AuthorIoris, Rafael R.


In a late-night announcement on November 12th, 2016, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos declared, "We have reached a new final accord to end the armed conflict that integrates changes and propositions suggested by the most diverse sectors of society." With these negotiations, President Santos was trying to address the crisis that had been created by the "No" vote that had stunned everyone in the country and around the world the previous month. (1) Later in November, the National Colombian Congress endorsed the revised agreement. This time around, despite some criticism from "No" supporters (particularly from former president Alvaro Uribe), Santos did not risk putting the document through a second referendum that would risk another defeat. (2)

It remains to be seen how this revised agreement will be implemented, but it signals the possibility that Latin Americas longest military conflict in modern history would come to an end. The rejection of the so-called Havana Accord between the Colombian government and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the country's main remaining armed insurgent group) in the referendum of October 2nd sent a clear signal that although formal peace is essential, it is not the only measure the country needs. In addition, the success of the negotiations that led to the peace accord and its eventual approval by the Colombian Congress are attributable both to the efforts of President Santos and the widespread war fatigue in Colombian society.

To paraphrase the title of a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the agreement was a "chronicle of a necessary accord foretold"; neither the government nor the guerrillas had any more appetite for a pointless civil war. Colombia had paid a high price for a protracted conflict that had ravaged Colombian society for decades and had made it impossible for more sustainable economic growth to occur. Although since the mid-2000s the activities of insurgent groups had decreased, (3) this did not necessarily translate into actual state rule or at least a state presence in many areas of the country. (4) In several rural and more isolated regions, the threat of a return to overt violence is still very present and many still find their main means of subsistence in illegal activities that often involve profitable connections with drug traffickers. Cocaine, which is often the only economic alternative in remote corners of the country, may account for around 3 percent to 5 percent of Colombia's GDP. This commerce fosters violence, corruption, illegality, and uncertainty. (5) Having said that, it is also the case that the connections between the civil war, drug production, and economic development are not clear and the findings are contradictory. Some regions and sectors of the economy seem to have thrived even during the most violent periods of the long civil war.

Hopes that the October referendum could lead to a lasting peace and some sort of social normality were jeopardized when the "No" vote won. Domestic public opinion proved to be deeply polarized. Regions that had been most ravaged by war-related activities exhibited some of the highest levels of support, but broad urban coalitions opposed the cease-fire agreement. (6) In the end, the main winners of the "No" vote were conservative politicians (under the leadership of Alvaro Uribe and public prosecutor Alejandro Ordonez), the belligerent section of the army, and the military industry. (7) The difficulty the Santos administration had in leading the nation to a clear victory with the peace referendum reveals a great deal about the limitations of Colombia's fragile democracy.

Colombia continues to face socioeconomic challenges that have recently been aggravated by rising levels of organized crime activity both in the countryside and in urban areas. These developments have not occurred in a void; they have emerged in the context of an already deeply unbalanced land tenure system that has fueled the continuous operation of various guerrilla groups over the past sixty years. (8) Throughout the country, land distribution is extremely inequitable: in the year 2002,0.4 percent of the landowners owned 61.2 percent of the registered properties in Colombia. (9) Land ownership is notoriously insecure, especially for indigenous peoples, peasants, and subsistence farmers. The attempts of successive governments to advance agrarian reforms have largely been ineffective due to corruption and limited resources. In recent years, the focus has shifted from land reform to agribusiness-based rural development. (10) Thus, although President Santos has tried to move beyond an overly militaristic approach to conflict in the country, his political overtures will need to be complemented by economic measures aimed at reintegrating local communities into the national economy. This seems particularly relevant today, as the country's mainstream economic policies have become ever more aligned with those of free trade agreements, such as the Alianza del Pacifico (Pacific Alliance) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These international agreements are likely to aggravate social inequality because their priorities are market based.

This article examines present-day obstacles to a more socially inclusive and politically sustainable peace settlement that would be capable of addressing Colombia's many developmental shortcomings. It will consider the oligarchy's role in shaping the development of Colombia and the ability of its national elites to continuously reinvent themselves and reaffirm their power during both times of peace and conflict. This is directly related to the political economy of protracted war that Nazih Richani describes, which is characterized by the accumulation of economic assets by "armed actors," including members of the army and political and commercial elites. (11) However, the benefits the war brought to the military and the guerrillas in the 1970s, the 1980s, and especially the early 1990s have been increasingly constrained by shrinking political and economic returns since the emergence of paramilitary groups in the 1990s.


Although Colombia is a country of abundant natural resources and economic potential, it is mired in problems that have arisen from major socioeconomic disparities between regions, peoples, and economic sectors. The nation has followed an intensely painful path in recent decades that include a resilient leftist guerrilla movement, drug-trafficking activities, violence in urban and rural areas, and aggressive pro-business policies fueled by growing exports of natural resources, particularly oil. (12)

Colombia's history has been defined by sharp socioeconomic contrasts and a succession of fast-paced development initiatives, such as the country's remarkable insertion into the global economy as an important exporter of natural resources at the end of the nineteenth century and significant levels of industrialization in the middle of the twentieth century. Although these economic activities have been successful, they have not been enough to ameliorate, let alone address, the severe inequality that is to this day a defining feature of the country. Colombia has managed to maintain relative economic stability, largely avoiding the boom-and-bust and debt-crisis crises of other Latin American countries. Colombia's ability to achieve this stability has depended largely on the ability of elites to maintain and deepen sociopolitical inequalities.

This is a particularly disheartening reality, considering that for much of the twentieth century there was a substantial degree of economic and political experimentation and change in Colombia. The nations economy grew quickly, and significant levels of industrial development took place in different parts of the country. Given the context of dictatorial regimes throughout much of the region in the 1960s and 1970s, Colombia's successful experiences with peaceful transitions of power among the two main political parties (Liberal and Conservative) in the wake of the creation of the National Front in 1957 seem to present an example of a functioning formally liberal political system. However, what looked like a peaceful transfer of power was in fact a highly undemocratic and oligarchic electoral system that was created after the tragic events of what became known as La Violencia, the ten-year civil war that scarred the country, particularly the countryside, from 1948 to 1958. Peace became possible only because of the threat of renewed violence, which forced ruling parties to agree on a minimal agenda of rotating power among themselves while excluding other social sectors from partaking in the process. Thus, rather than viewing Colombia as an example of a successful democracy, the country's experiences since at least the middle of the twentieth century should be seen as an example of the shortcomings of formal democracy and the failure of top-down attempts to modernize.

The oligarchic nature of the Colombian state was further reinforced by two central features of the political evolution of the country: a weak central state structure and strong regional elites. The Colombian elite, which have promoted economic development through a very conservative social platform, is not united on many issues and they maintain their leadership through a complex system of public and private initiatives. (13) Colombian...

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