Today we have an interview with Yanis Iqbal, a student and freelance writer from Aligarh, India, who has written many articles on the topic of the subaltern under neoliberalism and the topic of imperialism in Latin America and Colombia.
Q: Hello Yanis, first of all to get us started we have this question. Why are you interested in studying the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and Latin America?
A: I’m a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, in India
I’m interested in studying FARC because of two reasons: Firstly, the contemporary situation in Colombia necessitates that we reanalyze the status of the FARC Guerillas in the country. Currently, violence against social leaders, environmental leaders and even Afro-Colombians has intensified. Colombian armed forces have killed indigenous peoples, journalists, part of the environmentalist Group for the Liberation of Mother Earth, and two other environmentalists have been killed. One of them was the president of the community action board of a village. And these killings belong to a systematic framework where social leaders, environmentalists, are being assassinated. 185 social leaders and human rights defenders have been assassinated in 2020 and more than 30 ex-FARC guerillas have been murdered in the same year. And under Ivan Duque, the killing of social leaders has intensified. Since Duque’s election to power in 2018, more than 500 social leaders and more than 80 ex-FARC guerillas have been killed. Within this general picture of violence we can analyze how FARC guerillas consist of more than narcoterrorism which is what the corporate MSM portrays them as in many countries. And their history is actually composed of forging hegemony. The analysis of FARC in the present-day concrete conditions is that FARC was more than a group of bandits.
The second reason is that the FARC organization has operated in the age of neoliberalism where the peripheries of global imperialism where the peripheries have suffered intensified exploitation. In neoliberalism, there has been a drastic decline of the left in the current stage and a complete dominance of capitalism. Existing in this new liberal era where analysis such as Francis Fukuyama has already declared the end of history. FARC has resolutely opposed the mechanisms of exploitation and pillage and has provided the left with a glimpse of what a materialistic optimism can look like. Whereas many leftists have chosen to satisfy themselves with measly electoral gains and have revered in meek reformism, FARC has continued with the supposedly Leninist thesis of smashing the state apparatus, thus proving to the world that a thorough revolution and a complete negation of capitalist conditions are still possible.
Q: How do you think the FARC compares to other groups like the Maoists in India & the Philippines? They seem to have similarities in the way they hold territory and operate?
A: Yes, their strategy is similar to other organizations. For this comparison, we can analyze the political philosophy of FARC. FARC does not have a foco theory, and they have followed the theory of PPW. While outlining this foco theory, Che had said that while conditions for revolution cannot be created by guerilla activity, the praxis of the guerilla group is both the cause of material conditions and the creation of material conditions. While he did believe that some structural conditions were necessary for guerilla activity, he wrongly deemphasized the work of preparatory social work giving a thrust to armed struggle. Che thought that a bond was created between the guerrilla and the people through the armed struggle itself, contradicting this claim FARC has maintained a model where power is accumulated by the establishment of broad support over long periods of time. It has undertaken careful and particular revolutionary work in the form of social welfare for instance, and this is a prerequisite for a socially embedded force. FARC’s organizational work has therefore involved the building of an alternative state within the state and establishing broad support. The local armed action has disrupted the state and has provided them with opportunities to emerge. And the state has not been able to deal with this disruption except with increased violence. FARC works by demoralizing the military with constant blows and delegitimizing the state by showing its inability to provide even a minimum welfare.
Q: One of the things that pop up is the big role of women in the FARC.
A: Women in the FARC have played an important role and the relationship of women in the FARC guerillas has been a bit ambiguous. 50% of members are female with 30-35% of the commanders also being female. The percentage of women in the Colombian government is 10%, with municipal levels being 5%. Only 2% of [Army] soldiers are female. In this sense, the FARC has involved a lot of women in its organizational activity and has involved them in their combat activity. This is a good sign, the high percentage can be explained by the fact that women see in FARC an organization that fights for their interest and can contribute to solving their problems.
While the work as a member of the FARC is dangerous, women’s membership in this group offers protection from daily violence. FARC even has created a zero-tolerance policy in regard [to sexual violence] with the punishment being up to death. This is an extreme policy but it has offered them protection and protects them against sexual violence both from their comrades and other groups.
Their membership also permits them actual freedom. While relationships must be approved by a commander both begin and end, permission is rarely withheld. To avoid a situation that could risk a woman’s allegiance to the cause, contraception is mandatory and pregnancy means the child must be either aborted or sent away. This can often lead to traumatic experiences and abortion was often one of the main causes of female desertion. Repeated abortion has repeatedly disillusioned female fighters and caused them to abandon the fact.
Q: What do you think of the change in FARC through the peace talks? How do you think this reflects on the philosophy of FARC?
A: The political effects of FARC’s demobilization have been huge on the subaltern classes in Colombia. The intense relationship between the internalization of the relations of oppression which inhibited the ability to antagonize the dominant classes and the potential to rebellion that indicates characteristics of autonomous initiative. With the demobilization of the FARC, I believe that the tense relationship has shifted to the internalization of the relationships of domination. When the FARC was engaged in armed struggle, it was totally opposed to the Colombian state and operated as an external actor opposed to this instrument of oppression. The relationship of antagonism was one of the few cases where an external actor attempted to undermine the external mechanisms of the Colombian state. This means that the political subject was completely and critically defined in relationship to the state, and the experience of subordination subjectively heightened by the FARC guerillas in relation to the state.
With demobilization, the guerillas have entered in a relationship with the state and have ceased being external actors. They are now struggling in and against the state as they are integrated into the state apparatus and participate legally in the political process. Consequently, this has meant a re-subalternization of the people who have experienced the de-intensification of the antagonism from rebellion to resistance. Resistance is the constitutive political action of subaltern subjects. The act of subjective emergence is the movement from passivity to action, from subjection to politicization. Nonetheless, it expresses a relationship of subordination as it cannot attempt to breach the regulation limits of the relationships of domination that establishes their concrete boundaries. The subaltern instantiates resistance and ultimately resistance is not merely a reaction but merely aims on a proactive level to modify its totality, negotiating the terms where the relationship of authority and obedience is exercised. Resistance does not reject the relationships of domination, since domination is permitted to continue. Resistance establishes a balance that allows for a permanent renegotiation where the subaltern classes forge a specific political subjectivity.
In contrast, [armed] rebellion questions the structures of domination by establishing life at the edges of this structure with the intention of ultimately subverting these structures. Rebellion tries to provoke a crisis of domination. With demobilization, FARC has entered a phase of resistance as the guerillas have been incorporated into the structures of dominance and are renegotiating their position within the system to actualize their situation.
Q: How did this group of 50 peasants grow up to be the FARC, such a large organization?
A: There are many factors that can explain the ballooning or strengthening of the FARC guerillas. They grew from a small force to a large organization through a strategy of socially embedded guerilla warfare wherein they listened to the practical necessities of the poor people and worked with them, helping the revolutionary culmination of class contradictions. Firstly, the guerillas were grounded in a highly unequal rural political economy in which the majority of the rural people are agricultural laborers or precarious owners of extremely small crop farms facing constant displacement by rich actants. Displacement in Colombia is a large-scale phenomena and it is estimated that displaced farmers were forced to abandon more than 10 million hectares of land.
In addition to small-scale subsistence farmers, coca farmers present another section of oppressed people who are strengthening the FARC organization. Sometimes small scale farmers are forced to cultivate coca by a nexus of drug traffickers and paramilitaries. When paramilitaries arrive at a certain region they make it clear that those who wish to remain living must cultivate. FARC, by combatting paramilitary violence and instituting social welfare projects was able to gain a foothold in rural regions of Colombia.
Take an example, in Putumayo for example FARC’s daily activities have made them social actors which could intervene in the civic strikes, help the peasants and magnify the impact of the marches by organizing the campesinos to stay mobilized months at a time. By lending support to the movement, FARC helped strengthen the movements’ negotiating capacity to manipulate the state. On top of providing logistical support, FARC guerillas have also been combatting political violence and essentially stabilizing the life of the movement. Instead of drug use, the FARC have regulated the coca trade for the benefit of growth. They control the majority of the coca growing territory and that’s for a reason. If they didn’t have that control, the paramilitaries would come into the coca growing territories laying waste to the peasants. They are a bigger threat. Paramilitaries do not care if they have to kill to steal the product. FARC therefore utilizes a passive mobile warfare strategy and Marxist-Leninist ideological unity, to resist the onslaught of paramilitaries and narcos, and guarantee a minimum level of income to coca growers.
This combative capacity to resist para institutional violence was developed at the 7th conference of the guerilla movement, where FARC declared itself as a people’s army. And this also helped it consolidate itself and grow into a large organization since this now meant that the party would no longer wait and ambush the enemy but surround it. This was the transition of the guerillas from a defensive organization to a revolutionary offensive movement geared towards more offensive military operations and protecting the oppressed people.
Talking about social welfare projects. 50% of the taxes from coca-based production has been invested in infrastructure projects. This is done regularly. Besides regulating the coca trade, they incentivize the growers to plant food crops to attain a certain level of food security. Through these small strategies, FARC has attained hegemony and has consolidated itself.
Q: How important do you think is the FARC’s ideological unity as compared to the role of its standing army and the broad coalition of movements it represents?
A: FARC’s ideological unity and military strength can’t be analytically separated out into two separate components. Both these elements have cohesively combined to produce a “politico-military” unity. While military capacity ensured that the FARC was able to materially provide existential support to various oppressed social sectors, ideological unity sowed the seeds of revolution in that existential support and helped in the political symbolization of FARC’s military offensive. Here, we can observe a dialectical unity between FARC’s ideology and its combative strength. If the guerrillas had only given security to the masses without any revolutionary education, a stasis would have been produced where the people passively relied on some armed actors for protection from paramilitaries and multinational companies. But instead of doing that, FARC lubricated existential security with ideology and thus, politically mobilized the people. Now, we can say that FARC’s organizational-operational activities consisted of the material construction of counter-hegemonic de facto governments and the carrying out of activities such as obstruction of roads, attacks against infrastructure, extortion and kidnapping, sabotage, ambushes, control of mobility corridors, and generation of resources. Through these activities, the guerrillas subjectively translated the discontent with the objectively oppressive conditions into a dialectically grounded revolutionary optimism. This revolutionary optimism stemmed from the institution of ideologically-informed small material-economic changes that brought superstructural changes in the consciousness of the masses, convincing them of the materially grounded possibility of radically re-configuring the existing social relations of production. Looking at your question from this conceptual prism, one can say that FARC’s ideological unity and military capacity exist in a dialectical balance to mobilize the various social sectors.
Q: Which factors do you think have contributed to FARC’s failure to break down the military in Colombia and disarm the Colombian state’s armed forces?
A: FARC has not been able to weaken the military because of the military campaigns waged by the state and the imperialists. Through Plan Colombia, implemented in 2000, the privatization of violence and the installation of asymmetrical warfare took place. Through this, security companies operated on Colombian soil using specialized violence to defeat the guerillas. The military magnitude of these private companies is indicated by the fact that in 2005, for example, there were 2000 private military contractors on Colombian soil.
Second, the system of asymmetric warfare with new military modalities has also hurt FARC. This was designed by the USA, who integrated the operations and provided advice to implement the process. These changes have allowed for the military to be at a tactical advantage. Through this army modernization, the Colombian state was able to kill three important leaders of FARC and this did a lot of damage. Martin Dempsey, a US army general, had said in 2012 that the US would send to Colombia brigade commanders with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq to train and work with the Colombian Police and Army combat units, to be deployed in areas controlled by the rebels. These brigade commanders were already existing commando units for counter-intel missions. These aggressive military campaigns reduced the FARC guerillas by 50%. And paramilitaries have quickened the military defeat of the FARC by establishing the everyday-ness of violence. Through a network of microaggressions they have created an omnipotent atmosphere of perpetual violence. Despite the demobilization of paramilitaries in 2006, various organizations continued to exist, destabilizing and weakening the military structure of FARC.
Q: But Plan Colombia has only been there for the last 20 years. As a principle the armies in Latin America have tended to be reactionary. There have not been many leftists groups which have won the support of the army. It’s not just about Colombia or Plan Colombia, right?
A: Right, armies cannot take the side of the people because they are part of the instruments of violence of the state.
Q: But in other places, armies have been disrupted by revolutionary movements.
A: I think it is hard to explain this, but I can give an example. In Bolivia the army supported a coup even if they earlier supported the government of Evo [Morales]. Now they lend their support to US puppets, and this seems to be a historical tradition in Latin America, but I don’t really know the factors which can explain it.
Q: It seems to me that ever since the demobilization of FARC, the Colombian left has found much more support in urban areas again; as in the election of 2018, that saw Gustavo Petro come second in the presidential election, a leftist ex-guerilla from Humane Colombia. How do you think the future of the left in Colombia looks?
A: To explain the future of the left in Colombia we have to first look at the concrete conditions which have been implemented by the peace agreement, which are going to consolidate leftist politics in Colombia. The peace agreement can be seen as a passive revolution, functioning as a ruling class counter-movement that has marked important but limited changes, and has acted as an antidote to FARC’s revolution from below and the significant pressure from the subaltern classes. So after the peace agreement, neoliberalism has intensified in the form of the productivity increase in the extractive sector such as coal, emeralds, and other resources. And foreign direct investment has also increased by 25%, another important factor. This indicates that neoliberalism is consolidating in this post peace period. And these conditions are going to be conducive factors for the left. As the objective conditions exacerbate, the political potentialities for the left are going to consolidate. And as the ongoing realization of which peace has been achieved dawns on the Colombian masses, class struggle is set to intensify and the political prospects of the left will likely improve.
During the peace process, the leftist political fraction had supported the need for replacing neoliberalism and installing an integrated rural program. As the crisis exacerbates, more people will identify with the revolutionary demands of leftist politicians. These politicians can exploit the deep disaffection of the coca growers with state-sponsored military offensives and intimidation in the coca producing regions. Whereas leftists try to cater for a regulated program with lesser crop distribution and comprehensive rural development, the current government’s overtly militaristic tactics are not a solution. Comprehending this contrast between those two approaches, coca growers are bound to lend support for the leftists as the state’s repressive tactics to achieve coca eradication are tied to large military operations.
Despite the good political possibilities for the left, there still are two major problems. Colombia’s history of violence where the carefully constructed hegemony of electoral leftists has been sapped by the violence enacted by the ruling class. For instance, in the 1980s the FARC had agreed a ceasefire with the Betanzos regime. And many of its militaries had opted for electoral politics by forming a mass electoral party called the Patriotic Union. The Patriotic Union had substantial electoral support with 21 elected representatives in parliament. But before, during, and after scoring these substantial wins in local and state and national elections, the military squads murdered three of these elected candidates. Over 500 legal electoral activists were killed and the FARC was forced to return to arms because of the Colombian regimes’ mass terrorism. Between 1985 and 2000 many peasant leaders, human rights activists, and other figures have been assassinated. This historical precedent suggests that in the current conjuncture, where oppressive objective conditions are amplifying, the peace process has been torn apart. Leftist political candidates are being murdered by state-sanctioned violence, and the recurrence of targeted violence in 2019-20 are possible political breaks to electoral politics.
Q: Just this week there was another massacre where many people were killed. This is a recurring theme. Staying on the topic of the 2016 peace agreement… The demobilized FARC soldiers are complaining in interviews that farmers in Colombia still have no land, even if the 2016 peace agreement promised it. There is still no land reform and farmers still suffer under the minority, 1% of landowners who own most land. What do you think of FARC’s agreement in general? Is the faith in the electoral process or a civic solution naive or justified as a solution to paramilitary terror?
A: Colombia is entangled in the web of capitalism. Because of its very specific conditions and the entire arrangement of imperialism, paramilitarism has been economically admitted into this integrated system of capital accumulation and functions as a structural condition and not a temporary condition. Paramilitary activities are below the political realm of rising ideology or the military realm constituted by the national armed forces and the appropriation of land. Paramilitaries function in the structure by securing a suitable investment climate by not only combatting the guerillas but by displacing rural residents and providing security for companies that take over these lands, and attacking labor unions that fight against neoliberal policies and fight privatization. In a nutshell, paramilitaries serve to clear the ground of anything subversive that would fight the advance of capital or oppose neoliberal policies. Those who believe in a civic solution to the paramilitary terror have to ask themselves the following question: is the judiciary or any state apparatus going to intervene to stop paramilitarism and curtail the process of capital accumulation that is highly important to Colombia’s ruling classes with Colombia’s vast resources?
Moreover, there is already a history of people like Uribe having strong differences between what is said and what is done regarding paramilitarism in the ground reality. For example, paramilitarism was outlawed in 1989, but in the 1990s there was a boom in paramilitary activities. Taking cognizance from these facts, and stating that there have been paramilitary pressure from below on social movements, a civic solution to violence would find it hard to survive on the basis of that pressure.
Q: Do you think the recent proliferation of Unions has to do with FARC using its money to prop them up?
A: The proliferation of trade unions is unrelated to the FARC because FARC does not have the requisite financial resources to fund different groups. Under the peace accord, the FARC’s funds had to be declared and surrendered to the government to be used to compensate the millions of victims of the 60-year conflict. In the peace agreement, there were subsections called the “Strategy for the effective implementation of the administrative expropriation of illicitly acquired assets” and the section 220.127.116.11 “Provision of information” of the “Agreement on the Bilateral and Definitive Ceasefire and Cessation of Hostilities and Laying down of Arms” which required the FARC to give up its financial resources. All this happened while the FARC-EP remained in the Transitional Local Zones for Normalisation (TLZNs) in the process of laying down arms. So, now the FARC does not have sufficient monetary clout to financially influence trade unions.
Q: To sum up… how does this link to your other interest of the neoliberal ethos? I guess if you don’t take up arms again the only thing really left for you is to become a neoliberal subject.
A: In the current period, we have neoliberalism as a social structure of accumulation, and have started a process of subjectification in which new subjectivities have been created. I would highlight four changes, or elements to this structure: they are radical abstraction, entrepreneurship of self, growth imperatives and effect management. Firstly, radical abstraction is the extraction of individuals from their economic conditions, this results in the elimination of local languages and struggles, and the imposition of dominant cultures which facilitate the growth of consumptive environments. So along with the loss of regional struggles and anti-accumulation struggles, radical abstraction also causes precarious existence abstracted from material conditions. You are told that you can do anything, and you can build anything, and this increases the impact of structural conditions on you.
Second is the entrepreneurship of self, which is the individualization of the subject. In this, the individual sees themselves as a portfolio of investment. Third is the growth imperative, which encapsulates the urge to seek new investments and diversify risks. And the growth imperative is an integral element in neoliberalism because it itself is the perpetuation of capital accumulation and the constant search to devise new ways to maximize profits. The last is effect management, which is a method that neoliberalism uses to manage culture. In this effect management, positive effects are over-highlighted to obscure what Gramsci calls “the pessimism of the intellect”, and prevent people from understanding structural conditions exercising a downwards impact on them. And qualitative effects also decorate the self by energizing them to go about taking risks of aspirational desires.
Q: If you encourage people to take more risks wouldn’t that backfire and cause them to join a guerilla?
A: That’s a possible cause of action, but there’s also the structure. They take the risks from a predetermined repertoire, and guerilla activities are out of this repertoire.