The Left in Colombia

Pasto, Colombia doesn’t rank high in the guidebooks for tourists, but it has its charm, perhaps for that very reason. There are no tourist bars, discotheques, and restaurants catering to exotic tastes, or at least only a nominal few. If you dip into a local café, your likely choices for dinner will be “sancocha,” an Andean soup, or “fritada,” which in Pasto consists of fried pork with boiled potatoes, served on a bed of popcorn and topped with a very small “arepa” or thick tortilla.

In the evenings the streets fill up with strollers window shopping on their way home from work and no one seems to be in a rush. They stop and chat with acquaintances in this city where, despite a growing population, everyone seems to know each other. In fact, there is little to distinguish Pasto, Nariño, except for its governor, Antonio Navarro Wolf, a former guerrilla leader of the M-19.

Wolf is a folk hero to many on the left in Colombia. Running on the platform of “Zero corruption,” he was elected mayor of the city of Pasto where he served until he ran for the national senate. He won his bid for the senate to represent the federal district of Santa Fé de Bogotá with the largest percentage of the votes ever tallied for a single senator in Colombia and only narrowly missed taking the leadership of president of Colombia’s left party, the Democratic Left Pole (PDI), the position being won by former president Carlos Gaviria. His influence on the writing of the Constitution of 1991 was significant and led to the inclusion of many progressive elements that today haunt Colombia’s right-wing president, Alvaro Uribe.

Wolf has been governor of Nariño for just over six months, and while the changes may not yet be visible outside of the government building housing his offices, within the building there are young faces, several of whom, in strategic places such as the Ministry of Agriculture and the Office of Community Development, are indigenous. Nubia del Rocío Tatamues, Sub-secretary of Community Development, and Minister of Agriculture Javier Cuaical Alpala represent the Nariño government’s attempts to deepen democracy and focus on what Wolf calls “ethnodevelopment.”

Recently, Navarro Wolf granted me an exclusive interview in his office where we talked for over an hour about his life in politics, what he hopes to accomplish as governor of Nariño, and his views on the current situation in Colombia.

The government building housing Wolf’s office is somewhat elegant with sparkling hardwood floors and a courtyard with an enormous chessboard that could easily represent the governor’s approach to politics with a national government reputed to be the most right wing in today’s Latin America.

Wolf’s office is clean and neat and the man sitting behind the desk doesn’t look like someone who spent years underground in the cities and the jungle. He’s properly dressed and looks like any other higher government functionary, but one might guess that these neat clothes and business-like manner are also disguises for a man determined to help turn his country upside down. I wonder this to myself as I sit down: how much of the revolutionary is left in this man who hides his age better than his wounds from a failed-assassination attempt? The limp from the missing leg is noticeable, but the speech problems are more so.

“I was a guerrilla for 16 years in the M-19 movement, from 1974 to 1990. In 1990 we signed a peace agreement with the national government and we began our eighteen years of what you could call our legal political activity. So I’ve been doing political work now for thirty four years,” he tells me.

I ask him why he became a guerrilla in the first place. “There were a number of reasons at the time,” he said. “First, there had been an electoral fraud (in Colombia), taking place on April 19 of 1970, hence our name, the Movement of the 19 of April. It was also a time of the guerrilla all over Latin America. A that point the Sandinistas were still fighting in Nicaragua, as well as [the FMLN in] El Salvador, in addition to all the older guerrillas from the 1950s. And so, at that time, it seemed possible to bring about reforms by the use of arms, especially when the electoral [route to change] seemed closed.”

Wolf had been a student activist when he entered the movement. He recounts this dramatic part of his life quickly, as if it were a brief and minor incident and not a sixteen-year saga during which time he “was involved in everything.”

“I fought in the mountains, was captured, tortured, freed and then almost murdered, lost a leg… and then negotiated a peace agreement with the government, which we signed a year later in 1990. Why did we sign [the peace accord]? Simply because we saw that armed struggle was going nowhere and we would never win — even if we weren’t going to lose.”

Those conditions, which led the M-19 to negotiate a peace, included the rise of the paramilitary organizations and the backing the government received from the U.S., combined with the fact that Colombians, who for a few years had supported the guerrillas, in their majority, now opposed the armed struggle for power.

“In the mountains you can easily lose perspective for what you’re doing,” Wolf says. “But we noticed that the conditions in Colombian society were changing. It was no longer the rural society of the 60s and 70s, but an increasingly urban society. And without the support of the majority of society, we weren’t going to win. We weren’t going to lose; we could have maintained our positions, but there wasn’t enough support nor social conditions for a victory, either, and we knew conditions would simply deteriorate with time. Armed struggle is a method to achieve political victory, and that method would no longer work to achieve a political victory, so we signed the peace agreement and entered the legal political struggle.”

The M-19 began an internal discussion about a negotiated settlement in 1979 and then made their first unsuccessful attempts to negotiate peace in 1984. In that sense, the M-19 were what Wolf called the “precursors” of those guerrilla groups that negotiated peace agreements. They were followed by the FMLN in El Salvador in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, and other smaller guerrilla groups in Colombia, like the EPL (Popular Liberation Army), the Armed Indigenous Movement.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), however, thought they could achieve a military victory and refused to negotiate. “They still believe that, even though conditions continue to deteriorate for them,” says Wolf. “Ten years ago, 1998, was their high point in terms of military strength, capacity and results. That’s when they should have made peace. It may be that they won’t be defeated, but their time for possible victory is completely gone now.”

Needless to say, Wolf feels that the FARC/ELN made a big mistake by not seizing the opportunity to move from armed to legal political struggle when it arose.

“If we had all signed peace agreements at the same time, I feel sure we would be in a situation like El Salvador, with a strong left on the point of political victory.”

The fact that guerrilla groups have signed different agreements at different times has weakened the left in Colombia, even though Wolf also feels that there is still great potential for a strong left party in the country. Nevertheless, the presence of the FARC/ELN as an armed, left guerrilla movement, has not only tended to limit support for legal left political organizations, like the Democratic Left Pole (PDI), but has also helped, more than anything else, to strengthen the right wing in Colombia.

“We [the legal left] continue paying the bill because their [FARC/ELN] presence and activities continue to hurt the left working in electoral politics by affecting uninformed public opinion since the right wing continues to associate us with the FARC. And today, the only way to transform society is through the electoral process.”

Could it be that the FARC doesn’t want to sign a peace accord because it fears a repeat of the massacres of the 1980s into the 1990s of the Patriotic Union (UP) when FARC members attempted to take the electoral route and between two and five thousand members were murdered by paramilitaries? And how did the M-19 escape a similar fate?

“We signed the peace accord in spite of that [slaughter of the UP] because we felt that by making a complete commitment to separate ourselves from armed struggle we would have some sort of guarantees. Of course, some of our members were killed, but we weren’t entirely eliminated, nor were even the majority of us killed. In general, we were respected. The situation of the UP was quite different; they had an element against them. The guerrilla continued to be armed while people connected to that guerrilla tried to do electoral political work, the simultaneous combination of two forms of struggle. This is similar to other situations, like ETA and Batasuna in Spain or the IRA and Seinn Fein, at one time, in Ireland. On the other hand, we made a public commitment to legal process with zero connection to the armed struggle.”

In 1990, the M-19 ran their former military commander for president of Colombia, Carlos Pizzaro, who was murdered before the elections. His funeral brought out massive numbers of people into the streets and Wolf took his place in the elections, coming in third place with 12.7 percent of the vote. The outpouring of support shown for Pizarro at the funeral, Wolf believes, protected other members of the M-19 from a similar fate. Thus began the legal, political struggle of Antonio Navarro Wolf and the M-19.

How has that legal struggle been? “Difficult. Difficult. But we won great support after the death of Carlos Pizzaro and were about a third of the National Assembly, playing a decisive role in the writing of the Constitution. And so that year, 1990-1991, was a year of great hope. But then it became very difficult. We had nothing. We had no money, nor experience in electoral politics. But the later development of the PDI came as the result of getting more experience and we’re all there [in the PDI]: the demobilized M-19, the ex- Communist Party, the Maoist left, people from all sectors of the left, we’re all there.”

The PDI is working in coalition with smaller centrist parties under the umbrella organization of the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA). I ask Wolf if the PDA is going to go the route of the Frente Amplio of Uruguay or the Worker’s Party of Brazil which, by including the center, became a peculiarly “left” version of capitalism. The so-called “Pink Tide,” with perhaps the exception of Venezuela, and certainly of Cuba, hasn’t demonstrated a predilection for anything socialist but the rhetoric associated with it. Most would argue that the economies of the so-called “pink” nations of Latin America have continued to be thoroughly dependent capitalist economies.

Wolf, by contrast, doesn’t seem to like the rhetoric associated with “socialism,” especially given his Colombian context, so he uses the language of “democracy,” “opportunity,” “justice,” and “equality.” The inclusion of the centrist parties in the PDA has created a party which, “it seems to me, is too far to the right.” This year, he says, “we’ll be dealing with this issue [about whether or not to include the centrist parties in the PDA]. I think what we’ll end up with will be three distinct choices: a right wing with Uribe; a center; and a left alternative.

I raise the question of his proposal, in 2006, of government subsidies for housing in which he proposed giving the poor of his country $100 per month to help with housing. He dismisses the proposal immediately.

“I proposed that at one moment without considering the consequences of how it would be paid, of the intermediaries and so forth. These direct subsidies have many problems. They feed into the clientelism you see all over the world. Along with that comes the deterioration of ideas, proposals and political lines. In the end, you have poor people just voting for the subsidies [and not candidates]. And finally, all this public assistance is ultimately unsustainable. And so here we’ve decided to do no subsidies. None. Here, if we’re going to subsidize anything, it would be done in such a way that would require a commitment on the part of the people to contribute to, and support the project themselves.

“Nearly all of Latin America is pulling back from the idea of welfare programs. We want to see people take part in their own lives and take initiative. We don’t want to make the people into beggars, conceptual beggars, waiting for manna from heaven. And so we’re happy to finance productive enterprises with credits. But they’re credits that have to be repaid. And so they have to put in their part and make an effort. Everyone puts something in. People may be very poor but they have to put something in. We’ll feed you lunch, but you have to work for it. And so they have to make an effort, insofar as they’re able.”

I ask Wolf about the Socialism of the 21st Century. “Yes, so we’re talking about democratic socialism. I prefer social democracy, political democracy, social democracy which implies the power of the majorities, the option for the majority. Not that I oppose socialism per se, but my formation was in the M-19 and we were motivated by the power of democracy and we defined ourselves from the beginning by economic and political democracy, social justice, social democracy and national sovereignty. That was the vision of the M-19 that, because of the electoral fraud, we organized around the concept of democracy and that meant a deep, participatory democracy.

“Here [in Nariño], for instance, we’re doing a sort of participatory budget, working on developing communitarian enterprises, and supporting rural workers (campesinos), indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups. And when there are struggles for land, we side with the campesinos because we believe they have a right to land. From my point of view, the concept of ‘democracy’ includes all this and it’s also more clear and direct.”

In all these struggles, Wolf says, the state plays a key role.

“In the economy, the state needs to offer support to the weak against the strong. And, even though it’s a bit out of style, the state needs to work toward the redistribution of the means of production. And so in this Department [Nariño], 70 percent of the campesinos have land, an exceptional situation in Colombia. But the problem is they’re very weak, and their parcels of land are small, one hectare, or half a hectare. And so we’ve attempted to strengthen them by financial credits, technical assistance and connecting them with other campesinos. And all this is encompassed in the concept of democracy. Clearly what’s needed is agrarian reform, and this is also part of democracy.”

Nevertheless, Wolf maintains, it’s important to be realistic in approaching agrarian reform. “We want to see land given directly to the campesinos, and not to cooperatives and associations. What seems to work is technical assistance, helping the campesino sell his or her products directly and without intermediaries but ensuring that the campesino is owner of his or her own piece of land. Because cooperatives might work well with the indigenous campesinos and even, more or less, with the Afro-Colombians, because there is a tradition of collective work among them but not with the other mestizo campesinos. There it’s important for each family to have its own piece of land.”

But how can the campesino compete with the flood of cheap, subsidized food produced by agribusiness and shipped from the U.S. under the Free Trade agreements? Navarro Wolf is working on that problem.

“We’re selling organic and fair trade products to Europe, where there’s a big market for this sort of thing. This is a great opportunity, and especially now, with the price of oil being so high, to move toward organic methods of agriculture. We’ve been developing those methods, for example, in the cultivation of coffee where we’re using both organic and commercial fertilizers. After all, this is a slow process, this transition. But we’re working on that: organic methods and fair trade.”

The new Secretary of Agriculture and the Environment, Javier Cuaical, has been working with indigenous groups in “shagras,” which, Wolf explains, is an integrated farm which has its own economy, produces its own food and medicines, all based on a return to the indigenous cosmovision. “All of this is oriented toward the establishment of food security. But this is program, what we call ‘ethnodevelopment,’ is new, only developed in the past six months. Before then none of this existed.”

I ask Wolf if his government has had any difficulty with Uribe’s right-wing government and he says not up to the present. “Well, they’re not very happy about this new governor here, but neither have they opposed us. So far we’ve maintained a constructive relationship based on an attitude of mutual respect, working as best we can on the problems before us.

“For instance, right now in two municipalities our [Department of Nariño] government is proposing to stop the aerial spraying of coca and voluntary substitution programs in two municipalities. We’re proposing this to the national government as an experiment in which we would accompany and assist the two municipalities over a period of ten years. We’re doing this because the spraying as a strategy has completely failed.” Wolf points out that after years of spraying, over 284,000 hectares in Nariño alone, the areas under coca cultivation has actually increased from 13,000 in 2002 to over 20,000 in 2007. That’s why Navarro Wolf is hoping to get a hearing from Uribe and possibly getting funding for his pilot project of voluntary crop substitution for coca cultivation. “The spraying is certainly cheaper than what I intend to propose, but it has produced no results. We’ll see if they listen, but I’m sure that we’ll get better results than the spraying has done. And besides, my plan doesn’t poison the earth.”

This plan is part of a proposal Wolf calls “Life and Peace,” in which he hopes to bring an end to the violence in his corner of Colombia which results from drug production and trafficking.

“In municipalities where there is no coca production, murders are at 20 per hundred thousand people — and there are 21 municipalities where that number drops to zero. Where there is coca production, that number rises to over 80, that is, four times the number of homicides — and more.” Through voluntary crop substitution and a prioritization of social investment and spending, the governor of Nariño hopes to make his department a model for peace and human development.

Wolf has to get back to work but he’s willing to answer one last question so I ask him about the role the social movements will play in his government. “They’re everything,” he says. “They’re the people.”

* First published in Upside Down World.

Clifton Ross can be reached at clifross1(at) His most recent book, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia (2016, AK Press) is a memoir of his experiences among revolutionary movements in the Americas, including the Bolivarian process of Venezuela. Read other articles by Clifton.

One comment on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. R.A. said on August 8th, 2008 at 9:40am #

    Many mistakes!! First of all, there’s not “sancocha”, it’s “SANCOCHO”, a male noun. Carlos Gaviria wasn’t president, he was the head of the Constitutional Court, one of the highest in Colombia, a magistrat. “ethnodevelopment” is a term created by the same teachers in rural areas, specially if when they’re inhabited by Indians or African-Colombians. Also, speak about FARC and ELN as one group is a huge fail. Both of them are leftist guerrillas but they have even combat between them. The ELN was negotiating with Uribe, FARC say they never will do it with him.