Colombia: Struggle for Peace, Struggle over Land

Terror, political persecution, arbitrary detention, and militarization have long dominated Colombia.  State-mediated killings now run into the tens of thousands.  More than four million rural inhabitants have been displaced from sustenance-providing land.  In the face of seemingly endless suffering, however, there is now a better chance for peace in Colombia.

Having recently announced that its last ten prisoners held for ransom would be released, and having signaled its decision no longer to raise money through hostage taking, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has propelled movement toward peace.  The insurgent group wants to “humanize the conflict,” said Piedad Cordoba, president of Colombians for Peace.  The Brazilian government agreed to provide logistical support for any prisoner release.  Cordoba proposed “a bilateral truce to open spaces for dialogue.”

Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra granted Cordoba’s request that representatives of her group visit FARC prisoners in state hands.  He has since reneged on his promise, however.

Peace is also on hold for at least two additional reasons.  One, peace proponents insist that war be ended only through negotiations on issues propelling the war, foremost among them skewed division of land.  Two, uncertainty prevails as to whether or not negotiations are possible while fighting continues.

In Colombia, decades of peasant uprisings morphed 60 years ago into war between agrarian-based insurgents and the state.  The FARC, formed in 1964, immediately set forth an agrarian program.  Its detailed proclamation of July 20 that year declared: “We are victims of big landowner fury.”  “Great masters of the land prevail in this part of Colombia (Marquetalia),” it explained, who are allied “to financial monopolies connected with imperialism.”  The FARC called for “handing over land completely free to farmers who will work it.”

Struggle in Colombia over land epitomizes class confrontation.  The victim class today comprises millions of persons displaced from land.  Now poverty in Colombia hovers around 65 percent, and most of the displaced suffer from poor schooling, inadequate health care, and under-nutrition.  Perpetrators are mine owners, petroleum producers, dam builders, corporate farmers, narco-trafficking entrepreneurs, and financiers.

The land question was a focus on March 6, International Day for Victims of State Crimes.  The National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) that day organized national and international demonstrations centering on rejection of the government’s 2011 Law of Victims and Restitution of Land.  MOVICE charged that the law provides no restitution for losses of non-land properties and that it parcels out land through “surface contracts” covering only habitation and “use contracts” opening the door for exploitative projects.  For MOVICE, the law protects paramilitaries and their “collusion with military and police commanders, business interests, and political elites.”

Supporting the MOVICE position on “dispossessed lands and territories,” the Communist Party in Antioquia claimed that so far, under the law, only 2,500 acres have been returned.

Likewise, the recent, well-attended “Colombia Behind Bars” forum in Bogota condemned “terror at the hands of major landowners in the interests of big money.”  A concluding declaration called for “true agrarian reform” and demanded “political negotiation, structural changes.”  It denounced U.S. imperialism.

Meanwhile, local, national, and international demonstrations against the Quimbo hydroelectric project in Huila, projected to flood 20,400 acres, protested loss of land.  The Spanish-Italian Endesa Corporation building the mega project is also developing giant hydroelectric projects in Chilean Patagonia that have likewise provoked resistance.

FARC’s consistency on the land question also remains clear in its February 2012 declaration “Our Land,” authored by FARC secretariat member Ivan Márquez.  “Amidst decadence and systematic capitalist crisis,” says Márquez, “our land — ours because we were born on it, our own country — has been converted today into a treasure coveted by transnational piracy.”  Márquez emphasized: “Capitalist greed has converted geography and territory into an obsession. . . .  We have lived through a quarter century of violent dispossession captained by the state — years of land expropriation, paramilitary massacres, and forced displacement.”

Whether a military truce should precede peace negotiations, or visa versa, is now under intense discussion in Colombia.  In an interview, Carlos Lozano, director of the Communist Party’s Voz newspaper, commended the FARC prisoner release plan as “an historic decision.”  While denouncing government fixation on military victory, Lozano called for government-FARC  “pre-dialogue, in secret,” to be followed by “national dialogue” centering on outstanding issues.

By contrast, MOVICE head and congressperson Iván Cepeda insisted: “We must look for the war to end as soon as possible.”  Interviewed in early March, Cepeda held up military truce as a first step.  During war, there’s an “absence of political forces necessary to achieve great structural changes.”  Cepeda speaks as a victim: state agents in 1994 murdered his father Manuel Cepeda, a former senator and director of Voz.

Colombian discussion about a fragile peace process only infrequently touches upon the U.S. political, military, and economic support for repression there.  Perhaps, the onus for confronting that dimension of war in Colombia falls upon the U.S. solidarity activist community.  An understanding of the class-based nature of struggle in Colombia, especially over land, would help us better discharge that obligation.

W. T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician living in Maine.  He is active in Cuba solidarity work and has contributed for many years to the People’s Weekly World and People’s World, focusing mainly on Latin America.  Monthly Review has published a few of his articles on Cuba and health.

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