A BIOGRAPHY OF COLOMBIA EMBATTLED, PART I
January 2006: I write this as war rages elsewhere in the world, knowing that Colombia is also in the sights of some international policy-makers, who overestimate the power of war for achieving political objectives, and underestimate the dimensions of the tragedies which their ambition and lack of cultural depth-perception are capable of unleashing. This is a brief analytical biography of the nation of Colombia - a humble effort to put the struggles and problems which have made that country "ripe for outside intervention" into a deeper perspective, not so useful for justifying action, perhaps, but surely more useful for ensuring that any action taken is constructive and informed. Who you fight, and who you love: you should both know well. It is with this premise that I sally out of silence to write this little article about a land and a people I have come to respect and admire, seeking to bring some clarity to the shadows of the news, which have so misrepresented them.
A Colony Of Spain
Ethnicity In Colombia
The Struggle For Independence From Spain
Legacies Of Spanish Colonialism
Liberals And Conservatives
Struggles For Land And Labor
La Violencia, And The Origins Of Social Revolution In Colombia
The Alliance for Progress, and Nationalist Wounds
The Guerrilla Movement Takes Off: The FARC, the PCC, and Organized Labor
The ELN: Another Guerrilla Group
From And To Elections: The Story of the M-19
Yet Another Guerrilla Movement: The EPL
The Indigenous Movement in Colombia
Drugs, and the Changing Face of Conflict
Conspiracy Theory: Colombia
Outline of Section Contents
A Technical Note on Accents and Tildes
References and Resources
A Colony Of Spain
Colombia, as many other Latin American countries, was originally inhabited by Native American peoples (indios or indigenas) who were conquered by invading Spaniards beginning in the 16th Century AD. The indigenous groups were diverse in lifestyle and custom, not surprising considering the geographic diversity of Colombia, which encompasses mountain ranges, plateaus and valleys, vast rolling plains known as llanos, deserts and tropical jungles (selvas). Probably the most famous of the pre-Columbian Native groups were the Chibchas, who established an advanced civilization reminiscent of the Incas of Peru in the center of their country, around modern-day Bogota. The Spaniards were drawn to this people, rich in gold, whose treasures had spawned the legend of El Dorado. What the conquistadors found in Colombia was not as impressive as the treasure rooms of Moctezuma in Aztec Mexico, nor the riches of Atahualpa in Inca Peru (and Bolivia); and yet it was enough to incite the conquest and domination of the Chibchas, and all other accessible indigenous populations.
In typical fashion, and parallel to historical developments in many other Latin American countries, the Spaniards soon implemented a system of forced labor in Colombia, in order to exploit the native population for their own benefit. Originally, captive Indians were enslaved. Later, as members of the Catholic Church, such as Bartolome de las Casas, advocated on behalf of the Indians in the Americas, the Spanish King turned against slavery in favor of a new concept, the encomienda, which was a land grant given by the Crown to Spanish colonizers. Included, with the land, were the Indians who lived on it, who were now legally protected from slavery, and instead, subjected to a New World version of serfdom. They must henceforth provide labor to the encomendero (the recipient of the land grant), who was, in turn, entrusted with their care, protection, and instruction in the values of "civilization." Most of all, this meant that they were to be Christianized. While members of the Roman Catholic Church undertook the great task of converting the Natives from their pre-Columbian beliefs and "saving the souls" of Spainís newest subjects, the encomenderos harnessed the indigenas to work in gold mines and on their enormous farms known as haciendas. Essentially, Spain succeeded in transplanting European feudalism, with all of its social and economic drawbacks, into the Americas. It was a historical act which would cause serious problems, in many different Latin American countries, for centuries to come.
In addition to the encomienda, Spain exploited its indigenous populations by means of the resguardos (Indian reservations) and the tributo comunitario (collective tribute) that was demanded from these reservations. In the case of certain large and cohesive Native groups, reserves of territory known as resguardos were formed about them, in which they were able to maintain their government, land, and social structure, in exchange for the payment of tribute to the Spanish conquerors. This tribute was often given in the form of goods; and sometimes given in the form of labor, by means of the institution of the mita (labor tax). The mita was actually a pre-Columbian institution prevalent throughout the Andes, and especially associated with the Inca Empire south of Colombia, in which native villages would pay taxes to their government in the form of laborers temporarily donated to participate in collective work projects that benefited the whole. These laborers would help to build roads and bridges, maintain granaries and perform other services of use to the larger community, which would, in turn, help them out in times of need. (For example, the village that contributed to the mita would be protected by warriors from the whole empire if threatened; and in times of famine, it could count on relief from other villages, which would send it food from their collective stores.) The mita, as it existed in colonial Latin America under Spanish control, however, was a very different thing. It was essentially kidnapped by the Spaniards and reshaped to fit their own purposes. Deceived by familiarity, the Native masses were lured to submit to what had once been a mechanism for mutual support, but was now transformed into a mechanism for one-sided domination. In Peru and Bolivia, the effects of this new, corrupted version of the mita were apocalyptic. Large numbers of natives were drafted from their villages for extended periods of times, which frequently prevented them from tending to their fields and maintaining the viability of their communities. This kind of indifference to the seasonal demands of agriculture had never been manifested by the mitas of the past, which held laborers only so long as they could be spared from the work required for the sustenance of their own villages; and unlike the Inca rulers of the past, the Spaniards had no system in place to support communities in need. While hunger increased at home as a result of their absence, the miten~os (labor draftees) were subjected to deadly work in the Spanish silver mines and mercury mines. In the silver mines, long hours working in deep mine shafts with bad air, while poorly fed, led to exhaustion, sickness, and death. In addition there were frequent tunnel collapses, especially as mining the silver weakened the structure of the mine itself: the safety of Indian miners was not a top priority of Spanish overseers, who willingly risked the lives of their workers to enrich themselves. To milk the very last drop of effort out of its captive labor supply, exhausted burned-out workers were provided with coca leaves (the base of cocaine), in order to keep them working. (Coca was a revered and sacred plant among many Andean natives. Its leaf was chewed as a part of various religious ceremonies. However, the Spaniards, discovering its power as a fuel, divorced of all spiritual content, set up huge plantations of coca in their colonies and staffed them with native labor. The cultivated coca was then sent on to the mining camps, to provide human energy for the extraction of silver used to enrich the Spanish Crown.) While the fabulously rich silver mines of Bolivia became killing fields for the native miten~os, the mercury mines of Peru became centers of death for thousands more. Mercury was used to amalgamate the silver, and long-term exposure to it poisoned the unfortunate miners who were recruited to extract it, condemning them to slow and torturous deaths. Although the worst atrocities of the mita were committed in Bolivia and Peru, over the ruins of the vanquished Inca Empire, the mita also inflicted significant damage on the Native peoples of Colombia.
As time went on, and the effects of war, exploitation and disease took their toll on the indigenous populations of Colombia, who were not resistant to virulent new strains of germs inadvertently brought to the Americas by the Europeans, the Spanish colonizers began to face labor shortages which threatened the viability of their projects. In the Caribbean islands, the Spaniards had already replaced decimated indigenous populations with black slaves imported from Africa. This process was now repeated in parts of Colombia. Soon, African slaves were to be found working in the gold mines, in sugar plantations along the Atlantic Coast (where cities such as Barranquilla and Cartagena arose), and in the transport sector, where there was a great need for men to load and unload boats, and to drive pack mules from the interior to markets and to ports. Sad to say, the Catholic Church, at this time, made no significant effort to oppose the enslavement of Africans, as it had opposed the enslavement of Indians. It recognized the colonizersí need for labor, and probably saw the importation of Africans as preferable to increasing pressure on the already badly exploited Indians, who they had decided to acknowledge, at the very least, as human beings. From a pragmatic point of view, it must have been recognized that the Indians, residing in their homeland and already living in cohesive communities, represented a greater risk of rebellion than a collection of slaves brought over from across the sea. Although Indian leaders (caciques), deferential to the power of the Spaniards, now participated in the provision of labor to the encomenderos, they faced limits in how much they could extract from their people in the name of peace. Transplanted Africans seemed far more vulnerable; and their usefulness encouraged some members of the Church to theorize that they had no souls, enabling them to be exploited with a minimum of moral discomfort. After a time, however, as the slaves became more accustomed to the country of their captivity, and as the overworked gold mines began to falter, drying up the revenues needed to keep the coercive apparatus intact, large numbers of slaves began to break free from their masters. They revolted and ran away into the wilderness, forming free communities of their own beyond the reach of the authorities. These escaped slaves were known as cimarrones and the communities they formed were known as palenques. A powerful tradition of black resistance against unjust authority was forged, a tradition which continues to affect events to this day.
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Ethnicity In Colombia
Ethnically speaking, Colombia, during the colonial epoch, began to undergo a significant process of mestizaje (or racial mixing). Following the typical pattern of many Spanish colonies in the Americas, a relatively limited number of Spaniards - many unmarried and without family, others feeling empowered to use and then leave behind women of other races - began to have sexual relations with members of the indigenous and African populations. This process increased as more Spaniards began to arrive to Colombia, especially small farmers who moved into the "Crown lands" - lands which the Spanish King held in reserve, outside the bounds of the great estates and the land grants, for the use of anyone who wished to settle on them and work them. As the number of these small farmers began to grow, and the range of their movement increased, they came into contact with indigenas who had been displaced from their resguardos. (The fact that the Bourbon kings of Spain reduced the size of the resguardos during their period of rule, created conditions of overcrowding on many resguardos, which forced large numbers of Indians out of their communities in search of land and work.) The increasing presence of escaped slaves and free African communities, which the State could no longer control, was also a contributing factor to this racial mixing. As a result of these processes, dating back to colonial times, Colombia is today a land of great racial diversity, consisting of whites, Indians, and blacks, and large numbers of mulattos (part-white/part-black people) and mestizos (part-white/part-Indian people). Strong Indian features, such as exist throughout much of Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia, are much less prevalent in Colombia, due to the greater force of the racial mixing which took place there.
CONTEMPORARY ETHNIC BREAKDOWN OF COLOMBIAN POPULATION (2001 ESTIMATE)
TOTAL POPULATION: 40,350,000
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The Struggle For Independence From Spain
At the same time as this process of racial mixing was beginning to gain momentum in Colombia, a cultural and political rift was beginning to form between two groups of Spaniards, the peninsulares (who were Spaniards born in Spain) and the criollos (who were ethnic Spaniards born in the Americas). The criollos began to resent the political and economic domination of the peninsulares, who they felt monopolized power in the Spanish colonies. These criollos felt that they were more a part of the New World, knew it better, and had more at stake here than the peninsulares, and that they therefore deserved a greater degree of control over its affairs. They resented the appointment of "outsiders" to key political positions above their heads, and they resented the strict economic control exercised by the Spanish King, including the taxes he levied, and the regulations he set governing who they could export to and who they could import from. Essentially, the Spanish colonies in the Americas were locked into a mercantilist system, meaning that their very existence was conceived primarily in terms of the enrichment of the "mother country", with little room left over for the potential of their own development. They were envisioned as exporters of gold and silver, and certain other desired goods, which were to be sent only to the "mother country"; and as importers of goods manufactured by the "mother country" (imports from other lands were banned). In both cases -as exporters and importers - the colonies would contribute to the growth of the "mother country", first by providing it with the raw materials and wealth it needed to develop; and second, by serving as additional markets for the expanding production of the "mother country."
Aside from the inevitable rift which this concept must lead to, once the people of the appendage finally woke up and began to develop a will and mind of their own (something which also happened in the case of Englandís colonies in North America), Spainís understanding of the mercantilist concept was deeply flawed to begin with. Rather than investing the huge fortunes of gold and silver it had siphoned off from Mexico, Peru, and other Latin American colonies into areas of long-term productivity such as commerce, banking, and manufacturing, which would have provided lasting sources of income and empire-building, it squandered away its fabulous new wealth in a series of European wars, often fought on behalf of religious idealism (aka fanaticism), as Catholic and Protestant nations and princes made war upon each other over issues of faith and political autonomy. In this way, it wasted the opportunity to turn its wealth into a base of future power. Unlike England, which, in the 1700s, transformed the conquered treasures of India into the engine of the Industrial Revolution and the foundation of its world dominion, based on industry, trade, and seapower, Spain failed to utilize the gold and silver it had pillaged from the Aztecs and Incas to develop a competitive manufacturing sector, an international banking presence, or a modern economically viable social system. Rather, it succumbed to its intense loyalty to medieval mentalities, even as the genie of capitalism was being unleashed by its rivals. For Spain, itself, this eventually led to its eclipse as a world power. For Spanish colonies in the New World, it created both a deepening sense of aggravation, as they felt locked out of profitable new trading opportunities with the British, Dutch, and other ascending nations, due to their forced association with a fading colossus; and an opportunity to break free of that colossus, as its ability to dominate them waned.
For a time, disgruntled colonists rebelled below the threshold of open revolt, by means of smuggling, developing significant pathways of contraband trade with England and other European powers, which violated the terms of their exclusive commitment to Spain. But, at last, the power of deception reached its limits, and the impulse to shatter stifling laws rather than merely sneak around them triumphed. Rebellion erupted. In Colombia, as in many other parts of Latin America, its first manifestations were compelling but premature. In 1781, Nueva Granada, as the colony encompassing modern-day Colombia was then called, was shaken by a huge uprising known as la Revolucion de los Comuneros (the Comunero Rebellion). This revolt took place in the same year as the Tupac Amaru Rebellion in Peru (which was a Native uprising against Spanish authority), and was therefore able to benefit from a strategic overload of Spanish military resources in the Americas. La Revolucion de los Comuneros was directed by criollos who wished to break free from the domination of Spain, but also attracted large numbers of poor mestizo peasants, Indians, and slaves, and rapidly took on the features of a massive social revolution, which alarmed many of its criollo instigators. They did not want systems of exploitation in place to be overthrown, they merely wished to assume control over them themselves. Under the slogan "Union de los oprimidos contra los opresores" ("Union of the Oppressed against the Oppressors"), rebel leader Jose Antonio Galan led his forces to victory. The Spanish Viceroy signed a peace treaty, giving in to many of the rebel demands, but as soon as the revolutionary army had disbanded, he seized Galan and other leaders of the revolt, had them executed, and ignored the promises made in the treaty. The next criollo effort of revolt would not make the mistake of being so socially inclusive, or ingenuous.
The definitive rebellion to liberate Colombia (and most of Spanish Latin America) from the burden of Spanish rule occurred not long after the conquest of Spain by Napoleonic France, in 1808. Napoleon installed a new King of his own choosing in Spain, who was widely regarded as illegitimate. As Spain resisted the usurper by means of a protracted and effective guerrilla war against the French, Spainís colonies in Latin America likewise rejected the authority of the usurper. At the same time, the authority of the legitimate monarchy collapsed, due to its defeat in the European war, leaving a power vacuum in the Americas which was largely filled by the criollo elites. By the time the situation was finally ended by Napoleonís defeat at the hands of Britain and other powerful enemies, and by the time the rightful monarchy had returned to power in Spain, the Latin American colonies had already become too accustomed to their new sense of freedom to revert to the old order. When Spain attempted to turn back the hands of the clock, and to re-impose former patterns of domination, the criollos rose up in arms, and began a fierce war of independence that raged up and down the continent. In these wars, many national heroes arose, but first among them - the true mastermind of the liberation of a continent - was Simon Bolivar, a native of Venezuela who fought on behalf of the independence of all Latin America. Inspired by the American Revolution, and driven by the vision of creating one huge, free and united South American federation consisting of all of Spainís former New World colonies combined into one, he battled for years until winning a decisive victory in 1819 (the Battle of Boyaca) which insured the independence of Colombia. A new political entity known as La Gran Colombia (consisting of modern-day Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and Colombia) was formed, which Bolivar hoped would combine with other liberated areas of South America to bring his dream of a single united Latin American country to fruition. However, discord resulted from victory. Bolivar warned that, without unity, "The United States seems destined by Providence to plague the Americas with hunger and misery in the name of liberty." He felt that division would give rise to conflict within Latin America, as well as deny it the mass it needed to counterbalance the growing weight of the USA. His political opponents, however, increasing in numbers after his military genius was no longer needed, feared that the centralized power he sought to create would lead to authoritarianism - to something too much like the rule of Spain they had just rejected. They also coveted their own little spheres of power, which could only be attained by carving up the Bolivarian dream and breaking up the federation he perceived into many different countries. The complexity of South American geography, which impeded the consolidation of political cohesion, was on the side of these opponents. At the very end of his life, militarily triumphant but politically fading, a seriously ill Bolivar declared: "If my death can help to put an end to divisions and save the union, I will gladly be lowered into my grave." He died soon afterwards, idolized by many, yet also reviled by many. A man of many flaws, perhaps too domineering and not sufficiently dedicated to social justice in the quest of his grand political ideals, he nonetheless was the architect of an important forward step in history, and well-cut to be the symbol of a broader understanding of Latin American "nationalism." As Jose Marti wrote of him: "Men cannot be more perfect than the sun. The sun burns with the same light with which it warms. The sun has spots. Disgraceful people only speak about the spots. Grateful ones speak about the light."
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Legacies Of Spanish Colonialism
The end result of Bolivarís victories was not a united continent, but a multitude of new independent states, dominated by criollo elites, and burdened by the heaviness of the colonial legacy. A new possibility for progress - political, economic and moral - had been created - but conditions inherited from the past hemmed in the potential of the future. There was, first of all, the lasting impact of the authoritarian nature of Spanish rule. Unlike the British monarchy, which had been infused with many democratic elements over time, such as the Bill of Rights, the Parliament and Common Law, the Spanish monarchy, due to its strength and tenacity, had never had such limits placed upon it by its people; and the Spanish people had, therefore, never developed the experience and familiarity with democratic practices and institutions which characterized Britainís North American colonists. That familiarity allowed the British colonists, once they broke free of their "mother country", to create an effective and lasting democracy in the United States. In Latin America, however, the lack of popular democratic traditions left new systems of democracy, artificially created in the image of the United States, without strong historical roots, and therefore highly vulnerable to the return of familiar patterns of authority. Contemporary North American social scientists note, with some sense of chauvinism, perhaps, but also with some degree of accuracy, that loyalty to democratic institutions in Latin America was often easily upstaged by the allegiances that Latin Americans were accustomed to grant to powerful authority figures, especially manifested by political or military strongmen known as caudillos. These men would mobilize people on the basis of their promises, charisma, and talent. When they so desired, they would sweep constitutions out of their way, or reinterpret them with guns, and take power with the support of those who saw them as their guardian angels. This loyalty to people more than to institutions has been described as personalismo, and was a direct result of the Spanish colonial heritage. It has played a major part in the history of post-independence Latin America, contributing to the multitude of dictatorships which has plagued that region ever since it broke free of the Spanish Crown. (However, it should be understood that dictatorship in Latin America, when and where it occurs, is not only attributable to this damaging cultural legacy, but also, just as powerfully, to external economic and political factors acting upon the region.)
Besides the legacy of personalismo, and the attraction towards powerful leaders, centuries of Spanish rule in Latin America also left intact, in many places, feudal or semifeudal systems of agriculture, in which wealthy landlords monopolized and dominated large tracts of land worked by poor peasant laborers, who were bound to their landowners in a client-patron relationship. This was a legacy of the days of the encomienda, and was neither economically productive nor socially just. In addition, slavery continued to persist, and serious racial prejudices which, if not as virulent as those which existed in the southern United States, nonetheless adversely affected the status and mobility of many indios and negros. The persistence of these injustices - particularly the survival of the exploitative hacienda - would lead to many violent upheavals in the Latin American future, most notably the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Haciendas also played a major role in the development of revolutionary violence in 20th-century El Salvador and Colombia. It is sad to say that the criollos who wrested mastery of Latin America away from Spain did not reject, but rather inherited and perpetuated, the oppression and control of the Indian masses and African slaves by which their ancestors had become wealthy and powerful men in the service of Spain.
In addition to these damaging legacies, the mass cultivation of the coca leaf which exists today in many parts of South America stems from Spanish colonial practices of promoting an internal drug trade aimed at increasing the productivity of its Indian miners. Afterwards, the use of coca by Indians in Bolivia and Peru as a drug against hunger and hardship in the midst of continuing repression by their new criollo masters, persisted. This legacy, coupled with the legacy of contraband trade which the stifling economic control of the Spanish King generated during colonial days, has laid the foundations for the epidemic of drug-trafficking which plagues our hemisphere today.
Latin American independence from Spain was a great historical achievement, and yet, the break from the past was only partial. Many damaging attitudes, institutions, and injustices remained behind, to haunt Latin America for years to come. In simplest terms, one elite had replaced another, while the masses remained in a subordinate position. In cases, the past remained obvious and it utterly dominated the present. In other cases, great and beneficial changes were made, and yet, within those changes, ancient vices lurked. No person, no nation, and no civilization ever fully escapes from its past. The damage wrought by the Spanish conquistadores on the Americas was lasting.
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Liberals And Conservatives
In the case of Colombia, the pattern of repetitive cycles of dictatorship which afflicted many other Latin American lands impacted by the Spanish colonial legacy, did not take hold. Instead, two major political parties emerged from the early days of Independence, to vie for preeminence in the land: the Liberals and the Conservatives. There were elections and there were presidents. Unfortunately, there were also innumerable civil wars, resulting from the tendency of the electoral winners to generously reward their followers and shut out the losers. Once again, personalist dynamics supplanted institutional ones. Politicians were motivated by loyalty to those who they could count on, and to those who had helped them in their struggles (who they wished to reward once they reached the top), to hoard opportunity on behalf of their partisans. The concept of balancing out rewards in the name political fairness seemed too abstract and impersonal to men rooted in the personalist tradition. In many cases, this tendency, exercised by both parties, made political defeat untenable. Rather than abiding by the election results, the losers would often, therefore, unite and revolt against the national government in order to free themselves from the monopolization of society by the rival party. The fact that Colombia was a geographically challenging country, divided by gigantic mountain ranges, expansive forests, and other major obstacles to communication, made the nation physically difficult to govern, and much more susceptible to this kind of revolt.
The history of the Liberal-Conservative rivalry during the 1800s is far too complicated and nuanced to describe in detail, here; the attempt to do so would run the risk of losing sight of the forest for the trees. In general, it can be said that both parties were elite-controlled and that their programs revolved around elite interests. The masses were heavily used and most often poorly served by these parties; they cast their votes and marched in their armies more on the basis of patronage, regional and local loyalties, and family tradition than on allegiance to any given ideology. (Family tradition gained force as the civil wars proliferated, and families could begin to say, "Your father was killed by a Liberal", or "Your brother was killed by a Conservative.") Nonetheless, the parties did have ideologies, representing the different interests and perspectives of different elite groups.
In broad terms, the Conservative Party was oriented towards a more paternalistic, traditional view of society than the Liberals. Its mentality was especially forged by the major, old-style landowners, who viewed their property primarily as a source of status and prestige, rather than as an economic asset which should be fully put to use in order to generate income for themselves and the nation. They lived well enough by means of the partial utilization of their resources, and saw no need to push themselves further, to degrade their lifestyle through excessive work. They were pervaded by an aristocratic mentality rather than a business mentality. This party was traditionally closer to the Church than was the Liberals, believing that the Church deserved its full political and moral support, and that the Church was entitled to its many prerogatives, including the ownership of significant tracts of land and control of education. The Conservatives also believed in the continuation of the resguardos, and persisted in a paternalistic perception of the indios, viewing them as a backward race which required the protection of the State and the Church. They could not envision them as full citizens of Colombia, integrated, on an equal footing, into society. Naturally, within this condescending vision of protection, there was a built-in concept of exploitation.
The Liberals, on the other hand, espoused a much more modern vision of society, one steeped in the philosophy of economic liberalism, which was still, in those days, radical and new. They believed in the credo of Adam Smith: that the free and unimpeded trade of merchants and nations, unerringly guided by the brilliant unseen tool of supply and demand - "the invisible hand" - would naturally bring wealth and abundance to the peoples of the world as no government plan could do. They therefore advocated for laissez-faire - economic activity free of government interference - and sought to bring Colombia more fully into the global economy, which, contrary to popular belief, existed back then, just as it exists today. Likewise, they were impressed by the work of David Ricardo, whose theory of "comparative advantage" proved the value of specialization in international production: that is to say, stated that the greatest economic good of the whole would be served if each nation and region found, and concentrated on the production of, those goods which it could produce more efficiently than any other. Presuming that these goods moved about the world according to the laws of free trade, the abundance and prosperity of all would be increased by the exchange of goods produced with maximum efficiency, surmised Ricardo. This was the theory that would later drive the Liberals to spearhead (this time with Conservative support) Colombiaís world-renowned commitment to the cultivation and export of coffee. In addition to this, the Liberals felt that property should be productive, and that the hoarding of property by those who were not motivated to use it was a block to national progress. This attitude would eventually (in the 20th Century) lead them into substantial forms of conflict with the Conservative old guard. The Liberals favored social and economic limits placed upon the Church (which they respected culturally, but wished to prevent from parasitically draining the economy, and dominating civil society). They championed the abolition of slavery, for philosophical and economic reasons (they felt it was both morally wrong, and less productive than free labor). And, finally, they favored the full integration of the Indian into civil society.
Liberal efforts led to the abolition of slavery during the presidency of Jose Hilario Lopez (1849 - 1853), a great human rights triumph (although many slaves had already freed themselves, by means of the palenques). Some of the Liberalsí other, well-meaning reforms, however, cut both ways: for example, their "abolition" (or restructuring) of the Native resguardo. Steeped in the philosophy of John Locke, whose emphasis on the rights of the individual had provided a much-needed reaction against the authoritarianism of European kings, and helped to pave the way for the birth of American and French democracy, these Colombian Liberals sought to "rescue" the indigena from the "backward social state" which they believed the paternalistic resguardo of colonial days had imposed upon him. They, therefore, divided the existing resguardos into individual plots, providing each Indian with his own privatized share of the reservation - his own personal piece of private property. What this benevolent reform failed to take into account was the fact that Native America had, long before the days of John Locke, developed and become accustomed to living by its own concepts of social and economic justice, which were centered not upon the "individual rights of Man", but rather, upon the "collective rights of the community." Within the Native way of thinking, land was a communal asset which did not belong to any given individual, but to the entire tribe. Individuals lived and worked on pieces of land, but the land was not theirs to own, sell, or to use in ways that might undermine the collective well-being. Although individual mobility and advancement were more limited by this system, individuals were well-compensated by the knowledge that the community they lived in would support them with the full force of its solidarity and collective resources in times of need. While the resguardo of colonial times was, indeed, a symbol of conquest, containment and subjugation (as the Liberals recognized), it nonetheless preserved within its borders powerful vestiges of pre-Columbian social structures and mentalities. The Liberal reforms which privatized the resguardo smashed into what was left of these ancient ways. In the name of progress, a ferocious collision between European and Native understandings of Man, Society, and Justice was engineered, a collision which led to the weakening of collective bonds within the indigenous communities, which translated into a reduced Native capacity for unity and self-defense in the face of continuing aggression from the outside. In the past - once the Conquest had already seized what it could digest - white men and mestizos had been blocked from taking possession of Indian lands, which had been legally recognized and locked outside of their reach into the resguardo system. But now, after the Liberal reforms, powerful predators - land-hungry speculators backed by lawyers, capital, and, in cases, armed supporters - began to pressure the new owners of the individual plots into which the resguardos had been divided, tempting or intimidating them into selling their land. Once privatized, the resguardos therefore began to shrink in size and even to dissolve. More and more, los indigenas were forced into the labor market, on the terms dictated by the heirs of their conquerors. Their communal mechanisms of support and sense of identity eroded, they became nothing more than poor campesinos (peasants) and laborers, struggling to make it in a society that had little compassion for those who were not born at, or did not find some way to fight their way to, the top.
Along similar lines, the Liberalsí commitment to free trade and participation in the global economy was a double-edged sword. Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and the philosophies they espoused, were liberating when taken in the context of the stifling, over-controlling economies of colonial days, which had perpetuated inefficiency and underdevelopment on the local level. There was, indeed, great wealth to be made by connecting to the global market and following the logic of international trade, rather than remaining obedient to the self-serving dictates of short-sighted autocrats: so much wealth, in fact, that many Conservatives were eventually won over to Liberal concepts of trade, and became full-fledged supporters of the export-oriented Colombian coffee culture which took off as a result of the Liberal mentality. On the other hand, there were also serious risks involved with the application of these economic philosophies to Latin America. Ricardoís theory of comparative advantage, in particular, had a major downside, which was that European countries had already occupied a superior position in the global economy, due to the earlier onset of their industrial development (which had, itself, occurred as the result of a complicated set of historical circumstances. For one possible explanation of these circumstances, see Jared Diamondís Guns, Germs, And Steel: The Fate Of Human Societies.) Already competent and large-scale producers of manufactured goods, as well as of certain other key products, Europe (and the USA) could not be bested by Latin American countries in this regard. In the global market, Latin American manufactures were simply uncompetitive, both in terms of quality and price (which is determined not only by labor costs, but also by scale of production, technical efficiency, and supportive infrastructure, areas in which the already-established nations held a huge advantage). This basic fact meant that in order to participate successfully in the global market, Latin American countries must therefore develop other economic specializations, which turned out to be mainly the production of primary (non-manufactured) products such as coffee, bananas, sugar, nitrates (from guano, aka bird droppings), copper, tin, rubber, wood, etc., etc. These products generally sold for less than their manufactured counterparts, meaning that Latin American countries, by locking themselves into the international economic system envisioned by Ricardo, essentially became exporters of lower-priced goods at the same time as they became importers of higher-priced goods. Latin American exports could not pay for Latin American imports. Unfavorable trade balances resulted. Whereas one possible nationalistic solution would have been for the new Latin American nations to impose high tariffs on imports in order to shield their own fledgling manufacturing sectors from overwhelming foreign competition until they were able to become internationally competitive (at the same time conserving valuable foreign exchange by spending less abroad), that would have violated the precepts of free trade to which most Liberals were committed. Besides, the more economically powerful nations could always have retaliated with trade sanctions of their own. This was especially the case as the worldwide overproduction of primary products was encouraged by the economic powers, so that if one source of a valued product became too demanding, or in any way undependable, other suppliers could take its place. Overproduction also lowered the international price of goods such as coffee and bananas, which favored buyers while harming producers, whose structurally inferior price in the international system was weakened still more.
Mesmerized by the wealth that seemed possible to attain by hooking into the international system and accessing the vast potential of international trade, Colombian elites, as well as the elites of many Latin American countries, largely ignored the dangers inherent in the system envisioned by Smith and Ricardo. They took the first step in committing their countries to a blueprint for progress that was laced with possibilities for deceit and subjugation. As time went on, foreign technical and economic advisers convinced these elites that they could overcome many of the drawbacks which soon became apparent in the international trading system by modernizing the infrastructure which served their export sector, and enhancing the technical aspects of their production. Foreign banks, loaded with surplus capital derived from their own economic successes, gave out large loans to many Latin American governments to help them develop these aspects of their economies, while foreign businesses often sought direct concessions to help get Latin American mining and agricultural projects off the ground. This "penetration of foreign capital" as Latin American radicals called it, was often useful, and yet, also sometimes very costly in terms of economic and political independence. Paying back loans on the basis of income anticipated from the sale of primary products on the international market was risky business, indeed, as natural disasters or civil unrest could devastate production, while falling global prices induced by overproduction or economic setbacks in the buying nations, could trash revenues. Unable to pay back loans on time, penalties and interest payments might burgeon into hideous debts, interfering with further development (since important percentages of the national income must now be diverted from productive investments into debt service). In cases, foreign nations or companies would take direct control of national assets that had been used as collateral to back up the loans they had made, increasing foreign influence in the internal affairs of Latin American nations, and diminishing the sense of national sovereignty. When they felt it necessary to protect their investments - to recover unpaid debts, to prevent the expropriation of their property, or to create the sense of physical security necessary to continue doing business there - they would even resort to direct military intervention. This privilege became exclusive to the United States in 1904, thanks to the Roosevelt Corollary of the Monroe Doctrine, which excluded Europeans from occupying Latin American countries for any reason, even for the purposes of collecting a debt (the US would, instead, work for the political stability and fiscal responsibility of the region so that interventions by other nations would not be warranted. America, would, in essence, become the policeman of the Americas, guaranteeing its "good behavior" to the rest of the world, as well as towards US business interests.) Under this new doctrine, US military interventions proliferated, as European interference receded.
In the end, flawed strategies of economic development came to play a gigantic role in the future of Latin American politics. Just enough wealth was gained through international trade to consolidate the position of pro-US elites, and in cases, the semblance of a middle class (sometimes nationalistic and sometimes not), while leaving "the masses", or large segments of the population, impoverished and disillusioned. These dissatisfied sectors of the populace would eventually become susceptible to revolutionary ideology and action.
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Struggles For Land And Labor
Within the political framework just described - one characterized by the conflicting ideologies and rivalry of the Conservative and Liberal parties, taking place in the shadow of a violent colonial legacy, and in the midst of a problematic relationship with the international economy - the seeds of the war Colombia is experiencing today were laid by a long and bitter history of land disputes.
The crux of the problem emanated from the early days of independence, in which the colonial concept of "Crown lands", or lands belonging to the King but available for peasant colonization (as opposed to the large land grants given to the encomenderos), was transferred to the Republic in the form of los baldios. Baldios were "public lands", belonging to the State, as opposed to already existing privately-owned estates. In theory, they were open to colonization, or settlement by landless peasants, who could acquire ownership of the public land which they inhabited and worked, by the mere act of going there and turning it to productive use. On the other hand, during the Wars of Independence, the criollo-led armies fighting to drive the Spaniards out of South America had promised and awarded land grants as a form of payment to some of their veterans; and in the early days of the Republic, more land titles had been given away to back up bonds which were used to raise money for the new government. These titles gave away ownership of large swaths of the baldios to private citizens; but since the lands which they were awarded, or purchased from the government, were often remote "wilderness lands", their ownership remained more theoretical than practical. Often the owners sold their titles to speculators who were willing to wait for the potential of the land to be developed in the future, or else had the ambition and means to initiate projects on them which the original title-holders did not. In the meantime, as this activity with land titles was taking place in the distance, peasants without land, and without knowledge of all that was going on behind the scenes, moved onto the baldios, as they believed they were permitted to do, and began to clear the forest and bush country, and to build small farms to settle down with their families. A deadly contradiction between two equally valid processes of acquiring land - one by means of formal land title (the path of el concesionario), the other by means of the settlement and productive use of unoccupied public land (the path of el adjudicatario) - had been allowed to develop: a contradiction which practically guaranteed conflict once the land acquired meaning for both sides. Of course, the land became meaningful to the peasant settler (el colono), as soon as he inhabited it and began to make his living from it. For the title-holder, the land became meaningful once the peasant colono had cut a path into the wilderness and cleared the land, bringing it within his economic reach and making it potentially useful to him for the very first time. It became even more meaningful to him once Colombia became connected to the global market, and fabulous new possibilities for generating wealth by means of exporting the produce of the land materialized.
In the case of Colombia, the first major opportunity for enrichment by means of agroexports occurred in the 1840s, as capital acquired from the export of antioquen~o gold (gold mined from the Department of Antioquia) was invested in the development of an important tobacco export sector. Colombiaís tobacco boom lasted into the 1870s, when superior-quality tobacco from other sources eclipsed its presence in the international market. Quinine, important to the Colombian export sector from the 1850s into the 1880s then picked up some of the slack, until British and Dutch plantations in the East Indies outcompeted it, and brought economic decline and political turmoil to Colombia, even leading to the Liberalsí fall from power. But by this time, coffee had begun to emerge as a new export possibility. From 1870 on, it began to mount in importance in Colombia, until it became Colombiaís principal international export and main earner of foreign exchange, cherished and supported by Liberals and Conservatives alike.
As these major agroexport booms developed in Colombia, the long latent potential for conflict between concesionarios and peasant colonos finally erupted. Increasing numbers of title-holders decided to invest in export crops, or else to sell their idle titles to entrepreneurs who were eager to acquire land to begin cultivating these lucrative crops.
For large landholders in the developed agricultural center of the country, the key problem for successfully plugging their estates into the global market and taking advantage of the prevailing export boom was the shortage of labor. This was the result of Colombiaís geographic immensity, relative to the population, and its abundance of free land in the form of baldios, which enabled peasants to leave the haciendas of the wealthy and to work for themselves, on their own land. Colombia, like the U.S., has its own history and folklore of "the frontier", especially popularized by the antioquen~o colonization, or settlement of the Department of Antioquia by vigorous and free-spirited peasants, filled with initiative and beholden to none. Socially speaking, these frontiers allowed the potential labor supply of the centrally located haciendas to escape, and left many a large estate adrift with no one to work for it, a real problem once the landowners had decided to transform their real estate from status symbols into genuine economic assets. In order to attract the manpower needed to work for them, many hacendados were required to utilize enganchadores, or labor recruiters, to attract farmers back from the frontiers with the promise of higher wages and/or more substantial benefits - measures which cut into their profits.
Other entrepreneurs, however, made no such concessions. Acquiring, or already owning, titles to tracts in the baldios onto which the peasant colonos had moved, they initiated legal procedures to take back possession of the land. The peasants who were already living on that land, for the most part had not completed the bureaucratic procedures which they were required to in order to officially legalize their ownership of the land, which their settlement on it and productive use of it should have conferred. In many cases, they had simply not been able to pay the technical and legal fees necessary for the land to be officially awarded to them. Theoretically in possession of the land according to the laws governing the distribution and use of baldios, but lacking formal documents of ownership, the peasant colonos were no match for the wealthy and socially-connected entrepreneurs who now moved in with land-titles, hiring lawyers, and paying fees to local governments in order to have the peasants declared squatters. The title-holders, having legally dispossessed the colonos, would then either bring in the local authorities to evict them; or, more often, since they required labor as well as land to make their businesses thrive, offer the colonos a deal, allowing them to stay on the land in the role of arrendatarios (tenant farmers), who must work for the landowner in exchange for their right to remain.
In some cases, the colonos agreed. In many others, they simply picked up and left, moving to nearby, unclaimed lands to start again. They valued their freedom, and were indignant at the predatory injustice, as they saw it, which sought to harness them against their will. In order to counter the option of flight, many landlords manipulated the system to seize as much land as they could within a given area which was familiar to the peasants. The wording of the original land titles was frequently vague and uninformed, allowing surveyors in the service of the landlords to greatly increase the size of the holdings they were entitled to. Where there were limits to the amount of land that any one landlord could possess, landlords would frequently hire front men to buy adjacent pieces of property, until they had surreptitiously consolidated enormous estates encompassing huge swaths of territory far in excess of the legal limit. By monopolizing large tracts of territory in a given area, and sometimes gaining control of local roads, paths, and water supplies, as well, these landlords were able to take away the colonosí ability to evade them by means of a "local move." The colonos were then faced with the choices of either migrating to more distant, unknown, and potentially insecure locations - for frontiers were not only regions of opportunity but also of danger - or else finally giving in, and accepting their capture, and their new life as tenant farmers. Many more colonos than before gave in under the pressure of these tactics. And yet, a great number still retreated from exploitation, pushing more deeply into the wilderness, and opening up new frontiers. Once they had made this new territory accessible and economically usable, the process would, of course, be repeated. Men with land titles would move in in the wake of the peasant colonization, to take legal possession of the land and seek to bind the colonos who lived there, to work for them.
Although the seeds of a class war in the countryside were definitely being laid at this time, the peasants, for many years, continued to choose flight as their primary response to injustice. Wars that were fought were still elite-controlled battles between Liberals and Conservatives waged for elite interests, while the masses served as cannon fodder. The bloodiest of these was the War of a Thousand Days (1899 - 1902), in which 100,000 people may have perished. This fierce, disruptive war contributed to the temporary decline of the Colombian coffee industry, which did not rebound until 1910, and also led to some significant land seizures by groups of armed men serving powerful jefes (bosses), who dispossessed peasants in order to gain control of land, for their own use, or for sale to foreign companies (such as the United Fruit Company, which had just initiated operations on Colombiaís Atlantic Coast).
What eventually pushed segments of the Colombian peasantry into a more confrontational position vis-ŗ-vis the major landowners was a change in historical circumstances, as radical Colombian organizers inspired by international socialist movements began to appear on the scene, bringing their political skills, connections and ambition into the picture. (In the same way that the Liberals had been influenced by foreigners such as Locke and Ricardo, these radicals were influenced by foreigners such as Marx, Lenin, and Luxemburg.) These early radicals, though most often attracted to the side of urban workers and rural proletarians (wage-laborers in the countryside), due to the nature of the theories that guided them, also recognized the revolutionary possibilities of the Colombian peasant class. They understood that the issue of land ownership was potentially explosive, and realized that if the peasants could be unified into a coherent political movement, and persuaded to fight for their land when it was threatened, rather than retreat into the frontier in search of new land to replace what had just been stolen from them, a formidable revolutionary base could be created. These radicals gained prominence with strikes in the Colombian banana zone (on the Atlantic coast) in 1918, 1924, and 1928, and strikes in the oil zone (at and around Barranca) in 1924 and 1927. Major leaders such as Raul Eduardo Mahecha and Maria Cano emerged. Although these strikes were not primarily based upon peasants, but rather upon oil workers (full-fledged proletarians according to Marxist theory), and banana workers (rural proletarians employed on the banana plantations), they enjoyed considerable sympathy among local peasants, who helped to provide the strikers with food. In addition, the strikes, by targeting the operations of the American-owned Tropical Oil Company and United Fruit Company, were able to harness nationalist sentiments to gain a wider level of support within Colombia than would have been possible otherwise. Although the big strikes of 1927 and 1928 were put down with decisive force by the government , the one in the Santa Marta banana zone leading to the death of perhaps one thousand to three thousand civilians (after an initial massacre of 400 banana workers and family members at Cienaga), a powerful radical imprint was left behind in the national consciousness by these "martyrdoms." Liberal politicians, recognizing the growing power of social issues in Colombia, began - some for reasons of genuine idealism, and some for reasons of sheer self-interest - to incorporate increasing levels of social content into their political agenda. Conservatives, fearing, at first, the inroads of revolutionaries who were newly inspired by the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia, and later alarmed by the potential of the Liberal Party to harness the masses with pseudorevolutionary rhetoric and the promise of appealing populist measures, responded by attempting to undercut both with reforms of their own. Once the Great Depression hit, in 1929, the government drive to spearhead reforms in the countryside accelerated, as the desire to preempt revolution by reducing the intensity of injustice was compounded by the desire to implement a totally different model of economic development - one which required the liberation of the peasant class from the oppressive constraints of the hacienda.
For years, resentment towards the export-oriented nature of the Colombian economy had been growing in some sectors of society. The limitations of international trade as an engine of national development, when oneís nation was locked into the lower echelon of the global economy as a producer of primary products, had become apparent to many. In Colombia, there was still widespread poverty, a lack of competitive industries, the problem of debt, and an excess of foreign penetration (foreign-owned assets which were accused of taking too large a share of the profits generated from Colombian resources, and/or exercising too much political influence to the detriment of national sovereignty). With the advent of the Great Depression, which created massive disruptions in international trade, collapsed world prices for many exports, and dried up sources of foreign capital previously available for investment in Colombia, Colombian politicians who were disillusioned with the export-oriented model of development finally had the opportunity to try something different: "import substitution", which was, essentially, an internal-looking and far more self-sufficient model of economic development. In "import substitution", the imports which one no longer wishes to buy, or one can no longer buy from abroad, are replaced by products manufactured inside oneís own country. One detaches from the complex web of connections and possibilities available via international trade in order to focus on the development of oneís own productive capabilities, accepting temporary sacrifices in quality for the sake of lessening oneís dependence on other nations. Import substitution is a strategy which is most often utilized when the international economy is in shambles and unable to fulfill the role envisioned for it by Smith and Ricardo, or else as a nationalist reaction against uneven economic relations with the wealthy nations of the world.
For import substitution to work, of course, the key is to develop a viable internal market. There must be buyers of goods to support the production of goods. In the case of Colombia, once the import substitution model began to gain credibility, as the export sector struggled in the midst of a devastated global economy, several important social transformations were required. Food production must, first of all, be increased, to support workers in the cities as Colombia attempted to expand its industrial capabilities. This required the improved utilization of existing agricultural land in the heartland of the country, much of which was hoarded by hacendados, who blocked free peasants from working on it (many colonos had either been evicted, or left because they did not wish to be mere tenants). By restoring underutilized land to dispossessed peasants, Colombian politicians might be able to elevate food production geared to internal consumption, enabling an expansion of the urban workforce. Secondly, the peasantry must be sufficiently enriched to enable it to participate in the internal market. Without an increase in national purchasing power, industrialization would fail because there would not be enough purchasers to buy its output and keep it going. In a primarily rural country, such as Colombia was at the time, this implied the necessity of increasing economic benefits to the peasant class, meaning, among other things, higher wages for jornaleros (part-time wage-laborers on the farms of others, who also, usually, owned their own small plots of land).
These new national imperatives led to a phase of increasing governmental support for the peasant class, which was manifested in the promulgation of various important laws. Some of the laws and judgments favoring the peasant class, from 1917 to 1936, included:
A law which exempted colonos from paying for certain procedures formerly needed to acquire official ownership of the land they had established rights to in virtue of living and working on it.
A court-ruling that landlords must produce original land titles to validate their claims of land ownership (previously, they had been able to "prove" ownership by producing deeds of sale, which were frequently misleading since they might have bought the land from someone who acquired it illegally).
A law which complicated evictions (for many years a landlord had been able to evict colonos on the basis of three witnesses who backed up his claim of land ownership and denied the legitimacy of the colonosí presence. Frequently, these witness were hired by the landlord.)
A widely-ignored law on the books since 1882, stating that ownership of public lands was dependent upon their cultivation, was resuscitated in a new law which stated that all public lands not put to economic use would revert back to the State.
In 1936, Liberal President Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo brought this process to its pinnacle with the agrarian reform embodied in Law 200, a law aimed at the break-up of fraudulently constructed estates and the redistribution of land to peasants.
This government-backed process of restoring peasant lands in order to promote a new vision of national development, and in order to defuse the revolutionary potential of the peasant class in the face of increasing radical agitation, eventually reached its limits. Wealthy landowners rallied to form influential lobbying groups, such as APEN (Asociacion Patronal Economica Nacional), launching a concerted effort to curb additional reformist legislation. Due to their resistance, the parcelization program of the Colombian government (its distribution of land expropriated from illegitimate landholders to peasants) bogged down. In the event of disputes between landlord and colono, the government would now step in as mediator, buy the land from the landlord (who frequently wanted to get out of the conflictive situation anyway) at the value assigned to it by the landlord, and then, in most cases, pass the bill on to the peasant colono, who would be saddled with burdensome payments for years to come. Many colonos rejected this program as unfair - why, they demanded, should they have to pay thieves to get their land back? They preferred to reject this solution which they believed represented nothing less than the triumph of the landlords over the State, and began to drift closer to radical movements as a result. But other colonos accepted the redistributed parcels with gratitude, and determined to make the best of an imperfect situation. In this way, unity among the colonos was split, some moving more to the left, some "returning to the fold."
Although it is hard not to sympathize with the peasants in this scenario, it is prudent, to maintain a balanced picture, to also point out that not every landlord was an avaricious and cruel character dedicated to the exploitation of the masses. Many landlords who found themselves in the midst of land disputes in the 1920s and 1930s had inherited the results of othersí sins, and become accustomed to their lifestyle, which they did not see as unjust. It was what they had always known and grown up with, and to them, it seemed unfair that anyone should want to take it away from them. They attributed the sudden aggressiveness of peasant groups, who began to dispute their ownership of the land, as the result of Communist agitation, and feared they might be engulfed in some kind of Bolshevik revolution in Colombia, which would destroy the values of private property and (they imagined from the Soviet experience) religion. In cases, the peasants organized land invasions, coming in to settle on their land and to claim that they had been living on it in the hopes that government mediators would award the land to them. (In the 1970s, a radical peasant organization, ANUC, staged impressive and well-conceived land invasions, planned well in advance. In the middle of the night, peasant squatters would move in to the land which they wished to occupy, and erect prefabricated huts which had been left out in the open for weeks beforehand, in order to acquire signs of age and weathering; they would also bring yucca, maize, and other crops to be transplanted in the land which they claimed was their own, and bear mutual witness to each other when the government mediators of INCORA, the Colombian Institute of Land Reform of that era, arrived on the scene to investigate. Although the land invasions of the 1930s were less well-organized than that, they may have sometimes utilized the spirit of beating the landlord by deception, and fooling the State into taking the side of the peasant. Of course, the participating peasants, in any such invasion, would be operating from the mindset that the landlord was unfairly hoarding land that they needed, in the first place, and that he deserved to be beaten at his own game.)
Whatever the case, the government reforms ended up by leaving large sectors of both the right and left dissatisfied. President Lopez Pumarejoís "revolucion en marcha" ("revolution on the move") of 1934-1938 had shaken the right to the core. For them, no greater enemy than the Liberal populist existed: the mainstream politician (as opposed to the more marginal Communist agitator), who sought to gain power by awakening the masses and winning their support with fiery promises of a social revolution to be carried out from within the system. In the wake of Lopez Pumarejoís populist crusade, these right-wing elements worked hard to organize themselves to block progressive legislation, and to utilize the media and the Church to try to equate radical social populism with Communism, and Communism with godless, Soviet-style dictatorship, in the popular imagination. As the Catholic faith was very important to Colombian culture, this appeal had significant impact. In 1944, during Lopez Pumarejoís second presidency (1942-1945), the president was kidnapped by the military in an abortive coup attempt, which sent a clear signal to Liberal politicians, that reform would be tolerated only so far, before it drew retaliation.
Meanwhile, leftists were also left profoundly disappointed by the reform process. While the effect of Socialist and Communist organizers in the countryside had been significant, it was the actions of the Colombian State on their behalf that had really lifted the peasants to a new level of consciousness and stirred them to action. After decades of feeling overmatched and overwhelmed by a system weighted heavily in the interests of the wealthy, they had suddenly been courted and championed by the government, especially when the Liberals were in power. They had been made to feel important; their sense of having been unjustly treated was validated by the leadership of the nation; their rights were recognized, their struggle legitimized. Then, just as the massive reforms encouraged, unleashed, and supported by the government began to get rolling, conservative reaction stepped on the brakes of change, and froze the process at a halfway point that was bitterly disappointing, and for many, utterly unacceptable in the wake of the huge expectations that had been raised. It was natural that these disillusioned ones, feeling let down by the State, should seek other means, outside the system, to continue the revolution begun, then left unfinished, by the government.
During these days, there was still no revolutionary guerrilla activity in Colombia, but there were important peasant movements. These movements had grown up in response to the typical injustices of the Colombian countryside, to defend the rights of colonos, prevent evictions, and organize land invasions (which were frequently take-backs of illegally acquired land). For a period during the Great Depression, the Colombian government sponsored a repeasantization program as it was unable to support displaced workers in the cities, due to a sudden rise in unemployment. Former peasants who had become workers in the cities only to lose their jobs, were provided with free railroad tickets back into the countryside, and joined peasants who were already there, and rural wage-laborers, in fighting for the land they needed to survive.
In the area of Viota, the PCC (Partido Comunista de Colombia, or Colombian Communist Party) was instrumental in organizing peasants on some of the great coffee haciendas. Two kinds of laborers were predominant on these estates, the arrendatarios, or tenant farmers, who were allowed to have their own plots of land in exchange for providing labor to the hacendado, and the jornaleros, or wage-laborers, who usually lived outside of the estate on small pieces of land and were brought in to work when needed. The jornaleros lived a very unstable life, never certain of how much work they would get, or how much they would be paid for the work they did get. They were a classic example of highly vulnerable rural proletarians. The arrendatarios, on the other hand, had reached a point in history when many of them were on the way to becoming middle-class peasants. This is because they had put their private plots of land, located on the landlordsí haciendas, to good use, not only cultivating what they needed to survive but going beyond that to cultivate cash crops, such as coffee, which they sold on the market in competition with their landlord. Sometimes, they were even able to hire workers of their own. Angered by this unexpected rivalry, the landlords sought to repress the economic advancement of the arrendatarios by a variety of means, including by imposing tolls for the use of pathways leading out of the haciendas en route to local markets: in effect, barricading the tenant farmers within the estates. The PCC, burdened by its ideology, was initially confused about how to deal with the arrendatarios. Communist organizers perceived the struggle of the tenant farmers to be a non-proletarian one - a struggle, which, if successful, would lead to the creation of a peasant middle class which might, in the manner of the kulaks of the Soviet Union, oppose further revolutionary measures. In fact, Czarist Minister Peter Stolypin, after the only partially successful "Revolution of 1905" which had left the Czar in power, sought to defuse the revolutionary potential of the Russian countryside by initiating reforms meant to consolidate a peasant middle class, made up of the "strong and the sober", as a bastion of support for the government. As Nicholas V. Riasanovsky writes in A History of Russia (p. 459): "The emergence of a large group of prosperous and satisfied peasants would, presumably, transform the Russian countryside from a morass of misery and a hotbed of unrest into a conservative bulwark of the regime." PCC members who thought this way distrusted the arrendatarios, and felt that the party should concentrate its revolutionary work on the jornaleros; but others, more in tune with the realities of Colombian culture and better able to depart from the limitations of theoretical models, recognized the power of the dissatisfaction of the arrendatarios, and the validity of their frustration. The PCC therefore agitated not only for improved wages and conditions for the jornaleros in Viota, but also for the abolition of the tenant farmersí work requirement on the hacienda, and for an end to all landlord interference with arrendatario economic activities. In essence, the previous capture of the arrendatario by unjust historical processes was to be annulled, and he was once again to become a free peasant, winning his independence from the landlord who had reduced him, or his predecessors, to tenancy.
While the PCC was active in directing peasant resistance in Viota, a non-Communist peasant leader, Erasmo Valencia, who would go on to create the PAN (Partido Agrarista Nacional, or National Farmerís Party), took a leading role in organizing the peasants of Sumapaz. Around 1930, an organization of peasant squatters known as "the Sumapaz Colony" was created under Valenciaís direction, which eventually came to include 6,000 or more members. This organization created its own laws, amassed its own treasury (to finance its legal battles for the land), sent appeals for justice to the national government, promoted boycotts beyond its own borders against landlords and merchants it deemed exploitative, and designed and flew its own flag over the territory it occupied. On one occasion, members of the colony attacked a patrol of civil guards who had apprehended several fellow colonos; at other times, arming themselves with hunting rifles, they mobilized to defend area peasants against landlord evictions. This Sumapaz Colony was a serious experiment in resistance and self-government, and in some ways, a model for the revolutionary groups which were to come.
Around this time, Liberal politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, who had first gained prominence as a Congressman for denouncing the 1928 massacre of Colombian banana workers on strike against the American-owned United Fruit Company, made a temporary break from the Liberal Party to form UNIR (Union Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria, or the National Leftist Revolutionary Union), which defended the rights of peasant squatters by providing them with legal support, and by advocating for them on the national level. UNIR was yet another player in the escalating intensity in the Colombian countryside.
If the national government were unwilling or unable to continue the reform process, forces such as these were now in place to rekindle the fires of social change, and to reverse "the abandonment of the oppressed." Revolution was becoming a distinct possibility.
But first, there would be one more great effort at radical change through the system. Whether this effort was merely an illusion or a reality, a truth or the national "suspension of disbelief" produced by a mesmerizing actor, who put on the mask of hope in front of a desperate people and became lost in his role, no one can ever be sure. The decade was now the 1940s, and the actor upon the stage was Jorge Eliecer Gaitan.
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La Violencia, And The Origins Of Social Revolution In Colombia
Gaitan, who had temporarily left the Liberal Party in order to gain greater freedom of action for his radical populist agenda, returned to a party which was impressed by his impact and once again able to accommodate him, in time to run for the presidency in 1946. Gaitan, a lawyer, a former Congressman, and a former mayor of Bogota, hoped, by returning to the Liberal Party, to be able to harness its mass political base and well-established connections to gain power at the national level, which would enable him to promote his social vision from the heights of Colombian society. In an age still dominated by the old elites, with the potential of the Lopez Pumarejo era disappointingly incomplete, and the masses feeling stranded by the paralysis of former government supporters who no longer felt capable of acting on their behalf, Gaitan stood out for his apparent conviction that change was still needed and for the courage to confront the forces that opposed it. His oratory was passionate and "bewitching"; misleading or genuine, it transmitted belief above politics, solidarity instead of manipulation, and those who heard him bonded to him with an intensity that frightened his opponents, became part of something mighty and indispensable. Add to this Gaitanís long track record of defending the poor against the rich, and championing the integrity of the nation against foreign intervention - and add to that his mestizo looks, which at once made him seem more like "one of the people" than the typical politician, whose features seemed to come straight from Spain through an unbroken chain of dominance - and the secret of Gaitanís power becomes comprehensible. Gaitanís appeal to workers, and to large sections of the middle class, as well as to important blocks of the peasantry, made him a formidable candidate, indeed. Impressed but also alarmed by him - in love with his ability to win votes but frightened by the forces he might unleash - the Liberal Party could not agree on exactly how to deal with him, and ended up by offering two presidential candidates in the election of 1946: Gabriel Turbay, a moderate, and Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, the "radical demagogue." This indecision proved fatal, splitting the Liberal vote and giving the election to the Conservatives. Retracting from its error in 1947, the Liberal Party elected Gaitan as its new leader, finally casting its lot with the forces of change, and risking turbulence for the sake of gaining power. The gold of Gaitanís charisma was too much to resist. As the new leader of the party, Gaitanís prospects for winning the 1950 presidential election seemed excellent, and the country shook with both anticipation and dread. Rumors and counter-rumors flew about: the Conservatives would find a way to prevent Gaitan from assuming power; the Liberals were making secret deals with international Communists, and smuggling arms into the country to launch a revolution so that they would not even need to win the election. In this volatile environment, on the 9th of April, 1948, an assassin surprised Gaitan on the streets of Bogota as he walked about with his followers, and mortally wounded him with three shots from his revolver. In one deadly, irreversible moment, the history of Colombia was changed forever, and a beautiful nation was set upon a fierce and intractable course of self-destruction. As stunning as the assassination of JFK was to us - as politically significant as the murder of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus was to ancient Rome - the killing of Gaitan marked a turning point for Colombia, and a point of no return.
Who was this assassin who dared to strike Gaitan down in the middle of the day, in the midst of his followers, and what were his motives? It is hard to say. Enraged crowds lynched the assassin before he could be interrogated. Was this assassin really the assassin? And if so, was he the only one, or were more guns in play than just his? Exactly as in the case of the JFK assassination, key facts were disputed, and competing theories vied with each other to explain the crime. According to one theory, the murderer, Juan Roa Sierra, was a lone, deranged gunman who struck from the unknowable terrain of his mental illness; according to another theory, he was the disgruntled relative of a murder victim whose killer was acquitted thanks to the efforts of Gaitan. Gaitanís murder was, therefore, merely an act of personal retribution. Others pinned the murder of Gaitan on Laureano Gomez and other prominent Conservatives, who were said to have used the assassin as an instrument to silence their most dangerous enemy, so as to stave off the possibility of a radical government taking power in 1950. Some added to this theory the implication that the US government, perceiving Gaitan as a powerful, potentially destabilizing figure in the region, gave impetus to, or engineered, the assassination plot through the CIA. On the other hand, alternative theorists came up with the idea that Communist agents had actually authored the assassination of Gaitan, who they saw as a reformer rather than a revolutionary, so as to enrage the masses and spark a revolution in Colombia. Years later, the even more exotic theory would surface that Fidel Castro, who was in Bogota on the day of the assassination as part of a student delegation from Cuba and was said to have met with the assassin on the very morning that Gaitan was killed, was involved!
Whatever the true answer to the mystery of Gaitanís assassination might be, for the masses who adored Gaitan there was no doubt as to the origin of the bullets that struck him down. They were certain that it was the Conservative Party, and the guardians of the old order, that had had him murdered in order to quell the rising tides of change and to suppress the aspirations of el pueblo (the people). In a violent, spontaneous upheaval known as the Bogotazo, the masses in Bogota rose up in what was something between a fearsome riot and a revolution. All the pain of having the great dream which had sustained them - the dream of a better future, the dream of a light at the end of the tunnel of their hard days, a dream to which they had given the face of Gaitan - robbed from them with contemptuous cruelty, blew up inside of them, demanded adequate forms of expression. Sorrow that was too great to bear erupted in waves of looting, burning, and fighting which turned Bogota into a chaos of despair and rage: a long and bloody funeral for Gaitan. In this intense moment of acting out, maddened crowds actually succeeded in storming the presidential palace and ransacking it. Liberal police officers distributed weapons to the masses and radical students took over local radio stations, using the media to fan the flames of whatever it was that was happening. Without clear direction or intent, a nebulous revolution seemed to be taking shape within the outrage. A civilian revolutionary junta finally emerged in Bogota. Beyond the borders of the capital, meanwhile, numerous uprisings flashed in response. In the oil zone of Barrancabermeja, workers took over the refineries and formed a revolutionary council that held power there for two weeks, while in the countryside, peasant masses invaded and took over many estates. In the end, the revolutionary nucleus in Bogota faltered - it was unprepared for the task at hand and perhaps too humanitarian to face the full implications of the civil war which it knew it could unleash, and thought it could still avoid. A "committee of notables" - leading figures of the Liberal Party, headed by Carlos Lleras Restrepo - was invited in to negotiate a deal with the Conservative Party which could help to keep the nation from breaking apart; and the Liberals, satisfied with being granted a foothold in the Conservative governmentís cabinet, led the country back from the edge. The revolutionary structures generated by the Bogotazo for the most part deferred to the prestige and authority of the Liberal Party leadership, and the crisis was defused. But then, like the mythological monster who, when its head is cut off, sprouts two new and even fiercer heads to take its place, the crisis came back with a vengeance. This time, the crisis was known as La Violencia, and it lasted from 1948 - 1957 (although historians disagree about its exact time frame, some placing its beginnings even before the assassination of Gaitan, in 1946, some defining its end as 1958, or even the early 1960s).
Violencia, in Spanish, means "violence", but in Colombia, La Violencia also corresponds to a particular period in history, intense with pain and terror, as well as to a complicated sociological process that is not easy to label or comprehend. Essentially, what occurred is that, in spite of the apparent Conservative-Liberal reconciliation which brought an end to the Bogotazo, the Conservative Party began to utilize its control of the government to institute a top-down repression of the popular forces which the Liberals had courted, encouraged, and harnessed (or in cases just unleashed) in their effort to make a political comeback in the 1930s. This repression was not only social - elites attempting to defend their interests against the threat of revolution - but also sectarian, Conservative elites attempting to utilize State power to diminish the power of Liberal elites. The growing politicization of the police and armed forces, as Conservatives worked to turn these all-important bodies from institutions serving the national interest into their own personal instruments for dominating society, on behalf of their party, was unacceptable to millions of Colombians. La Violencia began as a civil war between Liberals and Conservatives, which naturally pitted Liberal Party members - both elites and masses - versus the Conservative Party, and its supporters. In some areas, Liberal landowners of large estates and Liberal peasants joined together with Liberal soldiers, who were disaffected from the Conservative-led army, to drive out the Conservatives and take control of their regions. Class tensions were subsumed by partisan solidarity. In other areas, however, preexisting peasant organizations and communities, such as those which had emerged in Viota and Sumapaz, formed armed self-defense groups to resist the violence of Conservative police and military units, and to more aggressively pursue their "class interests." That is to say, in areas such as these, the violence of elite-controlled masses fighting on behalf of the Liberal and Conservative Parties was replaced by an incipient social revolution: a war of peasants fighting landlords, and peasants fighting the State which backed the landlords. In some of these areas, the Liberal Party was a guiding factor, while in others the PCC (Colombian Communist Party) was the main organizational authority. In retrospect, it is clear to see that the seeds of the revolution Colombia is experiencing today were being planted right then and there.
While the Conservative Party held onto power in Bogota and most of the major cities and towns of Colombia during La Violencia, powerful Liberal guerrillas gained control of large swaths of national territory. Notable among these was Guadalupe Salcedo, a brilliant military leader who stood out for his successes in los llanos orientales (the vast grasslands of eastern Colombia), which he effectively liberated from Conservative authority and turned into a base of Liberal power.
While one might think that the masses would automatically gravitate towards the Liberal side in this struggle, given the nature of the Liberal Partyís political relationship to the poor (ever since it had assumed the populist track in national politics), such was not the case. As previously stated, party loyalty was a complex cultural phenomenon in Colombia, based largely upon tradition and the dynamics of local and family history. Even though the Conservative Party more blatantly supported the persistence of hierarchy and the dominance of the wealthy in Colombia, poor Conservatives were still Conservatives, and felt bound by a kind of "party nationalism" to defend the party of their fathers and their grandfathers, whether it served their "class interests", or not. Additionally, the Conservative Party utilized its strong ties to the Catholic Church to consolidate its ideological hold over large sections of the peasantry. The Colombian Church, long known for the conservatism of its hierarchy, frequently depicted the Liberal Party as an organization infiltrated and run by Communists, and characterized the civil war as a battle for the very survival of Colombian culture, religion, and moral values: as a nationalist struggle to preserve and defend Colombia, and all that it held dear, from the invasion of international Communism. There are cases, reported from this time, of priests actually urging their Conservative congregations to go out and massacre Liberals in the name of God and country. "Viva Cristo Rey!" they would cry - "Long live Christ, the King!" - as they went out to seek and kill their enemies.
Within the ambiguous moral environment nearly always created by war, heightened by the perceived lack of government legitimacy, the frequent absence of State power, and the huge passions awakened by the conflict, La Violencia soon lost clear political or even social boundaries, and degraded into a phenomenon almost defying description. So-called rules of war, and the expectations of at least minimal standards of humane conduct in the midst of hostilities, were thrown to the winds: not by all, but by enough to turn the struggle into a frightening exhibition of the human dark side. Terror was cultivated as a weapon. Death was used to physically neutralize those it could reach with a bullet or a machete, and to intimidate the living into submission. Those not broken by fear remained in the fight, driven by the terrible sight of dead loved ones to become twice as strong: the most intractable and ferocious of enemies. Revenge overpowered reason, killing became a remedy for the unbearable sense of helplessness, hardness a protection against the sensitivity which could not endure the violence, cruelty became a psychological means of survival. Bands of armed men, guerrillas, soldiers, police, auxiliaries and pajaros (paid assassins) wreaked havoc upon their enemies. Conservative fighters killed Liberal fighters and civilians, Liberal fighters killed Conservative fighters and civilians. In these days, atrocity became a form of art, and the Colombian countryside where the violence was centered became home to mass decapitations, and other forms of torture and mutilation, including the corte de corbata, in which the victimís throat would be slit, and his tongue pulled down, through the slit, and left on display, coming out of his throat as though it were a necktie. "Destroying the seed" was also a popular killing method, in which, in addition to murdering the primary victim, the victimís children would be slaughtered, as well, so as to put an end to his family line, obliterating his biological future, and as much as possible erasing every last trace of his existence. In this period, in some parts of Colombia, the horrifying discovery of the murdered and mutilated bodies of oneís loved ones was all too common an occurrence - a visual and emotional shock that would never leave oneís mind, and from which oneís heart would never be free. Although the terrible barbarism came from both sides, it was especially utilized by Conservative police known, in one region, as the Chulavitas, and by the Conservative pajaros, forerunners of todayís sicarios (assassins) and escuadrones de la muerte (death squads). Scholars of La Violencia, stunned by the brutality of their topic of study, conjured up many theories to attempt to explain the extraordinary savagery of the struggle in the Colombian countryside, speculating that the barbarism must be the overreaction of psyches that had, for too long, been emotionally repressed by the Catholic faith, or else that there must be some peculiar cultural or racial tendency towards violence inherent in the Colombian people. The truth of the matter is that human beings are capable of both the most beautiful gestures of humanity, and the darkest plunges into barbarism. When night falls over impassioned souls, hell on earth is unleashed. The grandiose slaughters of the Thirty Years War in Europe, of which Voltaire wrote - or the recent wave of genocide in Rwanda - or the far more frightening accomplishments of Nazi Germany, which murdered millions not in the shadow of the blood of loved ones, but in utterly cold abstraction - point to this awful human capability. During La Violencia, Colombia succumbed to what is hidden in us all, fell victim to its frustration and its fear; it received the short straw from its troubled history, and chose the most tragic of its possible Destinies.
In addition to the Liberal-Conservative Civil War, the outbreak of genuine social revolution in some areas, the Conservative reign of terror meant to break the rebellion, and the Liberalís response of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", all kinds of unrelated acts of aggression broke out during La Violencia, as well. In the environment of lawlessness which resulted with the breakdown of the State in many regions, neighbors found space in which to unleash their own personal vendettas, be it over a woman, an insult, or a broken fence which had allowed someone elseís cows to come onto their property. Bandoleros (bandits) proliferated, sometimes presenting themselves as political guerrillas, when all they were interested in was robbing, stealing, and living off the work of others. Small farmer coffee planters were particularly vulnerable: they were frequently murdered and/or robbed, their coffee crops stolen by these bandits, who would sell the captured produce for cash.
Before La Violencia would finally end, 200,000 or more lives would be lost (Jacobo Arenas has claimed a death toll of 300,000), and another 800,000 to one million people would be dispossessed, leaving the unlivable chaos of the countryside to relocate in the cities, or in less troubled rural zones. If a struggle of similar impact were to be waged in the United States, with its correspondingly larger population, that would translate into about 2.2 million deaths, and 11 million people left homeless - an apocalypse of unimaginable proportions. Add to that the emotional scarring and the devastating psychological damage - the memory of violence burned into the collective psyche, and the post-traumatic stress passed on to succeeding generations - and the true dimensions of La Violencia become apparent. Indeed, one wonders if it is even plausible to agree with the historians, and to say that it did end.
What finally occurred to bring La Violencia to some form of conclusion was a combination of horror and exhaustion - the same kind of sickness of futile carnage that produced the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which brought an end to the Protestant-versus-Catholic madness of the Thirty Years War - plus the sudden awakening of the Colombian elites to the fact that their quarrel was undermining their position vis-ŗ-vis the masses. While Conservative and Liberal elites battled each other, increasingly large zones within the Colombian countryside were beginning to be dominated by radical peasant communities, which were organized into powerful self-defense groups affiliated with radical Liberals and/or the PCC. As the Liberal and Conservative elites squandered their energy against each other, the specter of a genuine social revolution which might push them both to the side had begun to emerge. In the context of this awakening, and as a blow against the apparent impotence of either side to act upon this knowledge, a Colombian military officer, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, finally carried out a coup against the Conservative government in1953, promising to create a new nation "above the parties." General Rojas Pinilla combined a form of populism which seemed especially attractive in the wake of the ultra-right rule of Laureano Gomez, with an appeal to nationalist sympathies, at the same time as he dedicated himself, with US assistance, to the elimination of the "Communist threat" in Colombia.
The first step in Rojas Pinillaís strategy to pacify the country was actually to offer a general amnesty to all guerrillas who would lay down their arms and accept his offer to reintegrate into Colombian society. With the greatly feared and hated Conservative regime of Laureano Gomez deposed, and with the State now in the hands of a strongman preaching justice, balance between the parties, and an end to partisan violence, many Liberal guerrillas decided to lay down their arms and accept his offer of peace. Tired of war, and encouraged by the generalís promises, thousands of fighting men were induced to demobilize, including large Liberal armies from Tolima and the llanos. Not long afterwards, however, many of the former leaders of these guerrilla bands became subject to a campaign of assassinations; invincible in their element, but now stripped of their armed protection and no longer sheltered in the zones they had wrested from the control of the national government, they were gunned down in cities and towns by political enemies who were determined to rob any possible relapse into revolution of its potential leadership. Among the dead was Guadalupe Salcedo, a Liberal folk hero unbroken on the field of battle, killed by peaceÖ
While many guerrillas handed in their arms and returned the territory they held to the national government during the reign of Rojas Pinilla, others did not. Some, unable to readjust to the possibility of civilian life, remained in the field as bandoleros - armed bandits led by fearsome leaders such as "Sangre Negra" (Black Blood) and "Capitan Venganza" (Captain Revenge). Other armed bands, especially those peasant self-defense groups which were directed by the PCC, and by certain radical Liberal elements, were guided by foresight, and by powerful instincts of self-preservation, to reject demobilization. Simply speaking, they had lost all trust in the good will of the State, and believed that without their weapons, they would be helpless to defend their interests and their lives. As the saying goes, "El frio conoce al desnudo" ("the cold can tell whoís got no clothes"). For these peasant rebels, accustomed to reprisal and violence during the height of La Violencia, laying down their arms seemed an act of suicidal naivetť. They would not do it, and the government interpreted their refusal as an act of revolution.
Rojas Pinilla, in order to reestablish the authority of the national State throughout the land, very quickly initiated major military operations against the bandoleros. The process bore some resemblance to Chiang Kai-shekís efforts to break the power of the warlords in 1920s China, although in Colombia the problem was of lesser magnitude. More importantly, he launched a major military campaign against the zones of radical peasant resistance which had expanded and grown stronger during La Violencia, seeking to break their backs before they had a chance to grow from being isolated rural communities focused on local land issues and self-defense, into bases of Communist revolution affecting the entire country. In 1955, Rojas Pinilla initiated the so-called "War of Villarica", bombing some of these zones with aircraft obtained from the United States, and moving into them with ground troops. Outmatched, the peasant self-defense groups gave way. Rather than remain behind as the national government moved in to restore its authority, or lack of authority (the danger of extralegal reprisals by landlords and pajaros, once the army cleared out the self-defense groups, seemed extreme), large numbers of peasant families picked up their belongings and emigrated from the war zone into more distant, unsettled parts of Colombia to start again. Escorted by the guerrillas, these exoduses were referred to as "armed migrations", or "armed colonizations." The typical historical pattern of pressured colonos retreating more deeply into the frontier in order to escape injustice, or unwanted forms of control, was repeated. The new structures of organization, both social and military, which these peasant groups had been developing since the 1930s, and accelerated during La Violencia, were preserved by the retreat from State authority, and transplanted into new, less accessible, and therefore more defensible, locations.
While Rojas Pinilla and the United States saw eye to eye on the threat of Communism, and were mutually committed to its eradication, they differed on other points. Rojas Pinillaís efforts to build up a nationalist-populist support base (which many leftists saw as "fascist"), alarmed the US, especially once he attempted to nationalize the oil industry and expressed admiration for Argentine populist Juan Peron. Within Colombia, itself, the Conservative Party was disturbed by his pretensions to be a social reformer, and by his playing with the fire of the masses; while many Liberals regarded him as nothing more than a dictator attempting to sugar-coat his dominance with trappings of populism: a wolf in sheepís clothes. Both parties panicked as Rojas Pinilla seemed poised to create a new system in Colombia designed to carry on without them. And all players - the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, and the US - recognized the fact that the face of democracy, no matter what its essence, genuine or hypocritical, is far more attractive than the face of dictatorship. That could prove to be an invaluable asset if there were to be a major war fought against Communism on Colombian soil. In 1957, influenced by all of these players, the Colombian armed forces pressured Rojas Pinilla to step down and return power to a new civilian coalition government. The Liberals and Conservatives, in order to restore their credibility and create the conditions for a functioning national government, entered into a power-sharing arrangement known as la Frente Nacional (the National Front), agreeing to alternate presidencies between them from one election to the next for a period of sixteen years, and to share cabinet posts, mayoralties, governorships, and even legislative seats. Although power-sharing agreements had been utilized in the past - for example, during the 19th Century, the party which held the presidency would often give some cabinet positions to members of the opposing party in order to prevent civil war from erupting - this was, far and away, the most thorough pact ever concluded between the two rival parties. On the one hand, it was a wonderful development, providing a mechanism for ending years of bitter and destructive conflict between Liberals and Conservatives. On the other hand, by binding the two principal parties of Colombia together in an intimate pact of cooperation, it undercut the political responsiveness frequently generated by competition (as when the Liberals, under Lopez Pumarejo and Gaitan, embraced populism in order to challenge Conservative supremacy); it created a powerful new monopolization of power, locking down the political process to alternatives which had always, before, struggled into being through the efforts of one party against another. In effect, the two-party system became a one-party system; democracy, rescued from Rojas Pinilla, became the gentle face of dictatorship; the masses were shut out of the political process as never before; and government was reduced to a forum in which the ruling elites negotiated with each other in order to tackle issues important to them.
Perhaps this assessment of the Frente Nacional is overly critical. And yet, this very perception would grow over time in the minds of many Colombians, becoming a major fuel to the growth of the radical movements which the front was, in part, created to defeat.
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The Alliance for Progress, and Nationalist Wounds
If the 1960s were turbulent times throughout the world, they were especially so in Latin America. Fidel Castroís successful revolution in Cuba, which triumphed in 1959 and took a decisive turn towards Communism in 1961, left traditional elites in Latin America on edge, at the same time as it shook US policy-makers to the core. Bolstered by Soviet weapons and economic aid, Cuba rapidly consolidated its position as a destabilizing force in the Americas, actually fomenting and supporting revolutions in many Latin American countries during this period, and inspiring a whole generation of rebels to challenge the regional hegemony of the United States.
Whereas more simple-minded US politicians regarded revolutionary movements in Latin America as mere appendages of Soviet foreign policy - as Cold War chess moves guided by a Russian hand - US President John F. Kennedy (1960-1963) belonged to a more sophisticated mold of analysts, who recognized that many of these movements actually had genuine home-grown motives of their own: that they were not mere creations of the Soviets, although the Soviets might try to opportunistically insert themselves into the midst of them, and craft them into vehicles of their global strategy. Kennedy, and others like him, understood that the poverty, social inequality, and dictatorship which were rampant in Latin America were fueling the fires of revolt, as was resentment against the United States (which had established a notorious record of military interventions in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Guatemala between 1848 and 1954; which had established an equally notorious track record for installing and/or supporting dictatorships in Latin America in order to defend its political and economic interests - dictators such as Anastasio Somoza Garcia in Nicaragua and Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala; and which had, through its companies, such as United Fruit, Standard Oil, Anaconda, and Bethlehem Steel, gained the reputation of exploiting Latin American workers and siphoning off the lionís share of the profits generated from Latin Americaís natural resources). In the same way that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had, during a period of increased international vulnerability in 1933, crafted the "Good Neighbor Policy" to try to "mend fences" with Americaís disaffected Latin allies, so Kennedy now sought to erase the perception of "Yankee Imperialism" which past US actions had tarnished our national image with. He wanted the picture of the US which was burned into Latin Americaís eye to change. From "bully" he wanted us to become benefactor, from "oppressor" to become "friend." It was a wish that was both pragmatic and idealistic.
In 1961, therefore, Kennedy launched the "Alliance for Progress", a massive program of economic aid to Latin America, linked to pressure for internal reforms which would defuse revolutionary tensions, and enable the aid to be more effectively used. The Alliance was also committed to the restoration of democracy wherever it was lacking, since democracy was not only central to our own moral beliefs, but also presented a much smaller target for revolutionaries to attack than dictatorship, which was almost universally understood to be unjust. As Kennedy said: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
But the Alliance was not all carrot; there was also stick. At the same time as Kennedy pushed for a massive economic and social assault upon the forces of poverty and injustice which threatened to generate new revolutions in Latin America, he also worked hard to develop an innovative and powerful new capacity to fight unconventional wars. Napoleon, who had the strongest military machine of his times, had been cut to shreds by guerrillas in both Spain and in Russia: guerrillas who his mass formations had no means of coping with. As the primary lines of battle between the Soviet Union and the United States became frozen by the power of their nuclear deterrents, the importance of sub-apocalyptic conflict between client states, and guerrilla warfare, both of which might outflank the nuclear impasse, increased dramatically. Would forces crafted for gigantic battles of tanks and aircraft, possibly involving tactical nuclear weapons, in Europe, really be able to deal with the enormously different conditions presented by insurgency in Latin America (and Asia and Africa)? Kennedy disdained the absurdly inflexible doctrine of massive retaliation previously formulated by John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhowerís Secretary of State, who had implied that nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union should be considered to be a legitimate response to the emergence of Latin American guerrilla movements believed to be associated with the Soviet Union. Rightly, Kennedy recognized this policy declaration as the kind of hugely overblown threat which comes from impotence. He therefore sought to fashion a realistic and effective response to the growing incidence of guerrilla warfare: to create a new and complementary military capability to cover the inadequacies of the nuclear and conventional forces of the United States for this kind of fighting - a capability which could be directly applied by US troops (as it later was in Vietnam), or else passed on in training to US allies, who would then be supported by US military aid. It was during this time that the Green Berets were created, and that the deadly components which lie at the heart of counterinsurgency operations to this day - helicopter gunships, bombers, airmobile troops, "civic action" as a complement to military action, public relations campaigns to "win the hearts and minds of the people", the relocation of civilians (into strategic hamlets or other controlled environments) to isolate the guerrillas and increase the armyís ability to monitor an area, and the development of sophisticated police and intelligence-gathering apparatuses - were all set into place and combined into a coherent whole.
As these policies were being developed in Washington DC, Colombia emerged as the perfect candidate to be a showcase for their effectiveness:
Colombia was, first of all, a country in tatters after the ravages of La Violencia, a country in desperate need of economic reconstruction.
It was also a country plagued by the growing threat of Communism (as both the US government and Colombian elites interpreted the continuing resistance of the armed peasant communities which had emerged from the land struggles of the 1920s and 30s, and consolidated during La Violencia). This threat could be challenged both by reforms meant to undermine its appeal, and by counterinsurgency operations meant to physically eliminate it. Radical hard-liners would be politically isolated if the benefits of the Alliance for Progress could placate a large enough sector of the population to deny the revolutionaries the critical mass they needed to have a significant impact beyond the remote rural zones which they already controlled. Denied wider support, these zones could then be singled out and reduced by the new and improved methods of anti-guerrilla warfare being developed in Washington.
The fact that Colombia was a democracy rather than a dictatorship (even though the dynamics of the Frente Nacional in many ways obstructed the democratic process), made Colombia an attractive recipient for US economic and military aid. Critics could not blame the US for shoring up a dictatorship as it poured money into Colombia.
Finally, Colombia was in need of an adjustment in its perception of the United States, something which the idealistic "helping hand" part of the Alliance for Progress might be able to effect. Of course, Colombians had mixed feelings about the United States. Some members of the traditional elites felt very close to the US, and the importance of the US to the Colombian economy was undeniable. There were already positive bonds and mutually-appreciated shared experiences which united the two countries. On the other hand, there was also widespread resentment of the United States, resentment which was politically perilous in an era of increasing revolutionary proselytizing. This resentment had concrete historical bases, most notably among them, the US "theft of Panama" in 1903. Before that moment in time, Panama had been a part of Colombia, just like New York State is today a part of the US. Eager to gain control of the strategic isthmus in order to construct a canal which would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean for commercial and military purposes - and outraged by the Colombian governmentís refusal to grant him the right to build a canal through their territory on his terms - President Teddy Roosevelt supported a revolt by local Panamanians desirous to have the canal, and the income and business it would generate, built across their Department. As Colombia prepared to suppress the revolt, and to reestablish the authority of the national government over what was then Colombian territory, US warships sailed into the picture, preventing Colombian troops from being deployed to quell the rebellion. The US quickly recognized the government of the new, "independent" nation of Panama, which it had essentially created in order to gain control of the space it needed to construct the canal. Within a month, the new, dependent nation had signed a treaty granting the US the right to build the canal; the right to own and control, in perpetuity, a 10-mile wide canal zone around the canal (which divided the country in two); and the right to intervene in Panamanian affairs whenever necessary in order to insure public order (to preserve a stable environment for the operation of the canal). In return, Panama received $10 million in payment from the US government, and was slated to receive an annual rental fee of $250,000 for allowing the US to operate the canal. (Periodic adjustments were made in this treaty over time, until it was eventually supplanted by a new agreement, the Torrijos-Carter Treaty of 1977.) While Colombia fumed over this act of international robbery, Teddy Roosevelt, in his usual unsubtle way, boasted, "I took Panama." More proud than diplomatic, more warrior than politician, he seemed to regard his action as the decisive and manly alternative to becoming bogged down by the whims of contemptible and inferior peoples who could not comprehend the grander vision and destiny of the United States. In TRís mind, morality was malleable and wed to its ultimate objectives, it was never meant to become a weapon of the weak, a tool by which Lilliputians might bind and hold down a giant.
For Colombians, the loss of Panama was a heavy blow, and a sense of bitter outrage rose up in their hearts against the US on account of it. They were stung by TRís blatant racism and disdain for their society and culture, and infuriated by the boldness and unapologetic nature of the theft. To try to appease Colombian opinion, and repair the damage, the US government subsequently offered Colombia payment for the seizure of Panama. For a long while, Colombia refused any compensation. It refused to in any way legitimize or forgive the crime, to surrender its principles for a material bribe. Eventually, however, in 1921, economic forces and the impact of reality - the realization that Panama was gone forever, and that pride would not recover it - led the Colombian government to accept a $25 million payment from the United States government as compensation for the loss of Panama. The payment satisfied some Colombians, but for most, it was not enough. Resentment remained, and even swelled to larger proportions, for for many, the $25 million merely reinforced the stereotype of the callous American, who trampled justice underneath his feet, and tried to buy everything, even his innocence, with money.
In addition to the Panamanian catastrophe, many Colombians also grew resentful towards the United States on account of the actions of some American companies in Colombia, which were said to exploit local workers, and to remit an excessively high percentage of their profits back to America, using the wealth of Colombia to enrich themselves while the people of the land from which that wealth came remained poor. These companies were also said to use their money and influence to distort the dynamics of local politics in their favor, and to prejudice the Colombian government against its own people. Outstanding as an example, in the minds of the Colombian people, was the United Fruit Company, which operated in the Atlantic coastal region of Santa Marta. This company, which began to set up in Colombia around 1890, soon developed a large-scale banana-growing industry in the region, and also controlled the principal railroad line which operated in the area, as well as major irrigation systems. (Due to a lack of local capital at the time, Colombian authorities frequently granted foreign investors a significant degree of control over the infrastructure which they agreed to build. ) The fruit company, itself, owned a huge amount of property dedicated to the cultivation of bananas, and also bought additional bananas from independent local producers, who were tied to it by contract. The bananas, of course, were sold primarily in the United States. While the United Fruit Company must be credited with being a brilliant innovator in the field of banana cultivation, transportation, and marketing, and with providing tremendous impetus to the economic development of Colombiaís Atlantic coastal region, it was also, over the years, blamed for many political, social, and economic transgressions which inflamed the Colombian national consciousness, infecting it with even higher levels of anti-American sentiment than before. Among these transgressions:
Local Colombian planters (owners of banana plantations not directly owned by United Fruit) were utterly dominated by the company. The company dictated the terms of their contracts. (Since United Fruit controlled distribution and marketing in the United States, the planters, who had not yet developed their own distribution networks such as Turbana, depended on these contracts to reach the American market.) Local planters were paid, by the company, for what they actually produced, so that the planters, themselves, must absorb any losses accruing from natural disasters, wars, or labor difficulties on their plantations. If planters agitated for higher prices or better terms in their contracts, the company could, and frequently did, reject their bananas. (The company reserved the right, in its contracts, to refuse to purchase bananas of poor quality. Since company "experts" were in charge of assessing the bananas that came from the national planters, and since the assessment process could be quite subjective if they chose to make it so, they could punish uncooperative planters by rejecting good bananas, and driving them out of business.) The company could use its control of the local railroad to block the delivery of the plantersí bananas to port, causing them to go bad before they could be approved or sold. The company could use its control of local irrigation systems to cut off the water supply of local Colombian planters. The company staggered contracts throughout the region (contracts were of different duration, so that they would not all expire at once. This lessened the bargaining power of the local planters when it came time to make new contracts.)
For their part, local businessmen who tried to set up shops and stores in the area to cater to the growing population attracted to the banana enclave, felt unfairly competed against by the company stores which United Fruit set up in the region. These company stores (commissaries) were filled with items brought back from the US on the return voyages of the banana boats from their American markets. The competitive advantages of the company commissaries over local shops were amplified by United Fruitís use of scrip, or "company money", to pay out advances to banana workers (who, being paid only twice a month instead of once a week, were frequently compelled to seek advances in scrip in order to make ends meet). Since the scrip was only redeemable at the commissaries, Colombian stores were shut out of an important slice of local business, which United Fruit effectively forced to come to it.
Finally, Colombian laborers felt exploited and abused by the United Fruit Company. Perplexed and irritated by these sentiments, fruit company executives complained that their workers were actually being offered more than the going rate for other agricultural workers in the region: in fact, higher salaries had been necessary to help overcome the initial labor shortage in the region, until the banana enclave could consolidate and take off. Nonetheless, workers considered that the United Fruit Company had more to offer than other employers in the region. If a man who has $10 offers you $1 for a dayís work, which is not enough, you may feel better treated than if a man who has $1,000 offers you $2 for a dayís work, which is still not enough. Although you are materially better-off working for the boss who gives you $2, the fact that his resources are so much greater than the one who gives you $1 also makes him seem that much more avaricious. In that context, his "generosity" degrades, in your mind, into an almost insufferable form of greed. Although this example may not be precise, it does help to explain the resentment which many Colombian banana workers began to feel towards the United Fruit Company in the important decade of the 1920s. There were other aggravations as well, however. For one, Colombian workers felt that the company was not taking their health seriously. The tropical nature of the banana zone made workers susceptible to many tropical diseases, such as malaria and dengue. Company housing for the workers typically featured windows without screens, and other important defects. Many workers, meanwhile, were paid, not by the hour, but by piece rates (for example, for the number of racimos, or banana bunches, they could cut, or the meters of irrigation ditch that they could dig). The payment-per-piece was determined in such a way that these workers were forced to work at a furious, and ultimately exhausting pace, driving many to burn out and to succumb to the sicknesses that prey upon the hopeless and the overused. This was especially true given the fact that there was no "day of rest" in the banana zone. Once a worker did fall ill, he had to pay his own way, via train, to the hospital. Once he arrived there, if he was an official UF employee, his medical treatment would be covered by insurance. On the other hand, the company utilized many workers who were not officially on its payrolls, and who it was not, therefore, mandated by Colombian law to provide for. These workers were supplied by "independent contractors", known as padrones, who were theoretically responsible to meet all national labor requirements which the Colombian government had legislated on behalf of its working class. (But they often did not do so.) Essentially, wherever possible, the United Fruit Company used the mechanism of the independent contractors to exclude its workers (who, legally-speaking, were not its workers) from the benefits to which they were entitled. Workers of this sort had no medical coverage, and had to pay for their own medicine and hospitalization. The company also worked very hard to impede and to prevent any organizing among its workers, and utilized its cozy connections with local government figures and local police to enforce its will in the enclave. Colombian workers, who still had some hope that the national government might advocate on their behalf, considered the regional government in the banana zone to be "bought" and "in the service of the United Fruit Company."
In addition to the labor problems of the banana workers, typical issues of land ownership troubled the region. Peasant colonos, either living in the area prior to the installment of the banana enclave, or else attracted to the enclave in search of work and left outside the system, encountered problems with powerful men attempting to seize their lands. In cases, the fruit company sought to expand its holdings, and it was accused of using its control of local irrigation systems to create floods to wash away peasant settlements. In cases, local planters moved in to try to increase the size of their banana plantations; while in still other cases, land speculators attempted to muscle peasants off of the land, so that they could sell it to either the United Fruit Company or the local planters.
By November 1928, the crisis in the banana zone had reached a head as the grievances of local Colombian planters, members of the regional middle-class (especially shop-owners), proletarian banana workers, and peasant colonos had all reached a boiling point. A powerful major strike against the United Fruit Company was launched, spearheaded by the banana workers, and initially supported by many local planters, shopkeepers, and peasants. Key demands made were that labor laws already on the books (especially concerning insurance and workmanís compensation) should be applied in the region (they were being largely ignored and evaded); that United Fruit should acknowledge and provide for the "hidden workers" it utilized by means of its "independent contractor" system; that hygienic housing should be provided to all banana workers; that medical care should be improved; that workers should be granted one day of rest per week; that wages should be increased, and that weekly paydays should be instituted in place of the prevailing system of bimonthly payments; and that commissaries and scrip be abolished throughout the region. After a promising beginning, however, the unity of the strike began to unravel. The banana workers had been organized by members of the Partido Socialista Revolucionario (the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Colombia), or PSR, and the local planters and middle-class elements of the strike, alarmed by the rhetoric and orientation of many of the strike leaders, began to get cold feet. Local government officials and the United Fruit Company had considerable success in representing the strike as the first stage of a budding Communist insurrection, and by means of this portrayal, began to isolate the banana workers from the mainstream nationalist elements which had previously expressed their solidarity "for the Colombian workers who were being oppressed by a foreign company." United Fruit brought in strikebreakers from other regions, and Colombian soldiers and police were brought in to protect them, and to protect United Fruit Company property from vandalism. Desperate as they saw their efforts to force concessions from the United Fruit Company being beaten back, protesters began to sit down on the train tracks to prevent bananas from being hauled to port, and to step up the level of their interference against company "scabs." The situation grew more difficult. The army, under General Cortes Vargas, launched a massive campaign of arrests against the strikers, then, responding to a perception of increasing disorder in the banana enclave, finally opted to take drastic measures. On December 6 in the plaza of the railroad town of Cienaga, troops opened fire with rifles and machine guns on a huge encampment of nonviolent protesters which included many women and children, killing four hundred or more. After this massacre, a state of complete chaos and repression in the banana zone ensued. Historians believe that in the wave of persecution that followed, somewhere between one thousand and three thousand banana workers and their supporters were killed by the army, many of their bodies being dumped into the sea in order to hide the dimensions of the slaughter. Later, Cortes Vargas, rebuked by nationalists for the outrage of having killed so many Colombians on behalf of a foreign company, implied that he had had to act with an iron hand in order to stave off an American military intervention in the banana zone. (Indeed, US marines had already made several armed landings in Central American countries in order to safeguard the property of the United Fruit Company.) According to Cortes Vargas, US warships had been hovering offshore as the strike intensified, and he had had no choice but to fire on the workers in order to forestall an American invasion. But this excuse did not sit well with nationalists. Jorge Eliecer Gaitan made a name for himself by denouncing the Generalís actions with these scathing words: "What is one to think of a soldier who, out of fear for some warships which audaciously arrived to threaten the shores of the Republic, instead of aiming his cannons and machine guns in a solemn gesture of sacrifice against the foreign invader of Colombian waters, found no other reply than to turn his rifles upon his own people and slaughter the sons of his own country!" Whether US warships were actually there or not (this is a disputed bit of history) did not matter in the end. For Colombians, the massacre of December 6, 1928, came to symbolize the injustice and ruthlessness of the Americans; their utter lack of respect for Colombiaís national sovereignty; and the ability of American companies, backed up by the full force of the United States military, to buy off the Colombian government, or else to pressure it, into becoming an agent of repression against its own people.
Gaitanís nationalistic tirade against the United Fruit Company, General Cortes Vargas, the local Colombian government in the banana zone, and other vendidos (sell-outs) in the wake of the 1928 massacre proved to be an important steppingstone on his path to national power. However, as previously related, Gaitan was cut down by an assassin on the threshold of the presidency in 1948. This, too, was a cause for anti-American rage in Colombia, as many Colombians were quickly convinced that the Conservative government was behind the murder, and that the US had had a hand in it, as well. As Bob Marley would sing years later, of other crimes: "How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?" In Colombia, they did not stand aside and look. They went to war.
By the time President Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress in 1961, many more Colombians than before had drifted into a pro-US stance due to the dynamics of the Cold War, and their fear of Communism, and the "godlessness" it was said to advocate, which was especially disturbing to a Catholic nation. In the context of the Cold War, many Colombians felt grateful for the US presence, and accepted America as a welcome ally: as a shield against the threat of a mounting danger to their heritage and culture. However, the wounds of the past were deep, and many other Colombians continued to distrust the US, and to regard it as the real enemy.
President Kennedy, in the endangered and idealistic haze of his moment upon the mountain, dared to dream that the Alliance for Progress might set things right in Colombia; that the good will of the present might erase the foul deeds and selfish motives of the past; that links of true solidarity might knock down the walls of bitterness and mistrust that history had erected between two countries. It was an effort neither as morally beautiful as it seemed at the time, nor as empty as it would come to be judged.
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