On April 23, roughly 100,000 people descended on Bogotá, Colombia, to participate in what organizers called the Patriotic March. Participants called for an end to the political violence, oppression, and poverty that plague their country, as well as a negotiated settlement of the armed conflict between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Over the previous two days, the Patriotic March had launched its National Patriotic Council, made up of 4,000 representatives from more than 1,700 grassroots organizations. Some observers called it the most important event for the Colombian left in decades.1 On the heels of the country’s bicentennial celebrations in 2010, the new organization is organizing for a “second and definitive independence.”
The event is an important development for several reasons. It follows popular demonstrations held in August in the northeastern oil city of Barrancabermeja, where 25,000 people from rural, Afro-descendant, and indigenous communities held a National Meeting for Land and Peace in Colombia. Now with even greater participation from hundreds of organizations, the Patriotic March could usher in the beginning of a new left movement with a widespread network across Colombia. By uniting diverse campesino organizations and calling for agrarian reform, the Patriotic March is helping to lift the voice of the rural population, a sector that has been particularly affected by the continuation of the civil war. If this movement grows, it could help propel the chances of a negotiated settlement of the armed conflict. Without such organized grassroots support, the FARC’s recent calls for a negotiated agreement will remain weak, as the military balance of power remains tilted in favor of the state.
The reactionary forces that stand to lose the most from a negotiated settlement and a reinvigorated popular movement did not wait long to act. At least three people associated with the organizing groups of the Patriotic March have been assassinated. Hernán Henry Díaz, an organizer with Fensuagro—Colombia’s largest peasant and farm workers’ union federation—was disappeared on April 18. Caquetá community leader Martha Cecilia Guevara Oyola was disappeared on April 20. Mauricio Enrique Rodríguez, a Communist and bodyguard for the president of the National Association of Displaced Colombians, was killed on April 27.
Members of the military establishment have also responded. The head of the Colombian Armed Forces, General Alejandro Navas, accused the Patriotic March of being infiltrated by guerrillas. Nearly a month after the events, a pair of retired generals called for a coup d’état against President Juan Manuel Santos, expressing their discontent with his possible willingness to hold peace talks with the FARC against the backdrop of a rejuvenated popular movement.
One of them, retired major general Jorge Galvis Noyes wrote in an e-mail released by the media: “COLONELS or GENERALS . . . put your cards on the table, demand that Dr. Santos fulfill his electoral obligations and commitments, or remove him from office, set up a provisional government, and convoke elections in no less than six months.”
Galvis Noyes belongs to the Colombian Association of Retired Officers (ACORE), a key organization in military circles with ties to conservative political forces such as ex-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez and the Colombian Federation of Cattle Ranchers (FEDEGAN).
This is not the first time that the Colombian military has floated rumors of coups d’état over disagreements with the politics of peace. Saber rattling has become a Colombian tradition over the last half-century, as the military has acquired relative autonomy and special privileges to voice its concerns.
Moreover, the Colombian military establishment would lose big from a negotiated peace agreement. The bloated Colombian military—including 500,000 soldiers and police—cannot be sustained unless the civil war continues, or unless the United States can find an international role for the behemoth institution. The enemies of peace and social justice in Colombia are many, but their friends are potentially much more numerous. The question is: Can the Patriotic March harness this potential to empower and unite the millions to reach a tipping point for peace?
Nazih Richani is the Director of Latin American studies at Kean University. He blogs at nacla.org/blog/cuadernos-colombianos.
1. James Jordan, “Colombia’s Marcha Patriótica Calls for International Solidarity, Not Interference,” Alliance for Global Justice, May 2012, available at afgj.org.
Read the rest of NACLA’s Summer 2012 issue: “Latin America and the Global Economy.”