Colombia's FARC guerrillas know their way around weapons but are often clueless when it comes to public relations. Now that the FARC is engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government, the rebels are trying to promote a friendlier image.
It's hard for average Colombians to warm up to the FARC, which has carried out thousands of kidnappings, bombings, and killings during nearly 50 years of fighting.
The FARC also lacks a mesmerizing leader, like Che Guevara. When FARC commanders do appear on camera, they often launch into impenetrable Marxist dogma or anti-government rants.
But for the past eight months, the FARC has been holding peace negotiations in Cuba with the Colombian government. One of the main goals is for FARC fighters to disarm, form a political party – and run for public offices.
The FARC would need to soften its militant image to win over voters. But the makeover is already under way. At the Havana peace talks, one of the most prominent negotiators is Tanja Nijmeijer, a Dutch woman who joined the FARC a decade ago.
"We are a communist party raised in arms," she recently told the BBC. "But we are a communist party so then we could really start to fight for ideas but without rifles."
In another break from tradition, the FARC announced its participation in the talks, not through a drab communiqué but by releasing an upbeat music video called "Me voy para La Habana" or "I'm going to Havana."
The video is pretty basic. It looks and sounds like one of those low-budget MTV productions from the early 1980s. But Colombians were struck by what they saw. Instead of defiant guerrillas with guns, the video shows smiling rebels in fatigues and Che t-shirts playing bongos and rapping about their hopes for peace.
"I'm going to Havana, this time to talk," they sing, out under some leafy trees. "The bourgeoisie who are fighting us could not defeat us." It ends with the guerrillas changing into civilian clothes and waving goodbye as they head to Cuba.
It's hard to tell whether this will win the FARC any new fans. After all, rebel foot soldiers continue to fight even as their negotiators talk peace.
What's more, the Colombian army is ramping up its PR campaign with its own music video, a raggaeton number called "Sword of Honor." It's far more polished than the amateurish FARC effort. The song features Colombian reggaeton artist Yavi del Bloke and was filmed on two army bases with dozens of soldiers.
The video shows soldiers in camouflage creeping through the jungle to liberate a group of rebel-held hostages. But the words refer to the human cost of the war.
"I remember that time when my comrade was mortally wounded," sings a soldier. "He told me 'I don't want to die.' "
Last month, Colombia moved a step closer to ending the bloodshed. The government's lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, announced an agreement with the FARC on land reform, a key issue that prompted the guerrillas to take up arms in the first place. Five more points on the negotiating agenda must still be worked out.
Meanwhile, on YouTube, the dueling music videos have produced a stalemate — just like the war itself. Each video has received about 13,000 hits.
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