Colombia: Dismantling a Half-Century of Conflict

The negotiations between the government and the guerrilla forces are seen by a large part of the Colombian public as a good opportunity to seal a peace deal. Many believe that the hour has come and that the main actors in the conflict will not let this opportunity escape. The reality, however, is much more complicated.


Source: Americas Program

The negotiations between the government and the guerrilla forces are seen by a large part of the Colombian public as a good opportunity to seal a peace deal. Many believe that the hour has come and that the main actors in the conflict will not let this opportunity escape. The reality, however, is much more complicated.

On Aug. 26 the government of Juan Manuel Santos presented the “Agreement for the termination of the conflict and the construction of a stable and durable peace,” signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), based on the dialogue between both parties since February in Havana, Cuba. News of the agreement was met with signs of hope in Colombia.

On Oct. 18 representatives from the government and the FARC signed a joint communiqué in Oslo that included accords for “the public installation of a dialogue group charged with developing a general accord for the end of the conflict” with the first topic of discussion involving “integral agricultural development,” beginning on Nov. 15 in Havana[1].

Contrary to what happened before, this time a large part of the population has faith that the negotiations will succeed. A survey conducted by RCN Televisión demonstrated that 77% of Colombians support negotiations and 54% are optimistic that they will lead to definitive agreements[2].

However, former President Alvaro Uribe, a spokesman for landowners and according to many analysts, paramilitary groups, expressed from the first moment his dissatisfaction with the negotiations, calling for the annihilation of the guerrillas.

“Peace with impunity is a flower that lasts one day and a bad example for a culture that respects the law,” said Uribe[3].

Still fresh in the country’s memory are the failed peace negotiations between 1998 and 2002, which included a demilitarized zone (DMZ) of 45,000 square kilometers in the departments of Meta and Caquetá. After 40 months of discussions, including public hearings in which 22,000 people were directly involved, the peace process collapsed and the war continued.

In fact, none of the opposing sides believed peace was possible. The FARC used the break in hostilities to build its strength and improve relations with the Colombian populace. The military used it to “reverse the army’s operational failures,” since they went into negotiations after several tactical defeats at the hands of the guerrillas, and for acquiring aerial technology to neutralize opposing forces[4]. During that period, under the governments of Andrés Pastrana and Bill Clinton, the foundations of Plan Colombia were established.

Each side’s rationale

“There are sectors of the elite who see the armed conflict as an objective barrier, a major obstacle to their economic interests,” assured Ivan Cepeda, a congressman and member of the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movice)[5]. This would be the underlying reason that led to Santos, a member of a historical family from the Colombian elite, to take the risky step of meeting the guerrillas for negotiations.

The sociologist Gregory Wilpert argues that Santos is identified with the urban elite, cosmopolitan and transnational interests “whose concerns do not always converge with those of the large landowners,” as with his predecessor, former President Uribe [6]. Santos listens less to leaders and the paramilitaries and is more inclined toward Latin American unity with an emphasis on the export sector.

According to this analysis, the nation is seen as uncompetitive in the international sphere compared to other countries in the region with broad democratic processes and social participation. Several analysts, including José Manuel Martin Medem and Alfredo Molano, assure that Santos would negotiate with the “cacaos” the Colombian economic power, to end the “anachronism of the guerrilla war, to secure his business interests”[7].

Among his projects, is delivering some lands and financing for productive projects for the demobilized FARC forces, but this would be located “away from strategic areas of the country where development and expansion by large businesses of the oligarchy are in alliance with international investment.” meaning oil, minerals, biofuels, electricity, and telecommunications infrastructure.

Both the government and the business community, and most likely the military command, believe the guerrillas lost the initiative and have no offensive potential to destabilize the country. Economically Colombia is starting to play an increasingly prominent role in the region, as evidenced by the flow foreign investment in recent years.

After being sidelined in the 1990s, in recent years, there has been a real leap forward. Colombia occupied one of the last places in capital inflows to the country–six times less than México and nearly four times less than Argentina. In 2011, Colombia garnered 13 billion dollars, close to double that of Mexico and Argentina, although most of it came from mining and hydrocarbons [8].

Large Colombian businesses, especially the financial sector, have become exporters of capital. The Sura Group carried out the largest acquisition made by a Latin American company in 2011, buying $3.6 billion dollars of assets from the multinational corporation ING, to manage pensions, insurance and mutual funds in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay [9].

Other financial institutions such as the Grupo Aval and Sociedades Bolívar are strongly invested in Central America. The state-owned ECOPETROL and Public Enterprises of Medellín in the electrical sector have significant investments in South America. Cementos Argos has established itself in the United States, the Caribbean and Panama. “The driving force is the search for markets,” notes the Economic Commission of Latin American and the Caribbean.

The two large financial conglomerates, Aval of Luis Carlos Sarmiento (50,000 employees) with extensive investments in banking, and Sura (96,000 employees) with heavy investment in Cementos Argos (fourth-leading Latin American cement producer) and Nutresa (a large food producer), have in common their orientation towards Mexico, Peru, Chile and Central America. Their business interests coincide with the Pacific Alliance.

This alliance is made up of countries that have Free Trade Agreement with the United States (Mexico, Peru, Chile and Colombia). It was formalized on June 6, 2012 by the presidents of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, of Peru, Ollanta Humala and of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, and seeks to be a Latin American integration effort that offsets the Mercosur block .

For this business sector, the war, which absorbs 5% of the country’s GDP, is a burden to be lifted. After enduring strong attacks, for the guerrillas negotiations appear to be a necessary option. The military, according to local analysts, is counting on the annihilation of the guerrillas, but they know the guerrillas can survive almost indefinitely in thick jungles and hidden mountains. The high command hoped that with the death of the FARC’s top leaders troops would demoralize and disrupt their forces, which did not occur.

Obstacles and differences

As it is, the path to negotiations is cleared. On the immediate horizon it appears there may be some difficulties: the duration of the negotiations, the issue of land as a strategic challenge to be confronted, and the question of establishing mutual trust–always complicated and most often nonexistent.

President Santos anticipates that negotiations should not last too long. The presidential elections of May 2014 are on the horizon and Santos aims to be re-elected. This requires keeping the process on track and if possible, establishing the most important agreements prior to the election. As the analyst León Valencia stated, “peace talks amid an electoral process are not feasible”[10].

For that reason Santos insisted on several occasions that the talks not have an indefinite time frame, saying, “The talks will be measured in months, not years”[11].  By contrast, the FARC are looking toward a long process, as indicated by Timoleón Jiménez, top commander of the organization[12]. In agreement, the Patriotic March (led by the Communist Party) released a document in early November in which they propose a broad social mobilization to initiate a constitutional processes in the framework of a peace process, which would demand the necessity for a long process[13].

Another issue for discussion is the concept of “de-arming”, mentioned in the general agreement. While the guerrillas intend to refer to the non-use of weapons, or an indefinite truce, others interpret it as the handing over of weapons. This point may block the negotiations.

With regards to the land issue, Carlos Gutiérrez, director of Le Monde Diplomatique, affirmed a common perception, “The political and academic sectors of the country never understood that modernity in Colombia has to be based on modernization of agrarian relations”[14]. If land is at the heart of the conflict, the situation has continued to worsen in recent decades.

This is why this is the first issue to be addressed in the negotiations starting Nov. 15 in Cuba. A report from the mid-twentieth century divided the land into three categories: the best lands, 85%, occupied by livestock; the second are of little suitability for agricultural mechanization and are mostly used for cattle, the third consist of poor soils prone to erosion, and are dedicated to agricultural use.

He concluded, “This land economy is characterized by the hegemonic dominance over nine-tenths of the country’s vital surface lands maintained by a landed aristocracy, through natural plains”[15]. Over the years, the agricultural lands are increasingly underutilized and livestock land is overgrazed, although each hectare has only 0.6 head of cattle on average. “We have yet to free ourselves of the idea of primitive accumulation,” concluded Gutiérrez.

The war, driven by landowners and now entangled with drug trafficking, has been the method to further land concentration. In 1984 landowners with more than 500 hectares controlled 32.6% of lands. In 2010, they controlled 60.8%. The countryside had a gini index, which measures inequality, of .89–among the highest equality gaps in the world[16].

Agrarian reform is imperative to democratizing access to the land. But the presence of drug traffickers who have invested in lands and now join multinational mining and hydrocarbons interests and the presence of monoculture agribusiness have increased the concentration of land ownership. It will not be easy to go in the opposite direction of economic processes to satisfy peasant and indigenous demands.

Hopeful society, paralyzed movements

At least in the cities, there’s a new attitude. Words that were once muttered in the shadows are now expressed outright, thanks to the new confidence inspired by negotiations among many people, will lead to peace. It is a social climate that challenges past failures. However, key social movements related to the current negotiations have not shaken their lethargy.

The “Gathering for Dignity” convened on October 12 by the Patriotic March, the Peoples Congress and the Coalition of Social Movements and Organizations of Colombia (Comosoc), fell far short of gathering the forces they’d hoped for. The protest denounced low salaries, the concentration of wealth, the disastrous healthcare system and unemployment. Young university students were the most vocal.

It is true that in Colombia “there remains a clear divide between urban and rural centers, and the visions that inspire one are not the same for the other.”[17]. Both groups have different problems and demands. But beneath this division lies the continuity of a vertical and patriarchal political culture, even within the left, which exists parallel to authoritarian landowners.

Five decades of war consolidated political methods in which mobilization is decided from above and carried out below, where party leaders occupy a central position. The people of Cauca have attempted to promote something different, because they belong to other worldviews. That region of resources (water, oxygen, oil, mining and biodiversity) is also “a strategic corridor between the Pacific coast and eastern plains”.[18]

That’s why in Cauca all the armed groups converge: army, paramilitaries and guerrillas, “transforming the autonomous and ancestral territory into a theater of military operations.” Manuel Rozental explains that the Nasa people put up the greatest resistance to war on the basis of their own consensus-based agenda and the restitution of the Indigenous guard in 2001.

“With those two things combined we made the decision – the first in 2001, but in large part in 2004 – to come out with an agenda and to convene the first Indigenous and Popular Congress. The Minga came from Popayán and Cali, reaching the mountains to the Pan American Highway. That was in the peak year of Uribe’s popularity, it surprised him by saying, here he is not popular, and his model of free trade is not what we want”.[19]

In October 2010 the accumulation of successive mobilizations came together in the People’s Congress, a large confluence of organizations, people and movements, both rural and urban, indigenous and Afro-descendents, workers and students, in a huge demonstration of diversity. This new form of organizing, based on mandates born of consensus, is still far from having become a common approach and in a political culture that is accepted among those fighting hegemonic powers.

In parallel, as noted by a detailed work of two researchers from CINEP (Center for Research and Popular Education), social mobilization has been changing over the last few decades. While the Citizen’s Mandate for Peace drew 10 million voters in 1997, in the 2000s appeared massive mobilizations against the practice of FARC kidnappings. In February 2008 anti-guerrilla mobilizations reached 163 cities[20].

The “Uribe decade” of Álvaro Uribe between 2002 and 2010, produced profound changes in the war, but especially in Colombian society and the perception of the armed conflict. A portion of the population believes the guerrillas are the main, and sometimes only, culprits for the conflict. Removing this perception will take a lot of time, generosity and self-criticism.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha of Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements in the Multiversidad Franciscana of Latin America, and advisor to several grassroots organizations. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the CIP Americas Program

Translations: Joseph J. García


“A Colombia de Santos, país que atrai atenção”, Valor, 10 de setiembre de 2012.

Alfredo Molano Bravo, “El meollo”, El Espectador, 29 de setiembre de 2012.

Antonio García Fernández, “Las víctimas de las víctimas”, Arcoiris, 9 de noviembre de 2012.

Carlos Gutiérrez, “Tierra: ¿se romperá la constante histórica?”, Le Monde Diplomatique, noviembre de 2012.

CEPAL, “Inversión extranjera directa aumenta 8% en la región en el primer semestre de 2012”, 23 de octubre de 2012.

Desdeabajo, “Indignación, articulación dl sujeto sigla y paz” (Editorial), 20 de octubre de 2012

Fernando Sarmiento y Magda López Cárdenas, “Política y movilización por la paz en Colombia” (CINEP), Le Monde Diplomatique, setiembre de 2012.

Gregory Wilpert, “¿Porqué la paz en Colombia se ha vuelto posible?”, Le Monde Diplomatique, octubre de 2012.

Iván Cepeda, “En un conflicto largo , no hay negociación con perdedor”, Le Monde Diplomatique, octubre de 2012.

León Valencia, “Se necesita agilidad, pues no es viable un proceso de paz en época electoral”, Radio Caracol, 6 de noviembre de 2012.

Marcha Patriótica, “Constituyentes por la Solución Política y la Paz con Justicia Social”, Bogotá, 1 de noviembre de 2012.


[2] Semana, 15 de setiembre de 2012, en

[3] Semana, 28 de octubre de 2012.

[4] Desdeabajo, octubre 2012.

[5] Iván Cepeda, Le Monde Diplomatique, octubre 2012.

[6] Le Monde Diplomatique, octubre 2012.

[7] Diagonal, 31 de octubre de 2012.

[8] CEPAL, “La inversión extranjera directa en América Latina y el Caribe”, Santiago de Chile, 2012, p. 34.

[9] Idem, p. 60.

[10] Caracol, 6 de noviembre de 2012.

[11] Sistema Informativo Presidencia de la República, 21 de setiembre de 2012.

[12] Semanario Voz, 21 de setiembre de 2012.

[13] Marcha Patriótica, “Constituyentes por la Solución Política y la Paz con Justicia Social”.

[14] Le Monde Diplomatique, noviembre de 2012.

[15] Idem.

[16] Idem.

[17] Desdeabajo, octubre 2012.

[18] Manuel Rozental, “Los pueblos originarios en medio de la guerra”, 8 de noviembre de 2012, en

[19] Idem.

[20] Le Monde Diplomatique, setiembre 2012.