On a Sunday morning in Caracas, I met a man whose name is written in the history of the Latin American revolutions: Commander Ramiro Vásquez, military leader of the Armed Liberation Forces created in the 80s by the Communist Party of El Salvador, member of the General Command of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and currently Secretary of Organization of the FMLN and VIce Minister of Foreign Commerce of El Salvador.
Free of the bias that contaminates the reason of many men and women who have occupied positions of institutional power, Commander Ramiro analyzed the implications and the future of the Peace Agreement signed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of Juan Manuel Santos.
He presents himself as ‘still Commander Ramiro, a friend to the Colombian Revolution, to the Bolivarian Revolution, and in my own country we’re still revolutionaries and fighters.
On Colombia he says: ‘We’ve accompanied the struggles of Colombia for many years. Throughout the political battle surrounding the kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, we were invited by people of the political right-wing to discuss the issue, and I described the Colombian war as the last bleeding wound in Latin America, and said it’s was crucial for all of us to join the battle to help the Colombian people, the comrades of the FARC, to draw an honorable and dignified path to allow them to conquer political and democratic spaces.
‘We believe that the process that has begun with the signing of the Peace Agreements, and the steps that the comrades of the FARC are taking, is an opportunity. We know about the previous times these comrades have tried to build that road, which have ended violently, with very hard defeats for the revolutionary forces. These sad experiences had created a lack of hope in the possibility to make progress in the road to the revolution.
I’ve been involved in that effort since the 90s. In one opportunity, we visited Commander Manuel [Marulanda], we talked to him, we talked to Raúl [Reyes], and other comrades of the FARC Secretariat, and we began that process that opened with the Meetings for Peace in Colombia: we held the first one in El Salvador, the second one in Mexico and the third one in Managua; and then the dialogue froze.
Now, we’ve seen and taken part of the negotiation process, in an official manner. I was invited twice to Havana, to the discussion on specific items regarding the military aspect, along with other members of the negotiation commission of El Salvador. We were able to get to know the dynamics, and the difficulties the process had then, and we are very glad that an agreement has been reached. We know it holds its risks, threats and dangers, but it’s an opportunity for Colombia, for the Colombian people, and of course for all of the FARC’s troops, to find a path far from arms to build a new Motherland.
Aminta Beleño Gómez (A. B. G.): The decision made by the FARC reopens the debate on different forms of struggle. Could we say it questions the relevance of armed struggle in Latin America?
Commander Ramiro Vásquez (C. R. V.): Such a categorical affirmation can’t be made, ever, on these issues, because it depends on society-specific correlations of force, on political spaces, and on the forces that are present in each scenario. of course, in any Latin American country where a brutal, repressive, military regime is installed that persecutes, tortures and murders, the peoples are legitimately authorized to take the necessary steps to defend their interests. One can’t decree nor dictate any pre-conceived recipe in this sense.
But Colombia hasn’t yet overcome the phase where there’s a State that represses, murders and violates Human Rights. So, how must we read the fact that a historically radical guerrilla has taken this step?
C.R.V.: The principles and the norms that must solve this state of affairs have been agreed upon. Now, everything depends on the construction of a positive social and political correlation of forces, to put pressure on the decision-makers to guarantee that an end is put on repression, crimes and torture.
- B . G.: Is this attainable?
- R. V.: I believe so.
- B . G.: Was it possible in El Salvador? Were the human rights of the FMLN fighters respected after the armed organization transitioned to a political one?
- R. V.: I’d say the peace process in El Salvador was one of the most solid ones in the world. There was not a single military fight after the peace process. Murders were committed, many of our commanders died, but they were always isolated actions—it was never a State policy. We were able to make a difference, and got the judicial machinery to act, and we stopped that.
- B . G.: Does your experience tell you that a similar thing could happen in Colombia?
- R. V.: Without a doubt. After that fraudulent vote [the October 2 plebiscite] where the people were deceived, a new Colombia has emerged: one that demands that the agreements are respected—different from the one that emerged with the results of the vote. Of course, there’s a number of factors to be taken into account, and the Colombian society must demand loyalty to the process.
- B . G.: From the point of view of the correlation of forces, how must we read the Peace Agreement?
- R. V.: I’d read it from two points of view. The way we read our own peace process is that 12 years of war had been taking place during an international context that began with a strong, solid URSS and ended with a URSS that was torn apart, and Socialist arc that was also torn apart. Added to the electoral defeat of the Sandinista Front in Nicaragua—our neighbor—, which were of course factors that were taken into account by us at the General Command of the FMLN when we made the decision to transform our military capital into political capital, and transform our guerrilla army into a political army and try to do with political force what we hadn’t achieved through arms; with a very intense war that involved the whole national territory, all of the security forces, all of the military forces, and that had costed us the tragic number of over 130 thousand dead, in a tiny territory of only seven million of inhabitants.
In this context, we faced the need to negotiate and we used our military force to get the dialogue policy of the government to turn into a negotiation policy, to make way for a political solution to the conflict.
First, many said it was the defeat of the guerrilla forces, and the victory of the other side. Now that time has passed and the changes that were designed into the peace agreement are visible, that interpretation has changed.
And, really, the winner in that negotiation was the Salvadoran people, and peace. Of course, there are always things to improve, such as: the democratization of the economy, ensuring the total fulfillment of political freedoms to allow peoples to freely express themselves, or the great battle regarding public safety—this belongs to the realm of the political discussion that needs to be held openly, and where society must actively participate. I believe that this is what allows that, in time, enough changes accumulate to begin to create a new, different society—one that is more peaceful, where people have more ability to dialogue and understand each other.
In our case, there are still confrontations between us and the right and far-right, but we don’t shoot at them any more to solve our differences with them; there are tricks and dirty war tactics being used, but the scenario has changed; today, we argue, we vote, we win deputies, we win city halls —or lose them, but each battle creates an accumulation of social and political consciousness of the need to transform.
Then, I believe that for the brothers and sisters of the FARC, the upcoming battle is about transforming that huge political and military strength they have into a great political force; it means that for each combatant there will be a change of arena, they must fight a new battle with the same love and dedication and remember that us revolutionaries are committed to a life-long fight, no matter in which arena.
- B . G.: Which are the biggest dangers that an armed organization faces when it becomes a political one, regarding its strategic goals? I’m thinking about the nature of militancy, beyond the dirty war tactics that one faces, knowing that the system is what it is and that in this arena the organization doesn’t have as much control over each combatant as in a military organization. What elements must be taken into account to be able to preserve the organization and grow?
- R. V.: I believe that this touches two big topics. One is the human aspect. This is more accepted in the case of Colombia, because it’s a guerrilla with more years, where the cadres, the fighters, have lost the conditions of city life, or civil life: from paying rent and taxes to having a family and social relations. This takes time to rebuild, and there’s a risk. It happened to us—those of us who came from the mountain, came back to the city and a huge amount of people that supported the FMLN wanted to join, and we opened to them and became a huge political party. When we came out of clandestinity we were 15 thousand combatants, and soon we were a party with 125 thousand affiliates.
So, there was a loss of ideology within the Front, and suddenly, on our path to electoral struggle, we realized that this massification of our ranks had caused our organization to mutate and adopt practices, styles and points of view that weren’t ours, and then began a political and ideological struggle that still persists.
So that, let’s call it the personal aspect, is important because it influences matters. Some comrades will declare themselves free, and will dismiss themselves—they will say: I gave my best years to this, now I want to live my life, I want to be with my children, I want to study… and they have the right to do so, of course. However, the most dedicated men and women will remain in the ranks of the revolution.
The other big topic is that, after signing the peace agreements, our enemies were across the table from us for the first time, they were able to take a good look at us from head to toe and knew for the first time who we were. And they used all of their experience from Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua and Central America to make a plan to destroy the FMLN—and this is very important:—a plan that aimed to break the essential traits that defined it as a revolutionary party. First, its ideology, through an intense, permanent campaign, that killed us symbolically. Gone were the days where they killed us with gunshots; now they began to recruit us, to co-opt militants, combatants and leaders of the FMLN, and we suffered losses that were sadder and more painful than in the war, because in a combat you hold the dead body of your comrade and you turn her into an example, but the other ones—the ones that fall and become traitors… they stink.
So, the first attack is against ideology, and they preach to you that ideology separates you from the people, that people don’t get it. And we went through that right after the fall of the Soviet Union, and they were preaching the end of history, of ideologies; Fukuyama was at his peak, and this had consequences.
Before the war, during our period in clandestinity and during war, we had a school of ideological training, with study programs, and after the war, many militants, combatants and some leaders, adopted that thought: ‘why study, why prepare ourselves, why read Marxism?’. They almost made us feel ashamed of our ideology, of that ideology that had allowed us to build a movement where thousands of men and women of El Salvador had even decided to give their lives for the revolution; it was an ideology we had created in the rural areas, in farms, in factories—not in Moscow nor Cuba as they said.
I’d say we have to be ready, because they will use that, without a doubt they will try to rip the claws and fangs out of the Colombian revolutionary forces, to try to tame them and subdue them. That is the ideological aspect.
Then came another attack: to disorganize the movement. An essential characteristic of our movement was a high level of organicity between all of our structures: the social, the military, and the political one; in the villages, the cantons, the countryside, the neighborhoods, the colonies… There was an organization that began with the father, the mother, the children… There was almost a complete commitment in the rural area, and an attack began: they said the grassroots committees, the cells, restricted the participation of society in the new scenario, and we needed to open up… Effectively, they transformed us into a big party, a mass party, but watered-down, without a backbone, without the muscles to live… We’ve invested, after that, many years to recover—we’re still confronting this sort of ideas, but we’ve understood it and we’ve made a big effort.
A third element, that has impacted greatly, was attacking our conception of discipline. Again, they said that discipline drives militants away, that it prevents the party from reaching the heart of the people, that it doesn’t allow free thinkers to express themselves, and that we need them. We believe that yes, freethinkers help and they have the right to exist, but not within a party that has a historical project and needs to be able to focus all of its energy in critical times, hard times, and times with opportunity, and turn it into an iron fist.
We had hard times when we lost that—a part of the direction said let’s go North, others came up with ‘let’s go East’ and the rest said South… and the party loses strength and the ability to build something.
So, they’re going to attack discipline, which is precisely one of the FARC’s great strengths: their iron will to remain in adverse conditions, fighting, combatting, harassed, isolated, and their will never broke. They’re going to try to break it.
The fourth axis, in our case, was the attempt to distance us, and to disconnect us from the grassroots, from the social classes that were interested in the socialist transformations that we still dream of. And in the FMLN, until the 2009 battle, we’ve managed to gain back the support of peasants… In the 80s, our guerrilla columns were mainly made up of rural workers, and we had lost that.
The fifth and last element is that they weaken the concept of strategy in the organization and try to get us to handle everything with publicity and communication.
In our case, in the peak of the war, even the simplest of our fighters had a crystal clear idea of our strategy. Now, we’d be hard-pressed to find someone that can tell the people the essence of political strategy: is it to win seats, to have deputies and mayors to sit their asses in the townhalls? It blurs our strategy, which is the element that motivates people to support the revolutionary forces.
I’d say, then, that we must take care of those five elements. They’re the essence of the new party that Lenin defined in the early 19th century, which is capable of making the revolution, and the changes and transformations that societies need.
Possibly, today, the strategists of the groups that want to defeat the revolution have new elements, new technology—such as social networks and those things that are in fashion today— incorporated into their strategy.
But, essentially, they will try to tame the revolutionary forces, co-opting their men and women, using particularly one thing that is the essential trait of the neoliberal model we’ve faced in recent times.
Because we’ve developed a great ability to denounce the neoliberal model for its economic expression, its relation with financial capital and its ability to concentrate businesses; but we’ve done very little to unveil the ideological side of neoliberalism—which is the most dangerous one: individualism. They use it to destroy and tear apart all acollective causes, they turn individuals into the ultimate thing, everyone believes he or she is the only one that counts, I know better than anybody else, everyone else’s opinion doesn’t count, so do what I say or fuck you. In our case, we lost many valuable leaders because of that.
This is another issue that we must take care of, we must debate it, say it, tell it to combatants, because they are used to being very pure, ideologically speaking. Guerrilla fronts and military structures allow you to build a very aseptic environment that annihilates any foreign ideological element. Outside the front you lose control and the warmth of that brotherhood or sisterhood that’s born in the battlefront, in the camps.
- B . G.: What should the FARC cling on to avoid losing direction?
- R. V.: Three factors are essential: organization, collective work, and ideological training, which is what has saved us from disappearing, which was one of the fears we had when we left the war. Our comrade Schafik said something: we didn’t come back as stray sheep that come back to the pen, to the system. We come back as revolutionaries that succeeded in changing the system; we’re going to get into the system to change it from within, not to be changed by it.
That has been our slogan until now, we’ve fought with the belief that we have to build the political force necessary to make the changes we couldn’t do with weapons in our hands. And that… if we have to go there again, we’ll go back in greater number, to seek to solve things more quickly.