FARC guerrilla leader: Colombia won’t model itself on Venezuela or Cuba

Rebel leaders Rodrigo Londono, center, Ivan Marquez, right, and Pastor Alape, left, attend the closing event of the 10th conference of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in Yari Plains, Colombia, Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. FARC leaders gave their unanimous support to a peace agreement reached last month with the government.
Rebel leaders Rodrigo Londono, center, Ivan Marquez, right, and Pastor Alape, left, attend the closing event of the 10th conference of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in Yari Plains, Colombia, Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. FARC leaders gave their unanimous support to a peace agreement reached last month with the government. AP

As an armed group fighting in Colombia’s jungles for half a century, the FARC often cited Cuban leader Fidel Castro and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as inspirations.

But as the guerrillas prepare to become a political force in the wake of a historic peace deal, they insist Cuba and Venezuela aren’t models they’re interested in replicating.

“What we’re proposing is advanced democracy, modern capitalism, not socialism,” said Felix Antonio Muñoz, better known as Pastor Alape, a member of the group’s governing body, Estado Mayor. “What we see in Colombia now is a capitalism that’s deformed and retrograde.”

Muñoz, 57, said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, will build their political platform on rural development, putting fallow land back into use, making large landowners pay their taxes and fighting corruption.

“If [our critics] want to call that Castro-Chávismo, then so be it,” he said.

That’s exactly what their critics are calling it.

As Colombians head to the polls Sunday to ratify or reject the peace deal, opponents are warning that if the guerrillas are given a foothold in democratic society, they’ll turn the Andean nation into the next Venezuela or Cuba.

FARC leaders gather in central Colombia for the 10th conference to vote on the recently negotiated peace deal with the Colombian government.

Speaking to the Miami Herald in the Llanos del Yarí, a longtime guerrilla stronghold where the group held its 10th and final “conference” last week to approve the peace deal, Muñoz said even their most ardent enemies should support their reentry into civilian life.

“Let’s maintain the controversy and maintain the debate because, in the end, that’s the democracy we all want,” he said. “We want to be able to debate and disagree but, of course, without killing each other.”

Political support?

FARC Commander Rodrigo Londoño and President Juan Manuel Santos signed the 297-page pact Monday. Once the deal is in place, the guerrillas will gather in “concentration zones” for six months before emerging as civilians — and Colombia’s newest political force.

But even as the nation seems prepared to welcome the deal, it’s not necessarily ready to embrace the guerrilla’s political aspirations. The 52-year-old group does have its supporters, particularly in long-abandoned rural areas, but for others the FARC is synonymous with kidnapping, extortion and murder. The organization has an approval rating of 11 percent, according to a Gallup poll cited by Semana magazine.

Founded in 1964 as a Marxist-Leninist peasant army, the FARC aspired to create a communist redoubt in the heart of South America. And for the last two decades, the group seemed to be riding the wave of history as Latin America leaned left and former guerrillas came to power in Uruguay, Brazil and Nicaragua. More recently, however, the tide has turned: Cuba is toying with capitalist reforms, Venezuela has become the region’s basket case and voters in Argentina and Brazil have rejected leftist candidates.

Overt at last?

But Muñoz rejects the idea that the FARC may not have widespread political support.

“Historically, we’ve participated in politics but in a clandestine fashion,” he said. “Without that political structure … it would have been impossible to have this guerrilla force that’s growing.”

Most military analysts say the guerrilla force was waning, but Muñoz said the FARC’s true strength can only be measured once its members are allowed to openly participate in politics. A first test of that could come during the presidential election in 2018.

Muñoz said it’s too soon to say if the guerrillas will have their own candidate but he said they would be supporting someone “representative of the community.”

Wearing sunglasses and a paisley scarf, Muñoz looks vaguely like a young Muammar Gaddafi. Born in Puerto Berrio in north-central Colombia, Muñoz is thought to have joined the guerrillas in the 1980s after working his way up through the Communist Youth (JUCO) organization.

He eventually became the commander of the guerrilla’s Magdaleno Medio Bloc that saw some of the heaviest fighting against right-wing paramilitary groups. He was also a member of the FARC negotiating team that spent almost four years hammering out the agreement in Havana, Cuba.

U.S. bounty

The U.S. State Department has a $2.5 million reward for his arrest for overseeing coca production and for “the murder of hundreds of people who violated or interfered with the FARC’s cocaine policies.”

Under the peace deal, FARC rank and file will receive amnesties, and those convicted of war crimes and other atrocities will face “confinement” other than jail as long as they tell the truth about their crimes and offer reparations. Critics and human rights groups have said the lax punishment could fuel a sense of impunity, but the government insists the FARC would have never sat at the negotiating table if jail time was under consideration. The United States has said it will not drop charges against the FARC, which it considers a terrorist group.

Muñoz said the real danger for his colleagues will begin as they reenter civilian life.

“We’re entering a phase of risks,” he said, “the main one being that we’ll be assassinated.”

In 1985, in the wake of a ceasefire, the FARC helped propel the Unión Patriótica political party only to see anywhere from 1,000 to 3,500 UP members murdered in the 1980s and 1990s.

In addition, the FARC have watched with worry as progressive governments in Brazil and Argentina have been threatened in legislatures and in the courtroom. In particular, the guerrillas worry that their principal foe, former President Alvaro Uribe, who is now a senator, will use the courts and his connections in “military intelligence,” to undermine their political movement, Muñoz said.

Legal threats?

“The judicial branch has lost its essence in terms of dedicating itself exclusively to justice,” he said. “The courts are now political actors. … Who knows how they may try to frame us?”

If the FARC succeeds as a political party, it will largely be thanks to the rural poor. Muñoz said his group plans to focus on the needs of that long-neglected community and areas that have been hardest hit by the conflict.

He also said the guerrillas’ party would seek to work with everyone, including victims of the conflict and “ex-combatants, whether they’re from the military, paramilitaries or guerrillas.”

If the prospect of the FARC being able to build a coalition out of longtime enemies seems fanciful, Muñoz said it was also vital for the country.

“The challenge that we’re facing is to truly and concretely promote the word ‘reconciliation’ at every moment,” Muñoz said. “And that has to start by rebuilding the homes that the war has torn apart.”

There hasn't been active combat In Marquetalia, birthplace of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, for years, yet the rebels' presence is still felt. As the government and rebels hash out a peace deal in Havana, Cuba, villagers hope peace will bring progress.