This is a translated article. The original article can be found under this link.
She enters the hotel lobby five minutes early: a strong, self-confident, well-dressed brunette. She does not wear her usual, greenish army attire. She is dressed in fashionable blue jeans, a black sweater, medium-heeled open shoes and blue-green ear rings. She introduces herself with with a simple: “Hello, I am Tanja Nijmeijer.” Her real name, not her nom de guerre, Alexandra Nariño.
I had to jump through quite some loops and pull several strings in order to arrange a meeting with the only female guerilla warrior from the Netherlands. “I was sick and tired with Dutch journalism,” she tells me. She doesn’t like to be portrayed as exotic jungle babe. She wants to focus on the content, on what she stands for, rather than how she looks.
Why did she decide to say yes to this interview?
“You have been searching for me for quite a long time, no?”
She is right. From the moment it was clear that she joined the FARC, after her diaries had been discovered during an army invasion in July 2007, trying to get an interview with this guerrilla Holandesa is one of the priority items on my bucket list.
We sit down at a small table in one of the rooms of the hotel, overlooking the conference center in Havana, where since October 2012 negotiations for peace are being held between the Columbian government and the guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadaes Revolucionares de Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. We are not alone. We are joined by a strong and silent man. This is not Niemeijer’s bodyguard. “He is a fellow combatant. I do not have a bodyguard. But, as a general rule, we never travel alone. Not in the jungle, not in the streets of Havana.”
This week, in this quiet, leafy and shadowy neighborhood of West-Havana, will start the next round of negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government. The goal of these negotiations is to try to put an end to the civil war that has been going on for fifty years and that, until now, has taken around. The FARC is the last armed left-wing resistance group in South-America. They used to be one among many. Tanja Nijmeijer, a graduate from Groningen University in The Netherlands, with a major in Spanish language and literature, is in charge of the FARC website and is the FARC’s public relations official. She is the FARC’s showpiece at press conferences; she speaks five languages, she is neatly dressed, she is conscientious and time-efficient, and –not unimportant—she belongs to the central, ideological core of the FARC organization.
“The negotiations are held in a small conference room. We are all sitting around one big table, ten representatives of each of the two negotiation parties. Five of those are allowed to vote, five are advisors. We talk and after a while we start with drafting agreements and contracts. Then we discuss these drafts, then we stop, and then we go on to the next topic. There are six topics in total. This all takes months and months.”
There is no coffee. Tanja Nijmeijer, who once used to be a devote chain smoker, doesn’t need a break.
“I quit a year ago.”
We start with what is for Tanja the most important issue during the peace talks: Issue 2, political participation.
“People often think that the FARC started its armed battle because of agricultural problems, because of the unfair division of farmland. But the simple fact that we want to participate politically is not accepted by the power elite. The ‘exclusión,’ the exclusion, is the reason why we armed ourselves. In 1964, the year in which the FARC was founded, farmers asked the government ‘Help us, we want land to farm on’ But the government has always responded with violence to such requests.”
On the first issue that was on the agenda of the negotiations, agriocultural politicas, already some results have been reached. “The most important goal we attained is that the use of farmland by small farmers will be formalized. These farmers will receive formal ownership of the land they farm on. There are also 5 to 6 million farmers living in the cities because were driven from their villages. They often live in poverty. If they want to go back, they can be now given a piece of land they can work on.”
The silent FARC member that is also part of this interview comes form Chocó, the northwestern part of Colombia. He is the son of a day laborer.
“My father owned no land and therefore he had to move to the city of Barranquilla. For me, the poverty we experienced there, was the reason join the FARC. My parents have passed away now, but many people want to return to the rural areas they once left.”
Tanja Nijmeijer nods in agreement. One of the goals of big companies and the government still seems to be to drive people out of their villages to be able to grow mono-cultural vegetation, such as soya or bananas. Nijmeijer emphasizes that when it concerns the agricultural negotiation agenda, there are still 10 issues, so-called salvedades, that need to be talked about.
“The government does not want to talk about the deeper cause of what is happening, the neoliberal ideology that is the driving their politics.”
This country, with its fifty million inhabitants, which jungle grounds Tanja Niemeijer walked for years with a M16 assault rifle in hand, knows many imperfections, as she knows but all too well.
“Colombia is the oldest democracy of South-America, but there is also a big election machinery that prevents that too much power is given to normal people. To be able to partake in elections as a political party there are many conditions that you need to meet. One of the negotiation outcomes is an agreement that should make entrance into the political arena easier. Every political party, each person should be able to participate in national politics. To make this possible, it is essential that the paramilitary forces, which were once founded by the landowners, are restructured. They stifle social change and innovation. The paramilitary forces and the government are responsible for 70 to 85 percent of the victims in this civil war; exact numbers are subject to investigation. Only very recently, on 21 January, the leader of Congreso de los Pueblos, Carlos Alberto Pedraza, was murdered. Almost on a daily basis are people threatened or killed: left-wing politicians, employees of television programs. In Colombia there is a very strong and militant, extremely right-wing political faction, led by former president Álvero Uribe, that is an enemy of the peace process.”
Left-wing guerrilla groups, such as the FSLN, who in 1979 freed Nicaragua from dictator Somoza, and the FMLN, who from 1980-1992 fought in the cival war in El Salvador transformed, into political parties.
“You have to look at it like this: the FARC is a political party that took up armed combat because that was the only option left. But we are not married to our guns. We can leave our weapons when we move on as a political party. At this moment, however, that is too risky. I think it is a long process in which each side, we and the government, takes steps forward and tries to achieve peace. For example by instigating a two-sided cease fire. Now, since mid-December, there is only a one-sided cease fire, from our side, and already six people have been killed. The irony is that the government doesn’t want to instigate a two-sided cease fire because the FARC ‘will gain from that.’ But, in practice, the opposite is true.
Is FARC still ‘left wing’?
“I think that all these years we have organized ourselves in a Leninist manner and we have had a Marxist philosophy. But we are not necessarily very conservative. Such as: it must be done as in the Soviet-Union. But, I am also not saying: ‘We need to give up Marxism.’ We want the people to get access to the political arena, but when the people decides to move into another direction, we are open to start a coalition with other political parties. We do not want to be dogmatic about that.”
How big will the FARC be, compared to other political parties?”
“You mean how successful are we likely to be? I think that in the beginning it will be very difficult. An important factor will be airplay in the media. For years now, the television tells you every dat that the FARC is fighting against the people. That we are terrorists, that we are drugs dealers. A large part of the Colombian people has come to believe this. Therefore we would like to have more control over the media. Here, in Havana, we have been talking about a more equal division of radio frequencies. Ditto for television channels. We want to have ‘citizen media’, just like in Venezuela, where the people produce media content themselves. Perhaps it will take ten years before we are at full speed. Government responsibility, like the old guerrilla groups FSLN and FMLN now have in Central America, is an important first step. Our main goal will be to fight inequality. For me the most essential issue is: access to education for everyone.”
Hotel guests ask Tanja Niemeijer’s silent co-companion to shoot some pictures of their group. The hotel fountain starts to spurt. Tanja Nijmeijer is unimpressed by all these distractions and keeps talking. She explains everything carefully and diligently, and she puts in corrections when necessary. She doesn’t have a dogmatic view on the world, even though that is what one might expect, after yeas of living in the jungle of Colombia. Sleeping on leaves, in the open jungle, simple food, the constant stress of war, the threat of attacks; that leaves no one untouched.
In the USA she awaits 60 years of imprisonment for her participation in the gunning down of a small airplane in 2003 and for the subsequent kidnapping of three passengers who were employees of the USA Ministry of Defense. The FARC killed prisoners of war and kidnapped hundreds of Colombian soldiers, police agents, and politicians, such as Íngrid Betancourt who was released in 2008 after years of imprisonment.
Tanja Niemeijer remains a pragmatic. To achieve peace first a myriad of wounds need to be healed, she knows. “We made mistakes. Here, in this room (she points to the conference center), we have had a meeting with a group of victims and survivors from Bojayá, from the Chocó region. In 2002, 79 civilians were killed by a handmade FARC mortar. Meeting these people was very difficult for us, but also for them. These are events and meetings that you will not hear about in the media. It is cool to say: ‘The FARC should apologize, but when that happens, nobody cares to report it.”
When the interview switches to negotiation issue four, the growth and cultivation of drugs – drogas ilícitas –, Tanja Nijmeijer becomes especially cautious with her words. This is a delicate issue. According to reports that can be found on the Internet, the turnover of cocaine that is associated with the FARC around half a billion US dollars. Without these narco-dollars, the FARC’s cause cannot be financed. “We reached a compromise with the government to stop, under certain conditions, with destroying the destruction of coca plants. Also, farmers who grow coca plants will not be treated as criminals anymore. These farmers are not the problem. The drugs problem is an international problem. That is what the USA says as well. The war on drugs has failed.”
The FARC grows drugs or allows other to grow drugs in the areas that she controls. Were any decisions made in relation to this?
“We are no drug dealers. We are a revolutionary organization in a country in which everything is related to narcotics. That is a completely different perspective. As part of the peace negotitations decisions have been made as to how international mafia organizations can be dealt with more harshly. It is our opinion that when farmers are treated more fairly, they prefer to grow other crops than coca plants. Especially, when they will be given access to markets where they can sell their products.”
Another type of work
When I ask her how many FARC people will have to start looking for another job when the peace negotiations have ended, Tanja Nijmeijer remains vague. It is the third issue on the negotiation agenda. The war has become part and parcel of the Colombian economy. But what is the use of 500.000 government soldiers when there is no guerrilla anymore? Niemeijer’s silent companion says that they’re 70 FARC units active, in urban as well as in rural areas. “Each unit consists of, on average, 300 soldiers.’ That amounts to 21.000 combatants, including those who are part of the FARC on-and-off. Other sources, however, suggest that the FARC’s force amounts to only 5000 people.
Tanja Nijmeijer: “That is certainly important for us, but it simply has not been part of the agenda until now.”
What does Tanja Nijmeijer think a post-guerrilla future will bring? Gardening or waiting for a new frontline?
“I can only choose between gardening and fighting? That feels quite limiting. There are so many other things I would like to do, but one thing is certain: I want to contribute to a just world, perhaps by teaching in schools in Colombia, perhaps by being involved in critical journalism or by developing independent media initiatives. The future has enormous challenges for us in store; the end of armed conflict does not necessarily mean peace. Without food, housing, education, healthcare there can’t be peace. That is what I will keep fighting for.”
The negotiations between the FARC and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos:
Issue 1: Agriculture. A fair division of farmland.
Issue 2: Political participation. Safe and fair participation.
Issue 3: And end to the conflict. Turning in weapons, demilitarization.
Issue 4: Drugs. How to stop cocaine cultivation and trade.
Issue 5: Victims. Compensation and recognition of victims of war.
Issue 6: Implementation of the outcome of negotiations. The ways in which the people are given information about the results of the negotiation and they have the final say about it all.
Tanja Nijmeijer invites Dutch politicians to visit Cuba, where she can inform them about the negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government. “When political parties from the Netherlands and other countries in Europe want to learn more about the peace process in, they are cordially invited to visit us in Havana. I would appreciate it when the Netherlands would play a more active role. Right now that is impossible, because the Netherlands is part of the European Union and the FARC is on its list of terrorist organizations. In these post-conflict times the Netherlands can play an important role. For us that is very important. When the peace negotiations are over and the most difficult part starts; the implementation of the agreements, it is important that the international community knows what is at stake.”
More Arnold Karskens (in Dutch).