The Obstacles to Peace in Colombia

Over the weekend thousands of campesinos, indigenous, and Afro-descendants gathered in the city of Barrancabermeja to call on the Colombian government and the insurgency to begin peace negotiations. The insurgency has expressed their willingness to talk, but the Santos government has yet to even explore the possibility. In order to understand why, we have to analyze the core obstacles that have confronted government peace negotiations with the FARC and the ELN since the mid-1980s.  
Nazih Richani 8/15/2011

The war system in Colombia has ebbed and flowed since 1964 when it began with the emergence of the armed resistance of the guerrilla movement. This system and its dynamics, dialectics, and political economy have largely shaped the history of the country ever since. One of the major outcomes of this war system during the last decade is a hyper security state. As the government of Juan Manuel Santos completed its first year in office just a few days ago, it is important to critically assess the prospects of the war system and its anti-thesis: peace.

280 An announcement for the National Meeting for Peace. ( is particularly important in light of the large popular mobilizations over the weekend at the National Meeting of Campesino, Indigenous, and Afro-descendant Communities for Land and Peace in Colombia. At the gathering in the oil-producing city of Barrancabermeja, thousands of participants called on both the government and the insurgency to begin peace negotiations. Some analysts believe that both active insurgent groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), called on their bases to participate in the gathering.

According to different sources I spoke with over the last week in Bogota, the insurgency has sent several messages expressing their willingness to start a process of peace negotiations. The Santos government, however, has yet to even explore the possibility. In order to understand why, we have to analyze the core obstacles that have confronted government peace negotiations with the FARC and the ELN since the mid- 1980s.

Some of these obstacles are:

1. Recalcitrant sectors of the dominant classes and right-wing forces: chiefly the landed oligarchy, large cattle ranchers, and the narco-bourgeoisie, all of which stand to lose the most from any meaningful land reform in Colombia. Keep in mind that land reform has always been a core demand of the predominantly peasant-based insurgency.

2. The military institution that has political affinity and alliances with the above mentioned sectors due to the social class of its leadership and their conservative ideology. It is important to recognize that some of them have been granted lands in areas where the FARC and ELN operate. Their conservative ideology stems from their political indoctrination with the National Security Doctrine taught at the School of the Americas run by the United States and its intelligence agencies. This “Cold War” doctrine, which is still dominant within the military, makes it difficult for military leaders to digest the idea of negotiating with the “communists,” let alone accept their demand to reform “their” military institution. The bloated military institution—almost equal to that of Brazil—would undoubtedly be one of the big losers to a negotiated peace agreement, and hence is expected to put up a tough resistance. Consequently, the core question that one can raise is this: Does Santos command enough support to persuade that behemoth institution of the need for a peaceful settlement to the conflict knowing that the military has always acted as a spoiler?

3. The other sectors of the dominant classes such as the big five or six conglomerates that dominate over 30% of Colombian GDP. These groups are the real power behind the throne and it is not clear if they are willing to support a peace process that might entail some costs to them (albeit not as much as the landed groups). To the best of my knowledge these groups have never committed to support a negotiated settlement based on a meaningful socio-economic reform redressing income disparities, rethinking the country’s model of economic development with a rural economic policy that protects the peasant-based economy and small production.

4. The urban middle class has yet to awaken from its intoxication with former president Álvaro Uribe’s (2002-10) tough stance against the insurgency and the mess of corruption that he left behind. Several of his former ministers, supporters in Congress, and a chunk of his presidential entourage have all been indicted on corruption charges.

This leaves us with only one apparent group that currently has a stake in peace: the rural poor and the peasants, which are affected the most by the civil war since their villages are the main stage of operations for both the insurgency as well as the counterinsurgency. These are the ones that championed the Barrancabermeja gathering of some 15,000 people. But does this mobilization usher in the beginning of a new process of social change?

It is too early to say, and given the aforementioned formidable enemies to peace, my guess is that the war system will most likely persist for some time into the future until the rural poor, the urban middle classes, and other sectors will manage to tip the balance.


See Also:

The Showdown Between the Judiciary and the Santos Government, by Nazih Richani, August 8, 2011.

The Colombian Military Strategy of "High Value Targets" and the War System, by Nazih Richani, July 12, 2011.

The Comfortable Impasse and the Hyper Security State in Colombia, by Nazih Richani, May 31, 2011.


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