Colombia

Colombia’s FARC guerrillas unveil a new political party — with an old name

For more than 50 years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, tried to seize power by brute force, turning this South American nation into a cautionary tale of bloodshed, drugs and kidnapping.

On Friday, however, the FARC held a political rally in Bogotá's iconic Plaza Bolivar — just steps from the presidential palace that they now hope to conquer at the ballot box.

Ten months after signing a hard-fought and controversial peace deal, the FARC unveiled its new political party and flowery logo this week as it prepares to compete in general elections next year.

Colombia Peace Process (2)
Ivan Marquez holds a red rose, the symbol of the new political party Alternative Communal Revolutionary Forces, during a press conference in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, voted overwhelmingly to change the group’s name to the Alternative Communal Revolutionary Forces, scrubbing any reference to its armed past. Since both names in Spanish carry the acronym FARC, its common use name will remain unchanged. Fernando Vergara AP

The name of Colombia's newest political party is Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Comun, which roughly translates to the Popular Alternative Revolutionary Force. Crucially, it allows the organization to keep its FARC acronym — four letters that, for many, evoke some of the country's darkest moments.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Iván Márquez, a one-time political commander turned politician, recognized that using a name that has been around since 1960s was politically fraught.

"For some people, FARC is a negative word," he admitted. "But at the same time it represents our historical continuity, our past...We are going to continue our fight but only in the arena of legal politics."

The government and the FARC signed a revised peace deal in November that required the 7,000-strong army to demobilize in exchange for reduced sentences and political guarantees. As part of the agreement, the FARC is assured at least five congressional and senate seats for the next two political cycles.

But it's clear the group has larger ambitions.

"We want to be the government or part of it," Márquez said.

Colombia Peace Process
Former rebel leader Jesus Santrich attends a press conference announcing the new political party Alternative Communal Revolutionary Forces, in Bogota, Colombia, on Sept. 1, 2017. Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, voted overwhelmingly to change the group's name to the Alternative Communal Revolutionary Forces, scrubbing any reference to its armed past. Since both names in Spanish carry the acronym FARC, its common use name will remain unchanged. Fernando Vergara AP

In the past, the group has said it would be premature to talk about launching a candidate of its own and have suggested it will seek alliances for the 2018 presidential race. But Márquez said it will be up to the party's newly-created directorate, which has 111 members, to decide the next political steps, including who might run for office.

The thought of the country's longtime enemies having senate seats is anathema to many. And it was one of the reasons that an initial peace deal with the group was rejected in a national referendum last year.

Pablo Catatumbo, another FARC leader, said the new party would win over voters with its platform of peace, social justice, rural development, care for the environment and fighting corruption.

"This is a new party for a new Colombia," he said.

As part of its re-branding, the FARC dropped its wartime logo of crossed AK-47s for a softer look: a star surrounded by the petals of a red rose.

"When people see a red rose, we want them to think of the FARC," Márquez said, holding up a long-stemmed rose. "We want it to become a symbol...of unity among all Colombians."

For many that's a tall order. The group was one of the principal actors in a multi-party conflict that left more than 220,000 dead and forced millions to flee from their homes.

"Colombians should never forget that the FARC represents a half century of massacres, kidnapping, extortion and the recruitment of children," Rafael Guarín, a former vice minister of defense, wrote on Twitter.

A recent Gallup poll found the FARC had an approval rating of just 12 percent. Even so, that was two points higher than people's opinions of political parties as a whole.

Catatumbo said the new party is an answer to those who are disillusioned by the corruption and graft that has hollowed out Colombia's politics.

"We're going to prove," he said, "that we were always fighting for peace and social justice."

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