Dangerous liaisons

As Farc guerrillas drag Latin America to the brink of war, ratings for Colombia's ultra-right Álvaro

Orlando Ordoñez no longer looks like a guerrillero. He is clean-shaven, with suit, shiny boots and long hair slicked into a neat ponytail. Calloused hands and a worn expression on his broad face are the only clues to his past: Ordoñez spent ten years rising through the ranks of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), Latin America's oldest and most powerful guerrilla army. By the time he left in 2005, he was, as describes himself, a high-ranking comandante, managing millions of dollars of the group's profits from extortion and drug trafficking.

Ordoñez experienced the moral decline of the Farc from the inside. He joined as an idealistic 28-year-old, attracted by the organisation's revolutionary agenda. "When I joined, being a guerrillero was a source of pride," he says. "We had the respect of the Colombian people." Initially, he looked after a small territory where peasants grew crops including coca, and the Farc charged the drug traffickers a tax for the service. It was only in the late 1990s that he realised the organisation was increasingly producing and trafficking drugs itself. "The ideology was changing."

His disillusionment grew over time. He discovered that other comandantes had been abusing, threatening and displacing peasants in the areas they controlled. "Our reputation in those communities suffered very badly." Then he was given a promotion, and moved into a position where he was expected to buy influence with politicians, businessmen and police. "I was unhappy with my life, and with the Farc," he says. He took the potentially life-threatening decision to desert and handed himself in to the army.

Ordoñez is now training at a community television station, and hopes to persuade others to demobilise. "I want all the guerrilleros to know that if they want to really make a difference, they should rejoin Colombian society. If they want to work for the left-wing cause, this is a democracy and they are free to do that."

At present, the Colombian left is in a sorry state. Unlike much of the rest of Latin America, where centre-left and left-wing administrations have become increasingly common, Colombia is governed by a right-wing, militaristic, pro-business president, Álvaro Uribe. After winning two elections by large majorities on the promise that he would smash the guerrillas with a "strong hand", he saw his popularity recently hit 84 per cent. The opposition is floundering. This is even though the country has one of the most unequal societies in the world: its cities are filled with shiny 4x4s, designer beauty queens and chichi shopping malls, but in its slums and rural areas 50 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

No support

Those on the left in Colombia have one expla nation for their lack of popularity: the Farc effect. "It is our greatest problem," says José Sanín Vásquez, director of the trade union research institute Escuela Nacional Sindical. "If being on the left means wanting change, then the Farc has become ultra-right-wing. It is a great obstacle to change in this country." It is a mark of how far the Farc has fallen that, despite great injustices in Colombia, it commands almost no support from any section of society. In a recent Gallup poll, all but 3 per cent of Colombians said they had an unfavourable opinion of the Farc.

Trade unionists, human rights campaigners, community leaders and left-wing politicians all have the same complaint: their credibility is continually damaged by insinuations in politics and the media that they are "guerrilla sympathisers" (Uribe has made a habit of smearing his critics, including Amnesty International and other NGOs, in this way). "It suits the government to describe the Farc as left-wing, as that way it stigmatises the opposition," says Sanín. "It suits the Farc because it gives it a certain legitimacy. Meanwhile, the real left in Colombia is completely squashed between the two."

The Farc was founded in 1964, and headed by a peasant leader and member of the Communist Party known as Manuel Marulanda, or "Tirofijo". Its members came from existing peasant militias, but during the 1960s and 1970s it adopted a Marxist ideology. As other guerrilla groups in Colombia and across Latin America have been defeated or drawn into mainstream politics, the Farc has continued to wage an implacable war against the Colombian state, fuelled increasingly by profits from the drugs trade. It also specialises in kidnapping and extortion, with some of its hostages - most notoriously the former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt - kept in jungle hideouts for years.

The impact of the guerrilla movement in Colombia has been particularly devastating because it has given rise to an array of right-wing paramilitary groups, which sprang up around the country during the 1990s. Their aim was to protect the interests of large landowners and they were brutally dismissive of the rights of the civilian population, taking revenge on anyone they considered to be a guerrilla supporter. The armed groups from left and right have contributed to a bloody and seemingly intractable civil war, in which the value of human life has been disregarded by both sides. Tens of thousands of Colombians - usually from the poorest communities - have been killed, and three million more displaced; the country has the world's second-largest internally displaced population, outstripped only by Sudan's.

Harsh discipline

The highest estimated figure for Farc membership stands at 30,000, though the Colombian government claims that numbers have fallen to around 8,000. Its soldiers are drawn largely from the most deprived social groups, attracted by the offer of a basic wage. "I always liked guns, and what's more I come from a very poor family. The Farc told me they would help me if I joined," says Francisco, a softly spoken 22-year-old from a peasant family in the Antioquian region, who joined the group when he was 17. Like many Farc foot soldiers, he is illiterate. "They taught me all about the ideology and to sing the revolutionary anthems. They taught us that the Farc would bring the Cuban Revolution to Colombia. Once I was trained, they gave me a gun and set me missions, like collecting a certain amount of base [coca paste] from a particular area, and bringing it back to the camp."

The conditions for recruits are harsh: the group operates from bases deep inside Colombia's vast, dense jungles, where disease is rife and resources are scarce. Discipline is brutal; those who break the rules are subjected to trials, or "war councils". "When somebody broke the rules, they would tie them up and present them in front of the group to decide their punishment," says Francisco. "If they had a good record, they might be given a chance. If they had stolen food from the store tent or something, and had done it a number of times, they would be given the maximum penalty. Often they would just tie people up and punish them for nothing."

In Colombia, it has long been widely accepted across the political spectrum that although the Farc continues to use Marxist rhetoric, it has abandoned any claim to political legitimacy. "The foot soldiers are still taught the ideology, and believe it," says Jaime Echevarría, another former member who did not want his real name published. Jaime has a university education, but had lost his job and was destitute when he was recruited to the Farc's urban division. "But to judge by my contact with the higher ranks and the secretariat [the Farc's seven-man governing body], I would say they have left that behind. They are businessmen."

The increasingly public alliance between the Farc and the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, which reared its head last month, has served to bolster Uribe's position and further demoralise the Colombian left. The extent of the collaboration between the two is a matter of debate - the Colombian government claims to have evidence that Chávez has provided the Farc with funds, although he denies this. He has, however, made no secret of his political support (as reported in the NS of 11 February). The two countries were brought to the brink of war in March following an illegal raid by Colombian troops into Ecuadorian territory, during which one of the Farc secretariat, Raú Reyes, was killed. Ecuador was understandably furious, but Chávez went further, ordering troops to the border and announcing a minute's silence in Reyes's honour.

"Venezuela does not support the Farc, but Chávez has made a strategic alliance with them," says Fernando Gerbasi, formerly Venezuela's ambassador in Colombia and now a professor of international relations at the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas.

Having turned its back on the political arena at home, the Farc has focused on building up international support, effectively playing on tensions between right-wing Colombia and its "21st-century socialist" neighbour. With a huge amount of military aid pouring into Colombia from the United States - around $5bn since 2000 - its neighbours, with comparatively scant military resources, understandably fear that the country has become a foothold from which the US can extend its influence in the region.

"The danger is that the US would like Colombia to be its proxy for an anti-Chávez campaign," says Rodrigo Pardo, editor of the Colombian political magazine Cambio. "That would be disastrous for regional relations."

Strengthening Uribe

Gustavo Petro, a senator for Colombia's left-wing opposition Polo Democrático Alternativo party, describes himself as a personal friend of Chávez. He believes that the Venezuelan president allowed himself to be persuaded that the Farc offered the only way of challenging the Uribe administration, and protecting himself against American aggression.

"This was a grave error, and if he had consulted us it never would have happened," Petro says. "The relationship between the Farc and the Latin American left represents a mortal danger for the left." He despairs that the crisis has once again boosted the popularity of the already unchallengeable Uribe. "It has affected the left in Colombia profoundly. We have been damaged - thankfully, we were spared annihilation because we did not ally ourselves closely with Chávez."

Meanwhile, the Uribe administration continues to implement controversial policies, virtually unchecked by a serious opposition. Colombia is opened up to business while trade unionists fear for their lives; millions of dollars are poured into the military while the displaced population is abandoned to live in squalid poverty. The government offers cash incentives for the murder of suspected guerrilleros - last month, it gave a $2.6m reward to a Farc soldier who killed another member of the secretariat and delivered his hand to the authorities in a plastic bag.

"There is a lot of work for the left to do in this country," says Petro with a weary smile."

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back

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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue