UPDATE: In May 2014, Colombia's FARC rebels launched another, more polished hip-hop video marking 50 years of armed struggle.
BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia’s leftist guerrillas are great at fighting but pretty bad at public relations.
For starters, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lack a charismatic Che Guevara-type messiah to convince people of the righteousness of the rebel cause.
When they do appear on camera, FARC leaders often launch into impenetrable Marxist dogma or anti-government rants.
But even if the FARC was led by a swashbuckling "Comandante Che," there’s really no way to put a pretty face on the thousands of kidnappings, killings and bombings the FARC has carried out during nearly 50 years of war. But that’s exactly what the FARC is trying to do now that it’s engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government in Cuba.
Rather than a bland communique, the FARC released an upbeat video on YouTube to announce its participation in the negotiations.
“I’m going to Havana, this time to talk,” a FARC rebel sings in the video. “The bourgeoisie who are fighting us were unable to defeat us.”
The video looks and sounds like a low-budget MTV production from the early '80s and includes standard-issue FARC rhetoric about the evils of foreign capitalists and Colombian oligarchs.
Still, Colombians were struck by what they saw.
Instead of defiant guerrillas with guns, the video shows smiling rebels playing bongos and rapping about their hopes for peace.
At the end of the song, called “I’m going to Havana,” the rebels appear in civilian clothes and wave goodbye to the camera as they apparently set out for Cuba.
“The selection of young men and women fighters who look and sound (more or less) like ordinary Colombians is an obvious tactic to increase their reach into an uncertain public,” analyst Kevin Howlett wrote on the Colombia Politics website when the video was released. “The fight for peace and public opinion has begun.”
The makeover may be essential to the future of the FARC.
Formed by Marxist peasants, the FARC sprang up in the early 1960s to fight for land reform, the nationalization of key industries and a fairer society. But over the years, the guerrillas became heavily involved in kidnapping civilians for ransom and trafficking drugs and lost much of their revolutionary mystique. The FARC is blacklisted by the US government and European Union as a terrorist group.
One goal of the peace talks is for the guerrillas to disarm, form a political party and run for public offices.
But rather than winning hearts and minds through political work, the FARC for the past two decades has focused on taking over towns and villages through military force.
The resulting violence has made the rebel organization extremely unpopular across broad stretches of Colombia.
So, to attract voters in the event of successful peace talks and a FARC demobilization, the rebel organization must soften its image.
Besides the video, the FARC is deploying its most glamorous face. She is Tanja Nijmeijer, an attractive Dutch woman who joined the guerrillas a decade ago and whose bright smile stands in sharp contrast to the bearded, 50-something rebel negotiators in Havana.
Nijmeijer is also in Cuba and is frequently trotted out before the news media. Enhancing her exotic image is a video that recently surfaced showing Nijmeijer, dressed in fatigues, dancing at a FARC camp in the jungle.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Nijmeijer deflected questions about the FARC’s involvement in kidnapping and other human rights abuses. Instead, she recalled arriving in Colombia as a 21-year-old to teach English, then becoming so shocked by the country’s poverty that she joined the guerrillas.
“I started to question the capitalist system. I started to question everything around me. And I thought I would like to do something about it,” Nijmeijer said.
Amid this guerrilla charm offensive, the Colombian Army has counterattacked with its own music video.
The song, called “Sword of Honor,” is far more polished than the amateurish FARC effort. The video was filmed on two army bases with dozens of soldiers and features Yavi del Bloke, a Colombian artist who specializes in “reggaeton,” the often raunchy blend of dance hall reggae, hip-hop and other styles that’s wildly popular with Caribbean and Latino youths.
The Colombian army enjoys far more public support than the FARC. Yet its reputation has also been stained by the involvement of soldiers in human rights abuses. As a result, the institution is constantly reminding people, through TV spots and civic action campaigns, of its role in keeping Colombians safe from the guerrilla menace.
The video, for example, shows Colombian troops creeping through the jungle to rescue guerrilla-held hostages.
But without a peace deal in Havana, the fighting could continue for years and the lyrics refer to the human cost of the war.
“I remember that time when my comrade was mortally wounded,” a soldier sings. “He told me, 'I don’t want to die.'”
Last month, the FARC and the Colombian government moved a step closer to ending the bloodshed. In Havana, negotiators for the two sides announced an agreement on land reform, a key issue that prompted the guerrillas to take up arms in the first place.
The deal calls for redistributing farmland to impoverished peasants who would also receive loans and technical and marketing advice as well as police protection.
Five more points on the negotiating agenda must still be worked out before a peace treaty can be signed.
On YouTube, at first the dueling FARC and army music videos had produced a stalemate — just like the war itself. Now, it seems the army's polished production is edging ahead with more than 16,000 views.
It remains to be seen if that speaks to the music, or the cause.