In Other Words

El Comandante’s Last Charge

Bitter enemies though they are, Fidel Castro and Alvaro Uribe agree on one thing: Peace in Colombia will never happen without a decisive military victory.

La Paz en Colombia
(Peace in Colombia)
By Fidel Castro
265 pages, Havana: Editora Política, November 2008 (in Spanish)

On April 9, 1948, an unknown assassin shot Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán to death. A populist hero, Gaitán’s murder catalyzed a chain reaction of events — beginning with a three-day riot known as the Bogotazo — that has left Colombia mired in a state of war ever since.

Gaitán was shot on his way to meet a young Fidel Castro, who had traveled to Bogotá to help organize a student conference. When the riots broke out, Castro found himself in the midst of an armed uprising he would later describe as "a totally spontaneous popular revolution" that led him to "identify even more with the cause of the people."

At the same time, a peasant named Pedro Antonio Marín was reacting to Gaitán’s death by taking up arms alongside the country’s opposition Liberal Party in the southwest of Colombia. Marín would fight with the Liberals well into the 1950s during a period of civil war known simply as La Violencia. "The Violence" was over by 1958, but Marín — by then known under the nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda — struggled on, helping to create the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the violent guerrilla movement allied with the Communist Party.

The Bogotazo thus played a small part in precipitating both the Cuban Revolution and the guerrilla war in Colombia — Latin America’s two remaining revolutionary anachronisms. But while the armed phase of Castro’s revolution peaked in 1959, Marulanda’s rebellion never ended. By the time he died of a heart attack last March, Marulanda’s half-century-old irregular army had become a permanent fixture of Colombian life. Now, the country’s most intractable conflict is the subject of a new book that will almost certainly be Fidel Castro’s last.

Why Castro chose to lend his voice to Colombia’s cause in his final days may remain a mystery. Since effectively disappearing from public life in July 2006, his motives and machinations have been left to public imagination. But it is perhaps understandable that at the end of his life the Cuban leader would turn his thoughts to Latin America’s only remaining guerrilla war. And, of course, the book also gives him one last opportunity to lambaste U.S. imperialism.

The most obvious significance of the November publication of La Paz en Colombia (Peace in Colombia) is that it offers some evidence that Castro is still alive, despite rampant rumors to the contrary. However, it hardly inspires great confidence in El Comandante’s mental clarity: The book is poorly organized, and much of the content has no relevance to the Colombian conflict. He devotes three chapters to proving that the "Cuban Revolution proclaimed much more self-evident truths than the Declaration of Philadelphia, on 4 July 1776."

And, of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that Castro "wrote" the book, for it consists mostly of excerpts of historical documents and other previously published material, punctuated with commentary. Chapter two reproduces selections from Marulanda’s notebooks, first published in 1973; chapter three simply copies portions of Colombian journalist Arturo Alape’s histories of FARC. And so on.

However, there is one revelation, in chapter eight, that has shaken up the Colombian political landscape. Analysts of Colombia’s conflict have long supposed that FARC used the cease-fire that accompanied the 1999 peace talks with President Andrés Pastrana (1998–2002) as an opportunity to rearm themselves in preparation for a major offensive. It’s a charge FARC’s leadership has long denied. Castro himself served as interlocutor between Pastrana and FARC during the failed peace process, and here he reproduces previously unpublished excerpts of his communications with the Cuban envoy to FARC, José Arbesú. Arbesú notes the insincerity of FARC’s intentions to demobilize as part of the peace process, claiming that "the FARC’s objective is to participate in three or four rounds . . . and leave the negotiations with a positive image." Arbesú claims that Marulanda maintained that "the only way to pressure the government is to continue the war." In other words, Arbesú’s notes provide the first hard evidence confirming that FARC never intended to abandon its armed struggle.

The publication of this news arrived at the perfect time for Castro’s ideological opposite, current Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Bolstered by popular disgust with FARC’s reliance on kidnapping as a military tactic (which Castro repeatedly condemns) and alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade, South America’s lone right-wing head of state ramped up lobbying for a constitutional amendment to allow a third presidential term shortly after the book’s release. He has already successfully amended the constitution once, to enable his second term in office, and many analysts think he will carry the presidency again.

Uribe’s popularity emanates from his success in overwhelming FARC militarily. Rejecting peace talks, he began an aggressive military campaign that has displaced the rebel army from its traditional strongholds in the southeast, pushing them ever further into the Amazon jungle. Uribe’s military victories have sparked hope among the populace that the never-ending war might finally be winding down.

Whether Uribe succeeds depends on the continued depiction of FARC as an untrustworthy terrorist group devoid of political legitimacy. Ironically, Castro’s book has helped Uribe achieve that aim and, therefore, assist him in his bid for a third term. The center-right Colombian daily El Tiempo ran an article about Castro’s revelation, to which one Internet reader commented, "[FARC] never had peace in mind; they have no honesty, [and] they only used the great opportunity that Pastrana gave them to buy time and rearm themselves. All of us who don’t buy their stories already knew this, but Fidel saying it is the icing on the cake."

Of course, it wasn’t Castro’s intention to undermine FARC’s credibility. Castro blames not the rebels but the Colombian government and U.S. imperialism for being the most insurmountable obstacles to the resolution of the conflict.

Despite the hopeful title, readers will not find a proposal for a negotiated settlement to the war anywhere in the book’s 265 pages. Castro concludes by reaffirming his 55-year-old belief that "the true revolutionary should never lay down his arms" and praising Marulanda for fighting "until the last drop of blood." Bitter enemies though they are, Castro and Uribe agree on one thing: Peace in Colombia will never happen without a decisive military victory. If Uribe gets his way, that’s exactly what will happen. Castro must surely lament the fact that one of his last public statements will push the Colombian president closer to that goal.

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