Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas, who was known as Alfonso Cano and who headed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), died November 4 in a Colombian military attack in southeastern Cauca department.

Colombian intelligence services had used U.S. electronic surveillance tools and CIA assistance to track Cano’s movements. With helicopters and planes overhead, his detachment of 20 combatants came under fire from a force variously estimated at from 1000 to 4000 troops.  Some regard the operation as an execution. 

Beginningas a Colombian Communist Party activist, Cano fought for the FARC for over 30 years, becoming its leader in 2008. He succeeded Manuel Marulanda, FARC leader since its 1964 inception. The guerrilla insurgency, most of whose members belonged to the Colombian Communist Party (PCC), took on the cause of displaced small farmers. The FARC broke with the PCC in 1993 over the issue of armed struggle. Timoleón Jiménez, long term FARC Secretariat member, succeeds Cano as top leader of the insurgency Andres Pastrana broke off in 2002, the insurgency claimed 20,000 troops. FARC strength declined afterwards to an estimated 8000 combatants. Its leadership took a hit with the combat deaths of Raúl Reyes in 2008 and Jorge Briceño in 2010. Under Cano’s leadership, the FARC reorganized under a decentralized command system, regained lost territory, and released police and military hostages to encourage peace negotiations.

Cano prioritized a negotiated settlement of armed conflict, but insisted upon finding solutions for injustices and inequalities the FARC had been fighting against. In that regard, a report recently released by the United Nations Program for Human Development establishes Colombia as the third most unequal nation in the world, exceeded only by Haiti and Angola.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s reaction to Cano’s death was revealing. Speaking to reporters, that jubilant former defense minister foresaw "prisons and graves for the rest of the guerrillas." Earlier he hinted he might accept a negotiated settlement.

Leftist media reaction focused on damage to the peace process. Precedents were cited as to other insurgencies gaining eventual victory after losing important leaders. And Communist Parties lauded Cano as a revolutionary leader, despite long habits of downplaying the role of armed struggle.

Ex-Liberal Party Senator Piedad Cordoba, leader of the group Colombians for Peace, indicated Cano had already determined to release 20 or so remaining FARC hostages. She feared "the government wants the FARC to kill the prisoners. For the FARC to do so would show off their actions as absolutely inhuman." Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez of the Alternative Democratic Pole, a Communist Party member, recalled "the pain of endless, daily loss of lives in our country," adding that "We are deeply sorrowful at the death of FARC Commander Alfonso Cano. We recognize in him a man who consistently dedicated his life to struggle for his revolutionary convictions, who…in recent months provided various indications of his disposition to commit himself to negotiations to find a solution to the conflict."

Cano’s contribution was special, opined analyst José Antonio Gutiérrez: "Cano knew how to uphold a political orientation that showed him to be not the dark, orthodox personality described by the media…He understood the present context of popular mobilization and knew ways in which proposals of the insurgency could be integrated within the political discussion at large."

The subjects of the FARC and armed struggle are intertwined. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez early in 2008 called for the FARC to be recognized as an insurgent army, not as a terrorist force, but months latter he demanded that the FARC release hostages and give up on armed struggle. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro agreed on the hostage matter, but said he was "not suggesting that anyone lay down their arms."

Communist parties in Latin America and elsewhere, even those engaged in mainstream, electoral politics, saluted Cano. They joined in lamenting the blow his death represents for peace in Colombia.

"Honor and Glory to Commander Alfonso Cano!" said the Venezuelan Communist Party. "The presumption of surrender by the insurgents [won’t work] to build peace in Colombia," said a spokesperson. Chile’s Communist Party expressed "profound sorrow" at Cano’s death, alleging that the "Colombian Army is backed financially and logistically by the military apparatus of North American imperialism." The Peruvian CP lauded Cano’s "youthful rebellion, serious study and detailed knowledge of the reality and history of his country." For the Communist Party of Mexico, Cano was "without doubt a revolutionary example." Colombian Communist Party leader Carlos Lozano regards the FARC and ELN (Army of National Liberation) as an "an indispensible, dynamic factor" in overcoming conflict in Colombia.

Likewise, the Communist Party of Australia expressed "great sadness and anger at the recent murder of FARC leader Alfonso Cano. It protested…the reckless escalation of the armed conflict." For the Communist Party of Ireland, "death in action of Alfonso Cano is a severe blow to the aspirations of the Colombian people for social justice and peaceful development." The Greek Communist Party wrote that, "Comrade Alfonso Cano takes an honored place amongst the thousands of partisans, trade unionists, political leaders, workers, farmers and young people who have given their lives in recent years for a new Colombia."

Rarely these days do Communist parties say or perhaps think much about armed revolutionary struggle. Such discussion may evoke uncomfortable ideological differences. Or internationalist curiosity may have waned as strategic focus on internal political priorities took over. It may be too that steering clear of old debates, especially this one, helps ward off any potential for renewed red scare assaults.

Yet the twin options of regular politics and armed mobilization are not necessarily disconnected. John Somerville, consultant and witness for Communist Party defendants in Smith Act trials in 1954 later wrote about his testimony in "Communist Trials and the American Tradition." Reacting to prosecution charges that the defendants sought to overthrow the state through violent means, Somerville referred to U.S. experience in its own revolution and reviewed teachings from Marx, Engels, Lenin, and U.S. Communist leaders. They all joined, he claims, in viewing violent force as allowable revolutionary tools only when "the government in question is unwilling and unable to carry out the wishes of the people, and there is majority support for the revolutionary step." He believes "Such an action was unthinkable unless a gigantic social breakdown had already occurred, a breakdown which made normal electoral procedures impossible."

Surely, a Colombian countryside from which almost four million small farmers have been displaced, where poverty approaches 65 percent, and where murder and disappearances are prevailing norms does count as "a gigantic social breakdown." And the U.S. supported Colombian regime bent on war does qualify as "unwilling and unable."

November 20, 2011