Comments on Colombia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Dec 16 17:47:50 MST 1999

[These are comments on my Colombia posts from a very informed Marxist who I
maintain a regular correspondence with. They are too insightful to not share.]

Hello Lou.

So now, here are my comments about your articles.

I will address it later, but your omission of any discussion of Panama is a
big one.

1. The bourgeois revolution in Latin America.

I haven’t made up my mind about this. If you remember what I wrote about
how the bourgeois revolution in England affected the British colonies in
North America, you will know why. The Spanish and Portuguese colonies, were
appendages of countries which had not experienced bourgeois revolutions up
top the time of independence.

But this does not mean they were feudal either, because the monarchies cut
out the feudal nobilities, and kept the whole pie for themselves. The Vice
Royalties in New Spain were considerably different than the system in
Spain, itself. As important, the Spanish monarchy tried to enserf native
American societies which were very different than the society they had
conquered in the Reconquista on the Iberian peninsula.

[I think that on the big scale of things, you can not overrate the
importance of the continuity between the European wars of expansion - and
the renaissance on the one hand - and the conquest of the Americans on the
other hand.}

The result was similar to Spanish feudalism, but very different. And  both
the political system, and the social structure, of New Spain, were much
weaker than their counterparts in the motherland.

One imprint point in passing, is that the counterreformation and the
inquisition were in my view the feudal counterrevolution against the rising
bourgeoisie. Nowhere was it more successful and pervasive than in Spain.

Spain, along with Germany and Italy, didn’t need to have a bourgeois
revolution because the French gave them theirs - via Napoleon.

Similar to the way Eastern Europe in the 1940’s didn’t need to have
proletarian revolutions, because Russia gave them theirs - via Stalin.

(The real history is considerably more complex, but this is good enough for
a little note like this.)

The bourgeois societies that were left after Napoleon did not have the
tradition of bourgeois revolution, and their nationalisms were tinged with
feudal reaction. (The opposite of French nationalist ideology).

Back to Colombia. Bolivar, inspired by the British, French, and American
revolutions, maybe was trying to lead a bourgeois revolution - but he
didn’t call it that. He was leading a war of independence, a republican
revolution ... If you read the stuff he wrote, it was pretty contradictory.
But very insightful.

Napoleon gave the Spanish colonies their independence more than Bolivar,
San Martin, or the rest of them did.

And most of what they did was more of a political revolution, than a social

I think you need to start reading Moreno, who knew this history well, and
who understood very well that some revolutions are not social revolutions.
They are revolutions which change the government (the people at the top),
or the regime (the institutions of government) but not the social
relations. He got this distinction from Trotsky, who called for a political
- but not a social - revolution in the USSR. Moreno just applied the
distinction between political and social revolutions to capitalist and
feudal societies.

Anyway, I think Bolivar and the rest led a political revolution, not a
social revolution.

However, it weakened the already weak sort-of feudal social relations. And
in doing so made more room for the growth of bourgeois social relations.
Which explains why capitalism developed so slowly here in Latin America,
with so many feudal hangovers, and why the United States and Europe have
always been able to maintain their dominance here, without really using
very much military force.

2.  You write, "The fundamental contradiction in Latin American capitalism
is this: Capitalist agriculture for the export market requires preservation
of the hacienda system, which provides the social base for the Conservative
Party, and semifeudal reaction."

Your main idea is not true. (The second part is partly true.) Capitalism
does not require the hacienda system.

Why not? Because it is perfectly possible to produce many agricultural
commodities efficiently, and profitably, on small farms. the best example
is coffee, but sugar, potatoes, corn, and tomatoes, are others.  There is
not technical barrier to profitable production on small farms of many
agricultural crops now - and traditionally - grown on large haciendas.

In fact, most Colombian coffee is grown on small farms, not large
haciendas. It is the opposite of the pattern in Brazil. The big coffee
barons own haciendas, and organize the smaller producers into a giant
nation-wide cooperative. It owns banks, supermarkets, provides health care,
vacation resorts for small farmers. It is like a state within a state.

Colombia in many ways does not fit the pattern of the hacienda system. Here
there is a very large rural, land-owning, petty bourgeoisie. It is centered
in the coffee country, but is all over the country. In Boyar, the average
small farm is about 6 acres - and there are tons of them. Potato farmers.
This rural petty bourgeoisie is the base of the now-much-larger- urban
petty bourgeoisie here.

In general, the hacienda system is easier to operate in areas where
plantation type agriculture can be carried out, or extensive cattle
raising. Rugged mountain terrain isn’t very good for the system. That’s why
slavery in Colombia was pretty much limited to the coastal planes, and why
the haciendas were centered there, and in the high flat Andean planes.

Two related, but different petty bourgeois sets of agriculture filled in
the spaces: one was the continuation of the traditional indigenous
agriculture - often communal or semi-communal before the Spanish, over time
transformed into small family subsistence farms growing potatoes, corn,
tomatoes, with one cow and a few chickens. This type of farm is spread
throughout the Andes from the border of Ecuador, north. They have become
more market oriented with time, especially the growth of the cities. Some
of them have become "truck farms".

The other type were more market oriented from the beginning, is  centered
in Antioquia (where Medellin is), and farmed by Spanish, and other European
immigrants. This type expanded rapidly with the expansion of coffee export.

A point to remember, is that despite the position of this country on the
equator, the mountain climate is not tropical. Average temperature depends
on altitude. Medellin is warm, Bogota is cool. This affects the kinds of
crops that can be grown. (The seasons here, are wet and dry - dry in the
morning, wet in the afternoon.) Most of the population - rural and urban,
lives in the mountains.

3. You mention it, but miss the importance of, the armed conflicts between
the Liberals and Conservatives. Really this country has been the home of
civil war between these two parliamentary parties for almost its entire
history. it’s something like if the Democrats and Republicans had both kept
real armies in the field for 120 years, rather than just for the five years
of the civil war in the USA. Here, civil war is considered to be ...
normal. (or almost).

4. I like what you write about coffee, especially the US side of the equation.

5. The thousand day war, the Liberal-Conservative civil war at the turn of
the last century, gave the USA the opportunity to steal Panama. Culturally,
and economically, Panama is part of the zone of Spanish colonial slave
society that covers the entire Northern coast of south America, and a lot
of the Pacific Coast - extending into Central America. (With pockets of
Brit, French, and Dutch slave plantations - and their descendants.) It was
politically part of Gran Colombia, and then Colombia (despite some earlier
movements from one Vice Royalty to another.)

The division of Spanish America into countries, has nothing whatsoever to
do with anything like what Lenin described as nations. Colombia, Venezuela,
Ecuador, and Panama, are one nation by that definition. Possibly everything
Spanish-speaking from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego should be
considered one nation.

The theft of Panama from Colombia was a major watershed in relations
between Colombia, and the United States. In fact, between all of South
America and the United States. It was the first big, and still most
important, strong arm action of US imperialism south of Mexico and the
Caribbean islands.

6. In the aftermath of the Panama disaster, the Conservative Party turned
to Europe for help. The newly formed military academy was staffed with
Prussian officers, for example. The rising generation of right-wingers
among the children of the Conservative leaders, looked to Italy and Spain
for models to follow - not to the United States which many hated for
stealing the canal. Laureano Gomez was among them.

This wing not only built strong political connections with the right wing
in Europe, but economic connections there, too. Until WWII, Avianca (like
most of the other Latin American Airlines) was a wholly owned subsidiary of
the German state airline.)

The conservatives were much more anti-Gringo in their talk, as well as
their sentiments, than were the Liberals.

This point is almost never understood by leftists from the United States,
who assume that to be anti-imperialist is to be more or less on the left.
Here, there are different kinds of "anti-imperialism" - those who are
against all imperialisms, and those who are only against this , or that

5. Peasant land- occupations. The high point of this movement was between
1930 and 1934. What organizational leadership there was, was provided by
the Gaiitainistas. This was before the election of Lopez Pumarejo. (I
believe however, that the President from 1930 - 34 was a member of the
right wing faction of the Liberals).

I think that your idea that this movement was coopted by the Liberals is
wrong. Gaitan, was a sincere man, despite everything else about him. His
politics were like Bukharin’s during the same period (and I would bet there
was an organizational tie-in to the Bukharinist parties of the 30’s -like
the POUM, although I could not prove it.)

In my view Gaitain is the central political figure of Colombia in the 20th
century. Because he was sincere, and his followers were, too, he was able
to lead the peasant movement back into the Liberal Party (they were outside
of it when the big land occupation movement was going on.) Why? Gaitan was
an ambitious man who wanted to become President through the Liberal Party.
Moreover, he was a sincere, but militant, reformist. He thought that you
could build a social democratic society, and then a communist society,
without a social revolution. More than anything , he wanted to avoid a
bloody civil war.

Of course, he was wrong about most of this. And he was assassinated as a
result of following his own sincerely held beliefs. And he was unable to
prevent the civil war he feared.

But, Gaitain also reflected the social reality of Colombia. He was a leader
of "the people" not the working class. Although he and his organizations
were key in the working class, he was a leader of the petty bourgeoisie,
whose uncles and cousins were workers - and peasants - and bourgeois. The
sharp division of society into capitalist and worker ( which nowhere ever
in the world has really taken place as Marx and Engels thought it would) -
had not taken place in Colombia in the 30’s and 40’s .

You must understand this, to understand what happened in Colombia in this
century, and what is about to happen in the next.

Gaitain was heroic, and his politics prevented a social revolution.

He also prevented the Communist Party from becoming the central force of
the left in this country. They were a fifth wheel. The leftist
intelligentsia did not join the CP, most joined Gaitain. Some of the
workers joined the CP, but most joined Gaitain. This country had no social
democratic tradition before WWI. The Social Democrats, or their near
equivalent, were the current of Rafael Uribe in the Liberal Party.

And, the potential Trotskyists in this country, mostly joined Gaitain as an
alternative to Stalinism!

6. The paramilitaries have roots which go back farther than 1935. The
Conservative Party - even when in power for so many years, never really
disbanded its private armed forces, even though they always were closely
related to the military.

7, The split in the Liberal party did not start in 1946, it began in the
years between 1900 and 1910, when Rafael Uribe began to build his social
democratic faction. It took off with the rise of Gaitain in the 1920’s. By
the 1940’s Gaitain was the master of the voter base of the party, not the
oligarchic factions. They could not get elected without him, but he could
not yet get himself nominated.

Very important is the fact that Gaitain took control of the Liberal party
apparatus after the 1947 elections. Turbay, and many other important
oligarchic leaders of the liberals left for self-imposed exile in Europe.
(Which is why many people here still speculate, that they - either together
with the Conservatives, or independently - were behind the assassination of

Also important to note, that with Gaitain’s victory inside of the Liberal
party, the CP switched sides (hypocritically) and began to pretend
enthusiastic support for Gaitain. This helped them later to become the
central leadership of the armed militias in the countryside.

7. La Violencia and Rojas Pinilla. General Rojas Pinilla was the political
son of Laureano Gomez, who became President, and then dictator - the only
"unelected" president this country had in this century. A lot of the
savagery you describe, was the work of Pinillas. During the 50’s La
Violencia was orchestrated by the military. The Conservative Party’s
private gangs of armed thugs were put under orders of the officer corps.

But Pinillas also built roads, sewage systems, irrigation projects, etc.
Among a large section of the Catholic peasantry, he is still thought of as
a savior who delivered them from (worse) poverty, if not from ignorance.
His politics, by way of L. Gomez, were a second rate imitation of Mussolini
(who was pretty second rate to start with.

8. What came to be called the FARC was not started by the CP, although it
came to be controlled by the CP. As you wrote, the violence in the
countryside had already been going on more or less continuously since the
1930’s. Liberals and Conservatives had two decades to arm and organize
themselves. The CP grew among those already fighting because of the vacuum
of leadership which occurred after Gaitain’s assassination. Their position
was further strengthened when the large Liberal landowners made a deal with
t he Conservatives for a truce (which the conservatives more or less
followed) isolating the small landowners, and landless supporters of the

(I read  Jenny Pearce’s book many years ago, but do not have it here now.
Wasn’t she British? Maybe a supporter of the Militant group? At the time I
thought it was a good book, but am not sure now that you cite it as
evidence of CP leadership in the countryside in 1948. The CP was organized
in t he countryside, but it was not the main organization of the armed
peasants then, rather there were many local organizations - most were
Gaitainistas, some were simply armed extended families. (some were both).
What the CP had in 1948 was the only nationwide organization. The
Gaitainistas fell apart with the murder of their leader.)

10. Again, you miss the significance of Rojas Pinillias when you talk about
the National Front. The two parties got together to get rid of Pinillas,
and to put an end to La Violencia, which they thought was going on too
long, and disrupting more important things (like making money.)

11. Pinillas, who apparently was caught off guard, left without a fight,
but came back with a bid for the Presidency against the national front.
Which - by almost all accounts, he won in 1964! Only to have the election
stolen by the National Front in one of the greatest and baldest electoral
frauds in the history of this hemisphere (putting both the PRI and the
Democratic Party to shame.)

Pinillas had run his campaign not on his record as the bloody torturer of
La Violencia, but as the road building, sewer building, God fearing, Pope
loving, Colombia-loving of the poor and down- trodden. And a lot of the
poor and down trodden bought it, and so did a lot of the god fearing petty
bourgeoisie who did not like the anti-democratic national front.

12.  M-19, was formed by supporters of Rojas Pinillas, who were joined by
dissidents from the FARC and elsewhere. They styled themselves
Bolivarianos, just like Hugo Chaves, and were emphatically not communists.
They had interesting ties in t he military, which allowed them to pull off
some of their stunts. While they took on a leftish coloring, they never
grew roots among workers or peasants. Their composition was almost entirely
petty bourgeois, unlike the FARC.

13. It is important to understand that M-19 still exists. It as an
electoral organization that - after participating in the "independent
electoral campaign of Noemi Sanin joined the "Grand Alliance for Colombia"
that elected Andres Pastrana President. Antonio Navarro Wolf is its public
spokesperson. M-19 went back to its roots in the Conservative Party.

14.  Nowhere do you yet mention the Union Patriotica, one of the keys to
the current situation. The UP was the CP’s electoral front in the late 80’s
until about 1992. It was a mass organization, which ran candidates for
everything from dog catcher, to President. More than 3,000 of its
candidates were assassinated, wiping out the public faces of the CP, and
its allies, and guaranteeing that the FARC would not sign any peace deal
that simply brought them in from the countryside to be murdered.

15. Peace talks have been going on, and off, here for as long as civil war.
I will write more about them later.


And here are a few more thoughts about this country, and your essays.

I think there is something to be said for the idea of "legitimacy" when it
comes to revolutionary politics.

Legitimate states are seen by the people of a country as having some kind
of historic right to rule. Illegimate states are seen by their own people
as not having this right.

The states of Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Panama - and to some
extent Guatemala, had no legitimacy in the eyes of all social classes in
those countries - because they were installed directly by the United States.

The other states of Latin America were the products of the wars of
Independence - plus a social revolution in the case of Mexico. They have

This means its harder to overthrow them, than it was for Castro to
overthrow Bautista. And by the same token, Castro’s state has legitimacy,
which makes it more difficult to overthrow him.

Why is this? Patriotism can be mobilized among the petty bourgeoisie to
defend a "legitimate" government from revolution - or counterrevolution.
But a state apparatus imposed by the marines  (or any other country’s
invading army), has no claim to the patriotiotic sentiments of the "people".

This explains a lot about the strength of the Vietnamese Revolution, and
the staying power of that state. China also. It also explains why the
"workers states" (deformed, degenerated, or whatever you choose to call
them) of Eastern Europe had so little popular enthusiasm behind them - even
among the workers.

At the present, the Colombian state is legitimate - the heir of Bolivar and
Santander. The FARC is not. However, if the US were to intervene militarily
on the side of the government, the state would loose legitimacy - and the
FARC would gain it. This is why Clinton and Pastrana, and the experts at
the Pentagon (although the Pentagon is clearly divided on the issue - which
could be the topic of another essay) and elsewhere - really do not want to
intervene here.

However, the GOP is a different story. Especially those among them who are
in charge of the Senate foreign relations committee.  They would like to
have a war here, even if they are aware of the complexity of the situation
and fear it.


About the FARC. I think you tend to subtly romanticize them.

They are a peasant army, without a mass base.

The reasons for this are -

1. The country is no longer a peasant country. About 40,000,000 live here.
Most in cities, most of them in big cities. There are between seven and
eight million in Bogota, two to three in Medellin. Cali and Barranquilla
both have more than one million. There are about 20 cities with several
hundred thousand to a million people.

2. The FARC is not a working class movement, and has no strategy to become
one, or even a real program to meet the needs of the workers.

3. The FARC lost political legitimacy within its own base - especially
among the displaced peasantry in the cities, with its deal with drug
producers. The former peasants - now workers, petty bourgeois, and lumpen
in the cities - have the same problems with drug abuse, especially among
their children - that you find in the ghettos and barrios in the USA. Many
poor people in the cities who once supported the FARC, no longer do because
of their anger over the issue of drugs. Even if, as most do, they
understand the FARC did it for good practical reasons.

4. The FARC has also lost political legitimacy from its kidnappings for
ransom - one of its three most source of funds. So many people have been
kidnapped - not only those counted by official statistics, and so many
others have paid extortion to prevent kidnapping, that they have turned the
petty bourgeoisie away from them. Those are the same petty bourgeois who
would have voted for the M-19 or UP a decade or two before. (The other two
sources are, drug related income, and taxes in the areas they control or
have influence. Many big multinational corporations here have regular
relations with the FARC, and pay regular taxes to them. These appear in
their books as "transportation costs", "professional fees", etc. The same
companies also pay the paramilitaries.)

5. The FARC’s connections with the drug trade were made for money, for
arms. The collapse of the USSR, and the retreat of the Sandinistas, left
them isolated. No guns for free anymore. Casto’s role in all of this is a
puzzle to me, but suffice it to say, he has very, very, good relations with
the Colombian government.

This does not, however, mean, that there are no guns available from Russia,
the Ukraine, etc. The Stalinist black bag men are still at work, only now
they work for hard cash, or anything that can be turned into hard cash,
instead of for Mother Russia. Where can the FARC get hard cash. Coke,
kidnapping, extortion.

This has had a big effect on the FARC in other ways. Lumpenized youth from
the street gangs join the FARC, as well as angry young campesinos
(sometimes the angry young kid from the farm, first becomes lumpenized,
then joins the FARC) . And in the FARC what do they learn how to do? Wear
uniforms, shoot guns, fight the army - and sell coke, kidnap, extort.)

The current political conjuncture in Colombia was created when the FARC
helped Andres Pastrana win the Presidency in the last election. They
clearly stated they would not negotiate with Horacio Serpa (Liberal Party
candidate, head of the tendency that came out of the MRL, and the most
direct descendant of Gaitain in Colombian politics) if  he was elected.
Then - in a dramatically staged move - they met with Pastrana out in the
countryside - just before the elections. Without the FARC’s support,
Pastrana could not have won.  *****************

I think the two best armies in South America are 1) The FARC, and 2) The
Army of Colombia. (Which despite its bad press in the USA, has beat up the
FARC in a number of battles.)   You should not trust the left press or the
bourgeois press in the USA (or anywhere else). The military here, and the
US embassy here, constantly exaggerate the strength of the FARC, and then
the Washington Post and New York Times repeat what they got in their
briefings, and then the other papers in the US pick up the stories. Their
agenda - the Colombian army and the Clinton administration, is to shake
money out of the Republican controlled Senate for the Pastrana government.
(It didn’t work, so the press offensive has fizzled out.)

Finally, I think the FARC badly wants peace, and so does Pastrana, and so
does Clinton. The big obstacle lies in the big old landowners, and their
paramilitary forces, and their allies in the military. As long has they
have guns and money, they will not allow the FARC and government to make a
peace deal.

And that means that ............

My crystal ball isn’t working.

Apologies for the disjointed nature of this note, but it is being written
late at night, in lieu of sleeping.

Louis Proyect
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