BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The political wing of the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group has changed its controversial name in a move it hopes will garner more votes and support.
Although the meaning of the acronym was changed to stand for Alternative Revolutionary Force for the Common People, many believed keeping the letters was a bad political move, too tied up with memories of the 50 year civil conflict that left 260,000 dead and millions displaced.
The new name, COMUNES, which roughly translates in English to “common people,” was announced on January 24. The party’s famous socialist red rose logo remains the same, as does its stated purpose: to fight poverty and corruption, specifically in rural areas, with a focus on land reform.
The old name had created heated debate and caused division within the FARC and drew criticism from Colombian society and the international community.
“During [peace] negotiations, tensions within the FARC were significant, with some sectors very critical of the decision to abandon the armed struggle. Those who favoured keeping [the name] won out,” says Angelika Rettberg, professor of political science at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.
“However, from day one the decision was not completely well received among both ex-combatants and even sympathisers within Colombian society, given the tendency to associate the political party with the guerrilla. When one considers the organization's low levels of approval among Colombians, it could be interpreted as a politically mistaken decision,” Rettberg said.
The decision to finally change the name and move away from the acronym is potentially positive, says Arlene Tickner, a political scientist at Rosario University, as it may allow members of the party to move away from their association with the guerrilla group and be considered as legitimate political actors.
“I don’t think a name change itself is going to strengthen the party,” Tickner said. “It currently suffers divisions between different sectors, but I do think that in terms of branding, it is a wise decision that could potentially lead to greater electoral success, especially at the local level.”
The move is a smart marketing decision, according to observers who spoke to VICE World News. Ariel Avila, sub-director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to peacebuilding, compared the party’s name change to a child wanting to change the ugly name their still living parents gave them.
“They were at war for 50 years, so changing the name is hard, it was an issue of honour. It’s a long process,” he said. “At the time of debating the name, many of the ex-combatants said the FARC name was everything to them, and that’s when the leader, Timochenko, lost the battle.”
Timochenko, an ex-FARC commander and now president of the COMUNES political party, was always against the FARC acronym being used in the establishment of their political wing.
“Now, the others have also realized this... but it hasn’t been easy for them,” Avila said.
Luis Alberto Albán, otherwise known by his nom de guerre Marco Calarcá, is an ex-FARC combatant and a representative within the COMUNES political party. He says the name change had been brewing for some time and was slowed down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“COMUNES is an exact summary of who we are,” Albán said. “Fighters for change, a social transformation from the bottom of society... we don't see ourselves differently to the rest of the population.”
He admitted that the party’s political gain may have been stronger up until now if the name had been different from the beginning.
“What we need now is to stay focused on our objectives, to keep teaching peace and fighting against stigmatization,” he said.
But many doubt that the former combatants political trajectory is going to thrive.
“The FARC is never going to be a viable option for power in Colombia,” he said. “And the FARC party is going to disappear. In a few years it isn’t going to exist. Most of them are old, many will pass away. It’s not easy,” said Avila.
“I think the party has about five or six years of life left and that’s it.”
Rettberg agrees, and although she says the name change was a necessary and urgent step, “it may be too little too late.”
“I am not very optimistic about the party's electoral future. They have had a very poor showing in elections, they have not been able to produce a change in leadership into something more appealing to the Colombian electorate, and they have faced significant infighting,” she said.
“They’ll find it hard to keep the party together. Several individual leaders may find some space on the left of centre parties, but I don't see a big alliance arising from the current situation.”