for Latin America (Xinhua. 2008. “ Ecuador Designates Colombian Rebels as ‘Irregulars’.”). Mexican deputy Ricardo Cantu Garza, too, promoted the recognition of the FARC-EP as a belligerent force legitimately fighting against a corrupt and unequal sociopolitical system (Mathaba. 2008. “ Mexico Deputy Supports Chavez’ Proposal about the FARC and ELN”). Even prominent US attorney Paul Wolf argued:

“The FARC-EP are a belligerent army of national liberation, as evidenced by their sustained military campaign and sovereignty over a large part of Colombian territory, and their conduct of hostilities by organized troops kept under military discipline and complying with the laws and customs of war, at least to the same extent as other parties to the conflict. Members of the FARC-EP are therefore entitled to the rights of belligerents under international law … there is no rule of international law prohibiting revolution, and, if a revolution succeeds, there is nothing in international law prohibiting the acceptance of the outcome, even though it was achieved by force.” (Paul Wolf. 2008. “ FARC Not a Terrorist Group”).

In short, administrations from Mexico, Ecuador, and Venezuela have opted to use language of belligerent or irregular forces to more accurately depict the FARC-EP’s domestic and geo-political stance. From Copenhagen to Caracas, numerous state officials have rejected claims and/or renounced the FARC-EP to be a terrorist organization and have pushed others to do the same so a peace process can begin to resolve five decades of civil war (Helen Pidd. 2007. “ T-shirt Sellers not Guilty in Terrorism Case”; Marta Harnecker, Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2005). Characterizations depicting the FARC-EP as a foreign terrorist organization must be reexamined and any actors in solidarity with this organization should not be the subject of slander, detention, threats, or torture for simply believing otherwise.

James Brittain is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada. His book, Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP, was published by Pluto Press, 2010. More info: Also available through May Day Books, Minneapolis. James Petras states that in his book Brittain asks “a fundamental question for all democratic political practioners: ‘How does one pursue equitable social policies and the defense of human rights under a terrorist state aligned with death squads and financed and advised by a foreign power, which has a public policy of physically eliminating their adversaries?’”

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