The Colombian Peace and its Discontents

Regional elites help to deliver votes at election time and support the executive’s legislative initiatives in Congress; in exchange, the executive gives them access to government positions and stays out of their way.

Colombians can disagree without killing each other. But throughout the country’s history, certain matters have tended to fall outside the scope of peaceful disagreement.

Photograph by Andrés Gómez Tarazon.

It’s about 6 PM on Sunday, October 2. I’m walking down the street when two policemen ask to see my cédula, the same national ID card I used a few hours ago to mark the “yes” box on the plebiscite ballot to ratify the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC. In the instant of casting my vote, it had felt grandiose—like history in the making. Then the numbers on the television refreshed my memory: 49.78 percent “Yes,” 50.21 percent “No.” That’s not how Colombian history works.

One of the cops enters my ID number on a clunky keypad device.

“If you voted ‘no,’ you can go,” he says.

“You’re gonna have to take me to the UPJ, then,” I say, referring to Bogotá’s infamous police detention center.

We’re joking, of course. We’re in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Bogotá. Here we can joke.

A man on a bicycle, also stopped by the police and waiting for the device’s verdict, asks the officers why they opposed the peace deal.

“They were going to give the country away to the FARC,” the other cop responds.

“So what happens now?”

“You can’t negotiate with those people,” says the cop holding my cédula. “In 2010 the FARC were totally defeated. Then Santos undid everything that Uribe had done before and let them recover completely.”

My political scientist brain, repressed by disillusionment, flinches in reaction: That’s not right. It was under Juan Manuel Santos—Uribe’s former defense minister and the current President, who presided over the peace talks in Havana, Cuba—that two of the most emblematic FARC leaders, including their top commander, were killed in military operations, and . . .

“So we just need to hunt down and kill every single guerrillero?” the bike guy asks.

The cop pauses—he clearly wants to say yes, but he’s not supposed to say it out loud. So he goes on in a different direction: “We were told a lot of us were going to get fired so they could give our salaries to the guerrilleros. You can’t reward them for being criminals and murderers and kidnappers. Those people are bad. They can never reintegrate into society and learn to work hard like you or me.”

“But the state isn’t completely innocent, either,” the bike guy offers.

The other officer changes the subject. “If the FARC really want peace, why do they ask for so many things in return? If they really wanted peace, they would just turn themselves in.”

“It was a negotiation,” I offer. “If the only choice they had was between fighting for another fifty years and surrendering just to go to jail, they might as well keep fighting.”

Awkward silence. We’re done here, it seems.

I take advantage of the silence and say I’m running late for something. I thank them for the chat and leave with some platitude: “at least we can disagree without killing each other.”

On September 26, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement to end their 52-year old conflict. But completing the deal required the Colombian people’s approval via referendum. Once the referendum failed, government officials and FARC leaders went back to the drawing board, promising to make changes to the agreement to reflect the objections of those who had campaigned successfully for a “no” vote.

The peace agreement’s most vocal and prominent opponent was former President Álvaro Uribe. A combination of neoliberal statesman, paternalistic populist, and loud-mouthed autocrat, Uribe came into office in 2002 after a failed peace process with the FARC, vowing to defeat them militarily. By that point, the FARC had earned most Colombians’ antipathy because of their continued hostilities during the talks, particularly their tactic of kidnapping civilians for ransom. Uribe rode the wave of widespread anti-FARC sentiment, scoring two consecutive landslide victories (2002 and 2006).

Once in office, Uribe supplemented his counterinsurgent platform with cash transfers and other social assistance programs for the poor and with strategic fights with the leftist presidents of Venezuela and Ecuador to stir up nationalist fervor. He thus managed to broaden his support base beyond large landowners, agro-industrialists, and urban elites, and he became widely popular with middle-class voters, informal workers, and even some peasant sectors. His alleged (i.e., all but confirmed in court) connections to right-wing paramilitary squads and his administration’s involvement in systematic human rights violations and multiple corruption scandals did little to undermine his popularity, and he left office with approval ratings in the range of 80 percent.

After his handpicked successor, Juan Manuel Santos, announced the start of peace talks with the FARC in 2012, Uribe quickly positioned himself as the peace process’s main detractor in an effort to return to the political limelight. When the referendum failed, the media concluded that Uribe had won. His catch-all voter base had come through once again, ratifying his immense popularity, and Santos was forced to recognize him as the main interlocutor in any attempt to move beyond the stalemate that resulted from the “no” victory.

Three days after the vote, Uribe met with Santos for the first time since 2010. Some commentators referred to the possibility of a “national pact” or “gentlemen’s agreement” between the two leaders as the key for breaking the political gridlock.

The image of the “gentleman’s agreement” is a recurring one in Colombian history. In 1957, Liberal and Conservative leaders signed a power-sharing agreement known as the Frente Nacional (National Front) to formally put an end to a decade of violent partisan confrontation and restore democracy after four years of military dictatorship.

So Colombians can disagree without killing each other. Colombia’s democracy is often celebrated as one of the oldest in Latin America, having held uninterrupted presidential elections every four years since 1958. But throughout the country’s history, certain matters have tended to fall outside the scope of peaceful disagreement or democratic deliberation.

After gaining independence from Spain, Colombia was a weak state—a patchwork of regions ruled in practice by local landed elites. As government institutions slowly coalesced and gained strength, and as peasant mobilizations for land redistribution flared up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, regional aristocracies made it a priority to sabotage any government initiative that threatened to interfere with their political power over (and ownership of) large swaths of the country’s territory. They made a particular point of blocking any attempt to redistribute land or enfranchise the peasantry.

One of their main gambits has been to dismiss any such initiatives as being unworthy of democratic deliberation. Reacting in the 1930s to legislation that would formalize land titles and expropriate idle property, they declared that such measures were “tyrannical,” “Sovietizing,” and would lead to communism. (Redbaiting remains potent in Colombia, now re-packaged and sold under the “Castrochavismo” label. Even measures to redress paramilitary squads taking land from peasant small holders, which would return the land to their rightful owners, have been attacked as undermining private property rights and paving the way for Cuban- or Venezuelan-style socialism.)

These same elites have been key members of almost every governing coalition in Colombia’s republican period, regardless of party affiliation: another way their interests have been advanced. Regional elites help to deliver votes at election time and support the executive’s legislative initiatives in Congress; in exchange, the executive gives them access to government positions and stays out of their way. The elites then use public resources to edge out smaller, independent, and popular political forces through patronage, lavish campaigns, and even vote-buying. With very few (and short-lived) exceptions, no president has ever been able to govern without them, much less against their interests. Those who have tried to swim against the current have done so by trying to build social coalitions with urban working classes (as in the case of Alfonso López Pumarejo in the 1930s), peasant movements (as attempted by Carlos Lleras Restrepo in the 1960s), or with amorphous cross-sectoral constituencies loosely brought together by the idea of “peace” (as current president Juan Manuel Santos has tried to do).

Last but certainly not least, landed elites have never been shy about violence. Following the second major legislative effort to address the land question in the 1960s, landowners often used local police forces as well as private militias to intimidate squatters and peasant organizers. But the peak of counter-reformist violence came in the 1980s, in the context of the first attempts to negotiate peace between the government and the FARC. That process led to the creation of a new political party (the Patriotic Union, or UP, made up of FARC members and other leftist forces) and to the establishment of direct mayoral elections. This opening of new spaces for collective action outside of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties obviously threatened regional elites’ hold on local power, which led many among them to support the creation of “self-defense” paramilitary squads responsible for the vast majority of killings, massacres, and disappearances in the Colombian armed conflict, including the extermination of the UP.

These strategies have worked almost flawlessly: the structure of land tenure in Colombia—among the most unequal in the world—is virtually the same today as it was in the 1960s, and peasant sectors remain woefully underrepresented in institutional politics.

A few minutes after the encounter with the police officers, I find myself in another conversation about the referendum, this time in a taxicab. The driver makes the same points: They were going to hand the country over to the FARC. They were going to take loads of money away from upstanding citizens and give them to former guerrillas. You can’t rehabilitate those people. (He then says what the cop wouldn’t: “What we need in this country is social cleansing.”) He contributes other familiar lines: We were going to end up like Venezuela, without toilet paper. As we drive by a church, he makes the sign of the cross. I’m surprised he doesn’t bring up the line about “gender ideology” and how the peace deal was going to destroy family values—the “no” campaign’s most innovative argument. (The agreement’s acknowledgement of gender-based violence against women and the LGBTQ community, and the fact that it called for protecting their rights and ensuring their voices were heard in the transition to peace, were used to mobilize evangelical churches and conservative Catholics against it.)

But regardless of the misinformation campaign against the peace deal, the “no” victory would not have been possible without the Santos administration’s overconfident and clumsy “yes” operation. Their simplistic appeal to an ethereal notion of “peace” failed to provide robust justifications for the concessions that were being granted to the FARC (including amnesties and alternative sentences even for those guilty of gross human rights violations; funding for the creation of a new political party; ten unelected seats in Congress until 2026; and living stipends for ex-combatants). These points made it easy for Uribe and his conservative landed constituency to exploit Colombians’ deep antipathy toward the FARC once again.

As for the FARC, the peace process had slowly woken them up from their five-decade long dogmatic slumber. Inspired by a confused mix of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and, later, Bolivarian platitudes, they had imagined themselves as “the people’s army” for the Colombian subaltern even though their support bases hardly went beyond the coca-producing localities where they controlled some territory.

On the day the talks were launched, a FARC leader responded to a journalist’s question of whether they would be willing to apologize to their victims by singing “quizás, quizás, quizás.” (Unsurprisingly, the “no” campaign used video of this scene very effectively.) Only days before the vote did they seem to realize that their usual practice of denying, minimizing, or justifying their massive record of atrocities—including thousands of killings and kidnappings, hundreds of massacres, and countless cases of child recruitment—might have been misguided. While FARC commanders did visit several places they had ravaged in the past to apologize to the communities there (resulting in overwhelming support for the peace deal in those areas), these acts came too late to counter the tide of accusations that they did not take their victims seriously.

On November 12, the government and the FARC announced they had reached a new peace agreement. They claimed that the changes reflect objections put forth by Uribe and other opponents of the previous agreement. For example, it features more restrictive alternative punishments (short of imprisonment) for former guerrillas who are found guilty of serious crimes; a requirement for the FARC to present an inventory of their assets and turn them over as a contribution to reparations for victims; and a more limited financing model for the FARC’s disarmed political party.

Yet the agreement does not exactly reflect the kind of “gentlemen’s agreement” that some expected to see between Santos and Uribe. Such a pact would require a realignment between urban liberal elites and rural conservative elites and involve major concessions to traditional landed aristocracies to which the FARC would never agree. While they remain deeply unpopular, the FARC paradoxically have more veto power now than ever. Their decision not to resume fighting despite the plebiscite’s results limits Santos’s ability to drift too far away from the spirit of the agreement in making concessions to regional elites. This is especially so with regard to land and peasant political representation, because these issues are the FARC’s main hope for having a successful post-conflict political platform.

The original peace agreement included several provisions that aimed to address land inequality and peasant political underrepresentation through land distribution and titling programs, state support for small-scale agriculture, and promotion of campesino associations. These measures were vocally rejected by Uribe and his allies, who called instead for protecting and formalizing the rights of landowners who have, “in good faith,” occupied public lands or bought property that had been previously taken through forced displacement.

With the new agreement, the government and the FARC try to build bridges with some rural business sectors by including language about promoting large-scale commercial agriculture alongside peasant modes of production. But they remain at odds with more reactionary regional elites by retaining the original deal’s process for including irregularly acquired lands in a land bank to be transferred to landless peasants.

Still, Uribe did succeed in ensuring that, even if the new agreement is ratified, reforms will be highly vulnerable to being watered down or undone by future administrations. The plebiscite’s failure meant that the agreement will not be incorporated into the Colombian constitution. Now that the deal is set to be ratified through Congress, only some provisions will have constitutional status. This means that the judiciary will play a limited role in ensuring its full implementation, and a great deal will hinge on future leaders’ political will and relationship with traditional regional elites. There will be a high risk of relapse into conflict if the FARC—or some factions within them—come to feel that the establishment is reneging on its commitments.

This was always going to be a fragile peace. Other armed actors—the National Liberation Army (another leftist rebel group better known as the ELN) and drug-trafficking squads—remain active. In the absence of a “gentlemen’s agreement” with urban liberal elites, Uribe’s support base might always resort again to its historical combination of all forms of struggle.

But the fragility of every attempt at greater social inclusion, the constant danger of war’s return, and the pivotal role of coalitional politics among the country’s elites—that is how Colombian history works.

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