Colombia peace talks: Interview with FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez (Timochenko)

Timoleon Jimenez (Timochenko).

September 27, 2012 -- The following interview with top comandante of the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-Peoples’ Army) Timoleon Jimenez (Timochenko) was conducted by Carlos Lozano, editor of the Colombian weekly newspaper VOZ. It was translated into English by John Catalinotto for the US-based socialist newspaper Workers' World. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal in the interests of informing the discussion around the peace talks in Colombia.

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“The President repeats that he is not thinking of repeating the mistakes of the past and we hope this is so. You know that the biggest mistake of all the earlier peace processes has been to come to the table to demand we surrender”, Comandante Timoleón Jiménez told the editor of VOZ.

Timoleón Jiménez, commander in chief of the general staff of the FARC-EP, is the visible head of the legendary guerrilla movement, now engaged in the pursuit of a democratic peace through a new dialogue with the government. This policy continues the FARC-EP’s orientation. It’s the same thing that [late FARC historical leader] Manuel Marulanda told VOZ during the negotiations at Caguán: “Peace is a banner of revolutionaries.”

This interview comes at a historic moment, on the verge of a new effort to achieve peace in Colombia. Here are the answers of Timoleón Jiménez, concrete and precise. It can be said, without false optimism, peace is closer than before, but there is still a long journey ahead. The whole country hopes it will not be a new frustrating moment.

VOZ: A new process of dialogue is beginning with a government that is somehow or other the heir to the “democratic security” regime of [President Álvaro] Uribe. How will the FARC deal with this?

Timoleón Jiménez: We have always been willing to look for solutions other than war. With Uribe this was not possible, because of his open disregard of our policy. [President Juan Manuel] Santos is not only heir to the democratic security regime, but was also one of its star players. In fact, with some cosmetic changes, he has continued it. But as he himself says, he decided to take the risks of talking and took positive steps in this direction. Any Colombian would say that the real risk is the war and not dialogue, and that’s why we don’t hesitate to accept talks to seek peace.

Regarding how to deal with the new process, we do it with high expectations of reaching the end of the conflict. The president repeated that he is not thinking of making the mistakes of the past, and we hope this is so. You know that the biggest mistake of all the above processes has been to come to the table to demand our surrender, without a real will to work at resolving the causes that gave rise to and continue to fuel the confrontation.

The agenda includes the issue of “laying down arms”, which would be the culmination of an agreement or covenant of peace. What are the FARC’s expectations?

There is no sense starting a process to get the final termination of the conflict, without contemplating laying down weapons as a target. Laying down arms consists of the abolition of the use of force or of appealing to any kind of violence to achieve political or economic purposes. It’s a real farewell to arms. If we could succeed in making that a reality in Colombia, our country would take a huge leap forward. We hope that the Santos administration and all sectors that use violence for economic and political ends agree with this view.

The ‘errors of the past’

President Santos has said his government insists that this process of dialogue “does not repeat past mistakes”; that there exists a guarantee that they will lead to the end of the conflict; and that the government will maintain the military operations and military pressure on the FARC. What are the insurgency’s conditions for the process to end successfully?

The ruling oligarchy in Colombia, solidly supported by the governments of the United States, has spent almost 50 years betting on the extermination of the guerrillas. Twelve presidents, one with repeated mandates, invariably promised our end and gave the military apparatus a free hand to carry this out. When Santos orders a step up in operations, he is not doing it to give satisfaction to the sectors of the extreme right, he does it because he believes, as all previous governments did, that these steps really can force us to surrender.

Precisely this is the vicious cycle that needs to be broken. If you look at the general plebiscite approving peace talks, you realise that the vast majority of Colombians do not support the military solution, not the least because with more good sense than their rulers, they know it won’t be possible. We start with the concept that this process will be successful to the extent that these large majorities who favor a political solution should have an opportunity to speak out, to mobilize, to influence, to decide about it. And we are inviting them to do so.

Various sectors that support dialogue are considering the proposal of a truce, cease-fire and cessation of hostilities. What does the FARC-EP think about this?

We are in complete agreement. It has always been one of our first approaches to bring about a narrowing of differences with the different governments. Unfortunately, the Colombian oligarchy has inclined away because the dialogues take place amid confrontation. If the clearing of the process had been accompanied by a mechanism of this nature, their outcomes would have been otherwise.

In Colombia, the ruling class, its political representatives and its media suffer the mania of only seeing things from one side. To report killing 30 guerrillas in an air raid arouses their applause, while the official casualties in battle are described as murders. With such manipulation they also sought to crudely pressure us at the discussion tables.

You [VOZ], as an alternative media that has endured heroically, are perhaps the ones who have in the most honourable manner informed the nation for decades of the infamous criminal persecution practiced in Colombia against these types of organisations.

From the archives of VOZ the most accurate history of state crimes against the people of this country could be developed. The number of victims in Colombia is compared to that of the awful record concerning Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe. What then acquires special importance is the role of the different social, labour, agrarian and popular movements that the Colombian state intends to ignore while taking up the individual crumbs of one or another case being studied. That Colombia, ignored and victimised, must now stand up to claim their dead and missing, to demand the definitive end of the war, to prevent any enactment of impunity for the criminals, to demand satisfaction for those old outcries for those who were ravaged in such a widespread and atrocious manner.

What do you think about the six to eight months that President Santos has budgeted?

This involves an expectation that he is generating on his own, contrary to what was agreed in the letter and spirit of the exploratory meeting. There was no final date discussed there, even the word “months” wasn’t used, so the president’s statement lets us know how difficult this road we are starting on will be. By the way, they gave clear evidence of their strategy: when they don’t achieve something at the negotiation table, they intend to impose it in the media.

To get to Havana and carry out the exploratory meeting took two years, when initially one could think it would be a matter of weeks. And it was precisely not caused by the insurgency, which is a topic which I do not want to give details of out of respect for our commitment to keep on reserve for the moment the details, but considering the chronicles that have come out in the media, our negotiating partner seems to have forgotten the agreement.

A matter for Colombians

What policy proposal will the FARC-EP make to Colombians at the start of the dialogue?

To mobilise around the definitive ending of the conflict. War or peace are issues that concern all us Colombians and we are obliged to speak out. The government aims to have the dialogues conducted exclusively among their representatives and ours, very discreetly, with no noise, as it repeats incessantly. Like when Laureano Gómez and Lleras Camargo signed agreements at [meetings in the towns of] Sitges and Benidorm in Europe. It also plans that the FARC should give a boost to the government’s plans as the most desirable ones for the country.

That means once again that what is agreed to in the talks is being done behind the backs of the Colombian population, which truthfully is only in the interests of the transnational corporations, bankers, businesspeople and landowners. That cannot happen again in this country. The large majorities of the people should be heard and listened to. Our proposal addresses that.

Why have the FARC decided to take on this new attempt at peace? Weakness? Strategy? Realism?

Those who claim that military pressure was what definitively moved us to political negotiations are forgetting that this past decade of war erupted when [past Colombian President] Pastrana unilaterally ended the peace process taking place in Caguán. It is the Colombian state that is returning to the table for talks with the FARC, after they made their internal evaluations. One of them, which has not been made public, has to be the recognition that the enormous effort to defeat us has been futile. The FARC is still here, fighting, resisting, advancing. Now we return to the natural setting of politics — civilised dialogue. It is absurd to say that we have been forced to sit at the table, when it was the state that rose angrily from the table. We negotiate, because a political solution has always been our banner and that of the popular movement.

But then hasn’t the FARC taken severe blows during the last 10 years?

We cannot deny that we have received serious blows. And extremely painful ones. The deaths of four members of the national secretariat cannot be minimised. What was also very hard were the deaths of our combatants under fire from bombardments.

However, we have absorbed with courage all these experiences. No current member of the secretariat has less than 35 years of guerrilla experience, and also most of the central chiefs of staff. The replacements were not improvised. Forty-eight years of continuous struggle have produced a formidable apparatus. We went ahead, with pain in the soul, but more experienced and confident in our rationale. In every war there are casualties. The media campaign insists in presenting us as a defeated organisation with no future. They have always done so. If they were facing a defeated force, they would not be working on further increasing their troop strength and their already huge arsenal. These are truths that the state and the media deliberately concealed.

Thus, although the FARC is not carrying out actions of the same size as it was 14 years ago, can it be said that the confrontation remains of great proportions? The defence minister completely minimises you and claims that only in 10 municipalities of the country in rural and isolated [locales] do confrontations persist.

The FARC-EP operate and mobilise in the same territories that we occupy. The alleged control exercised by joint [government] task forces, brigades and battalions is often put on the grill by the mobile guerrilla activity. The armed forces’ casualties have been on the rise for some time. Of course, we also received blows, much publicised by the media. This is a conflict. A war is waged depending on circumstances, with no valid operating modes for all situations. It is obvious that conditions today are not the same as a decade ago, especially because of the current massive use of military aviation, but there is still daily battle. In all sectors of the FARC, the work varies depending on the equation at any time.

Either way, the continuation of the conflict will involve more death and destruction, more grief and tears, more poverty and misery for some and greater wealth for others. Imagine the lives that could have been saved these last ten years. So we seek dialogue, a solution without shedding blood, through political understanding. With that we propose to go to Havana. We trust that the national government also understands the need to end violence practiced so long against the Colombian people.

Interview with ELN Comandante Gabino

Translated into English by John Catalinotto for the US-based socialist newspaper Workers' World.

Marcha is the only Argentine media outlet that has managed to interview Comandante Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista “Gabino”, historic leader of the National Liberation Army (ELN) of Colombia, to speak about the upcoming peace negotiations with the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-Peoples' Army). “We wish every success to the FARC”, he asserts, and calls for “the participation of the different popular sectors” at the negotiations table.

Since Colombian President [Juan Manuel] Santos publicly announced the agreement to begin peace negotiations with the FARC, little has been heard from the other historical guerrilla group in the country, the National Liberation Army.

Up to now, the only ELN leader who has spoken is Carlos Marín Guarín, “Pablito”, a member of the Eastern Front, where the highest levels of insurgent activity have been maintained. In a collective interview given to a group of national and international correspondents in Argentina and broadcast by Carthage TV, Guarín stated: “Our commander Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista is in charge as leader [of the ELN], and is responsible for setting the parameters [of the negotiations] with those concerned.”

Rodríguez Bautista, known as “Comandante Gabino”, has been a member of the guerrilla force since it was formed in 1964. From a Christian family, he was appointed to leadership in 1998 after the death of the priest and guerrilla leader, Manuel Pérez Martínez. Marcha’s correspondent in Colombia managed to contact him at the last moment and conduct the following interview, where the historic leader of the ELN elaborates on how this organisation plans to address this new stage in the political struggle of his country.

Marcha: Why are the FARC and not the ELN in the peace talks that were recently announced?

Gabino: First of all, accept a friendly greeting from the ELN of Colombia, with our desire to maintain this open line of communication. We hope the brotherhood of our peoples forever unites us under the banner of our historical leaders, such as San Martín, Bolívar, Artigas, Che, Camilo Torres and many other fighters for freedom and democracy.

In the dialogue with President [César] Gaviria in the 1990s of the last century, the [whole] insurgency was at the same table. At the other times, each guerrilla force was negotiating separately. The ELN considers having the insurgency around the same negotiating table as the most promising approach to the peace process. And we must strive to make this a reality. This requires levels of unity and we are taking steps to have this happen. We are respectful of the process started by the government with the FARC compañeros and wish them every success. We hope that over time the process now started separately may come together at one table because, except for some differences, we are forces with similar goals, which is the most important thing.

What are today, in Colombia, the requirements for this peace that is back on everyone’s lips, even President Santos’?

Most Colombians are weary of an internal war that has lasted over 50 years. The various social sectors have been organising and speaking about a political solution that concludes with an end of the conflict. This is the case with the Congress of the Peoples, which is promoting a peace congress for next year. Similarly, a large number of popular and social organisations have expressed themselves, saying peace is urgent. When speaking of reaching a peaceful settlement, all Colombians are hoping that this time has come. The problem is that we understand and want it in different ways, and according to different interests. The vast majority of Colombians, including the insurgency, believe that peace means social justice and equality, democracy and sovereignty. In contrast, for the ruling class peace is achieved when it defeats the internal enemy on the battlefield, which President Santos reaffirmed days before the announcement of the start of the talks with the FARC.

To be stable and enduring, a peace process under the conditions in Colombia requires the participation not only of the insurgency and the government, but also of different popular sectors, who are the ones bearing the brunt of the war. It is understood that peace requires a long and complex process, which confronts powerful enemies who pocket enormous dividends from the war.

What is the social situation like in the communities where the ELN operates?

In the communities where the ELN is present, they are experiencing a true state of war. These territories are commonly known as “red zones” and are subject to ongoing military and police operations. They control the movements of the population there, rationing supplies, particularly food and medicines, using the pretext that these goods are bound for the guerrillas. Punitive government forces, allied with paramilitary forces, act as an occupying force, subjecting the population to all kinds of indignities and repressive actions.

In the regions where farmers subsist on illicit crops such as coca leaves, [the communities] are accused of being owners of these crops and are subjected to permanent spraying of the fungicide glyphosate, destroying crops of coca leaf and the other agricultural products [and] causing irreparable damage to animals and people, especially children, the elderly and pregnant women.

This repression has cost a considerable mass of people their legal status. They cannot go out to the urban centres to escape permanently from such territories because the armed forces consider them military targets. This creates a very serious situation for many families whose only protection is the insurgency, so the insurgency must assume responsibility for their protection during operations by government forces. This reality is not new and is one of the explanations why many young peasants have no choice but to become guerrillas.

Based on past experience, how do they think they can finish this new attempt at dialogue?

Despite previously unsuccessful dialogues, we look today with expectations of the possibility of opening a serious and realistic path to peace, as is demanded by the national majority, already worn out by more than half a century of social and armed conflict that has gone beyond all limits. The ruling class could not defeat the insurgency, nor could it defeat the popular movement, despite the cruelty of the dirty war and state terrorism.

The government forces, assisted by the US and Israel, have tested and applied the experiences of other wars, but despite the cruelty, both popular movements and the insurgency remain in action.

We believe that with this stubborn reality, the true way to move forward is by what we call a “political solution to the conflict”, which means that only through open dialogue, involving not only the insurgents and the government but also the most popular and diverse social expressions, will we be able to reach a responsible agreement to overcome the causes that produced the armed uprising, bilaterally stop confrontation and assume reconstruction, overcoming the deep crisis that has destroyed the social fabric and that broke the normal coexistence.

The ELN has urged a political solution to the conflict for more than 20 years. The five previous governments took this proposal as weakness and tried to use it for military advantage. This time, it seems that the ruling class more realistically assumes responsibility for building peace, as demanded by the national majority.

How does the insurgency see its future in Colombia in the years to come? Does it consider the possibility of withdrawing from the armed struggle and putting all its strength into the political struggle?

We have taken up arms for almost 50 years because the legal and wider popular struggle did not have political and legal guarantees. When this perverse logic is changed and there are guarantees and respect for the people’s struggle, the people will not be forced to take up arms to achieve their rights. But that decision is in the hands of the Colombian ruling class. As they say, the ball is in their court. And if after 50 years of fratricidal war, they are ready to recognise the majority’s right to justice and social equality, democracy and sovereignty, the country will be heading toward peace. Of course, this is not achieved through a decree, but it is urgent to open the path in that direction.

So we do not see that the solution is the demobilisation and disarmament of the insurgents. That formula has been tried and failed because the essence of the conflict is social and gave rise to the armed uprising. Then we have to go to the cause that gave rise to this and seek solutions. Only then will we go to the heart of the matter to make changes and overcome the problems.