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The Ends of Peace

Colombia’s peace deal is backed by elite interests — but it will also open up political space for the Left.

A mural in Medellín, Colombia. Deúniti, colectivo creativo / Flickr

The joy of the international community and the mainstream press was overwhelming when, on August 24, after fifty-one years (or seventy, depending on the definition) of armed conflict, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced a final peace agreement.

After four years of negotiation and far-reaching deals on rural land reform, political representation for demobilized FARC members, alternative solutions to the production of illicit crops, and recognition and reparation for victims, the Colombian public is asked to vote for or against the deal.

While a “sí” vote will be the likely outcome of the referendum on October 2, implementation and enforcement of the agreements will be largely contested. As Colombia’s pro-landlord brand of neoliberal development has not been an issue of debate at the negotiation table in Havana, a negotiated peace deal will not bring inclusive growth for the country’s rural poor.

Both the contestation of the peace agreement and the lack of serious debate over the character of Colombia’s economic growth model stem from the balance of power in Colombian society. While competing factions of the Colombian ruling class had achieved a bargain over political power for much of the 1990s and early 2000s, this changed with President Juan Manuel Santos’s decision to embark on peace negotiations with the FARC.

Driven by transnational class interests, Santos’s policy agenda is a complete shift away from ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s paramilitarized pacification tactics. Uribe and the rest of the narco-capitalists of large landowners and cattle ranchers are dependent on the state of war — and they will oppose the peace deal with everything they’ve got.

Elites, Power, and Development

Historically, the landed and industrial elite factions of Colombia’s ruling class have dominated the country politically. Populist contestation and mobilization against this hierarchic form of class rule was met either with violent repression or with institutionalized autocratic rule during the Frente Nacional years of 1958 to 1974, the time of a coalition between wealthy Colombian liberals and conservatives.

The traditionally larger weight of Colombia’s landed oligarchy in relation to the industrial elite faction within the ruling coalition, and the abandonment of state-led advanced industrialization policies, resulted in Colombia’s industrial decline and an ever-increasing expropriation of rural land by elites.

As the political exclusion and economic marginalization of most Colombians increased (most notably the grand-scale dispossession of peasants through the legalized land appropriation of the Chicoral Pact of 1972), leftist organizations, and especially the FARC, became the leading force in contesting the traditionally dominant elite bargain in Colombia. Impoverished peasants who had been forcibly displaced from their land sought protection and found representation in the FARC, fueling a massive expansion of the guerrilla group in the 1980s.

At the same time, several economic and financial crises in Colombia lead to widespread rural poverty. Many peasants were forced to harvest illicit crops in order to keep their land and survive. Especially following the reduction of funding streams from the Soviet Union and Cuba, the FARC started to play a key role in the illicit economy.

However, the peasants harvesting the crops and producing the raw material for the drug economy remained at the lower end of this illicit value chain. The main beneficiaries were cattle ranchers, some large landowners, and the drug traffickers controlling the majority of the production, processing, and distribution chains.

This “emerging bourgeois class” of narco-capitalists rapidly increased their wealth and power in the 1980s and 1990s, heavily contesting Colombia’s traditional pact between landed oligarchs and urban industrialists. Álvaro Uribe, the son of a large landowner who had been kidnapped and killed by the FARC, led this emerging class in their fight not just against the traditional elites but also against the FARC.

With increasing violence in Colombia — often playing out in rural areas where FARC commandos challenged the power of emerging narco elites — the different Colombian elite factions combined forces to violently oppose any FARC maneuvers (insurgent or other). The US Foreign Office and the Department of Justice played a crucial role in forming the alliance of landed, industrial, and narco-capitalists, providing finance and intelligence for the Colombian state and military and paramilitary organizations.

Using paramilitary groups to violently protect landed wealth and the cocaine industry, the US-supported Colombian ruling class intensified the war against the FARC, which left approximately two hundred thousand dead and around six million people displaced. The objective of US involvement was not primarily to combat leaders of Colombian drug cartels (as portrayed in Netflix’s recent hit series Narcos), but rather to destroy one of Latin America’s last-standing resistance movements and to advance Washington Consensus–style policy prescriptions. The resulting violent paramilitarization of control over large parts of Colombia and the neoliberalization of the economy only intensified forced displacement and rural poverty.

Paradise for Narco-Capitalists

Colombia’s radical shift to neoliberalism in the late 1980s did little to incentivize the stagnating economy. Narco dollars, laundered through land deals in Colombia’s cattle-ranching hinterlands and through real estate and construction in the country’s urban areas were the primary drivers of economic growth. Narco-capital and the interest of integrating Colombia into global capitalism became the institutionalized bridges between the industrial, landed, and extractive capital on one side, and the finance, real estate, and service-based economy on the other.

The dominance of these class interests, achieved by gathering different elite factions around the axis of narco-capitalism and transnational accumulation patterns, temporarily stabilized the Colombian polity and economy. While economically the FARC participated in and benefited from Colombia’s narco-capitalism, for the most part they remained political outsiders to the ruling coalition.

The formation of the Patriotic Union — a left-wing political party that emerged in the 1980s as a result of the peace talks between the Betancur government and the FARC — did little to increase the guerrillas’ political representation. Factions of the ruling elite that opposed any form of political influence of the FARC reacted with increased paramilitary repression: between 1985 and 1997 more than four thousand party members, including elected councilors, congressmen, and senators were assassinated or disappeared.

Meanwhile, the United States further supported the Colombian ruling coalition between narco elites and transnational capitalists through the $7 billion military aid package Plan Colombia. The resulting militarization of the Colombian state and the fumigation of illicit crops in the agrarian frontier zones not only intensified forced displacement, but marked the full integration of Colombia into the US “war on drugs.”

Uribe’s election as president in 2002 was the pinnacle of the power of the narco-capitalists and their neoliberalized economic model underwritten by cocaine capital. Any opposition to this development model was violently repressed by paramilitary violence and systematic human rights abuses through extrajudicial executions.

Political Shifts, Prospects for Peace

The election of Juan Manuel Santos as president in 2010 marked a major shift in Colombia’s polity and the country’s approach to achieving peace. Unlike his predecessor, Santos is a descendent of a traditional oligarchic family and now unites the growing transnational capitalist elite — self-conceived “modernizers” of Colombia — behind him.

But Santos’s decision to start negotiations with the FARC did not come exclusively from an interest in further opening the Colombian economy to global capitalism and attracting FDI into extractive sectors, low-wage services, and labor-intensive industries. It also reflects changing dynamics of power and a break in the elite bargain between the traditional, now-transnational elites and the narco-capitalists.

With Uribe and colleagues contesting the current power constellation after being excluded from the ruling coalition, and the FARC increasingly fragmented and at its politically and militarily weakest point in recent history, what are the prospects for sustainable and inclusive peace and development?

One important consideration is agrarian reform. This started the Colombian conflict and is vital in a lasting solution to it. But as large landowners have acquired new haciendas in areas where violence and conflict were drivers of falling land prices, the distribution of land is now more unequal than ever.

Neo-paramilitary structures that remain in place for protection of landed class interests and a structural lack of investments in smallholding agribusinesses will deter displaced peasants from returning. However, the agrarian question is no longer solely placed along the lines of land redistribution and capitalist transformation. Today, Colombia has been fully integrated in global production and supply chains of agricultural commodities and their derivatives, such as rice and palm oil.

The second vital issue for lasting peace is political representation and disarmament of the FARC. The FARC have every reason to be suspicious of promises by the Colombian state of protected demobilization and political representation.

While the fears of more extrajudicial killings were addressed by creating so-called “transitory rural normalization zones” to allow reincorporation of guerrillas into civil society, the actual implementation of these zones will be contested. Paramilitary organizations, far-right politicians, and factions of the armed forces supporting paramilitary structures will do their best to undermine a peaceful demobilization and disarmament process.

The peace process has already opened political space for new social organizations for popular mobilizations under somewhat improved democratic conditions. But 112 members of the Patriotic March have been assassinated since its foundation in 2012. Another seven thousand have been detained, and paramilitary groups have killed over three hundred peasant leaders in 2015 alone.

A complete demobilization of FARC members is doubtful, as many combatants opposing the peace deal will remain in the jungle and/or join other guerrilla movements that have been excluded from the negotiations, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN). The involvement of many FARC members in lucrative drug production, trafficking, and distribution activities also complicates a full demobilization.

The ambitious plans of dismantling and prosecuting drug trafficking organizations will thus be implemented with difficulties. Narco-capitalists as well as drug-trafficking factions of the FARC oppose the peace treaty; the anti-trafficking and production aspects of the deal undermines their raison d’être. Therefore, substantial changes to Colombia’s cocaine-induced accumulation processes are unlikely.

The agreed substitution of illicit crops for legal agricultural activities and immediate assistance plans, however, are a welcome change from the confrontational and militaristic eradication approaches. Additional commitment to medium- and long-term investments in in development in rural areas are needed for a more sustainable solution.

The bilateral ceasefire and reparations for victims are however welcomed and necessary steps for achieving peace and reconciliation in Colombia. Both sides of the conflict have been ignoring the voices of the victims for too long. Victims’ organizations found a voice in Havana, negotiating recognition and compensation agreements. These are substantial improvements, worthy of celebration.

While it is doubtful that the signing and (potential) ratification of the peace agreement will create sufficient conditions for Colombia to fully break the vicious cycle of rural violence, repression of the political left and peasant organizations, and economic marginalization, the peace deal has significant merit. A “sí” to the peace deal would further open up political space for movement-building. Popular mobilizations against Colombia’s neoliberal model have increased in recent years, giving the new social organizations hope that upcoming struggles will be fought on by political and civil society rather than through armed conflict.

Hope for a Colombia in peace rests on the ability of these movements to unite in the struggle for sustainable and inclusive developments for urban and rural Colombians.