Gen. Ruben Alzate, right, meets with Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, left, and Armed Forces commander, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, second from right, in Medellin, Colombia, on Nov. 30, 2014. (Colombia Ministry of Defense via AP)

The following is a guest post by Luis Fernando Medina Sierra of the Juan March Institute.


Maybe the third time is the charm. In the past, no one has lost money betting against peace in Colombia, but the current negotiation process — the third attempt in 30 years — has a great deal of momentum. The past month has seen numerous positive developments: the peaceful, prompt and unconditional release by the FARC of a kidnapped Army general, followed by an announcement of a unilateral and open-ended cease-fire; recent statements from the government have cautiously hinted at a deescalation of hostilities. In short, the oldest armed conflict of the Western Hemisphere and one of the oldest conflicts in the entire world (50 years and counting) might soon come to an end.

Recent scholarly debates around Colombia’s conflict have been dominated by the “greed vs. grievance” dichotomy of civil war introduced by economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler a decade ago. With the finding that that income inequality was not correlated with armed civil conflicts, many concluded that guerrilla conflicts were not fueled by social or economic realities but rather by the presence of lootable resources such as minerals or drugs. With Colombia’s countryside awash with coca crops and cocaine, the “greed” hypothesis gained favor among those who argued that it would be naïve and even immoral to try to reach peace with the FARC.

This line of analysis has several conceptual gaps that are often filled by ideological preconceptions. The statistical exercise assumes that when facing a social grievance, people will immediately resort to violence without considering any other option; however, a closer look at the decision process that leads groups to take up arms shows that this is not the case. Armed struggle is hardly ever the default position and is, instead, the result of a lengthy process that ends up generating divisions inside dissident groups.

As part of a larger research project, I have studied the comparative trajectories of two armed insurgencies: the Indian Naxalites and Colombia’s FARC. The Naxalites’ choice of armed uprising was denounced by most Indian Communists as “left adventurism.”  The case of the FARC is not as clear-cut, however. Early in its history, the FARC was a small nucleus of peasants engaged in self-defense as a result of Colombia’s civil war of the 1940s and’50s (link in Spanish). Settled in remote area of Colombia’s mountains, the group created a semi-autonomous community, and only became what we now know as the FARC after a bombing campaign launched by the government in 1964.

Hence, the relation between inequality and civil unrest need not be linear. A low level of inequality may not constitute grounds for conflict; a very high level of inequality may indeed be a significant grievance but, for that same reason, may encourage the emergence of unarmed political actors that take the wind out of the sails of the would-be guerrillas.

In Bolivia, a polity with levels of inequality comparable to those of Colombia, guerrilla struggle never took off in the same way (as Che Guevara himself learned too late). The Bolivian political process of the last decade shows that, with inequality so acute and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples so widespread, an electoral movement championing redistribution could succeed without resorting to arms.

A sub-national look at the Naxalites reinforces this point. The Naxalite movement was born in West Bengal but the conditions of poverty and land concentration also gave impetus to its rival, the legal and parliamentarian Communist Party of India (Marxist) which came to power through elections first in 1967 and then in 1977. Although today the Naxalites maintain a presence in West Bengal, the group’s stronghold is instead in the area of Orissa and Jharkand, where conflicts over mining have pitted the local Adivasi tribal population against the state and the upper castes. Likewise, in the state of Bihar, the combination of poverty and institutional decay has been fertile ground for the growth of Naxalite movements. But by the same token, some factions have found such a large constituency that they have chosen to go aboveground and operate legally and peacefully, as is the case of the CPI (ML) – Liberation.

The current peace process in Colombia has been remarkable for the extent to which political and socioeconomic issues have been part of the settlement. As it turns out, the FARC have shown some willingness to lay down their arms in exchange for reforms to the agrarian system, to the rules of participation in politics and, yes, to the policy toward coca growing regions. This is not the place to evaluate whether the proposed reforms are good or bad. Nor can it be denied that, apart from perpetrating serious atrocities, many fronts of the FARC are deeply involved in drug trafficking. In general, however, social conditions were grievous enough to move some sectors to active dissidence, but not so bad that those same sectors could immediately count on the widespread support of large constituencies had they chosen the legal path. What has made the FARC’s insurgency so intractable is precisely the fact that they occupy a geographic and social space where they can find very few allies in the country’s recognized political culture, leaving the violent trajectory as the only viable one in the eyes of the leadership. Bringing them back inside the mainstream fold will be a key element to providing an enduring solution.