Colombia has experienced one of the longest periods of political conflict of any country in the modern era. The main source of tension has been the decades-long struggle of the Marxist paramilitary group calling themselves the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) against the Colombian government. The rebel group’s demands have largely centered around agrarian reform and peasants’ rights. Peace talks between the government and the FARC leadership were initiated in November 2012 and are still ongoing.
The roots of the conflict between the FARC and the Colombian government are commonly traced back to the efforts of the Communist Party of Colombia in the 1920s and 1930s to organize peasants and indigenous groups to agitate for land rights. For most of the early 20th century, Colombia was governed by an elite-controlled coalition consisting of the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, led by the Conservatives until 1930 when the Liberals won the presidency. During this time, both political parties tolerated and even encouraged violence against political opponents. Peasant movements and protests were criminalized and forcibly oppressed. The Conservatives returned to power in 1946 and stepped up the repression of leftist peasants, leading the peasants to establish armed self-defense groups.
The assassination of the populist politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 was a major turning point in Colombia’s history. His killing sparked massive riots in the capital Bogota, which became known as the Bogotazo. This event kicked off a decade of horrifically violent political struggles throughout the country, which Colombians refer to as “La Violencia” (“The Violence.”) Liberal- and Conservative-aligned rural workers organized into paramilitary factions, which fought each other as well as the Communist-organized self-defense forces.
La Violencia ended in 1959, when the Liberals and Conservatives agreed to a ceasefire and a power-sharing agreement that kept the vast majority of political power in the hands of the elite. The government formed by the two factions, which called itself the National Front, excluded the Communists and other alternative political parties. It introduced an aggressive program of economic development that included the forcible privatization of lands settled by subsistence farmers who proclaimed those areas “peasant republics.” The economic plan and the repression of peasant activism were both extensively supported by the United States and traditional elites in Colombia, who were made very nervous by the recent success of the socialist Cuban revolution. This mass displacement, carried out largely by the Colombian army, led the peasants to conclude that their only path to autonomy from the repressive National Front government was through military victory.
In 1964, the various self-defense factions issued a unified agrarian reform plan and two years later, the FARC was officially established by Manuel Marulanda. For the next decade, the FARC remained a relatively marginal military force, funded mostly by extortion, bank robberies and random kidnappings. However, with the explosion of the “coke craze” in the US during the 1970s, the FARC (and a rival, right-wing paramilitary organization called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC) discovered a lucrative revenue source in the drug trade. In the 1980s, wealthy landowners (along with the Colombian army) backed militias that organized under the umbrella of the AUC to protect themselves from attacks by the FARC.
As the violence between the rival paramilitary forces escalated, the government initiated peace talks with the FARC, which eventually led to a ceasefire that lasted from 1984 to 1987. In 1985, members of the FARC, along with a large number of other leftist and communist groups, formed a political party known as the Union Patriotica (UP) that performed better during the 1986 elections than any other leftist party in Colombian history. However, after the election, a brutal campaign of assassination and murder by right-wing paramilitaries brought about the massacre of 4,000-6,000 UP members, including the party’s leader, Jaime Pardo.
Re-radicalized by the bloody results of their experiment with the formal political process and flush with an influx revenue from the cocaine trade, FARC expanded its forces from roughly 1,000 in the early 1960s to nearly 20,000 by the mid-1990s. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the group intensified its attacks against the state and employed increasingly extreme measures, such as the kidnapping of high-level government officials. Another round of peace talks begun in 1998 fell through in 2002 after then-President Andres Pastrana offered the FARC a 16,200 sq mi “safe haven” zone as a gesture of goodwill, which the rebels used for growing cocaine, holding hostages, and building up their forces to the strongest levels ever.
Álvaro Uribe – whose father, Alberto, was killed by the FARC in a botched 1983 kidnapping attempt – was elected president in 2002, running on a hard-line anti-FARC platform. Under his administration, the army rolled back many of the military gains made by the rebels in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but only at the expense of much bloodshed, various human rights abuses by both sides, and massive internal displacement of civilian populations. Uribe’s Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, was elected in 2010. The former chief of the military generally continued the hard-line policies of his former boss and oversaw a military offensive that killed two top FARC commanders in two years (Mono Jojoy in 2010 and Alfonso Cano in 2011) – major blows to the rebel group.
In late 2011, “Timochenko” (the nom de guerre of Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri) took over the top post in the FARC and quickly called for a re-initiation of the peace process. President Santos later accepted the request. Despite their public overtures for peace, FARC attacks on infrastructure and other targets, including government officials, spiked in 2012, possibly as a show of strength to achieve bargaining power in the forthcoming negotiations. The formal negotiations began in Oslo in October 2012 and moved to Havana the next month.
Both the government and the FARC have continued to carry out military operations throughout the peace talks, most likely because each party views military strength as proportional to bargaining power. The war-weary public generally favors a diplomatic, rather than military approach to resolving the conflict, but they are also increasingly skeptical that the talks will succeed. This belief is bolstered by plausible predictions that up to 20% of the rebels could reject the final settlement and defect from formal political participation.
The agenda for the talks (English translation of the full text here, h/t Colombia Reports) consists of six basic items:
- Integral agricultural development policy (land reform, property rights, infrastructure, food supply)
- Political participation (formation of political parties, access to media)
- End of the conflict (ceasefire, disarmament, security reform)
- Illicit drugs (crop substitution, prevention and harm mitigation programs for consumers)
- Victims (human rights inquiries and justice for victims)
- Implementation (international involvement, budget, schedule, etc.)
There are a number of procedural rules, perhaps the most significant of which is the stipulation that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” This means, for example, that even if an agreement is reached on the five substantive policy areas, the deal could still fall apart over disagreements about implementation. Another potential stumbling block is the decision by the Colombian government to require any final agreement to pass a referendum of the general populace.
After reaching an agreement on land reform (point #1) in May of last year, the government and the FARC signed a deal to allow for the FARC’s participation in the country’s formal political system (point #2) in November. As of this writing, talks are ongoing over point #4, the issue of illicit drugs. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is fraught with accusations that the FARC had planned to assassinate former president Uribe and charges that the military was wiretapping the peace talks while embezzling funds for the war against the rebels. The US initially expressed nominal support for a peace deal, but has notably restrained from publicly weighing in throughout the process.
There has indeed been historically unprecedented progress toward reaching an peace settlement. Nevertheless, since nothing less than an “all-or-nothing” agreement, ratified by voters will suffice, the whole process is on extremely shaky ground. The will to end the conflict is certainly there – on both sides of the negotiating table as well as in the street – but there are still many more paths forward that lead to failure than to success.