Colombians will vote yes or no on Sunday to approve the Aug. 24 peace accord, which brought a cease-fire after more than five decades of fighting between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the Colombian government. Are we witnessing Latin America’s last cold war insurgency, or a continued struggle between capitalist democracy and socialism?
Critics are using social media and demonstrations in upscale shopping malls to claim the deal would transform Colombia into a socialist country — like Cuba and Venezuela. Commentators continue to marvel at the relatively modest reforms that the FARC committed to after four years of negotiations.
My research argues that what’s happening now is not just a remnant of the Cold War. Instead, we’re seeing the latest chapter in a century-old struggle over Colombian nationhood, national fragmentation and foreign influence.
Will the peace create independent republics?
A central concern is the creation of “independent republics,” which critics of the peace deal claim the FARC will now establish. Acting from these remote territories, a FARC-led political movement might then subvert Colombia’s constitutional democracy. Of immediate importance are the 28 designated rural disarmament districts and camps where an estimated 7,000 FARC fighters will disarm and begin reintegration into civilian life.
The peace accord also supports the continuation of government-authorized peasant reserve zones, designated in 1994 to guarantee peasant farmers access to land. The majority of existing peasant reserves — and the disarmament districts — are located in impoverished, sparsely settled areas of central and southern Colombia, the FARC’s historic heartland.
But “independent republics” have been a red flag in Colombia for more than a century. Similar concerns circulated as early as 1910, when Conservative Party politician Laureano Gómez denounced Panama — which had recently seceded from Colombia — as a “little republic.” In a speech before the Colombian Senate a half-century later, in 1961, Gómez’s son blasted the government for ignoring the growing number of independent republics within Colombia’s borders. He warned of a dire threat to Colombia’s sovereignty, as many of these republics were aligned with Colombia’s Communist Party.
The not-so independent republics
This warning came shortly after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, a time when many Latin Americans concluded that the Cold War had arrived in the hemisphere. The international environment thus led Colombians to see these remote territories, where the government had never had an effective presence, as a danger.
But it’s important to understand the settlements Gómez’s son referenced. Members of Colombia’s Liberal and Communist parties settled these areas to escape La Violencia, a bloody civil war from 1946-1958 that left 200,000 Colombians dead.
My research reveals how these rural communities sought to reconnect to Colombia’s economic and political life in the late 1950s, during a peace process that has close parallels to the post-conflict efforts Colombia has seen under the current administration. Communists were among the thousands of provincial residents who participated in a political pardon for crimes committed during La Violencia, and received agricultural loans and infrastructure jobs from the Colombian government. Far from being independent republics, rural Communist areas counted on government support.
The government cracked down on independent republics in 1964
By the 1960s, rural Communists’ efforts to participate in the nation as full citizens crumbled, due in part to the stigma of the independent republic label. Rather than being considered participants in the peace process, rural Communists were seen as a threat to the nation.
The ensuing schism between Communist communities and the government helped create the FARC in 1964. The Colombian Army moved into the independent republics that year to establish government control, in a campaign called “Operation Sovereignty.”
Independent republics raise concerns during the 2012 talks
The terms of the last government-FARC peace process, in the late 1990s, revived the specter of territorial dissolution. The legacies of Colombia’s long history of independent republics were accordingly a feature in the recent negotiations, which began in 2012.
Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who rose to the presidency on the failure of the 1990s talks, and who continues to take a hard line against the FARC as leader of Colombia’s opposition Democratic Center party, warned that the country cannot risk following the path of Venezuela and Cuba. In 2003, then-president Uribe also halted the authorization of additional peasant reserves, arguing that they violated government control and social order; the freeze remains in place.
The FARC itself has come a long way from the statement at its founding 1966 Second Guerrilla Conference attacking U.S. imperialism and calling for a popular seizure of power. This strident language was very much a response to the escalating war in Vietnam, among other global events.
Just two years earlier, in the midst of Operation Sovereignty, the most famous of the independent republics had issued a formal program explaining that its residents had taken up arms as a last resort, after legal political means had failed. Six of the declaration’s seven articles addressed the need for land reform and government support for peasants. Though presented in sometimes Marxist language, the declaration revealed the aims of the FARC’s peasant base.
Such statements seem much in line with the FARC we see today. The current peace accord contains provisions to expand political participation and seek alternatives to the rural narco-economy. These steps suggest the FARC’s desire to seek change from within the existing political system, rather than to replace it.
Indeed, the FARC’s pronouncements and iconography in recent months more consistently reference the reformist message of 1964, rather than the militant stance of 1966. The just-concluded 10th Guerrilla Conference marked the FARC’s last gathering as an armed group, as it transitions toward party politics.
The support of the international community was essential to the achievement of the peace accord and may prove an important part of the implementation process. However, Colombian history suggests how presenting Colombian politics in terms of either a cold war or an international Marxist struggle can obscure the questions of land and citizenship that sit at the center of Colombia’s past violence — and its prospects for a future peace.
Robert A. Karl is assistant professor of history at Princeton University, and 2016-17 Santander Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies. His book, “Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence, and the Making of Contemporary Colombia,” will be published by University of California Press in 2017.