The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) are set to sign a historic peace deal, bringing an end to the world’s longest armed conflict, which has injured more than 6.7 million people and taken at least 220,000 lives.
This is the fourth attempt to negotiate an end to the conflict. Although the talks have been turbulent, fraught by disruptions and setbacks, this is the first time the two parties have continued negotiations without one side leaving the table.
This is because so little is at stake. Unlike previous attempts, the basic framework for the current negotiations has allowed the conflict to continue with no demilitarized zones, and most importantly, the deal does not seriously challenge Colombia’s property structures or economic growth model.
Debates over trade agreements and control of national resources are absent, and the vaguely defined policy of “integral rural development” has replaced previous discussions of major agrarian reform.
This diluted agenda reflects the current balance of forces in the country.
On the one hand, the FARC-EP is at its weakest point in recent history, both militarily and politically. While the 1999 negotiations began on the heels of a series of successful offensives by the FARC-EP, since then it has been the Colombian armed forces — backed by the United States — that have led the assault.
This time around, the FARC-EP have come to the negotiating table after a number of military defeats, the assassination of many leaders, a reduced number of troops (from a high of twenty-two thousand to around eight thousand today), and the loss of support in some rural areas.
Moreover, the need to fight the “enemy within” has provided state and paramilitary forces with the pretext to engage in a protracted dirty war. They have persecuted and assassinated members of left movements in the country, including unionists, journalists, and human rights and social activists.
The scenario of a negotiated peace deal is the best hope for other groups like the Patriotic March, the People’s Congress, the National Agrarian Coordination, and the Constituent Assemblies to build movements under improved democratic conditions.
On the other hand, President Santos’s decision to embark on peace negotiations represents a major shift from his previous policy of pacifying the country through military extermination of the guerrillas and oppositional social movements. It also reflects the changing power dynamics between elite factions in Colombia.
The rural faction, consisting of cattle ranchers, large landowners, narco-traffickers, and agribusiness, oppose the peace deal. The military and paramilitary units that have carried out the state’s “pacification” strategy have been staunch allies of this faction.
Using the war state as a cover to protect their class interests, expanding their land ownership, corruption, and militarization, this faction has the most to gain from continuing the conflict, and the most to lose from a peace deal. Former president Álvaro Uribe, who has vehemently fought against the peace process at every step, represents this faction in the state.
Meanwhile, the other faction of Colombia’s rising transnational elite, which is re-establishing its hegemony within the state under President Santos, now largely backs a peace deal.
For this faction, which consists of media, banking, finance, industry, and construction conglomerates representing around 30 percent of the national economy, the conflict is shameful and anachronistic: an obstacle to opening the country up to global capitalism.
This self-styled modernizing elite stands to benefit the most from a peace deal. They hope that fifteen years of intense repression against social activists has severely dampened opposition to their brand of economic and political order. This faction reckons that a negotiated peace settlement wouldn’t really challenge its growing dominance and would even bolster its economic and political power.
Moreover, the government’s increasing dependence on “extractivist” development — exports of oil, gas, minerals, and agro-industrial products — has made the end of armed conflict more urgent than ever.
International conditions no longer favor the war-mongering strategies of Álvaro Uribe and the landlord-mafia elite. During the last negotiations, the United States feared that Colombian president Pastrana was giving too much away to the guerrillas by allowing debate over the economic growth model.
Washington intervened to block this, promoting a militarized end to the conflict in the form of “Plan Colombia,” a $7 billion aid package.
In contrast, the United States doesn’t see the current deal as a threat: the US-sponsored war has effectively weakened the left opposition and paved the way for Colombia’s deeper integration into global capitalism.
Moreover, the US government’s attention has shifted to the Pacific, and little enthusiasm remains for new conflicts in Latin America. Obama has steadily decreased Plan Colombia funding, and seems prepared to remove the FARC from the US list of terrorist organizations in the event of a successful peace agreement.
Although Santos’s embrace of the Washington Consensus clearly sets him apart from his left-leaning neighbors, he recognizes the strategic importance of cooperation with other Latin American blocs.
He has granted CELAC — a regional bloc of Latin American countries that excludes the United States — an important role in the negotiations and has also led the call for an alternative approach to the US-dominated “war on drugs” in the region.
All this bodes well for a successful peace deal. But a number of key issues remain unresolved.
The focus of the negotiations has been limited to the demobilization of the FARC-EP, leaving major barriers to lasting peace. The military is a persistent, belligerent force, alongside US military bases and new paramilitary groups — which are gathering strength in many regions of the country.
Not only is the country’s growth model inherently exclusionary and violent, but the political system also remains closed to and extremely repressive against social movements.
The Origins of the Conflict
It is no coincidence that the first item on the agenda for the current peace negotiations is rural development. With half of rural Colombians living in poverty, six million internally displaced people, and 62 percent of the country’s best land in the hands of 0.4 percent of the population, land and agrarian reform have always been the central issue throughout the long history of Colombia’s armed conflict.
The peasant struggle for land is at its core a search for an alternative development path, one based on peasant or small farming economies, rather than landlords and agribusiness.
In Colombia, this dates back to rapid capitalist expansion in the early twentieth century, when the first “peasant leagues” were formed to resist dispossession and the concentration of land in the hands of the rural elite.
These reform struggles faced violent repression from landlords and the state, eventually culminating in 1964 when Communist peasant self-defense blocs united with the continent-wide national liberation struggle and formed the FARC-EP.
Against the backdrop of the Cold War, agrarian reform became a central issue for progressive governments across the Americas. Fearful of “another Cuba,” the US-sponsored Alliance for Progress promoted state-led reforms and the public provision of credit and technical assistance to the rural poor.
Although often couched in Marxist terminology, these agrarian reform proposals were essentially Keynesian. The redistribution of land called for by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) were designed to produce a more equitable capitalism, based on reforming rural production and property structures to increase productivity and wages.
The heyday of agrarian reform was marked by both a political struggle between elite forces competing for economic and political power and an ideological battle over the best way to achieve greater levels of productivity and growth in the countryside.
At this time, two-thirds of the country’s foreign exchange earnings came from coffee exports, produced by peasant farmers on the warm Andean slopes. Since coffee exports were the key source of foreign exchange used to fund the developmental model of the time, peasants enjoyed relatively significant structural power.
Reformist president Lleras Restrepo (1966-1970) believed agrarian reform would fuel the ISI project by raising rural productivity, lowering domestic food prices, and reducing rural poverty.
These changes, it was hoped, would ensure a virtuous cycle of growth by generating a larger domestic market. At the same time, the reforms would cement the formation of a nationalist-populist political force of industrial bourgeoisie capable of counterbalancing the landowning oligarchs.
Yet these hopes were dashed. Most of the Colombian ruling elite — both liberal and conservative — originated in the landed classes, and had united to form the “National Front” power-sharing agreement in fear of the rise of populist mobilization.
This allowed for national development to steam ahead without the industrial elites ever needing to challenge the power of the landlord class.
Fearful of losing their land, landlords intensified attacks on peasant leaders, organizers, and leftist figures. And in 1972 the Chicoral Pact sought to protect landlords against peasant mobilization, effectively putting an end to agrarian reform with only one percent of the land subject to expropriation redistributed.
A new ideological vision for rural development replaced the old agrarian reform efforts.
A team of neoclassical economists from the World Bank promoted the model of “accelerated rural development.” This new model (sometimes called the “Junker road” of rural development) called for the conversion of large haciendas into commercial farms to produce cash crops for export.
The end of land reform did not, however, mean the end of the peasants’ struggle: rural dispossession and unemployment spurred a wider fight.
As capitalism violently spread across the Colombian countryside, peasants did not simply acquiesce, joining the un- or underemployed workers in the cities or on agribusiness estates. Rather, many resettled further into the agrarian frontier, often joining the guerrilla movement.
The FARC-EP soon became the main avenue for displaced peasants to resist capitalist transformation in the countryside. By the end of the 1970s, the FARC-EP had grown from a handful of communist peasants in the Independent Republics to an army of three thousand soldiers.
The Rural War System
In the 1980s, social exclusion, the crisis of state control, and the proliferation of armed groups in the countryside fostered a black market consisting of smuggling and narco-trafficking operations. Between 1978 and 1998, the area devoted to illegal crops increased fourfold.
For the growing numbers of displaced and impoverished peasants in the frontier zones, marijuana, poppy, and coca became the only crops that allowed them survive in the face of adverse market conditions. The FARC played a key role in this illicit economy, providing peasants with armed protection from extortion by the drug cartels.
Meanwhile, the lion’s share of the narcotics industry was dominated by an “emerging bourgeoisie” of drug traffickers who controlled the processing, transport, and exchange of narcotics.
Taking advantage of state incentives that protected large-scale landownership, they laundered their newly acquired wealth in land: between the 1980s and 2000s, narco-trafficking groups acquired an estimated 4.5 million hectares of land.
Many drug traffickers also transformed themselves into agrarian capitalists, investing in rice and palm oil farms and cattle ranches.
Against the backdrop of escalating violence in the countryside during the 1980s and 1990s, large landowners, cattle-ranchers, multinational corporations, and narco-traffickers allied forces to combat the guerrilla insurgency.
The United States encouraged this alliance, bringing them together to create the country’s first paramilitary organizations with the main goal of defeating the guerillas.
The far-right rural elite proceeded to lead the country down a path of economic growth characterized by extreme poverty and violence.
Neoliberalism and Agrarian Conflict
In the wake of slowing economic growth, declining profits, and increasing international competition in Colombia, an industrial and financial class began to replace the rural elite.
Policies of trade liberalization, deregulation, and privatization, they claimed, would “modernize” the economy and release it from the clutches of corrupt and oligarchic rural forces.
The neoliberal shift transformed Colombian agriculture virtually overnight. Whereas Colombia had previously produced more than enough food for its population, it soon became dependent on foreign imports for over half of national food requirements following the loss of over ten million hectares of agricultural land between 1990 and 2000.
In particular, the end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989 saw the loss of two hundred thousand hectares of coffee farms, accompanied by soaring levels of poverty and unemployment. The rapid transformations devastated all rural classes, from peasants up to landlords.
The neoliberal reforms were met with backlash throughout the countryside. Finding themselves suddenly dispossessed and unable to sustain themselves either through agricultural labor or through urban migration, poor rural inhabitants sought refuge in the FARC-EP. Their ranks grew to 22,000 soldiers by the late nineties.
In response to the threat to their class power posed by free-market reforms, the rural oligarchic elite increasingly allied themselves with narco-traffickers and paramilitary groups.
These far-right forces launched a wave of terror and political violence across the countryside, which saw the murder and displacement of millions of peasants and workers.
The Patriotic Union was a left-wing political party that emerged from the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC in the late 1980s.
However, fearful that this party would generate greater popular mobilization, the state and far-right forces stepped up political violence, assassinating roughly four thousand members of this party— including councilors, congressmen, senators, and presidential candidates.
The result was the creation of what Eduardo Galeano described as Latin America’s longest “democtatorship,” a formal democracy in which the ruling elite resist progressive reform through fierce repression.
The United States strongly supported this system, providing $7 billion in military aid through Plan Colombia. The Colombian state used the money to build the second-largest military institution in Latin America, with five hundred thousand soldiers and police officers, and backed by seven US military bases.
The package integrated the Colombian conflict into the US war on drugs by supporting the military (and, indirectly, paramilitary) offensive against peasant farmers in the agrarian frontier zones.
The 2002 election of President Uribe represented the high point of the landlord-mafia elite’s hegemonic state power. Under the “Democratic Security” program, Uribe’s administration unleashed a new round of state-sponsored violence and systematic human rights abuses. A third of elected representatives have been investigated for ties to paramilitary groups.
Colombia’s rural elite have benefited from the pro-landlord slant of neoliberal policies on land reform. Not only have they successfully avoided redistributing their estates, but many sections of the landed oligarchy have also succeeded in converting their estates into agribusiness enterprises producing beef or flex-crops (palm oil, soy, sugar, corn) for the world market.
To add to this, since the 1990s the World Bank has promoted a “market-led” agrarian reform program that follows a “willing-buyer-willing-seller” model rather than breaking up huge estates and redistributing the land to poor farmers.
Unsurprisingly, these market-led policies reinforce existing property structures. Indeed, the far-right offensive not only defeated agrarian reform, but also actively reversed it.
Through a series of laws the Uribe administration facilitated land appropriations by landlords and mafia, fast-tracking the titling process for large plots acquired through questionable methods.
Moreover, the “extractivist” development model has added a new dimension to this process. The commodities boom (beginning in the 2000s) pushed Presidents Uribe (2002–2010) and Santos (2010–present) to expand the exploitation of natural resources including oil, coal, minerals, and agro-exports. 60 percent of Colombian territory is either under concession for mining or has applications pending.
Recognizing the strategic importance of this sector, the FARC has also shifted its attention to natural resource extraction. They have increasingly attacked oil pipelines and coal railroads to pressure the government and contest this model of economic growth.
These developments pushed President Santos toward peace. Without a deal, he would be unable to expand foreign investment, particularly in mining and agro-industry, which require secure property rights, regulated land markets, and more effective state institutions. All of this is hindered by the violence, instability, and corruption that accompanied the armed conflict.
However, the attempts of these factions to reach a negotiated settlement have been fiercely contested by the rural elite. Fearful that a peace deal would directly threaten their class interests, they prefer war at any cost.
Land Reform and the Peace Process
There is no doubt that the land question will be a vital determinant for the outcome of the peace process.
So far, the government’s proposal is the 2011 land restitution law, which it claims represents an “agrarian revolution; not a revolution with guns, but through the constitution and the law.”
The law is supposed to provide reparations for major land appropriations. But so far it has had almost no effect: displaced peasants are either too afraid to return or unable to survive in the harsh economic conditions.
The political and economic conditions required for meaningful agrarian reform are no longer available. The “agrarian question” is not — as it was in the late 1960s — about transforming “pre-capitalist” relations in the countryside. Agriculture in Colombia is now integrated into global circuits of trade, production, and finance.
In the postwar era, the ISI development model was supported by small and medium farmers growing coffee for export and foodstuffs for the domestic market.
In contrast, the current neoliberal agrarian economy favors large farms producing cash crops for the world market, with little place for peasant agriculture. Large haciendas have undergone conversion into capitalist agribusiness estates, and expropriation is wholly absent from the neoliberal agenda.
The prospects for land reform and peasants’ economies are bleak in the current era. President Santos’s rural development program is designed to meet the demands of global capital and the internationalized agrarian bourgeoisie.
His latest proposal is to create “Business Development Zones,” which would further concentrate land in the hands of landlords and multinational companies. Under this form of farming, peasants looking to return to the land would have to enter into contracts with corporations, becoming cheap labor inputs for agro-industry.
The FARC-EP, as well as numerous regional peasant groups such as the National Association for Peasant Land Reserves (ANZORC) call for the creation of “peasant farmer reserve zones.”
While not as radical as the major land redistribution proposals of the past, these peasant reserves would allow some territorial self-governance and protection for subsistence peasants against landlords, narco-traffickers, and multinational corporations seeking to accumulate land.
The government has opposed this proposal, arguing that the reserves would become bases for continued illegal crop cultivation, drug trafficking, and insurgent activity.
Shifting Goals for the Left
For now the main hope for the Colombian left is not land reform, but a more favorable setting for social movements to organize.
Despite decades of violence, Colombian social movements are again on the rise. The tensions surrounding the new economic development model and large-scale extractive projects come into conflict with millions of rural inhabitants, which have already sparked a new set of protests by groups of peasant, indigenous, and African descendants.
Popular discontent with the neoliberal model has surged in recent years. Major agrarian strikes swept the country in 2013 and 2014.
Over a thousand predominantly rural groups in different regions across the country participate in these actions, making them the largest non-armed mobilizations and most significant political movements the country has ever seen.
Social organizations such as the Patriotic March, the People’s Congress, and the National Agrarian Coordination have gathered strength through a series of mobilizations, like the social and communitarian Minga of 2008, the Peace March of Barrancabermeja in 2011, and the Patriotic March’s opening rally in 2012.
For now, these movements hope that a peace deal would grant them greater access to a democratic system long characterized by exclusion and repression.
These new movements recognize that the problems facing exploited and oppressed populations today require more than land reform.
Their base is just as much urban as rural, and their demands touch on a broader range of issues: labor conditions, public services, environmental protection, and democratic governance. Organizations like the Patriotic March seek to represent a broader social base, including rural peasant organizations, urban workers, and slum-dwellers.
Nonetheless, the conditions still aren’t favorable for the Left. Santos has done little to prevent the growth of new rural paramilitary groups. The FARC claims that paramilitary groups still operate in twelve of Colombia’s thirty-two departments and further warns that paramilitary activity has been “reactivated in an incredible way.”
The Patriotic March, which has lost eighty members to assassination and seven thousand to detention, estimates that paramilitary groups assassinated three hundred peasant leaders in 2015.
The negotiations’ focus on the demobilization of the FARC-EP fails to acknowledge the continued threat of paramilitary violence. If the FARC were to withdraw following a peace deal, paramilitary groups would most likely dispossess many peasants in FARC-controlled areas in a new wave of violence.
This is why the FARC-EP insists on the creation of independent territorial zones (called Concentration Zones): to protect demobilizing guerrillas and peasants in the territories they once occupied.
However, the state’s armed forces — a group that has been unwilling to stop the rise of paramilitaries so far — will be in charge of guarding these territories.
Despite these ongoing dangers, Colombia’s new popular movements hope that the end of the war will allow the social and political struggles to be fought at the level of civil society rather than through armed conflict.