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Referendum in Colombia could end armed struggle

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After a decades-long civil war, left wing guerrillas Farc could make peace with the state. Dave Sewell looks at the events which have led to the referendum
Issue 2520
Colombian army troops pose over the bodies of Farc fighters
Colombian army troops pose over the bodies of Farc fighters (Pic: Gomez Ospina)

Is peace possible in Colombia? That’s the question a referendum on 2 October aims to settle. It puts to voters a deal between the government and the largest armed rebel group Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

If passed, the deal would give Farc six months to disarm and assemble in designated “concentration camps”. In return it gets limited land reform and MPs in the Colombian congress.

President Juan Manuel Santos has staked his career on ending the decades-long civil war that has seen 250,000 people killed and seven million displaced. The hopes of both ordinary Colombians sick of violence and a capitalist class eager for development ride on it too.

Santos’ predecessor Alvaro Uribe, who spent his presidency trying to wipe out Farc militarily, is campaigning to block the deal.

Unions and social movements are fighting to stop the issues behind the conflict being dropped.

Farc, like other organisations such as ELN (Army of National Liberation), controls swathes of territory in rural Colombia and runs them like a state in miniature.

It collects taxes and organises public services. Joining it offers a route out of poverty for young people. But it exists on extortion and repression.

The group’s main source of income is taking a cut of poor coca farmers’ sales to international drugs gangs, followed by kidnappings and protection rackets.

But Farc was born of the legitimate resistance of Colombian peasants. Its degeneration has been a distorted response to the incredible violence unleashed by Colombia’s elite. Right wing paramilitary groups existed long before Farc, sponsored by landowners and politicians.

Their terror makes Colombia one of the world’s deadliest countries for trade unionists.


Their objectives dovetailed with Cold War anti-communism, making Colombia a key US ally.

Their networks of armed men mopped up the 1980s drug boom, gaining huge economic clout and buying up political influence.

Uribe was the paramilitaries’ creature. As mayor of Medellin he made the city a sanctuary for gangsters.

As president he rehabilitated men who ran death squads. His opposition to the peace deal for letting some Farc leaders go unpunished is abject hypocrisy.

Former US president Bill Clinton threw cash and guns at Colombia, transforming its military supposedly to wage a “war on drugs”.

Uribe and the US delegitimised Farc as “narco-terrorists” unworthy of negotiation.

They tolerated and even cooperated with right wing paramilitaries, while rewards for the corpses of left wing guerrillas incentivised mass murder.

Planes sprayed pesticides designed to stick to all they touched, destroying legal crops and wildlife, and causing skin and respiratory illness.

Drug prices rocketed—farming and transportation became too difficult for peasants to turn a profit on legal crops. This made them more reliant on selling coca to make cocaine—and on either Farc or the gangsters.

Establishment intransigence derailed previous negotiations. The pressure is on them to make more concessions this time.

But neither the state nor Farc offers a real solution.

Social revolution could have meant different outcome 

Colombia’s civil war is generally said to have started in 1964, when Farc was formed. But it was a product of La Violencia (“The Violence”)from the late 1940s to the early 60s when 300,000 people were killed.

Against a wave of struggle from workers and peasants, Colombia’s rulers waged a campaign of massacres, rapes and mutilations, sparking a bloody civil war.

Popular committees became self-defence militias. These began to link up into a mobile guerrilla force after the Colombian and US armies moved to crush rebel villages in 1964.

Repression pushed them to militarise further. After Farc tried forming an electoral organisation in 1985, some 500 activists were assassinated within two years.

Before La Violencia came the “1,000 days war” of 1899-02 which killed one of every 25 Colombians.

Colombia’s recurring bloodbaths reflect its rulers’ weakness in the face of challenges from below. These range from black former slaves organising resistance in the 19th century to mass strikes in the early 20th century.


A capitalist state exists partly to manage such challenges through coercion and consent.

But Colombia’s geography—divided by three mountain ranges, with an economy built on agriculture at the “frontier”—made it hard to establish a strong central authority.

Power was far more dispersed among local landowners, their pet politicians and hired thugs. Their repression tended to take on a life of its own.

But there was an alternative.

As historian Eric Hobsbawm argued, it is “the failure to make a social revolution” in Colombia that “made violence the constant, universal and omnipresent core of public life”.

One reason for Farc’s decline has been a huge population shift from the countryside to the cities.

That creates a bigger, more concentrated working class that could lead such a revolution.

US empire to blame

Western politicians blame corruption for holding back poorer countries. But “failed state” Colombia is South America’s economic success story. Its growth rate was second only to China in 2014.

It shows how well chaos and greed thrive and are central to capitalist development.

Colombia’s boom centres on industries such as agriculture and mining.

Mining companies can clear out people who are in their way—and call in the army and police if they refuse to move.

There were almost 400 such conflicts in the 2000s. The rate is increasing in a country that already has some of the most unequal land distribution in the world.

This displacement drives people into poverty and reliance on militia or drugs gangs. President Santos claims the peace process would let Colombia move on from its social problems.

In reality it would clear the obstacles to industrialising the countryside with more mines, roads and power lines.

This “extractivism” is provoking resistance and a new chapter of struggle could be opening.

Falling commodity prices are turning boom into bust—just as the peace process tones down the witch-hunting of opposition and opens up space for political debate.

Farmers in Putumayo blocked roads used by oil firm Ecopetrol last week.

Some 3,000 people marched against “abandonment by the state” in Riohacha last month. And 115,000 people joined an historic agrarian strike in June with mass direct actions defying deadly police repression.

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