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

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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