March 29 2016. Fifty-five years have passed since Fidel Castro’s famous speech ‘Palabras a los intelectuales, or ‘Words to the Intellectuals’, two years into the Revolution that was to re-configure the political and cultural history of the Western hemisphere. On 27th March 2016, Timoleón Jiménez or ‘Timochenko’, commander of the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army), published on YouTube his ‘Letter to the Artists and Intellectuals of Colombia’. This is a speech cut from the same revolutionary cloth as Fidel’s, but half a century on, influenced by decades of struggle in the mountains and three years of negotiations in Havana hosted and supported by the Castro government.

This statement is far more sophisticated, both in content and delivery. This is not just communism redrawn. This is the birth of a new kind of politics, as the FARC prepare to give up arms and participate in elections.

In his speech, Timochenko professes “a great admiration for those able to create, whether in literature, science or politics. I believe that creation is the greatest of human attributes, thanks to which we leave lasting traces in this world.” In order to build peace in Colombia after the signing of the final agreement, expected later this year, he says, “we will need great creativity”, and “this creativity must move, and move even the sceptics to believe in peace and justice. We need affect, in order to rebuild social bonds, broken by war”.

Art is indispensable for peace-building

He calls on the intellectuals of the country, and speaks of the urgent need to build a macro-narrative that can be acceptable, if not to all, then at least to the majority of Colombian society, polarised by sixty years of war: “You, friends, artists, doctors of science, academics and teachers, are like the skin of the nation. You are indispensable for peace-building. You recreate history through art, and Colombia, today more than ever before, in many voices and with many different languages, needs a narrative of what has happened.”

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Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, also known as Timoleón Jiménez or Timochenko

He says that in the post-agreement phase, art, science and culture will play a crucial role, in parallel with social and political work in the regions, because “as well as social mobilisation, we need mental mobilisation in the field of ideas and useful images”, and Colombians must start to imagine “the idea that another country is possible. A country where political differences do not cost lives, and where there is a place for opposition”. In order to achieve this, “culture and art are identity, but they are also freedom. It’s impossible to imagine a country that decides to put an end to war, but does not count on science, does not value the word of the poets and writers; without the images of cinema and theatre, without the magic of the fine arts.”

He finishes his speech referring to the experience of the tens of thousands of men and women in the FARC who have fought long and hard over the decades, who have sustained themselves “listening to your songs, reading your writings. Your arts move us to dream of a better country”. Sooner rather than later, he says, once the final agreement is signed with the government, “we will be in the peace territories [geographically-delimited areas that the FARC are currently negotiating in Havana, where their members will concentrate for the first phase of demobilisation from the armed struggle and mobilisation into politics], and we hope that those places will become spaces for knowledge and for creativity”.

This speech would have been unthinkable before the peace negotiations. FARC have arguably been through a complex process of transformation over the last four years, as has the Colombian government. Both sides have had to re-negotiate their own identities and what they stand for in a dialectic process with their antagonist, and find ways of working together to achieve the common goals of putting an end to the war, and building a fairer society in order to prevent future spirals of violence.

Propaganda for Peace

This is not the strident militancy of the old FARC. The oldest guerrilla group in the Western hemisphere, born in the same geopolitical breath as the Cuban Revolution, is now preparing to participate in politics democratically. Rather than radical, it is inclusive and pragmatic. The FARC are of course preparing to evolve from a revolutionary army into a legal political party. Word has it that in the jungle, whilst the fighters wait for the final agreement to be signed, they are learning to use Facebook and Twitter in order to be on top of social media when the time comes.

But Timochenko’s speech to artists and intellectuals calls for peace, not for revolution. This video is not just propaganda for FARC – it is propaganda for peace, something that transcends political ideologies. And the peace process in Colombia still has many enemies, evident by doing a simple search on Twitter for the hashtag #noalplebiscito. Timochenko says, “the enemies of peace persist in their violent obsession. We can see this in the most recent statistics of killings and threats.”

The first two weeks of March saw 29 assassinations of left-wing political and social leaders in Colombia. The negotiations in Havana are going through a sticky moment, though Timochenko is optimistic that there is “light at the end of the tunnel”. In a moment like this, it is all hands on deck, independently of political affiliations, and despite current difficulties, it seems that FARC and the government are now singing from the same song-sheet. An organisation labelled for so many years as narco-terrorist has now sat down with John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, and received the United States’ support to make the transition to peace and participate in politics.

Fidel Castro's 'Words to the Intellectuals"
Fidel Castro’s ‘Words to the Intellectuals”

This evolution of the oldest guerrilla in the continent raises questions about the changing face of the global left. To a European outsider, the staunch Marxism of many Colombians on the left, and certainly not just the armed left, can seem anachronistic and outdated when put into the context of world realpolitik and the fall of communism elsewhere. But if the FARC, who read Marx in the jungle and still dream of Revolution, can adapt and bring their ideology into line with modern state politics, however imperfectly, what doors might this open for other groups across the global left?

But the other question to ask is what might actually happen to culture if the FARC’s future political party came into power? What would a FARC-style cultural policy look like? One thing is what aspiring politicians say; another is what happens later down the line.

Cuba’s grey five years

Fidel Castro’s ‘Words to the Intellectuals’ were quite different from Timochenko’s speech. The Cuban Revolution had not had time to form a policy on art and culture when in 1961, a twenty-minute film called PM, depicting Cubans dancing and drinking in nightclubs, was censored because it was deemed inappropriate for the formation of the communist ‘new man’. This sparked controversy over freedom of expression, and led to a series of debates on the role of art and artists in a revolutionary society, culminating in Fidel’s speech, famously misquoted as “Within the Revolution, everything, outside the Revolution, nothing” – when actually, it was “Within the Revolution, everything, against the Revolution, nothing”.

Today in the West, we might shudder at the idea of politicians setting down what intellectuals and artists are ‘allowed’ or ‘not allowed’ to write, paint, or sing. The Cuban Revolution certainly had many enemies, and the Castro government was alert to threats from within and without. But haunting these debates was the phantom of Stalinist attitudes to culture, and the desire to avoid a cultural policy in which criticism was censored and the only accepted cultural output was propaganda. European intellectuals who visited the island, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, and Cubans who had travelled to Europe, the States and the Soviet Union, warned against the implementation of anything that might lead to such cultural repression.

Fidel’s speech, therefore, was partly inspired by the need to defend the censorship of the film PM. And the defensiveness shows. He addressed the “polemic” question of “whether there should be absolute freedom of content in artistic expression or not”.

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Herberto Padilla

In general, however, the climate of the early sixties was free and euphoric. The Revolution was young, with artists around the world still enamoured of it. This honeymoon period came to an abrupt end in 1971 when prize-winning poet Herberto Padilla was imprisoned, to the horror of the international community, because his work was deemed ‘anti-revolutionary’. Throughout the seventies, writers and artists were imprisoned, or sent to work in isolated corners of the country, stacking books or working in factories, and some were even sent to military work camps which were set up to try and ‘cure’ people of homosexuality or other forms of what was seen as ‘ideological deviation’. This was a dark period in Cuba’s history, known as the ‘grey five years’.

However, the Cuban Revolution also achieved incredible things in the cultural sphere: a hugely successful literacy campaign; cultural centres set up all over the provinces; travelling cinemas, affordable theatre tickets; subsidised books. Culture was no longer an elitist privilege that only the wealthy enjoyed, but the right of all Cubans.

It is interesting to place side by side Fidel’s words of 1961 and Timochenko’s of 2016 and consider how different things are in the world today. With the embargo on Cuba lifted by the US, many people are now concerned that it may be a challenge to preserve the good legacies of the Revolution, such as literacy and subsidised theatre and cinema. Meanwhile, in Colombia it seems that the FARC are soon to be participating in democratic politics; but surely, this will be a new brand of democracy.

It would be interesting to know if Fidel Castro has watched Timochenko’s video, and what he thinks about the changing face of FARC, and the group’s attitude to art and culture.

Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer doing postgraduate research and teaching in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. She has worked in Colombia on and off for six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International in the Urabá region. As well as academic articles she also writes short fiction, and is currently producing a documentary called ‘Chocolate of Peace’.

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Gwen Burnyeat is a Wolfson scholar reading for a PhD in Anthropology at UCL researching the Colombian peace process. She was previously lecturer in Political Anthropology in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she also did a Masters in Anthropology as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. This was the basis for her forthcoming book 'Chocolate, Politics and Peace-building: an Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia' (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and the documentary 'Chocolate of Peace'. Before that she studied Literature at the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge. She has worked in Colombia for over six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International.