Who’s Right (or Left)?
Leftists and rightists point out each other’s shortcomings while ignoring their own
by Emily Monroy
Two years ago I took a trip to Cartagena, Colombia and the surrounding area. Before I left, friends worried I might become a victim of the wave of murders and kidnappings that seemed to be sweeping Colombia. I told them to rest assured: the part of the country I would be visiting was controlled not by the FARC*, the Marxist guerrilla organization responsible for most tourist abductions, but by the AUC**, a right-wing paramilitary group formed to defend wealthy landowners against the FARC and other left-wing insurgents. Though both the FARC and AUC have been declared terrorist organizations by the United States, the latter generally do not engage in kidnappings of foreigners. That, along with the fact the FARC are not active in areas under the AUC’s influence, practically guaranteed me a safe trip.
On mentioning this to “John,” a White conservative friend of mine, he remarked that the paramilitaries were simply “doing their job.” Of course John loves me like a sister, and furthermore he had just read of a female senator in Colombia being tortured and killed by the FARC. But his seeming indifference to the atrocities committed by the paramilitaries struck me as naïve at best and callous at worst. Was my personal safety – in which, by the way, I doubt the paramilitaries took any direct interest; after all, they were set up to protect landowners, not foreign visitors – really worth the deaths and persecution of the AUC’s victims?
On the other hand, some of the left’s attitude towards the FARC seems equally naïve and one-sided. For example, a large Canadian labour union declared their support for the FARC in a gesture of solidarity with “our brothers and sisters in Colombia.” A writer in the Toronto radical publication Eye chastised the American government for sending Colombia money to be used against left-wing rebels – never bothering to mention that the rebels have the nasty little habit of blowing up pipelines and buildings without much thought of who might be in or around these structures. (I’ll nonetheless admit to considerable scepticism about Uncle Sam’s “Plan Colombia.”) At my workplace, a left-wing colleague assured me he knew “from people who know what they’re talking about” that the FARC is struggling for a “good cause.”
The FARC versus AUC debate is only part of a wider left-right quarrel: which side is better or, more often, which is worse. For instance, a long-running argument has been whether Nazism or Communism was more evil. Leftists state, not without reason, that at least Communism was founded on the noble ideal of creating a society where everybody was equal and no one lacked for anything. Nazism, with its scheme of creating a master race, was not. On the other hand, some right-wingers counter that far more people actually died in Stalin’s gulags than in Hitler’s concentration camps – but then again, one can also say that having ruled over more people for a longer time, Communist leaders simply had more opportunity to kill.
At this point the “Lesser of Two Evils” award appears to be held by the AUC rather than the FARC. This according to my own admittedly unscientific survey of the Colombians I know and to an article by Colombian-born writer Silvana Paternostro in the New York Times Magazine. Paternostro explains that “the FARC are seen as abominable and arrogant bandits who kidnap and kill without mercy – using children as soldiers and kitchen gas tanks as bombs.” Most Colombians, she states, prefer to live under the paramilitaries. Few, however, see the AUC as heroes; the late drug lord Pablo Escobar probably had a bigger fan club than any paramilitary leader. The Colombians to whom I’ve spoken say the AUC don’t hold out much hope for peace in the country.
Perhaps the truth is that on most issues the opinion of the so-called “Average Joe,” or “Josephine,” doesn’t mesh with either the extreme right or left. Take the question of abortion. Writing in the Boston Globe recently, Russian-American journalist Cathy Young claims that most Americans’ views on abortion fall somewhere in between those of the pro-life and official pro-choice movements. While the majority of Americans approve of a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy in the early stages, they’re much less supportive of other pro-choice demands, such as the use of tax money for the procedure and “partial birth” abortion. They also take issue with the notion that an abortion is no more morally ambiguous than a tonsillectomy.
Nor do I think the Colombian people’s seeming acquiescence to the paramilitaries signals a turn to the right as a whole. A story in the July/August issue of Utne Reader recounted that many Latin American countries have elected leftist leaders, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Brazil’s Lula. As well, grassroots organizations have protested against privatizations. Thus many Latin Americans feel a dedication to the ideals of the left: equality, a society where no one’s basic needs go unmet, and so on and so forth. However, I believe that if they want their movement to have credibility, liberals and progressives should denounce groups like the FARC rather than portraying them as forces for good or excusing their actions on the grounds they are done in the service of a noble cause.
* FARC stands for “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia” in Spanish.
** AUC stands for “United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.”
Emily Monroy is a professional translator and is of Irish, Italian and Norwegian descent. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including Interracial Voice, Cats Canada, and Urban Mozaik. She welcomes feedback on her articles. You can contact Emily here
Copyright © 2004 Emily Monroy. All rights reserved.