A controversial new book by a Canadian scholar who spent nearly ten years studying the FARC-EP says the rebel group has been “demonized” by domestic and foreign powers. His book is intended to dispel the myths surrounding their cause.
In an interview with Colombia Reports, James J. Brittain, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said that the book, released three months ago in North America and Europe, had already had an intensely polarized reception in academic and political circles.
Brittain said his research, which includes interviews carried out in the field with guerrillas and peasants alike, gave him an understanding of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Peoples’ Army (FARC-EP) different from that portrayed in the “mainstream media.”
Scholars, journalists, and governments alike have categorized the FARC-EP as a “movement void of ideological position seeking individualistic economic power through violent means,” he claims.
On the contrary, in his book, titled “Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP,” Brittain argues that history has shown the rebel group to be “the most powerful and successful guerrilla army in the world.”
He says that no in-depth scholarship has previously been conducted on the FARC-EP’s ideological or practical relation to contemporary social change.
The book traces the growth of the rebel movement, from its roots in the Colombian Communist Party following the tumultuous era of political upheaval known as “La Violencia,” to its emergence as the FARC in the 1960s and early skirmishes with U.S.-backed government forces, and finally to the present day FARC-EP.
Brittain’s book is highly critical of U.S. involvement in Colombia, and argues that Washington has been the most influential force in the demonization of the FARC.
From his home in Canada, Brittain spoke with Colombia Reports about his fieldwork, and the passions his research has invoked from both sides of the political spectrum.
Colombia Reports: What was your motivation in conducting this study? Was it for political reasons, or scientific research?
Brittain: Definitely scientific research. I was interested; can a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement really create change? Can we see a Marxist-Leninist revolution create change that is legitimately of the people? Is the FARC really a people’s army? Over the years, I was amazed at a lot of the responses of everyday people – campesinos and indigenous people. There seems to be a very different presentation of the FARC coming from them than what I was reading in El Tiempo and the international mainstream media. Not that all the people were in open arms, but people were expressing different opinions of the FARC.
CR: Was the Colombian government aware of the theme of your research? Were there any problems from the government with visa issues or restriction of movement?
Brittain: There weren’t too many problems until the last year and a half. There have been issues, but interestingly they were from the Canadian government. The Canadian government seems to be really interested in what I was doing and they were getting info from the Colombian government. I had members of the Canadian version of the DAS (immigration service) contact me, asking what is the research about, etc. There have been threats, though. For example I received messages from the paramilitaries, from the Black Eagles. And most recently there have been accusations that I am not an academic but a sympathizer of the movement.
CR: How did you make contact with the FARC? And how did you move in and out of FARC-held territory?
Brittain: Since 2002 – this was when Plan Patriota was in full effect – it was actually quite easy. I was surprised. I think the FARC did a lot of intelligence to see who I was, what I was doing, but to get into guerrilla territory was easy. Because of the economic disparity, you can ask someone to take you to rebel areas for 50 bucks. And they’ll do it. You hop into a boat, and sure enough it doesn’t take time for a guerrilla to stop the boat. Later there was an increased sensibility of what I was doing. You can literally email the FARC through a website. After I sat with them a few times they became comfortable enough to let me sit in a camp and let me document; that I wasn’t a gringo informant but an actual academic.
CR: Was there any moment when you felt threatened? Or that you felt uneasy?
Brittain: Well I think there were several times I was nervous, because I was obviously asking questions that perhaps they didn’t want to be asked. But I never felt threatened. The attitude was, among the peasants, that there was no one coming to talk to them. So on that end there was an attitude among the peasants, “please come and see what the guerrillas are doing here.” I think, if something did happen to me, there would be backlash. It would have reflected negatively on them. The only times I felt threatened was running into state forces, or paramilitary groups; that was a whole different ballgame. There was one time I was stopped and they said freely, “let’s just take him out back and shoot him.” Being told, “we could disappear you,” that really stayed with me.
CR: How do you perceive the rebels, and why do you say people misunderstand the guerrilla?
Brittain: I think geopolitically Colombia is very important, and that there is a need to make Colombia look dangerous. Washington worked very closely, especially with Pastrana, to stabilize the country. From their perspective you have to make sure you eliminate any viable alternative, be it the Bolivarian alternative or what the FARC is doing. I think what is being portrayed in the mainstream media, they tell very clearly one side of the story. It is always from a single lens, be it the military or government officials. It paints a very different picture of the civil war.
CR: Your work is highly critical of U.S. involvement in Colombia. How has that been received?
Brittain: It is quite interesting because there has already been controversy…there seems to be almost a complete divide, people either agree with it or there is a completely polar opposite response, where people are dramatically opposed to the research, where they feel it’s propaganda or not true. And the fact that the government seems to be so interested in the research shows there is some interest in the subject.
CR: You mention the book as dispelling many of the myths surrounding the rebel group. What are the myths?
Brittain: The absolute number one myth is their indirect relationship to coca cultivation and the drug trade. It has not been thoroughly addressed. I hope what one gets out of the book is how the guerrilla is not directly involved in the process, cultivation, production or trafficking of drugs. But there are clearly fronts that are involved in taxing of the trade. It is clear they receive income from taxing but not from the production.
CR: What about reports of the FARC killing those engaged in coca eradication, some of them campesinos themselves? Doesn’t that suggest they have more of a keen interest in protecting the illicit crops and have more involvement than you say?
Brittain: Yes it has been seen that they will protect coca fields that are the only source of income for campesino farmers, to guarantee a return on their income. But unfortunately you get a minimal form of eradication, it is severely down recently. But their involvement is indirect. Another myth is the issue of human rights abuses. I think there is some very good work coming out by international human rights groups. But who is the actual perpetrator of human rights abuses? Since 2003 you see a significant proportion of human rights violations are at the hands of state or state-assisted paramilitary forces. Since ‘98 you see a minority of human rights abuses perpetrated by guerrilla fighters. Obviously the guerrilla is going to be involved in atrocious violent acts, but you have to put it in a proper context so that you don’t say the guerrilla is primarily responsible.
CR: Based on your personal experience, what sort of people is the FARC comprised of at present; are they forced conscripts, or are these really idealistic, radicalized peasants?
Brittain: The issue with force conscription is important to address. Unlike the paramilitary the FARC do not pay a monthly income to their average fighter. I actually argue forced conscription is potentially not as truthful as the state or the main media makes it out to be. From what I have seen if there were forced conscription there would be terrible low morale. If people wanted to leave, they could. People are overly encouraged to leave if they feel they can not devote their entire lives to the movement. In my ten years of research I have not seen one case where there was a child under sixteen, or any forced conscription at all.
CR: Do you think the common peasant, given the conditions in the campo, such as illiteracy and lack of education, can truly have a grasp on Marxist theory? Couldn’t it be argued that they are influenced by anti-Yankee demonization, i.e., they idea that the United States is the cause of all their problems?
Brittain: In the camps, you’ll have some peasants that don’t know how to read at all. It’s ridiculous for a comandante to start lecturing on Trotsky because many of them can not read. Their education is very basic. It is only at higher levels that Marxist theory is touched upon. And outside the camps, the guerrillas are working with peasants, teaching them how to read. But, on the other hand, what ended up being said at a lot of these camps, in the aftermath of 9-11, is that they are not against the United States. What they are against is the political-economical system that is often enforced on the world. Instead of breeding this “Yankee imperialism blah blah blah,” what they are doing is educating the average peasant that it is not the average American citizen that is against them.
CR: A lot of reports seems to indicate that lately the FARC have degenerated into a corrupt, dirty organization. Has the FARC tarnished itself through forced conscription, use of child soldiers, landmines, extortion, its leaders enjoying lavish lifestyles, and extrajudicial killings both within and outside their ranks?
Brittain: I have found very different reactions. There are many international actors looking to label FARC as a belligerent force, which under the Geneva Conventions would legitimize their fight to confront the state. The landmines they use are really primitive; they use whatever they can improvise to confront the state. So yes they do use this horrible weapon in their war. As for lavish lifestyles, in the camps the comandantes live the exact same life as the average fighter. On one trip I made, the lavish meal I shared with them was rat. That was the big fancy meal the comandante was eating. There is more of an outside distortion of what the FARC is, rather than them tarnishing themselves. I think the FARC are still for what they have been fighting for the last 45 years.
CR: What do you think about the recent account that three American contractors wrote about their observations of the guerrillas while held in captivity for 5 years? They describe inequality in the ranks between FARC commanders and subordinates, rebels who question their cause – even to the point of suicide as a way out.
Brittain: I think it is interesting what arises with the three contractors. They were treated as prisoners of war. If the FARC didn’t want to hold them according to the Geneva Conventions, they would have eliminated these people. They saw them as political commodity; they see all prisoners as a way to enter into peace talks. In my research what I saw was different. I think it is far more important to look at why the guerrilla continues to keep these people prisoners still. What I suspect is that they’re using these people, many of whom the FARC see as involved in the conflict; members of the government, members of the military, large landowners. They see these people as a means to set up a humanitarian exchange or to bring about peace negotiations. I think it is in no way comparable to Middle East image of hostages, where they are torturing or pulling out toenails. They are seen as political commodities as a way to get the state into negotiations to end the conflict.
CR: What would it take to get the FARC to the table? Do you think they could follow the example of FMLN in El Salvador, which fought a civil war, then became part of the political process, and now has seen the election of its first president?
Brittain: I really do, 100%. The parties can very easily start a peace process and negotiations. First of all a demilitarized zone, respected by all sides, where all can sit down in a place without conflict, with no threat from the resurgence in paramilitary activity which we have seen lately. Then I think we can see humanitarian exchange take place and also negotiations to end the conflict. Until there is a demilitarized zone there is no assurance. You have to stop the fighting in order to have negotiations.
CR: A demilitarized zone was ceded to the FARC in the past, and weren’t there accusations that they violated the ceasefire?
Brittain: Well yes, in the first days of that the AUC paramilitaries [United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia] murdered hundreds of people. In the past the state did nothing, so the FARC again took up arms in self defense and the defense of civilians. We can learn from the 1998-2002 peace process to set up a new, lasting peace process. The state has to ensure that there is a demilitarized zone, with enforcement to prevent aggression from gangs or paramilitaries. That was what we saw at that time, it was state forces or state forces with paramilitaries committing massacres. That’s what we were seeing with the “false positives” [extra-judicial killings of civilians by the military, which are reported as FARC fighters killed in combat].
CR: What changes do you foresee in Colombian society, should the FARC ever achieve political power?
Brittain: I think it’s really hard to foresee what they would do. If the FARC ever took state power, the response from the U.S. would be incredible, and we would see something like what happened in Nicaragua in the 1980s. If the FARC are to achieve any form of political power it would have to be with the backing and support of the people.