Pedro Antonio Marin, better know as Manuel Marulanda and ‘Tiro Fijo (Sure Shot)’, was the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-Peoples Army (FARC-EP). He was without a doubt the greatest revolutionary peasant leader in the history of the Americas.
Over a period of 60 years he organized peasant movements, rural communities and, when all legal democratic channels were effectively (and brutally) closed, he built the most powerful sustained guerrilla army and supporting underground militias in Latin America. The FARC at its peak between 1999-2005 numbered nearly 20,000 fighters, several hundred thousand peasant-activists, hundreds of village and urban militia units. Even today despite the regime’s forced displacement of 3 million peasants resulting from scorched earth policies and scores of massacres, the FARC has between 10,000-15,000 guerrillas in its numerous ‘fronts distributed throughout the country.
What make Marulanda’s achievements so significant are his organizational abilities, strategic acuity and his intransigent and principled programmatic positions consisting of support of popular demands. Marulanda, more than any other guerrilla leader, had unmatched rapport with the rural poor, the landless, the subsistence cultivators and the rural refugees over three generations.
Beginning in 1964 with two-dozen peasants fleeing villages devastated by a US directed military offensive Marulanda methodically built a revolutionary guerrilla army without either foreign financial or material contributions. Marulanda, more than any other guerrilla leader, was a great rural political teacher. Marulanda’s superb organizing skills were honed on the basis of his intimate ties with peasants – he grew up in a poor peasant family, lived among them cultivating and organizing, and spoke their language addressing their most basic daily needs and future hopes. Conceptually and through daily trial and error, Marulanda worked out a series of strategic political –military operations based on his brilliant understanding of the geographic and human terrain. Between 1964 to his recent death, Marulanda defeated or evaded at least seven major military offensives financed by over $7 billion dollars in US military aid, involving thousands of US ‘Green Berets’, Special Forces, mercenaries, over 250,000 Colombians Armed Forces and 35,000 member paramilitary death squads.
Unlike Cuba or Nicarangua, Marulanda built an organized mass base and trained a largely rural leadership; he openly declared his socialist program and never received political or material support from so-called ‘progressive capitalists’. Colombia’s armed forces were a formidable, highly trained and disciplined repressive apparatus, bolstered by murderous death squads, unlike Batista’s and Somoza’s corrupt and rapacious gangsters, who plundered and retreated under pressure. Marulanda, unlike many better-known ‘poster-boy’ guerrillas, was a virtual unknown among the elegant leftist editors in London, the nostalgic Parisian sixty-eighters and the New York Socialist scholars. Marulanda spent his time exclusively in ‘Colombia profunda’, the deep Colombia, preferring to converse and teach peasants and learn their grievances, rather than giving interviews to adventure-seeking Western journalists. Instead of writing grandiloquent ‘manifestos’ and striking photogenic poses, he preferred the steady, unromantic but eminently effective grass roots pedagogy of the disinherited. Marulanda traveled from virtually inaccessible valleys to mountain ranges, from jungles to plains, organizing, fighting…recruiting and training new leaders. He eschewed tripping off to ‘World Forums’ or following the route of international leftist tourists. He never visited a foreign capital and, it is said, never set foot in the nation’s capital, Bogota. But he had a vast and profound knowledge of the demands of the Afro-Colombians of the Coast, the Indio-Colombians of the mountains and jungles, the land claims of millions of displaced peasants, the names and addresses of abusive landlords who brutalized and raped peasants and their kin.
Throughout the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s numerous guerrilla movements raised arms, fought with greater or lesser capacity and disappeared – killed, surrended (some even turned collaborator) or became immersed in electoral wheeling and dealing. Few in number, they fought in the name of non-existent ‘peoples armies’; most were intellectuals who were more familiar with European narratives than the micro-history and popular culture and legends of the people they tried to organize. They were isolated, encircled and obliterated, perhaps leaving a well-publicized legacy of exemplary sacrifice, but changing nothing on the ground.
In contrast, Marulanda took the best punches thrown by the counter-insurgency Presidents in Bogota and Washington and returned them in spades. For every village that was razed, Marulanda recruited dozens of angry and destitute peasant fighters and patiently trained them to be cadres and commanders. More than any guerrilla army, the FARC became an army of the whole people: one-third of the commanders were women, over seventy percent were peasants although intellectuals and professionals joined and were trained by movement-led cadres. Marulanda was revered for his singularly simple life style: he shared the drenching rain under plastic canopies. He was deeply respected by millions of peasants, but he never in any way cultivated a personality cult-figure: He was too irreverent and modest, preferring to delegate important tasks to a collective leadership, with a good deal of regional autonomy and tactical flexibility. He accepted a diversity of views on tactics, even when he profoundly disagreed. In the early 1980’s, many cadre and leaders decided to try the electoral route, signed a ‘peace agreement’ with the Colombian President, formed an electoral party – the Patriotic Union – and successfully elected numerous mayors and representatives. They even gained a substantial vote in Presidential elections. Marulanda did not publicly oppose the accord but he did not lay down his arms and ‘go down from the mountains to the city’. Much better than the professionals and trade unionists who ran for office, Marulanda understood the profoundly authoritarian and brutal character of the oligarchy and its politicians. He clearly knew that Colombia’s rulers would never accept any land reform just because a ‘few illiterate peasants voted them out of office.’ By 1987 over 5,000 members of the Patriotic Union had been slaughtered by the oligarchy’s death squads, including three presidential candidates, a dozen elected congressmen and women and scores of mayors and city councilors. Those who survived fled to the jungles and rejoined the armed struggle or fled into exile.
Marulanda was a master in evading many encirclement and annihilation campaigns, especially those designed by the best and the brightest from the US Fort Bragg Special Forces counter-insurgency center and the School of the Americas. By the end of the 1990’s the FARC had extended its control to over half the country and was blocking highways and attacking military bases only 40 miles from the capital. Severely weakened, the then President Pastrana finally agreed to serious peace negotiations in which the FARC demanded a de-militarized zone and an agenda that included basic structural changes in the state, economy and society.
Unlike the Central American guerrillas who traded arms for elected office, Marulanda insisted on land redistribution, dismantling of the death squads and dismissal of Colombian generals involved in massacres, a mixed economy largely based on public ownership of strategic economic sectors and large-scale funding for peasants to develop alternative crops to coca, prior to laying down arms.
In Washington President Clinton was hysterical and at first opposed the peace negotiations – especially the reform agenda as well as the open public debates and forums widely attended by Colombian civil society and organized by the FARC in the de-militarized zone. Marulanda’s embrace of democratic debate, demilitarization and structural changes puts the lie to the charge by Western and Latin American social democrats and center-left academics that he was a ‘militarist’. Washington probed to see if they could repeat the Central American peace process – co-opt the FARC leaders with the promise of electoral office and privilege in exchange for selling out the peasants and poor Colombians. At the same time Clinton, with bi-partisan support, pushed through a massive $2 billion dollar appropriation bill to fund the biggest and bloodiest counter-insurgency program since the war in Indochina, dubbed ‘Plan Colombia’. Abruptly ending the peace process, President Pastrana rushed troops into the demilitarized zone to capture the FARC secretariat, but Marulanda and his comrades were long gone.
Between 2002 to the present the FARC alternated from offensive attacks and defensive retreats – mostly the latter since 2006. With an unprecedented degree of US financing and advanced technological support, the newly elected narco-partner and death squad organizer, President Alvaro Uribe took charge of a scorched earth policy to savage the Colombian countryside. Between his election in 2002 and re-election in 2006, over 15,000 peasants, trade unionists, human rights workers, journalists and other critics were murdered. Entire regions of the countryside were emptied – like the US Operation Phoenix in Viet Nam, farmland was poisoned by toxic herbicides. Over 250,000 armed forces and their partners in the paramilitary death squads decimated vast stretches of the Colombian countryside where the FARC exercised hegemony. Scores of US-supplied helicopter gun-ships blasted the jungles in vast search and destroy missions – (which had nothing to do with coca production or the shipment of cocaine to the United States). By destroying all popular opposition and organizations throughout the countryside and displacing millions Uribe was able to push the FARC back toward more defensible remote regions. Marulanda, as in the past, adopted a strategy of defensive tactical retreat, giving up territory in order to safeguard the guerrillas’ capacity to fight another day.
Unlike other guerrilla movements, the FARC did not receive any material support form the outside: Fidel Castro publicly repudiated armed struggle and looked to diplomatic and trade ties with center-left administrations and even better relations with the brutal Uribe. After 2001, the Bush White House labeled the FARC a ‘terrorist organization’ putting pressure on Ecuador and Venezuela to tighten cross-border movements of the FARC in search of supply chains. The ‘center-left’ in Colombia was totally divided between those who gave ‘critical support’ to Uribe’s total war against the FARC and those who ineffectively protested the repression.
It is hard to imagine any guerrilla movement surviving under conditions of massive US financed counter-insurgency, quarter million US-armed soldiers, millions displaced from its mass base and a psychopathic President allied directly to a 35,000 member chain-saw death squads. However Marulanda, cool and determined, directed the tactical retreat; the idea of negotiating a capitulation never entered his mind nor that of the FARC secretariat.
The FARC does not have contiguous frontiers with a supporting country like Vietnam had with China; nor the arms supply from a USSR, nor the international mass support of Western solidarity groups like the Sandinistas. We live in times where supporting peasant-led national liberation movements is not ‘fashionable’, where recognizing the genius of peasant revolutionary leaders who build and sustain authentic mass peoples armies is taboo in the pretentious, loquacious and impotent World Social Formus – which ‘world’ routinely excludes peasant militants and for whom ‘social’ means the perpetual exchange of e-mails between foundations funded by NGO.
It is in this hardly auspicious environment facing US and Colombian Presidents intent on pyrrhic victories, that we can appreciate the political genius and personal integrity of Latin America’s greatest peasant revolutionary, Manuel Marulanda. His death will not generate posters or tee shirts for middle class college students, but he will live forever in the hearts and minds of millions of peasants in Colombia. He will be remembered forever as ‘Tiro Fijo’: the legend who was killed a dozen times and yet returned to the villages to share their simple lives. The only leader who was truly ‘one of them’, the one who confronted the Yankee military and mercenary machine for a half-century and was never captured or defeated.
He defied them all – those in their mansions, presidential palaces, military bases, torture chambers, and bourgeois editorial offices: He died at after 60 years of struggle of natural causes in the arms of his beloved peasant comrades.
Tiro Fijo presente!