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Published: October 25th 2010
On the road between San Augustin and Popoyan the bus stopped at what we thought was another army roadblock. There were several that day. This time, however, a scowling man wearing a hat that said F.A.R.C appeared. He aimed a machine gun through the window. A ripple of anxious murmurs passed through the bus. We realised that we had been stopped by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Colombia's most dominant and infamous guerilla group.
We got off the bus and the joined the crowd stood waiting outside the other five or six buses that had already been stopped. The area was perfect for an ambush. Steep muddy banks and dense vegetation loomed over the winding dirt road. A few FARC soldiers sauntered past but paid us little attention. I, along with my travelling companions Sam and Joshy, tried to keep a low profile. Over the past 10 to 20 years the FARC have kidnapped and held for ransom a number of foreigners - we were a little worried.
However, we relaxed when the bus driver returned from a talk with one of the soldiers. He reported that the soldier had said there is nothing to worry about and we will be on our way in about 45 minutes. We realised that some of the passengers from the other buses were casually chatting with the soldiers. No one appeared to be concerned.
Eventually the soldiers gathered all of the passengers together into a large huddle in the road in front of a mud bank. What appeared to be the leader emerged from the bushes behind and stood, machine gun in hand, looking down at us (mass execution?). He looked like what you would imagine a revolutionary to look like: camo cargo pants, vest, muscular, campesino features, and armed with an M-16. He was just lacking the Che style beret.
He greeted us and said that they had stopped us to explain who they were and what were their objectives. Luckily he spoke in clear, well educated Spanish so I could understand most of his polemic.
He explained that the government controls the media, which presents a very biased picture of the FARC and Colombian life. He told us that the FARC represent the people - the Campesinos and the poor who are suppressed and taken advantage of by the elite. He wants to bring equality to all people of Colombia. The FARC are fighting against the government and the elite of Colombia, and do not intentionally harm the people.
He said that armed conflict is the only channel open to them as free speech and political democratic process are ruthlessly suppressed. In the past there were a number of high profile assassinations of opposing political figures and troublemakers. I remember reading that following a government initiative to incorporate guerilla groups into the political system, one of the groups surrendered their arms and formed a political party. They were then all assassinated.
He stated that they want to expel the Americans who are manipulating the government to increase their power, have a dominant military presence (including 4 or 5 military bases), and have created unfair trading agreements so that US corporations dominate Colombian industry.
He spoke about Nicaragua as an example of what they want to achieve. After a long revolutionary war a socialist government was finally elected and the Campesinos have a better standard of living. He didn't mention that outside of the Campesino villages (where there does seem to be an improvement) the majority of people believe that the government is just as corrupt as before.
I looked around and most of the audience were nodding in agreement. And, from my three months experience in the country, I too agreed with most of what he said. I thought back to some of the locals I have met, who have told me that the social and political system is very unjust, right wing, elitist, and greed ridden. A situation that is being perpetuated by the current government as the gulf between the rich and the poor widens. A rich ruling upper class and wealthy middle class control most business assets and the access to resources and education. The poor majority have little opportunity to better their situation and live on less than $250 per month, despite that Colombia is one of the most expensive countries in Latin America.
I thought back to my experiences in Bogota, where the disparity is clear. In Candelaria and the North of the city the children of the wealthy eat in restaurants everyday, drink in trendy bars, wearing designer clothes, under the protection of police and private security. Yet in the South of the city people are struggling to make enough money to survive. People try and scratch out a living on the streets selling anything they can think of and aggressive beggars and thieves prowl looking for prey.
I remembered the seething anti-american locals I met in Central America who told me about the brutal wars waged in Guatamala, Nicaragua and El Salvador propagated, funded, armed, and soldiers trained by the US. Hundreds of thousands of local people died. Purportedly to protect the interests of multinational US corporations. I thought about the people I had met there who were still dependant on US corporations despite the ongoing history of exploitation and domination.
The leader spoke for some time before stopping to take questions, wished us a pleasant journey and sent us on our way. The crowd thanked him for speaking to them and we piled back on to our buses and continued our journey.
As I continued my journey I understood that the FARC had presented one side of a multifaceted story, but of which they have little opportunity to speak. I realised that despite the sense in their views I have met no one that supports the FARC - viewing them as corrupted by drug trafficking and crime. Their ideals swallowed by the craving for power and money by controlling the drugs trade.
I considered how one friend had told me that it is not in the best interests of either the FARC or the government to end the war. The FARC would lose control of the drugs trade and with it their power. The government would lose the millions provided by the US government to combat it. The government would lose their popular support - won by its perceived success at securing the country. Without the threat of the FARC, a hard line right wing government that emphasises national security over social security and favours the rich would not be so easy to justify. Ironically, it seems that by continuing their "terrorist" campaign and by participating in the drugs trade the FARC are making the government stronger.
The situation is, of course, a lot more complicated. I haven't even begin to talk about the paramilitary groups, social cleansing, or drugs cartels. In this nexus in the struggle for wealth and power there are many different players with vested interests. The control of cocaine production is one of these interests. But at least I heard part of the story direct - one of my most salient travelling experiences to date.
Unfortunately, I have no photos to add to this entry. I thought asking the FARC to pose for a picture with me might be pushing my luck!
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