The underlying social tensions and conflicts related to land and inequality have failed to be addressed by successive Colombian governments
During the mid-20th century until his death in 1966, Roman Catholic priest and pioneer of liberation theology Camilo Torres warned the oligarchy of Colombia that they would have to concede to fundamental socio-economic reforms, or deliver the Colombian masses no option but to resort to violence. The inequities in the country’s distribution of land and wealth were so severe, argued Torres (and many others), that armed revolt would likely be the only realistic way of grabbing power from the hands of the elites and undergoing a vital process of national restructuring. Needless to say, such reform was not undertaken and Colombia erupted in the mid-1960s. A unique social phenomenon in modern history, the violence in Colombia continues to this day after almost five decades.
In October 2012, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) launched negotiations aimed at addressing the enduring violence. The FARC are the largest and most well-known of the country’s guerrilla groups, and their development across decades has proved resilient, outlasting other similar groups and choosing to remain engaged in armed conflict whilst others have stopped. In the 1980s and 1990s, similar negotiations took place. The same issues that plagued these previous processes and prevented a thorough examination of the underlying and continuing causes of violence seem likely to re-emerge in the current negotiations. And the shortcomings of the talks are emblematic of the wider socio-political context and climate that has driven the violence for so many decades.
Arguably at the core of the initial materialisation of violence, and its continuation to this day, are the serious shortcomings of the Colombian state structure. This is itself a broad topic: its lack of legitimacy and respectability in the eyes of many Colombians, the immaturity of its bureaucracy and institutions, and its huge lack of resources and capital, have all contributed to difficulties in engaging in serious peace processes previously. The curious weakness of the Colombian state, and its almost total non-presence in certain parts of the country, is a historical problem. A special commission appointed by the Colombian Minister of Government in 1987 described how “the state has been unable to act as an arbiter between the different economic and political interests at play. Thus, these interests cannot express themselves through legal and mainstream channels. The state appears to be an entity of very low legitimacy and respectability, and organised groups have essentially taken over its functions.” The situation today is different, though the issues of illegitimacy and lack of authority remain, partly as continuations of a historical trend, and partly a result of persistent state actions.
The negotiations in the 1980s failed spectacularly after the Colombian military (consciously alongside paramilitary death squads) killed thousands of Patriotic Union (UP) party members, after having agreed to allow the FARC to participate in national politics through the UP. The FARC had agreed to end violence in return for this political access. Whether there was a serious miscommunication and lack of command between the state and the security forces, or whether this was carried out on central government orders, is unclear to this day. What was clear throughout the negotiations, however, and not just when they came to an end, was the vast discrepancy between the apparent intentions and atmosphere of the talks, and what was occurring on the ground, with deadly military operations taking place throughout.
A similar peculiarity and duplicity have characterised the Santos administration in the latest negotiations. On the eve of the commencement of the talks in October of last year, peaceful demonstrations were met with brutal armed repression, including mass arrests of ‘peasant activists’. In late November 2012, as the talks were ongoing, the FARC announced a unilateral ceasefire. Questions of primary and secondary motives aside – ultimately, they do consider themselves a political player and strategy does inform their decisions – the Colombian government was completely stunned, reacting perplexingly to what surely should have been positive news. The Santos administration declared the group untrustworthy and deceitful, and stated their intention to continue with “counter-terrorism” military operations.
The FARC’s populist platform is the result of a number of issues. Under the Gini coefficient measurement, Colombia is the world’s third most unequal country. Around 54 per cent of Colombians live in poverty, with indigenous populations and Afro-Colombians disproportionately affected. On the day of its formation in 1964, the FARC issued its “Agrarian Program”, calling for widespread reconfiguration of capital and land distribution in the Colombian countryside. To this day, poverty rates in rural areas are higher than the national average of 54 per cent, and land ownership and allocation is heavily skewed in favour of a select few. The struggle for land is perhaps the key underlying social conflict behind the violence, and has been since the start. The FARC’s inclusion of it as an outstanding issue, both now and in negotiations in previous decades, illustrates that the group’s activities do not take place in isolation of socio-economic realities and the experiences of vast numbers of Colombians. In the talks that took place in the 1980s, an Americas Watch (now Human Rights Watch) report described the stubborn resistance to a political solution within the military and influential civilian sectors, despite groups like the FARC insisting on certain social, political and economic conditions being addressed, such as land reform and income inequality. Such elite resistance to change persists.
Deep state complicity with brutal paramilitary forces notwithstanding, there are vital underlying social tensions and conflicts related to land and inequality which inform the violence and activities of the FARC and other guerrilla groups. To suggest otherwise would be a rejection of the social and economic dynamics of the country, which have developed over decades, but would also be a disservice to the Colombian people, who are calling for an end to violence in record numbers. There remains, of course, the ever-present hand of the United States but, fundamentally, no external power is going to change the trigger of a conflict which began almost half a century ago – the struggle of many ordinary people to change their condition.
“…we are not fond
as the rich would like us to be,
of misery. We shall extract it like an evil tooth…”
- Pablo Neruda
Image from : http://www.dw.de/colombia-launches-peace-talks-with-farc-rebels/a-16315556
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