The narrow rejection of the Colombian referendum that was supposed to have approved a peace accord between the government and the FARC guerrilla group should have surprised exactly no one. That’s because the conflict that has wracked Colombia goes all the way back to 1948: imagine if our Civil War had lasted nearly seventy years.
The accord, brokered by Cuba and Norway, and only agreed to by Washington after the initial negotiations had begun, would have given the FARC nominal representation in the Colombian Congress (ten seats out of over two-hundred), and opened the way for the guerrilla group to be integrated into the political life of the nation. A tropical storm, which wracked the coastal regions more favorable to the government (and the accord), combined with vehement opposition from the far right, including former President Alvaro Uribe, succeeded in scotching the agreement by less than 60,000 votes.
And yet even if the accord had passed the electoral test, implementing it would have faced tremendous odds. The divisions that have wracked Colombia run deep, and there is just no papering over them.
It all started in 1928, when a strike by agricultural workers against the United Fruit Company in the province of Magdalena was forcibly suppressed by the government. Washington had threatened to invade in order to protect United Fruit’s interests if the government – under the control of the landed oligarchy – did not act. When the army massacred striking workers, a populist reform movement was born, led by Jorge Gaitan, a law professor and leader of the more radical wing of the Liberal Party.
Gaitan championed the cause of small farmers and landless peasants, who had been driven off the land they had worked by the large property owners – the latifundia – who traced their property titles back to land grants awarded by the Spanish kings in the colonial era. The small farmers – minifundia – and the landless agricultural workers, who toiled on the large tracts owned by the elites, were increasingly marginalized by United Fruit and the company’s allies in the central government in Bogota.
From the beginning the land question was at the heart of Colombia’s troubles. The central government, in an effort to increase revenues, had sold off large parcels to rich and politically connected families, but smaller landholders soon gained a foothold as the market for coffee became more profitable and a rising middle class arose to challenge the regnant elites. Conflict was exacerbated by uncertain land titles and efforts by the latifundias to use local governments and tax liens to their advantage: smallholders were expelled from land they had worked for decades, and violence soon erupted.
Gaitan and his followers advocated a land reform program that would have broken up the large landed estates, clearly defined property rights, and favored the small landholders and agricultural workers who made up the bulk of his following. Elected Mayor of Bogota, he mobilized a large and increasingly militant movement that was opposed not only by the latifundias but also by the Communist Party, which saw him as their chief rival. In 1947 he was nominated by the Liberals as their presidential candidate, and was widely expected to win: his assassination the following year – variously attributed to the rival Conservatives, the CIA, and the Communist Party – led to “La Violencia, a decade-long war that took some 200,000 lives.
A series of generals seized power, backed by the latifundias, and the various party militias – Conservative, Liberal, and Communist – battled it out in the countryside. While the fighting died down in 1953, it wasn’t until nearly five years later that civilian rule was finally restored after the Conservatives and Liberals agreed to a “National Front” government, in which power was shared, with alternating party control of the presidency. As the 1960s rolled in, the National Front established a rural bureaucracy, which distributed patronage to local party bosses, and distributed monies through the Alliance for Progress and governmental largess on a purely political basis. Corruption was rife. And as the central government made a concerted effort to increase production on agricultural lands, especially as the coffee market rebounded in the late 1960s, “efficient” large-scale commercial farming was encouraged, along with the migration of landless peasants and “inefficient” small farmers to the cities.
The stage was set for the crisis.
The government’s attempts to co-opt the rural population into government-sponsored local and regional federations backfired, as the yeomanry began to demand rapid implementation of land reform measures. The forced “modernization” campaign directed from Bogota imposed much suffering on the by-now-largely migrant workers and the urban proletariat. As wages fell and the land reform was stalled – and finally suspended by the Conservative government of Andres Pastrana – the seeds of radicalism sprouted and grew into the guerrilla insurgencies that have wracked the country to this day.
The rural juntas – local peasant cooperatives – that had been instituted by the Bogota bureaucracy, became fulcrums of discontent and radicalization. Land invasions, massive demonstrations, and strikes came out of this milieu, and this coincided, in the latter half of the 1970s, with the increased cultivation of marijuana and coca. The period was also characterized by a growing division – and then open hostility – between the peasantry and the organized Left
The juntas, which had resisted government control, also resented and resisted the Communist Party, which had sided with the government, as well as fighting off attempts by various Maoist and Trotskyist groups to take over the movement. They refused to receive government grants, and would not recognize the validity of government-granted land titles. They sought to organize an independent “Peasants Party,” a move that was denounced by the leftists. This movement, however, met electoral disaster in the elections of 1978, and the nascent party, the National Democratic Popular Movement, foundered, and soon dissolved.
Yet the elements of radical discontent were still present: despite rising incomes, the new prosperity was uneven and the rural agricultural workers and small landowners were increasingly displaced by government policies that favored large-scale agricultural production. The landless peasants provided a recruiting pool for the guerrilla movements that began to raise their heads, which were in large part a reaction to two new developments: first of all, the organization of right-wing “death squads,” mobilized by the big landowners, who sought to protect their assets from peasant land invasions and strikes. Many of these paramilitary squads had direct connections to the Colombian military. The growing influence of drug-traffickers was also an increasing problem, leading to the corruption of local officials and an atmosphere of lawlessness. The traffickers preyed on the local population, seizing their land and extorting them.
The guerrilla fighters offered to defend the peasants against the rising tide of violence directed at their communities, and the ranks of these fighters grew to the point that the government initiated a counteroffensive. A state of siege was declared, and, in alliance with the death squads, the army descended on the countryside, wreaking havoc and driving the desperate inhabitants into the ranks of the guerrillas.
While the biggest of these guerrilla groups was the FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which grew out of the Communist and Liberal armed groups of the Violencia period – there were three others that emerged out of the ideological divisions of the 1960s era Left. The ELN, or National Liberation Army, with a base in the northeastern part of the country, was supported by the Cubans and influenced by the “liberation theology” of radicalized Catholic priests. The Peoples Liberation Army (EPL), was a Maoist group, centered in the northern provinces. The ELN and the EPL suffered reverses as a result of the government’s brutal anti-insurgency campaign – assisted by plentiful US aid and “advisors” – while the FARC, with a stronger base of support among the peasants, proved more resistant.
As the growing disorder spread to the cities, where the drug cartels and general criminality were rife, another group sprang up: M-19, which turned the urban landscape into a battlefield. This extension of the guerrilla warfare took place against the backdrop of massive urban discontent expressed by militant strikes, inevitably suppressed by the government. M-19 disdained the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric of the older guerrilla groups and espoused a vaguely nationalist-populist ideology: when they stole the sword of Simon Bolivar from the National Museum, and declared that it would not be returned until the country had been “liberated,” they captured the imagination of the disaffected urban youth. Their increasingly violent tactics, however, often directed at more moderate competitors and legislators, such as the Liberal congressman Raquel Mercado, alienated them from their potential mass base. Yet they grew, in numbers and militancy.
Rising crime, endemic corruption, and the ever-escalating cycle of violence had by this time – the late 1970s – delegitimized the government and undermined the social order to such an extent that the country was ready for authoritarian rule. The Liberal Party, at this point, had switched positions with the Conservatives as the more reactionary of the two, and Julio Ayala Turbay, the Liberal candidate, won the presidency in 1978. Turbay immediately declared a national emergency, suspended civil liberties, and instituted what amounted to a military dictatorship, granting the army unprecedented powers to preserve “law and order.”
The next two years constituted a reign of terror, as the army rounded up dissidents, moved in on the countryside, and sought to eradicate the guerrillas. The peasant organizations were decimated, their leaders jailed, and allegations of torture, extra-legal executions, and other abuses were commonplace. Aerial bombing of FARC-controlled areas killed hundreds of civilians, and the inhabitants were forced to evacuate to government camps.
Yet the FARC not only held on, it increased its numbers: the anti-guerrilla offensive had the opposite of its intended effect, as the guerrillas proliferated in the shadow of repression. At the end of the Turbay regime, the guerrillas, far from being defeated, had only increased in terms of fresh recruits and growing legitimacy.
An attempt by the succeeding administration of Conservative Belisario Betancur to bring the guerrillas back into the political system while enacting moderate reforms ran into opposition from the Liberals and these efforts stalled. An economic downturn in the 1980s didn’t help matters. However, Betancur did succeed in setting up a Peace Commission, and a couple of thousand guerrillas were amnestied: the rebels, however, refused to lay down their arms, arguing that they hadn’t taken up the gun only to be pardoned. They wanted real reform, which was not forthcoming.
The military opposed all efforts to forge a peace process, but a truce was reached in May of 1984, when all guerrilla factions but the ELN signed an accord pledging not to initiate offensive actions. However, the military continued to insist on the disarming of the rebel groups, while the more radical factions of the guerrillas – M-19 and the Maoists – wanted some sort of power-sharing arrangement that would lead to the complete transformation of the political system.
Betancur’s efforts to end the civil war gradually collapsed, as the military frequently violated the ceasefire and the guerrillas retaliated in kind. And while the right-wing paramilitaries had been tamped down in the early 1980s after charges were brought against them, they rebounded during this period in protest against Betancur’s peace overtures, with direct involvement by elements of the military. When the International Monetary Fund instituted austerity measures and the government was forced to suspend many of Betancur’s social programs – a key element of the peace process – tensions increased. In spite of this, the FARC tried to join the political process, allying with a broad leftist coalition, which then called for a general strike.
Betancur’s reaction was to outlaw the strike, arrest the leaders, and declare a “state of siege.” The reaction of the M-19 and the other radical groups was to abandon the peace process and take up the gun again, while the FARC adhered to the ceasefire and organized its participation in the upcoming congressional and presidential elections.
On November 6, 1985, the M-19 launched a spectacular attack on the National Palace of Justice in Bogota, taking dozens of hostages, including several justices of the Supreme Court. It was a bold strike that was more than matched by the brutality of the military’s response: without waiting for the green light from Betancur, they launched a counterattack in the course of which eleven justices were killed, all the M-19 fighters were slaughtered, and the Palace of Justice was utterly demolished.
The peace process was dead. The country was polarized as never before. And Betancur renewed the military campaign against the guerrillas – except for the FARC, which still remained within the peace process, at least for the moment. This in spite of the assassination of its presidential candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal, by the Medellin drug cartel, and the unleashing of death squads in which thousands of activists in its political arm, the Patriotic Union, were killed. FARC abandoned the ceasefire in 1987, and the guerrilla war resumed with new ferocity on both sides
FARC began to involve itself in coca production, and assumed the role of protector of the coca farmers, extending its control over significant parts of the countryside, particularly in the southeast. They launched raids on military bases and government facilities, and their “taxation” of the coca producers brought in considerable wealth. They joined up with a movement of some 200,000 coca farmers, who marched against the government’s drug eradication program, which included large-scale spraying of poisons as well as raids and extra-judicial killings.
By this time, the United States was deeply involved, sending millions in aid as well as military equipment and “advisors” in the name of the “war on drugs.” “Plan Colombia,” initiated by the Clinton administration, was supposed to simultaneously defeat the rebels and reorient their peasant base of support to crops other than coca. Yet these efforts came to naught, as the guerrillas continued to mobilize popular support, extend their territory, and increase their resources. The government was on the defensive during the 1990s, and there was some speculation that a FARC victory was now within the realm of possibility. The central government in Bogota, beset by the guerrillas and the growing scandal of its complicity with the drug lords, was discredited and in retreat, leaving much of the countryside to the FARC.
This led to the rise of Colombia’s largest “death squad,” a right-wing paramilitary group known the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which hunted down FARC fighters and those thought to be sympathizers. Several massacres of civilians occurred, often involving the collaboration of government forces.
The long and vicious civil war that has wracked Colombia had its ups and downs, with several truces, soon broken, and frequent massacres, mostly committed by the rightist paramilitaries in league with the military. The peace process was sporadic during the late 1990s, and with the ascension of President Alvaro Uribe, a hard-liner, negotiations were dropped and many thousands died. Uribe pursued a purely military solution, and dissidents were rounded up, jailed, hundreds were killed by the death squads and the army. Uribe’s ties to Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord, were later revealed. He was reelected, however, in 2006, and today is the leader of the opposition, and a leading opponent of the accord.
Yet the guerrillas remained undefeated: by 2011 they controlled about a third of Colombian territory. President Juan Santos, who assumed office in 2010, pledged to continue the government’s anti-insurgency campaign, as US aid continued to pour in. Yet he also resumed negotiations with the guerrillas, and finally, on June 23, 2016, an accord was reached.
The defeat of the accord at the polls, however, bodes ill for Colombia, and the entire region. After half a century of nearly continuous civil war, the country is an economic basket case and a source of instability that could well spread. The Colombian military’s pursuit of FARC guerrillas into neighboring Ecuador in 2008 led to a diplomatic crisis that narrowly averted a war which might have dragged in neighboring Venezuela. The Colombian government has routinely accused the Venezuelans of aiding and abetting the guerrillas, this is spite of the late Hugo Chavez’s disavowal of armed struggle.
The reasons for the defeat of the peace accord point to the deep divisions within Colombian society – and the role of the US as a prime instigator of the ongoing slaughter. At one point, Colombia was the third largest recipient of US military aid, and the billions we have wasted in that futile effort have empowered the worst elements, while drawing out the conflict. A whole class of people have become dependent on this largess, and thus have a financial interest in keeping the civil war going. And then there are the deeper roots of the conflict, which go back a long way: the all-important land question, which springs from the legacy of semi-feudalism and the lack of legitimate property rights. And, in the end, there is the emotional toll taken by the conflict: there are too many memories, too many friends murdered by both sides, too many dreams of revenge yet to be fulfilled.
It is, in many respects, reminiscent of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: ancient hatreds, a long struggle over land ownership, no real concept of property rights, and social injustice embedded in the very fabric of society.
There is, in short, no immediate solution to the Colombian conundrum, and yet I can think of a good start. It’s time for the US to end its role in the “war on drugs” in Colombia: by cutting off the economic incentives that make the conflict profitable for some, we can begin to see some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. If nothing else, it will end our complicity in the endless history of murder and mayhem that has tortured Colombia for the last fifty years. That we have been instrumental in not only starting but also prolonging it is a stain on our record that will never be completely eradicated, and yet it can be ameliorated. The tragic history of Colombia is a textbook case of the folly of US intervention in the affairs of other nations. We can begin to make amends by making US aid conditional on the approval of a peace accord and an end to the fighting – because you have to start somewhere.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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