The Colombian Paradox: Capital Mobility, Land, and Power

Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe's recent verbal attacks against President Juan Manuel Santos are perhaps most important for where they were made—Sincelejo, a powerful stronghold of Colombian landed elite. Across the country, this group has disproportionate political power that far exceeds its economic weight due to its success in political engineering and its employment of brutal force.

Nazih Richani 8/22/2012


Last Sunday, August 19, during a speech in the city of Sincelejo, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez accused President Juan Manuel Santos of negotiating with guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in Cuba. “This is incomprehensible: security deteriorating while the government is negotiating with the FARC terrorist group in Cuba,” he said. Santos has publicly denied the claims and Uribe did not provide any evidence. In this case, it is likely that what was said is not as important as where it was said. Sincelejo is the capital of the Northern Colombian department of Sucre, a powerful stronghold of Colombian landed elite, which has resisted land reform for decades. Colombia's economy depends on the services and extractive sectors, but through its disproportionate political power, the landed elite hold the keys to war and peace, an historical paradox that has yet to be resolved. 

Because capital mobility lessens state predation and over taxation, globalization has allowed Colombia’s big conglomerates to avoid the threat democracy poses to their class interests. Yet the economic dominance of private companies does not translate into hegemonic (political-idelogical) control over all economic interests, as put by Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci. In contrast, because the landed elite's capital is fixed in land and not mobile, it is more vulnerable to the state’s predation or distributive policies and has much more at stake than the cacaos, as the conglomerates are known in Colombia. At least until now, the landed elite has been resourceful at brutally fighting against the democratization of the economic control of property.

1216Photo: Washington Office on Latin America

Cattle ranchers, land speculators, and the narco-bourgeoisie have contended with threats of a peasant-based insurgency and the possible shifts in political power against their class interests. Consequently, this faction devised two complementary strategies that have served it for more than a century by allowing it to exercise political power far exceeding its economic weight. The first was the creation of private armies (paramilitaries) to impose a political order in various locations where its properties were concentrated—such as in the departments of Bolívar, Cesar, Sucre, Córdoba, Cauca, and Antioquia—creating a de-facto condition to sabotage any political decision that undermines its class interests, particularly in the area of land reform. Keep in mind that Colombia has one of the highest GINI coefficients (measuring inequality) of land concentration in the world, approximating .85 (0 being perfectly equal and one being completely unequal). This high concentration of property explains the high stakes, and hence resistance, to efforts of democratizing land ownership.

The second important source of power of the landed elite resulted from political engineering. Since the late 1980s, and increasingly in the 2000s, the elite succeeded—by manipulation, co-optation, coercion, and fraud—to elect its favored candidates to Congress. The landed elite in Colombia might have carried out one of the most notable success stories of economic consolidation, by creating powerful parliamentary blocs capable of blocking any serious attempts of land reform. Furthermore, it evaded the “laws” of development, proving to be more tenacious than its feudal counterparts in Europe and Latin America. In this sense, the relationship between politics and economics is much more complex and dynamic than the one offered by main stream social scientists such as Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, and Douglas North. The relationship between economic change and political power is not mechanical, it is dialectical. Politics and its institutions are determined by the outcomes of class struggles, an often-overlooked variable in the works of the mentioned authors.

This in its turn, explains former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez's tendendency to draw on the landed elite, as he did in his latest rally in the politically symbolic area of Sincelejo, where this faction has historically asserted its power against the peasants. Uribe and his supporters are defining the contours of the coming class struggle between the contending forces. It remains to be seen how president Juan Manuel Santos will position his government.

Finally, it is important to clarify that the distribution of land is not the panacea for the ills of Colombia’s uneven capitalist development, but it will rationalize an irrational political economy paving the way for a more peaceful future. To bear the desired fruits, a redistribution of land to the dispossessed must be within a sustainable development plan.



Nazih Richani is the Director of Latin American studies at Kean University. He blogs at

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