Peace in Colombia: from guerrilla war to radical change?

  • September 29, 2016

Land & Liberation

The peace deal between the FARC and the Colombian government is not the start of a new beginning, but just another step in a long history of resistance.

This version is a slightly modified version of a Spanish article written on 31st August, 2016, for The English version was in great part done by Supriyo Chatterjee (সুপ্রিয় চট্টোপাধ্যায়) of

After three years of negotiations, a peace accord was signed in Havana, Cuba, between the government of Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos and the — mostly peasant — guerrilla organization FARC-EP. Meanwhile, the process with the two other Colombian guerrilla movements is bogged down (in the case of the ELN) or not even on the political agenda (in the case of the EPL).

Earlier fears of a possible breakdown in the negotiations have proven baseless. Now, a long and costly cycle of struggles is coming to an end, paving the way for new scenarios. The FARC’s decision to abandon arms, which they had first picked up in the early 1960s demanding agrarian reform, now seems irreversible. Whatever happens, it will stick to the path of what has been called its “reincorporation into civilian life.” Their arms have been laid down for good.

Even while this accord does not generate structural changes, it undoubtedly represents a significant advancement for the rural population which, though invisibilized, constitutes a not-insignificant 34 percent of the country’s population. The peace deal provides an opportunity for the popular movement to concentrate on the big tasks that lie ahead in terms of achieving social justice and the democratization of society. But no future scenario is set in stone. It will all depend on the clarity and the organizational and mobilizing capacity of the popular movement.

The agreement has already been ratified by Congress and at the tenth conference of the FARC-EP. What’s left is to sign the agreement at a ceremony scheduled for September 26. The referendum, through which the peace deal will be submitted for endorsement by the people, has been agreed upon for October 2. In the referendum, 4.5 million “yes” votes will be required to ratify the agreements — a massive task given traditionally low electoral turnout rates in Colombia.

Despite the discursive poverty of the troglodytes campaigning for a “no” vote, it would be foolish to scoff at its appeal among many urban sectors still under the authoritarian spell of the chief campaigner against the peace agreement, former president Álvaro Uribe. The media, once again, in its task of fabricating perceptions, bandy polls that sometimes project a lead for the “yes” vote, sometimes for he “no” vote, depending on the political agenda of the moment.

Still, the first question at hand is not whether people will vote “yes” or “no,” but whether they will vote at all. Without substantial participation from the population, the question remains if the peace agreement has a large enough support base to survive in the long term. At the moment, ordinary people are merely casting suspicious glances at what they perceive to be this whole “peace business.”

Historic, but…

Even though the peace agreement is by all mean a historic event, the little enthusiasm it has generated among Colombians is quite surprising. There is no lack of reasons to celebrate, but there is hardly any celebratory mood. Colombia hasn’t seen the kind of general exuberant atmosphere that accompanied other peace processes like in Northern Ireland or in El Salvador. It hasn’t even come close to approaching the democratizing effervescence that was felt in Colombia itself in 1990 for the previous peace process with other guerrilla movements: the M-19, the EPL, the MAQL and the PRT.

It is painful to admit that, at least in the urban centers, there was far more enthusiasm for the marches against the FARC-EP back in 2008 than for the peace deal which is now about to be signed. This shows that the establishment’s media war against the rebels has had a toxic effect and has successfully isolated the movement from a large segment of the population which still thinks that the insurgents are the root of all evil in Colombia.

The predominant attitude of those supporting the “yes” vote in the run-up to the referendum seems to be a lukewarm “war is worse,” or a sour “we’ll have to swallow some bitter pills.” Others calling to vote “yes” are not doing it so much in support of the contents of the agreements but to explicitly vote for the disappearance and disarming of the FARC-EP, as a final coup de grâce, a corollary to the mobilizations of early 2008 against the FARC-EP stimulated by the government of Alvaro Uribe.

Very few sectors — the left, predictably — are calling for a vote in clear support for the contents of the agreement, though many sense that a triumph of the “no” vote would be truly catastrophic. It is a disagreeable reality, but one that we will have to understand in order to change it.

Various factors would seem to explain this phenomenon. First, before everything else, this is a peace process that the majority of the Colombian population perceives as something that is happening in a distant country, in order to resolve an equally distant conflict that is being played out in the pathways of a rural world unknown to this urban majority. Besides, during the entire process the media busied itself vilifying the insurgents, giving them no credit, not even for entering into the peace talks.

Neither has the tardy work of the government’s so-called “pedagogy of peace” helped. The government’s efforts to popularize the contents of the agreements in Havana, or to stimulate debate around it, have been exceedingly poor at best, and non-existent at worst. In turn, the insurgents have been unable or incapable of “involving the people” in the peace process, nor to extend its reach beyond its traditional areas of influence or those political sectors that have always asked for a political solution to the conflict.

The connection between the peace process and the daily needs of millions of oppressed, exploited and marginalized people in Colombia was not made. What does this peace process mean for a transgender person in the marginal slums of Bogota? What does peace mean for an indigenous woman migrant in a provincial capital? What does it mean for the sub-contracted and precarious workers? What does it mean for the multitude that survives on under-employment? For those who sniff glue because they can’t afford bread?

To have to remind the people that “the peace is with you,” as the left’s referendum campaign motto states, simply makes it evident that for common citizens, their relation to the peace process is not evident.

Neither fatalism nor triumphalism

It was always obvious that these negotiations would not result in socialism. Some basic reforms have been sought in order to help overcome the structural causes that gave rise to the conflict, but the agreement is not the notion of “peace with social justice” that popular movements originally demanded. In fact, insofar as the conflict with the ELN and the EPL continues, there is not really any peace at all. Right-wing para-militarism proliferates across the country almost unchallenged the repressive structure that criminalizes political dissent and social protest remains intact; the structural violence that kills with hunger and preventable illnesses persists.

But this does not mean that the agreement isn’t a step in the right direction, or that there is no room for “moderate optimism” about it, to use the jargon employed by the negotiating parties during the process. There should not be room here from the left to shout out “treachery,” but neither should there be hallucinatory triumphalism which is prevalent among the traditional left. The agreement is just what it is: all that the FARC-EP could obtain within the existing correlation of forces, which is clearly favorable to the existing ruling bloc.

The verdict of history could be very harsh in retrospect on the parties that just signed up for peace. For a war to be considered “just,” according to jus ad bellum, one of the parties should demonstrate that it could not obtain what it obtained without recourse to arms. This will be the raging dispute for decades to come in Colombia, just as it continues to be in Ireland two decades after the peace process in that country.

A quick glance at the agreement automatically leads us to question if, in reality, so much blood should have been spilled to achieve agreements that, as a general matter, mean that the government must comply with constitutional mandates — which it should do anyway — combined with the expansion, not the transformation, of the existing political system.

There have been some important achievements, above all relating to the modernization of the countryside, but the “agrarian program of the guerrillas of Marquetalia,” the minimum program that inspired the FARC-EP uprising for decades, remains a distant aspiration. The problem of the concentration of land is very much alive. Now it has been complicated even more: agro-industries will receive a boost from the government creating Zones of Interest for Rural, Economic and Social Development (Zidres). Perhaps if this peace process had reached an agreement with greater transformative potential, it could have generated greater popular enthusiasm. Perhaps.

The peace of… Santos?

The government promised not to touch the model and kept its word to the oligarchy. The ELN’s opinion of the Havana agreement is compelling. According to a communiqué released on August 5, the agreement does not change the reality of the country and keeps “intact the ignominious regime of violence, exclusion, inequality, injustice and pillage.” A communiqué of a dissident sector of the FARC-EP that broke away from the process refers to the agreement in similar terms.

What has been agreed upon should not be judged excessively hard: achieving a different scenario or an agreement that would really represent this desire for peace with social justice was not something that would depend, naturally, only on the FARC-EP. It would necessarily have had to be supported by a broad popular mobilization, thus helping to develop the transformative potential of some points on the agenda.

The possibility of generating an alignment between this peace process with the wave of popular protest that shook Colombia between 2008-’13 did not materialize. The government, through co-optation, division and segmentation, halted this wave while at the same time successfully isolating the peace process from the daily life of the population.

The agrarian strike of 2013, in which millions came out to support the plight of the poor peasantry in protest against the free trade agreements signed by the Colombian government, with arguments and proposals that were complementary to the proposals of the rebels in the negotiations, was the key moment that could have generated massive public sympathy between the themes discussed in Havana and the daily reality of the country. This moment could have generated a bridge between the countryside and the city where the interests of the popular sectors were sketched out in opposition to the bloc in power.

After the strike, and faced with the multitude of broken promises by the government, the popular mobilization in the streets was discouraged, with some sectors of the left considering it “inopportune,” arguing quite surprisingly that “destabilizing” the Santos government would weaken the peace process by strengthening the far-right behind Uribe. Instead, they aimed at an electoral strategy that proved to be disastrous for the left in terms of its results and in terms of smashing the momentum achieved in 2013.

In this context, the peace process ended up fettering itself to the figure of Santos, one of the most unpopular presidents in Colombian history, who used it to be re-elected in 2014 at the same time that he redefined the terms of peace and could move onto the offensive. After insisting so much that the keys to peace belonged to the people, they were handed over to Santos on a silver platter. This recognition of Santos’ “will for peace” served to obscure the fact that the peace process was achieved in a large part owing to the popular mobilizations that climaxed in 2012-’13.

In the collective imagination of the Colombian people, the peace process was not only indissolubly linked to the figure of Santos but also to Colombia’s political establishment more generally, especially after the referendum was launched by key figures from some of the major parties. Is it surprising, then, to see the general lack of enthusiasm for the peace process, and the referendum in particular?

New ‘post-conflict’ resistance

The chief government negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, claimed that this agreement was the “best possible” — an ambiguous affirmation which shows that, although they might have been able to impose many of the terms of the pact, they were unable to impose everything. The agreements are like an open door, which the oligarchy as well as the popular sectors can take advantage of.

The oligarchy will use them to accelerate the penetration of investment capital in agro-industry and mineral extraction. Whether this scenario materializes or not will depend on the popular sectors, on their struggles and their organization. Whether the government complies with the agreement will also depend on the popular sectors: as the rural communities of the country can attest, the government specializes in lying to those below. Those who think that UN oversight is a guarantee that the government will comply are guilty of excessive naivety.

For now, the dice are loaded in favor of the dominant bloc. The triumphalism of these sectors is evident in the declarations of the Colombian army commander General Alberto Mejia, who said the army was ready to guarantee the safety of the ex-guerrillas: “For us it is not a humiliation; for us it an honor because those who safeguard them are those who won the war, because those who safeguard them are those who remained with arms in their hands, those who safeguard them are those dressed in the uniforms of the Republic.” Clearly, it is debatable if FARC-EP has been defeated or not, or whether the supposed victory of the army is a pyrrhic one, but it is necessary to recognize that, whatever the insurgent group thinks, it is the dominant bloc that is on the offensive — not the popular organizations.

The “monopoly on the use of force” claimed by the oligarchic state has to be opposed with an even bigger force than its army and its weapons: that of an organized people. Though it is said that henceforth politics will no longer be complemented by the use of arms, this remains to be seen. As the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral used to say, in capitalism all struggles are armed struggles: the state always has the arms and uses it against the people when its interests and domination are threatened.

Calling for a “yes”-vote in the referendum should not obviate that this is neither the end of the road nor the start of the construction of a new society, but merely another step in a long history of resistance, on the long road towards the conformation of a new popular bloc capable of imposing on the oligarchic sectors an alternative model which is radically democratic, egalitarian and libertarian.

It is also necessary to recognize that it is not possible to speak of the construction of peace without the ELN or the EPL. Calling for a political negotiation with these other insurgent forces therefore becomes a political, ethical and moral imperative.

Today, rather than being immersed in easy formulae, replacing arguments with slogans for or against, it is more suitable to apply Gramsci’s maxim of pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will: we are conscious of the enormous potential of the struggles of the Colombian people and also of the valuable experience accumulated in almost a century of resistance. Only this way can a project that actually generates enthusiasm among a majority of the Colombian people be developed. And with an enthusiastic people as the main actor in this project, the transformative forces will be unstoppable.

José Antonio Gutiérrez D.

José Antonio Gutiérrez D. is a libertarian activist living in Ireland. He is the author of Problems and Possibilities of Anarchism (in Portuguese, 2011), co-author with Renán Vega of “Siempre de Pie, Nunca Rendidos” (a social history of the sugar-cane cutters in Colombia, 2019) and editor of Libertarian Origins of the First of May in Latin America (2010). He is also a frequent contributor for websites such as, and

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