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July 25, 1999
Colombia’s Cautious Revolutionary

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To many Colombians, Marulanda remains an enigma, part of the country's political landscape for decades but always a hazy figure with a ghost-like image.

Through his half century of struggle, Marulanda has been no swashbuckling daredevil who relishes defying the odds and seizing the public limelight. He has avoided unnecessary danger.

He is also not known for haranguing his followers with inspirational speeches. He is no Fidel Castro in size, stamina, education or oratory. He is no "Che" Guevara in charisma, audacity or world renown.

When he grants one of his rare interviews with the Colombian news media, his comments are largely programmatic and bland, not philosophical and fiery. He prefers to talk about his views on the political situation of the moment rather than a grand ideological vision for the future.

Possibly his greatest fame comes from the government's frequent -- and erroneous -- announcements of his death. Indeed, it is possibly Marulanda's relatively low-profile approach to armed revolution that accounts for his survival. A more glorious leader might have attracted a more determined campaign for his annihilation.

On Jan 7, 1999, for instance, when Marulanda had a chance to step onto the international stage with scheduled peace talks with President Pastrana, Marulanda opted for discretion over valor. Having heard reports of a possible assassination plot, Marulanda ducked the summit in San Vincente.

"Some military command agents were sent to check out the area and find adequate places to position snipers," Marulanda explained in an interview with the Colombian magazine Semana.

"They selected some high places, the sides of the church, across from the plaza. They were not very lucky because one of them told us how the plan was drafted. If they could 'drop' Pastrana and me there would be no problem. That would solve the problem."

The Semana reporter asked, "Do you think someone could have killed you in San Vincente, surrounded by thousands of your men?"

"It is always good to be careful," Marulanda responded characteristically. "One never knows. They could always find themselves a gunman to carry out the action on behalf of Carlos Castaño [the leader of the right-wing paramilitary force called the Colombian United Self-Defense Groups or AUC].

“It is very difficult to spot a gunman in the midst of the townspeople. It is very difficult to know who is earning a salary and willing to die as well. Therefore, it is better to be cautious."

Marulanda then cited many other Colombian guerrillas and dissidents -- many his contemporaries -- who did not survive the violent world of Colombian politics.

"They did it with Pizarro [Carlos Pizarro León Gómez, leader of the 19 April Movement, known as the M-19], with the liberals, with [Guadalupe Salcedo], with [EPL leader] Oscar William Calvo, with [M-19 leader] Carlos Toledo Plata, and others. Therefore, one cannot overlook these things." [Semana, as translated by the BBC, Jan. 22, 1999]

Some skeptics, however, suggested that the purported assassination plot in San Vincente was simply an excuse for the reclusive Marulanda to avoid international notoriety. At the negotiation site, more than 1,000 journalists and guests were in attendance, waiting for the expected meeting.

I briefly encountered Marulanda on Jan 8, a day after he stood up Pastrana at the official ceremony. I was driven to the FARC base camp in a brand-new blue Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicle. The purpose of my visit was an interview with FARC spokesman Raul Reyes. I was surprised to see Marulanda in the same camp.

According to Reyes, Marulanda was calling the shots in the political maneuvering over negotiations. One of the demands was the government's "willingness" to combat the growing violence of Castaño's AUC.

"We have told the government that that is a problem that it has to resolve," Reyes said. "If the government wants to work for peace, it is them that have to fight the paramilitary right-wing organizations."

Beyond controlling the AUC, the FARC insists that the government make improvement of the peasants' social conditions its top priority. Marulanda has presented broad economic demands as near preconditions for negotiating an end to the armed conflict.

Though the FARC and the government are again edging toward peace talks amid bloody skirmishes, it is unclear how far Pastrana will go to address these issues of social justice -- or feels he can go.

If the government offers only oratorical window-dressing, the negotiations could become a test of Marulanda's continued influence inside the FARC. By virtually all accounts, Marulanda is deeply committed to concrete improvements in the well-being of Colombia's poor.

"Marulanda holds it as principle that one cannot treat people bad," said FARC spokesman Reyes.

Personally, those who know him describe Marulanda as quiet and humble, an idealist who considers himself a peasant chosen by the people to represent them.

He was born on May 12, 1930, into a peasant family deeply influenced by the violent political struggles between Colombia's Liberals and Conservatives.

Growing up, Marulanda was a peasant farmer and never received any formal education. He favored the Liberal side in a long civil war that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. In 1948, Marulanda organized his first guerrilla band and commanded 14 of his cousins in a conflict with the Conservative military government of Mariana Ospina.

Marulanda soon allied himself with Jacobo Arenas, a communist ideological leader who became Marulanda's second in command. Arenas supplied Marulanda with much of his political schooling, though Marulanda was best known as a military commander not a political theorist.

In the years that followed, Marulanda demonstrated skill in hit-and-run guerrilla warfare while building close ties to other peasant leaders.

Operating mostly in Colombia's southwest region, Marulanda's guerrilla band provoked a harsh response from the army, which was supplied and assisted by the U.S. military. The army mounted an offensive. Using American napalm -- a jelly-like fiery substance -- the Colombian air force bombed the Marquetalia region where Marulanda’s forces were based.

Only 48 guerrillas survived the assault, but they were undeterred. Marulanda organized the survivors and 350 peasants into the so-called Southern Bloc.

On May 27, 1964, the force changed its name to the FARC and survived despite repeated early reversals. It operated mostly in remote corners of the nation.

As a guerrilla leader, Marulanda was known as cautious and suspicious, but also cunning and determined. Initially, Marulanda structured his guerrilla force with a vertical command with himself in charge.

His ideology sought socialism for Colombia. He foresaw a nation of small peasant farms and mid-sized industry. He favored a 50 percent investment in the national budget for social development.

One of his best-known statements about life as a guerrilla combined his sense of survival with the need for a warrior to overcome the fear of death.
Marulanda said, "I think no man likes the idea of dying; the teeth of death must be kept distant. But in the crucial moments of combat, one cannot fear, because if one is fearful, one cannot fight. It is the first condition of a soldier."

But Marulanda was not a leader with a flair for the dramatic. Operating mostly through delegates, he distrusted the spotlight that his leadership brought him, with even his face and identity a mystery for many years.

Marulanda was pursued not only by the army but by private bounty-hunters. The press proclaimed him dead at least once a year, only to be disappointed when he would be spotted in some town.

Over the years, training and organizing in obscurity, the FARC took root as a peasant movement. By 1984, Marulanda had built the FARC into a force of 27 battalions, a rebel army of national dimensions.

At that time, he considered a negotiated peace with President Belisario Betancur in exchange for the government's commitment to address social ills. But the cease-fire collapsed when the Colombian army launched a surprise attack on the FARC's public headquarters in Casa Verde.

As the violent struggle progressed, Marulanda's humility allowed the FARC to develop a strong grassroots structure from which emerged a new generation of leaders. Marulanda evolved more into a presence behind the scenes of the increasingly powerful FARC, still influential but less dominating.

Jacobo Arenas, Marulanda’s ideological adviser and second-in-command, died of natural causes a decade ago. Some say the cause of death was cancer; others believe diabetes or an ulcer.

On a personal level, the modest Marulanda generated adoration among many of his followers. A tango lover, he also had an eye for the ladies. He has had several wives with whom he has fathered at least seven children.

"His children, more or less, make out a pretty long list," acknowledged Reyes.

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