The Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies is proud to present this recent historical essay written by Charles Bergquist, professor emeritus in History at the University of Washington, former Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies (1994-1996), and a highly regarded historian of Latin American labor.

The original essay appeared in Spanish as Charles Bergquist, “La izquierda colombiana: Un pasado paradójico; ¿un futuro promisorio?” Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de la Cultura 44:2 (2017), 263-299.


Introductory Note

Several months ago I published the following essay in Spanish on the paradoxical history of the left in Colombia, a country whose politics and history I’ve studied since the mid 1960s. The essay was highly critical of the revolutionary left in that country, arguing that the Marxist guerrillas and their intellectual and political civilian supporters grossly simplified Colombian history in their effort to rationalize the insurgency.  Not only the ruling class and the political elite but the revolutionary left and its supporters must bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the tragedy that has befallen the nation in recent decades.  In part because of the insurgency and the tactics the guerrilla adopted, the peaceful democratic left in Colombia has been decimated.  For labor activists in particular, Colombia was for years the most deadly place on earth to be a unionist.  

On a more positive note, the essay presented an alternative interpretation of Colombian history, one grounded in professional historical studies and attentive to the features that set Colombia apart from its sister republics in the hemisphere.  Focus on the Colombia’s unique and particular history, I argue, suggests theoretical and practical ways to rethink Marxist categories and foster a labor politics capable of democratizing society not only in Colombia but in other societies as well.  

The essay has generated considerable controversy and debate in Colombia over questions of historical interpretation, the recent peace accord between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla group, and the nature of leftist politics more generally.  These issues transcend the Colombian case and I am grateful that the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies is making this English translation available.  For the most part I have translated the essay as it originally appeared, although I have modified a few phrases, added some explanations for those unfamiliar with Colombian history, and included English-language bibliographic citations when available.



Much has been written about the negative result of the plebiscite of October 2, 2016 on the peace accord negotiated between the Marxist guerrilla FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas) and the Colombian government. Those in favor of the agreement have tried to explain the unexpected majority of votes rejecting the agreement by emphasizing the manipulative power of right-wing forces led by the party of expresident Álvaro Uribe and its allies in the Conservative Party. These opponents of the peace accord claimed that it allowed members of the FARC to go unpunished despite their crimes, that it opened the door to “Castro/Chavismo,” that it threatened the traditional family, and that it compromised property rights in certain rural areas. Other observers of the vote postulated a division between urban and rural voting patterns (with majorities of “yes” votes in many cities and majorities of “no” votes in most rural settings) or between generations (with older people more opposed to the accord and younger people more in favor of it). Still other observers speculated that many who voted “no” were registering their negative opinion of the government of Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and his neoliberal economic policies. Whatever the precise mix of factors that led to the negative vote on the peace accord, however, it is important to note that many Colombians chose not to vote at all. Abstention in the plebiscite was more than 62%. (1)

I do not deny the partial truth in all these explanations of the rejection of the peace accord, but I believe much more attention needs to be paid to the historical roots of the voting on the plebiscite. The “no” vote of many, as they themselves have insisted, was a gesture against the FARC and the protections and benefits extended to its leaders and rank-and-file in the peace accord. These attitudes reflect a long history of aversion and antipathy to leftist ideas in Colombia, not just among elites but among a sizeable portion of the general population, including a good part of the working class. As we will see in this essay, Colombia’s unique and particular history favored the pro-capitalist ideological hegemony of the establishment and limited the ideological strength of the left, a process that stunted the development of unions and the influence of leftist parties of anarchists, agrarians, socialists, and communists. As a consequence, Colombia’s two traditional parties, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, both pro-capitalist despite their differences, maintained an electoral monopoly throughout the twentieth century.

Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the emergence of Marxist guerrilla groups in Colombia, however, the impact of the armed left in the country has been tremendous. The guerrilla insurgency, which has now lasted more than a half century, has caused the death of thousands of people and has fundamentally affected the nature of politics, the direction of the economy, the distribution of the population, and even the cultural values of the Colombian people. How does one explain that in a nation with one of the weakest lefts in Latin America there emerged, following the Cuban Revolution, the strongest and most durable armed left in the hemisphere? I believe the terms of this paradox are related, that the historical weakness of the left helps explain the strength and longevity of the revolutionary guerrilla. I also believe that this paradox illuminates the long and disheartening history of the failure of the various efforts over the years to achieve a negotiated end to the armed conflict and that it clarifies the reasons for the unexpected negative vote on the plebiscite of October, 2016.

I began to think about the paradoxical history of the left in Colombia following the collapse, in February 2002, of the seemingly promising earlier peace negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government, and in the years that followed I presented a series of university talks on that issue. (2) I never published any of this material, but with the negative vote on the plebiscite of 2016, I found myself reconsidering the paradox with renewed concern.

Sympathy for the Colombian armed left, especially for its socialist goals if not its  tactics, has run deep among many students and faculty at universities across the hemisphere. (3)  That being the case, it is not surprising that when I gave a talk critical of the armed left at Colombia's National University in 2004 many of those in attendance were upset, even hostile, in the face of my presentation.  To analyze the paradox of the Colombian left involves questioning the romantic, voluntaristic stance of many leftists and the decision by groups of Marxist militants in the 1960s to take up arms against the government.  It implies, in addition, questioning the interpretation of the history of Colombia wielded by the armed left to justify its insurgency, a justification accepted by many of the insurgents’ sympathizers.  It was therefore not surprising that my talk at the National University was not well received by many, and in the discussion that followed several people protested.  I think one student in particular captured the thinking of many when he declared, “Professor Bergquist, I have great respect for your admirable historical works, but I cannot accept the criticism of the left you have developed in your talk today.  How can you, as a Marxist historian, be so critical of the armed insurgency?”  I can’t remember how effective my response was that day, but with the perspective of time I know I should have said something like this:  “Thank you for your comment, but I invite you to read my books again:  everything I’ve said today is implicit within them.”

In the essay that follows I hope to develop this response, making explicit how the paradoxical history of the left illuminates the twentieth-century history of Colombia and how this same paradox helps us envision a pacific, more democratic, path for the left and the nation in the here and now. The first section details the central problem of the Colombian left, evoking the political memoirs of a great communist labor educator and organizer, Nicolás Buenaventura. The second section seeks to establish the fact of the weakness of the left by examining aspects of its record as a force in the labor movement and the electoral arena. The next two sections evaluate different interpretations of the causes of the left’s weakness. The second-to-last section argues that the weakness of the left helps explain both the nature of the armed insurgency as well as the difficulty in fashioning an acceptable negotiated end to the fighting. The final section develops a structural and philosophical argument that predicts a more progressive and democratic future for the left and the nation as a whole. This promising vision depends, however, on the consolidation of a durable peace, hopefully through the amended peace agreement renegotiated between the FARC and the government and approved by an act of the Colombian congress in November, 2016.

This is an ambitious agenda and in order to fulfill it in a limited space I depend in part on statistical sources taken from my publications and those of others. I do not do justice to the growing body of historical work on many of the themes covered in the essay, citing only studies vital for the development of the argument and depending principally on concepts derived from my own work. I hope that presenting these ideas here in schematic form will stimulate a wider discussion of their validity and political utility.




One way to introduce the abstract theme of historical interpretation is to start with something personal and concrete by citing passages from an extraordinary book written by Nicolás Buenaventura, an outstanding communist leader of the last century. The book, which carries the suggestive title ¿Qué pasó, camarada? was published in Bogotá in 1992, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In that same year Buenaventura turned seventy years old and in the book he evaluates (and in large part repudiates) his political activity during more than fifty years of militancy in the Communist Party of Colombia. More than once during his life as a communist activist Buenaventura was jailed by the government for his political activity, and within the party his militance and leadership were rewarded by his being assigned high posts in the party hierarchy.  Buenaventura’s formal education included a year of study in civil engineering at Scranton University in the United States in 1945 and a course of study in History and Adult Education at the Institute of Social Science in Moscow in 1965. This last experience led him to translate into Spanish Marx’s study of precapitalist formations, which was published in Mexico with an introduction by the celebrated English Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in 1972. Nevertheless, Buenaventura was basically self-taught, and although for several years he served as editor of the theoretical journal of the Communist Party in Colombia, Estudios Marxistas, his publications reflect his long and intimate experience in popular and labor education. In this last role his talents were extraordinary, something I can attest to from personal experience. Nicolás had a remarkable ability to capture the attention of both his listeners and readers and convince them of his points of view. He developed and illustrated his political and theoretical arguments through anecdotes told in simple, everyday language, qualities nicely illustrated in the passage from ¿Qué pasó, camarada? that I now review.

In this passage, Buenaventura develops the idea that statism was the principle failing of communist regimes over the course of the twentieth century. He also uses the passage to advance the principle thesis of his book, the idea that the Colombian Communist Party was never able to resolve the contradiction between its formal socialist ideology and the appeal of private property to the majority of Colombians, including, paradoxically, many of the followers of the party. He begins his narrative by recalling a day, around 1950, when he accompanies a member of the Central Committee of the party at a secret regional conference held in Palmira in the south-central department (4) of Valle del Cauca. In attendance are several campesinos (5) organized by the party.

Before the conference begins one of the campesinos confronts the member of the Central Committee with the following question: “Comrade, tell me, is it true what they say that after the revolution all the land will reside in the hands of the government?” The Central Committee member, according to Buenaventura, first tries to avoid the question, but the campesino insists and in the end he has to answer. He explains that what the campesino has heard is part of an insidious anticommunist campaign and that in real socialism, as in the Soviet Union, for example, there are three kinds of landed property. “In the first place, comrade, you will have the right to own your own piece of land. There you will be able to milk a cow if you want or raise pigs or plant what you like. This is your thing. In the second place, we have cooperative property.” And on this point the Central Committee member develops an extensive discussion. “Finally,” he ends up saying, “there is State property. Or don’t you think there should also be, comrade, property belonging to the State?”

The campesino doesn’t respond to the question and returns to his own interrogation: “But comrade, if I want to sell the parcel of land you’re talking about, can I? Tell me yes or no.” “But why would you want to sell,” the member of the Central Committee responds. “No,” the campesino goes on, “it’s an example I’m putting to you, comrade. Let’s say there’s a buyer who has fallen in love with my farm and is ready to pay me more than it’s worth and I have seen a better piece of land that I can buy in the future. This is the case I’m talking about, comrade.” The Central Committee member is now in deep trouble and he tries again to change the subject. But the campesino insists and in the end the Central Committee member has to admit that the parcel of land in question could not be sold. The campesino goes on to amplify his point extracting from the communist leader the admission that the people in cooperatives could not sell their land either or trade it for better land or add another lot to their land with the earnings they’ve garnered. The campesino then proceeds to summarize the discussion saying, “I think then it’s true what they’ve been telling me. That all the land, in socialism, will be the Government’s.” “But the government is going to be you yourself,” the Central Committee member declares. And with that Buenaventura closes the scene with the following phrase, “I remember that when the campesino heard this last explanation, he began silently turning his felt hat over in hands saying not a single word.”

This is one of the many anecdotes narrated by Buenaventura in his book that criticize the statism of socialist regimes and illustrate, at the same time, how attractive and central private property is in the minds of Colombian farmers and workers, something that saddles the Colombian Communist Party with major contradictions. Buenaventura devotes an entire chapter of the book, “A Nation of Property Owners,” to show that the most important achievement of the party in Colombia was to foster, through land invasions in the city and the countryside, a modest redistribution of wealth and property in the country.

In a part of that chapter, Buenaventura recalls what it was like to walk through the countryside in the so-called “Independent Republics,” a facetious term popularized by the right-wing conservative Álvaro Gómez to describe the small rural enclaves controlled by communist militants that became the targets of military operations by the Colombian government (acting with U.S. advisors) in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and which served as incubators of the agrarian movement which evolved into the FARC. These enclaves were exceptional places in the rural geography of Colombia, places in the southwest of the department of Cundinamarca and parts of the department of Tolima where the struggles of coffee workers, some of them organized by the Communist Party, led to the breakup of large coffee estates and the purchase of parcels of land by smallholders. Coffee farmers organized by communists who received parcels of land like this, as happened for example in Viotá, Cundinamarca, remained loyal to the party in subsequent decades. But in spite of that loyalty, these small producers shared, along with the immense majority of coffee farmers loyal to the two traditional parties, an ethos that revolved around private property. This was an ethos made up of values and aspirations that converged on the goal of being the owner of one’s own farm. If one walked along the paths of these rural communist enclaves, Buenaventura recalls in his book, one’s communist guide “knew every farm boundary, where each property began and who was its owner.” This was the Communist Party of Colombia, Buenaventura concludes, “the party with a single effective program: to make a nation of property owners.” (6)




Obviously, Buenaventura simplifies and exaggerates, but, as we shall see in this section, there is no doubt that, despite its formidable efforts to construct unions and politically organize rural and urban Colombian workers, the Communist Party did not have much success. The most important chapter in this organizing effort took place in the 1930s in the coffee sector, the axis of the Colombian economy, where the party tried to organize workers in the production, transport, and processing of coffee beans. Those in production included day laborers, renters, sharecroppers, and owners of coffee farms of small and medium size. Those involved in transport were primarily muleteers and those in processing were mainly women who worked in the coffee bean finishing plants located in the small cities of the coffee zone. These efforts culminated, in the middle of the 1930s, in the organization of general strikes in the coffee zone which had some early successes but ended in failure. From that point on the Communist Party, like the Colombian left in general, failed to attract many people to its ranks and from the 1930s up to our own time, the great majority of workers remained loyal to the two traditional parties.

That leftist parties, and third parties in general, have been unable to break the electoral monopoly of the Liberal and Conservative parties makes Colombia a special case among the major nations of Latin America. Already in the late nineteenth century, Chile had a panoply of important parties, some of them leftist. In Mexico, the first social revolution of the twentieth century broke out in 1910. The Liberal and Conservative parties there lost influence and eventually a new party that enacted a fundamental agrarian reform, vanguard labor legislation, and, especially in the petroleum sector, nationalist economic policies consolidated electoral control over the nation. In Argentina at the start of the twentieth century anarchist and socialist organizations surged, and first a middle-class party, the Unión Cívica Radical, in 1928, and then, in 1946, a right-wing populist and nationalist party with labor backing, the Partido Laborista of Juan Domingo Perón, won power through electoral means. In Brazil, because of the importance of slavery in the nineteenth century, liberal and conservative elites did not dare try to mobilize much popular support, but in the twentieth century leftist parties with populist and labor programs appeared and eventually, toward the end of the century, a labor party succeeded in electing a metal worker president of the country. Nothing like this happened in Colombia.

The electoral monopoly of the two traditional parties during almost all of the twentieth century can be seen in the following four tables, which document the electoral results of presidential elections between 1930 and 1998. (7)




The tables reveal that the left typically won just a small percentage of the vote in these presidential elections in Colombia. Although significant third parties appeared (ANAPO in 1966, 1970, and 1974 and the left in 1990), they quickly declined and disappeared as contenders of the two traditional parties.




In books and articles published over the years I have contended that in order to explain the relative weakness of the left in Colombia, one must begin with an analysis of bipartisan political system the nation inherited from the nineteenth century. (8) This political system distinguishes Colombia from other Latin American nations because of the extent to which the popular classes identify with the two traditional parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. (9) Preconditions for the emergence of this distinct political system were certain demographic characteristics inherited from the colonial era before Colombia became independent from Spain in the early nineteenth century. And the development of this bipartisan political system owed much to the ups and downs of the Colombian economy during the first century of the nation’s existence. Let us look briefly at these two important elements beginning with Colombia’s nineteenth-century economy.

Compared to other Latin American nations, the export capacity of the Colombian economy failed to develop in a major and permanent way during the century following independence. This is illustrated in Table 5, which is based on the work of economic historian Victor Bulmer-Thomas. (10) The table compares the per capita exports of several Latin American nations at different points from the middle of the nineteenth century up to the early twentieth century. Even after its coffee economy was well under way, as late as 1912 Colombia had the lowest index of all the nations compared.

The difficulty of consolidating an export economy prolonged and intensified the struggle to institutionalize liberal political economy in Colombia, a task that every Latin American country had to accomplish during the nineteenth century if it was to fully join the evolving industrial capitalist world economic system. Liberal economic reforms sought to transform the mercantilist economy and corporatist society of Spanish colonialism, freeing up productive forces (labor, land, and capital) by subjecting them to the discipline of capitalist markets. The reforms thus required the abolition of slavery, the dismantling of common property in land held by indigenous peoples, the reduction of unproductive capital held by entities of the Catholic Church, an end to fiscal monopolies, a reduction in impediments like tariffs to international trade, and the adoption of the gold standard as the base of a country’s national currency. These momentous and wrenching liberal reforms affected everyone in society, both elites and the popular classes, benefiting the interests of some and hurting those of others. In conjunction with fundamental liberal political reforms, which defined the rights of citizens in the new democratic republics, these economic reforms generated much violence, especially in the form of civil wars between liberals (anxious to advance the reforms) and conservatives (who often resisted them). In Colombia these wars were frequent and prolonged and culminated at the end of the century in the greatest and most destructive civil war in Latin America in the nineteenth century, the War of the Thousand Days (1899-1902). But even that war, won by the most reactionary faction of the Conservative Party, did not resolve the question of liberal reform. That was only achieved through consensus within the elite on the question of liberal political economy a decade later, as the coffee economy took flight. (11)

The liberal and conservative armies that confronted each other in these wars were led by members of the white elite, but the majority of combatants, both forced recruits and volunteers, were working people and non-white. To arm working people and take them to war seriously concerned the white elite, which feared that the class interests or ethnic solidarity of their soldiers might threaten elite goals. In Colombia, however, the demographic weight of indians and blacks was much less than in other Andean nations or in societies like those of the Caribbean where slavery was central and sectors of the Colombian elite were able to overcome such doubts and class fears. In war after war, rival elite factions mobilized armies of lower-class, predominantly mixed-blood mestizos in their efforts to win control of government and either enact or reverse liberal economic and political reforms.

It is true that relatively important communities of indians and descendants of African slaves existed in Colombia and that both took part in political movements of consequence. In the middle of the nineteenth century, for example, as James Sanders has shown, an alliance of people of African descent and radical liberals advocated such far-reaching democratic reforms that the elites of both traditional parties acted to restrict democratic institutions in the second half of that century (12) But the norm among the mestizo majority of Colombians was to identify their political interests with those of the white liberal or conservative elite. And over time the tendency was for mestizos to be increasingly perceived (and to perceive themselves) as white, a fact revealed in a comparison of data on ethnicity in the censuses of 1851 and 1912. Immigration to Colombia in this period was minimal, but between the two censuses the percentage of people classified as white doubled, from 17% to 34%. And while in the census of 1851 people classified as mixed race were the great majority (65%), in 1912 that category registered less than half (49%) of the population of the country. (13)




That this political system, inherited from the nineteenth century, would consolidate and prolong itself through the entire twentieth century was a consequence in good measure of another set of economic factors, namely the growth and structure of Colombia’s coffee economy. The expansion of coffee production and export was spectacular during the first half of the twentieth century. From half a million 60 kilo sacks in 1910, coffee exports rose to a million and a half sacks in 1920 and two and a half million in 1930. And in spite of the low prices of the 1930s (prices fell from around twenty U.S. cents per pound at the end of the 1920s to an average of a bit more than half that during the decade of the 1930s) exports reached five million sacks in the 1940s before leveling off at between five and six million sacks in the 1950s and 1960s.

This was an export economy in which the means of production were held in the hands of national owners, not in the hands of foreign capitalists, as occurred, for example, in the sugar economy of Cuba, or in the mining economy of Chile, or in the petroleum industry of Venezuela. In those countries, leftist unions and parties prospered in part because workers’ struggles to improve their lives in the export sector could be viewed by other workers, and by members of other classes as well, as nationalist struggles against foreign capitalist exploiters of the nation. In contrast, in Colombia the struggles of unions and leftist parties in the coffee sector were susceptible to being stigmatized as actions orchestrated by proponents of foreign ideologies and unpatriotic, anti-nationalist agitators.

And in contrast to other Latin American agricultural export economies where most owners were national citizens but their units of production were typically very large (as occurred, for example, in Argentina and in Brazil), in Colombia production was dominated by small- and medium-sized farmers, a fact that proved to be of singular political importance. In 1932, the year of the first official coffee census, for example, small coffee farms (with less than 5,000 coffee trees) and medium coffee farms (with 5,001 to 20,000) produced about three-fourths of national coffee production. The early Colombian coffee censuses do not reveal the owners of these farms, but a coffee census done by the United Nations in 1955 does contain information on ownership. It shows that 88% of farms with less than 2,500 trees, 78% of those with 2,500 to 25,000 trees, and 57% of those with 25,000 to 125,000 trees were worked and administered by their owners.(14) This was the nation of small and medium property owners that so concerned Nicolás Buenaventura and bedeviled the Communist Party of Colombia.

During the crucial decades of the 1930s and 1940s, the number, relative weight, and production of these family coffee farms grew. These trends were not primarily consequences of social protest organized by leftist parties or of reformist agrarian policies of the State, processes that did affect small parts of the coffee zone of southwest Cundinamarca and a part of Tolima and which have received considerable attention in Colombian historical studies.(15) They were overwhelmingly the result of the individual efforts of campesino families affiliated with the traditional political parties and acting within the capitalist marketplace. The social mobility and growing access to property fostered by the coffee economy worked against the appeal of the left in these decades. In contrast, the ideas supportive of capitalism propounded by the two traditional parties tended to resonate with the lived experience of many workers able to achieve their dream of acquiring and/or enlarging a parcel of land.

In this struggle for the land, the clientelist networks of the traditional parties and their exclusive partisanship when they gained political control of government at the national or local level were crucial. Control of county seats, mayorships, the courts, and the police by the political party one was associated with could decide vital issues, from the adjudication of public lands to the resolution of lawsuits. Lawsuits were common among day laborers, renters, and small and large landowners and could involve payment for agricultural improvements to land rented or sharecropped, the fulfillment of labor obligations, access to water sources, and the demarcation of property boundaries themselves.

But if the political control of a given party could favor the fortunes of their partisans in one period of time, loss of that control in another could prove fatal. In this dialectic lay the potential for violence in the Colombian political system, a tendency that grew ominously following the changes of the guard in 1930, when the Liberal Party captured the presidency after decades of Conservative Party control, and more seriously when, sixteen years later, in 1946, the Conservative Party managed to win the presidential election over a divided Liberal Party and moved in some areas to violently exclude the Liberal Party from government. Government repression and Liberal Party resistance then led to a nightmare of partisan bloodshed called La Violencia in Colombian history that would not wind down until the two traditional parties agreed on a power sharing agreement called the Frente Nacional in 1958.

During La Violencia the three main coffee-producing departments of Colombia’s coffee heartland--Caldas, Tolima, and Antioquia--registered the highest number of deaths attributed to political violence. (16)  During this period much land in the coffee zones changed hands, but contrary to what many leftists have claimed there was no great concentration of land ownership during these years. The best study we have of the coffee zone during La Violencia found that the overall structure of land ownership changed little.(17)  During the decade of La Violencia, small and medium-size producers continued to produce the bulk of Colombia’s coffee. And in a climate of fierce partisan violence and brutality on both sides, the loyalty of many towards one or the other of the two traditional parties only grew stronger.

The structure of the coffee economy not only worked against the influence of the left among coffee workers and producers, intensifying their loyalty to the two traditional parties and consolidating their monopoly on politics. By promoting the nation’s economic development and the diversification of the national economy, the coffee economy fostered similar ideological and political effects in the general society as well. During the world crisis of the 1930s and 1940s, the classical era of Latin American industrialization through the mechanism of import substitution, the Colombian economy compiled an impressive record, as shown in the comparative data published by the economist Carlos Díaz. Average annual percentage growth of manufacturing production in the major Latin American nations during the period 1929-1939 was: Argentina (3.1), Brazil (5.0), Chile (3.3, a figure that corresponds to 1927-1939), Colombia (8.8), and Mexico (4.3). During the next ten years, from 1939 to 1949, the industrial development of Colombia was almost as impressive; the figures are Argentina (3.5), Brazil (7.2), Chile (4.8), Colombia (6.7) and Mexico (7.5). (18)  In short, in relative terms, during the first half of the twentieth century Colombia’s peripheral capitalist economy functioned quite well. Not only did it grow rapidly, it also diversified, becoming more industrialized.

While the world depression that began in 1929 gravely affected the economies of other American nations (Chile’s was the hardest hit), and in those countries leftist parties grew in influence, in Colombia the depression was moderate and the social reforms enacted by the Liberal Party (in particular on labor and agrarian issues) were modest but effective. Instead of promoting a stronger left in Colombia, the world crisis worked to strengthen the ideological hegemony of the Colombian establishment and the political monopoly of the two traditional parties. But at the same time it aggravated the tensions between the two parties. Conservatives were stung by the loss of power in 1930 and they boycotted elections and steadfastly opposed the moderate social and political reforms of the liberals. The Liberal Party, for its part, split over the extent of the reforms and the growing challenge to the establishment of the party by a faction led by Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. After the Conservative Party regained the presidency in 1946 and following the assassination of Gaitán in 1948, the latent violence of the Colombian political system exploded. This was the political system the left was forced to contend with in twentieth century Colombia, something not easy, as we have seen, given the structure of the nation’s coffee economy.




The previous sections have developed an explanation of the weakness of the Colombian left based on a complex set of factors. I have argued that demographic and economic factors combined to foster the formation of a bipartisan political system deeply ingrained in the population in the nineteenth century, a political system that was consolidated and perpetuated in the twentieth century thanks to the structure of a coffee economy forged by the struggle of coffee farmers for ownership of the land. (19)

We are now in a position to compare this explanation with that propagated by the armed left in Colombia. For them, the historical weakness of the left obeys a single simple cause: repression. The left is weak because, from the beginning of national life, dissidents have suffered unmitigated and bloody repression at the hands of the Colombian establishment. This view is shared and promoted tenaciously not only by the armed left, but by many students, academics, and solidarity organizations in Colombia and abroad who support the guerrillas’ socialist cause. (20) This interpretation of national history is clearly expressed in the document entitled “Our History,” authored by the FARC, as well as in the document produced by the umbrella guerrilla command in a famous reply to the so-called “letter of the intellectuals” published in 1992. (21) The guerrillas refer to the conspiracy against Simón Bolívar in the early independence period and the assassinations of liberal leaders Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914 and Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 to support the contention that the Colombian elite does not tolerate dissent and eliminates those who are not in agreement with its plans. Given this situation, the only way to construct a just and democratic nation is through armed struggle.

This simplistic, tendentious thesis ignores professional historical studies on these three personalities and the circumstances surrounding the attempts on their lives. It also ignores Bolívar’s well documented authoritarian inclinations, the doubtful socialism of Uribe Uribe, and the personalistic tendencies of Gaitán. The conspiracy against Bolívar developed in the context of the rivalry of factions of the elite that led to the founding of the two traditional parties. And the traditional enmity and struggle between the parties created the incendiary political environment in which humble assassins murdered Uribe Uribe in 1914 and Gaitán in 1948.

According to the armed left, the death of Gaitán buried the possibility of social reforms and the period of La Violencia that followed was an aborted social revolution. But the historical work on Gaitán and La Violencia complicates and fundamentally contests this analysis. In the first place, in the 1930s both the reformist party founded by Gaitán and the Communist Party, in part because of their electoral weakness, chose to join or ally themselves with the Liberal Party. After Gaitán returned to the Liberal Party his popularity and influence increased and eventually, as head of the Liberal Party, he became the most important politician in the country and the preferred candidate of his party for the presidential election of 1950. Nevertheless, although Gaitán contemplated certain economic and social reforms, the axis of his politics as head of the Liberal Party was to maintain, protect, and extend the political participation of his party in the increasingly violent struggle with its traditional electoral and clientelist rival, the Conservative Party. And although the left has tried to interpret La Violencia as a frustrated social revolution, and it is true that certain social and economic issues lay below its surface, the great majority of participants in La Violencia professed traditional partisan goals. The struggle between the two parties, despite its ferocity and violence, in large part came to an end once liberal and conservative leaders reached an accord to share power and divide public posts equally between the two parties according to the restrictive formula, validated through a plebiscite, called the National Front in 1958. (22)

During the first years of La Violencia the most reactionary wing of the Conservative Party violently repressed not only the liberals in arms and their sympathizers and fellow party members in the civilian population. Emboldened by the anti-communism of the first years of the Cold War, the government also sought to eliminate the small self-defense groups in the countryside directed by communists, among them those that would evolve in the 1960s into the FARC. This same anticommunist policy was continued under the National Front. That agreement prohibited political parties other than the two traditional parties, including the Communist Party, from participating in elections and the first National Front governments, acting with the military guidance of the United States, continued attacking the small groups of rural communists and the other small groups of Marxist guerrillas that emerged in the country during the decade of the 1960s. The exclusion of third parties during the National Front fostered the idea among Colombian leftists that they had always been excluded and repressed. Yet before the outbreak of La Violencia, although they never had much success, parties of the left could participate in elections without constraints. The National Front had been approved by an ample majority of votes in a plebiscite in 1957 and, in the first years of its sixteen years of existence (1958-1974), in spite of the monopoly of the two traditional parties, participation in elections was relatively high. Dissatisfaction with the National Front grew, however, over time and many voters expressed their disillusionment by abstaining from voting. Disillusionment grew notably after 1970, when many believe fraud defeated the presidential bid of the candidate of the populist party ANAPO, and this event prompted the emergence of yet another guerrilla group, the M-19 (named for the date of the contested election), thus complicating even more the violent political panorama of the country. But the electoral left failed to benefit from these developments when the National Front ended in 1974, as the electoral data reviewed earlier in this essay show.

The armed left and its sympathizers end their argument about constant political repression by the establishment recounting the tragic history of the Patriotic Union, the political party formed by the FARC and the Communist Party following the so-called peace accords signed by some of the guerrilla groups (including the FARC) and the government of Belisario Betancur in 1984. In the following years hundreds of members of the Patriotic Union were eliminated by right-wing forces. But what many leftists fail to remember or take into account is the fact that the truce signed with the government never led to an actual ceasefire by the FARC. In fact, the official FARC and Communist Party line during these years was to pursue all avenues, both armed and electoral, to achieve power. The simultaneous pursuit of armed struggle and pacific electoral contestation meant that members of the Patriotic Union were particularly vulnerable to repression by right-wing forces within the government and private paramilitary forces. Rightwingers claimed and many Colombians believed that non-combatants like left-wing unionists and political candidates were secretly allied with the armed left. This disastrous policy of pursuing both violent and peaceful means to achieve power was resisted and later denounced by important members of the left, such as the communist leader and labor historian Álvaro Delgado. (23)

Placing Colombian history during this whole period in comparative Latin American context is another way to critique the logic of attributing the weakness of the left primarily to repression. During the first half of the twentieth century the ruling classes of all nations of the hemisphere repressed the left with blood and fire. This was especially true of the labor left. But it would be difficult to show that the Colombian ruling class was more repressive than, say, that of Chile. In that country, in spite of the extremely violent persecution of working-class militants and the parties of the left during the first decades of the twentieth century, the most powerful electoral left in all of Latin America emerged and in 1970 it elected the first Marxist president in the Western Hemisphere. To tell the truth, before the formation of armed guerrillas in Colombia, the Colombian ruling class, precisely because of the weakness of the left, was less repressive of the left than its counterparts in the other major nations of South America.

It is true that Colombia witnessed repression of the working class and that there were terrible cases of it. The best known was the killing of workers and their family members and supporters by the Colombian army in the banana enclave controlled by United Fruit on the Caribbean coast in 1928. There has also been constant repression of petroleum unions controlled by leftists from the first years of extraction of the mineral in Colombia in the 1920s up to the present. But this repression occurred in industries peripheral to the Colombian economy, whose motor until the last decades of the twentieth century was the coffee industry. And, as we have seen, although there was a small part of the coffee economy (the region of Sumapaz in the southeast of Cundinamarca) where large coffee estates precipitated a collective movement, this was an exceptional zone and, thanks to the eventual parcelization of large estates, it was also transitory. If the banana industry or the petroleum industry had developed in Colombia as in other Latin American nations, such as Guatemala or Venezuela, the history of the left in Colombia would have been different. But they did not and, from the start of the twentieth century up until almost the end of it, coffee dominated the Colombian economy.




The historical weakness of the left in Colombia and the tendentious explanation of that weakness endorsed by many leftists make more understandable the decision by some to take up arms against the government in the 1960s. The FARC, as we have noted, had earlier antecedents but their revolutionary resolve hardened in that decade. Part of the hemispheric euphoria that energized the left following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Colombian revolutionaries, like leftists in other Latin American nations, dreamed of repeating the feat of the Cubans, abolishing the capitalist system and building a just and democratic society based on socialist principles in their own country. It proved extremely difficult to duplicate the success of the Cuban revolutionaries, however, especially in Colombia, in large part because the histories of the two countries were so radically different. (24)

Cuba’s much delayed independence from Spain (achieved in 1898, eight decades after Colombia’s) was compromised by the intervention of the United States, and in the decades that followed Cuba’s sovereignty was limited under U.S. tutelage. Cuba’s sugar economy was dominated by foreign capital and was vulnerable to violent price fluctuations; it also suffered from yearly periods of massive unemployment. In 1933 Cuba’s sugar proletariat seized control of many sugar plantations, and, in coalition with other radical and anti-imperialist forces, formed a revolutionary government bent on major social and economic reforms. That government was quickly ousted from power by reactionary forces supported by the United States. Twenty-five years later, the military officer who spearheaded the overthrow of the revolutionary government of 1933, Fulgencio Batista, now acting with dictatorial powers, controlled the country. In these and many other ways, the histories of Cuba and Colombia were radically different. But the most crucial aspect of these differences was revealed after insurgents in the two nations took up arms to overthrow their respective governments. While the Cuban revolutionaries succeeded in organizing a massive popular movement, the Colombian insurgents, although they tried a variety of strategies and tactics, never were able to mobilize much popular support. Colombian insurgent groups succeeded in attracting some urban militants to their cause and they were able to organize rural people in some peripheral parts of the country, but they were never able to win large-scale popular support either in the cities or in the central, populous areas of the countryside including the coffee heartland.

Pursued by government forces and unable to win much popular support, the Colombian insurgents relied, in order to survive, on dangerous tactics, especially kidnapping and extortion. They justified both actions as “taxes on capitalists and large landowners.” But kidnapping, an extreme violation of human rights that degrades and dehumanizes its victims, elicits general disgust. (25) And in a nation with many small and medium property owners it appears that many saw themselves, not just the rich, as possible targets and victims of kidnapping and extortion. What is certain is that fear and hatred of the guerrilla induced some to join the ranks of the paramilitaries, bands often led by large landowners that were operating in concert with the military forces of the government. One of the first of such groups named itself Death to Kidnappers. Hatred of the guerrillas, moreover, led many noncombatants to tolerate the illegal and extra-judicial activities of paramilitary groups and their supporters within the military, especially in regions where paramilitary militias were proving successful in eliminating the guerrilla presence.

Another lucrative tactic eventually adopted by guerrilla forces was to participate in the illegal drug trade, a business that by the 1980s and 1990s rivaled in value exports of coffee and penetrated virtually every institution of Colombian society. The drug trade was initially tolerated by many Colombians; after all, they argued, it was a U.S. not a Colombian problem, and the flow of drug money proved useful to many in both private and public life. In contrast to the attitude of most Colombians, however, the drug trade aroused the intense interest of a U.S. government already embarked on a world-wide “war on drugs.” Soon the United States began a massive program to combat the drug trade in Colombia, a program that provided the Colombian government with new tools to fight the guerrillas.

Incapable of directly confronting the military forces of the government, the insurgents adopted the classic tactics of guerrilla warfare: ambushes of small groups of soldiers and attacks on the infrastructure of the country, especially oil pipe lines and the electrical grid. These tactics inflicted significant damage on the army, on the economy, and, in the case of oil pipe lines, on the environment. Given the nationalism of most Colombians these acts were viewed by many as irresponsible blows against the integrity of the nation. Finally, especially as a consequence of the struggle against the paramilitaries, the guerrillas, like their opponents, resorted to terror in order to discipline the population in some areas under their control. The impact of this tactic may have been the most costly for the guerrillas in the court of public opinion. In any case, the tactics adopted by the insurgents in the wake of their inability to attract popular support meant that guerrilla groups like the FARC were held in contempt by many Colombians. These were people convinced of the need to defeat the guerrillas and punish them.

With the passage of time, faced with the inability of military forces to eliminate the guerrillas (in good measure because of the difficult jungle terrain of much of the country) and chastened by the widespread insecurity and economic and social damage inflicted by the conflict, elements of the ruling class tried to end the insurrection by means of negotiation. As we have noted, in spite of several attempts, some of them quite long and apparently serious, until recently all such efforts ultimately failed. I believe that the historical weakness of the left also helps us understand this outcome. On the part of the guerrilla, negotiators must have thought: “if in the past the left has always suffered repression and at present we confront a hostile society, we must negotiate significant social and economic concessions and airtight political guarantees or we are sunk.” On the part of the government, in contrast, negotiators must have thought: “if in the past we have never had to concede anything to a weak left and today the guerrilla lacks popular support we should insist on maximum concessions from the insurgents as a condition for peace.”

In the most recent negotiations, however, the correlation of forces appears to have been more favorable to an accord than in decades past. On one side, the leaders of the FARC may have taken note of the extent of the changes in the country and its economy over the years and realized that the left’s electoral fortunes could be more promising than in the past. And it may be that the government, supported by powerful domestic and international capitalist interests, came to realize that a bright future as a mineral exporter awaits a Colombia in peace. (26)

Whatever the case, looking at the agreement the two sides succeeded in signing in September, 2016, through the historical lens of this essay, two aspects stand out. The first is the ideological weakness of the FARC in contesting the neoliberal policies of the government. The second is the success of the FARC in favoring and protecting its combatants and insuring representation (automatic, guaranteed, and long-lasting) for its leaders in the legislative branch of the national government. The FARC failed to win the fundamental agrarian reform that had been their raison d’être from the beginning of their insurrection. Nor did they achieve modification of the neoliberal policies that Colombian governments have been implementing since the 1990s. But the FARC did win approval for several measures and programs designed to protect the lives and well being of its combatants, avoid their imprisonment, and insure the group’s political representation in the national congress.

These terms proved acceptable to the government and almost half of the voters in the 2016 plebiscite. But they were opposed by a majority of voters. In the context of this essay it is important to note the geographical distribution of the “no” vote in the country. The proportion of “no” votes was high in the coffee heartland of the country, in the departments of Antioquia (62%), Quindío (60.1%), Risaralda (55.6%) and Caldas (57%). It was also high in the coffee departments of Tolima (59.7%), Cundinamarca (65.5%), Norte de Santander (63.9%), and Santander (55.6%). And although the other big cities in the country (Bogotá, Cali, Cartagena, and Barranquilla) voted “yes” on the plebiscite, Colombia’s second city, Medellín, located in the heart of the coffee zone, voted “no”(63%). All the medium-sized cities in the coffee zones voted “no” in the plebiscite: Cúcuta (65.3%), Bucaramanga (55.1%), Manizales (50.9%), Pereira (55.6%), Armenia (57%), and Ibaqué (60.6%). There were other departments and cities that opted for a “no” vote, particularly on the sparsely populated eastern plains of the country, but in great part the votes against the peace accord came from the densely populated coffeeproducing departments noted above. (27)




The “no” vote in the coffee zones reflects in part the ideological influences we have been emphasizing, but it also must reflect as well the growing crisis of the Colombian coffee economy in recent decades. The coffee crisis is part of a more general one affecting virtally all traditional agriculture in the country since the implementation of neoliberal reforms began in the 1990s. Neoliberal reforms have also been eroding the vitality of the industrial sector of the economy and strengthening the mining sector. Today Colombia’s most important legal exports are minerals: petroleum and coal.

Meanwhile the drug trade and the enormous amounts of cash it produces, combined with the social devastation wrought by decades of war in rural areas, have brought about what some have called a “counter agrarian reform,” a tremendous concentration of land in some areas of the country. Many of these huge estates, controlled by the super rich, are devoted not to agriculture but to cattle raising. Cattle production is not an efficient use of land suitable for agriculture and provides few jobs. It also contributes to the immense displacement of people from the countryside in areas most affected by decades of war. Many of these people have flocked to the cities where they often survive precariously in the informal economy. In these ways, a country that in the middle of the twentieth century had an important rural middle class in the coffee zones, and consequently, an internal market that favored industrialization, has seen industrialization stagnate and now has one of the highest levels of informality in the world. In the throws of such economic and social change, the bipartisan political system that dominated the political terrain in the country throughout the twentieth century has entered into a period of crisis and decay.

I have not studied any of these trends and it is possible that my description of these changes needs modification in some details. But the overall picture seems clear and its political implications are potentially very important. All of the processes I have described should favor the future electoral possibilities of the left. To realize these possibilities, however, the fundamental prerequisite is a durable peace.

As long as the insurrection has continued, the peaceful left in Colombia has paid an enormous price. Not only were hundreds of followers of the UP murdered and several of its leaders assassinated in the 1980s and 1990s. Also victims of right-wing government and private repression then and in the current century were all sorts of people exercising democratic rights, including journalists, teachers and professors, and activists working to protect human rights. For decades hundreds of Colombian unionists have been assassinated by right wing forces including elements of the police and the armed forces of the government. Some have even been killed by leftists in struggles among rival guerrilla factions for control of unions and territory. The annual numbers of trade unionists killed in Colombia are simply inconceivable in other parts of the world. (28) Only the end of the insurrection and the license it has afforded the right can bring an end to this grotesque butchery.

Luckily, the peace agreement defeated in the plebiscite of October 2016 was eventually salvaged. In November of that year, following new negotiations in Havana, the FARC and the government approved modifications to the original accord that sought to respond to a series of objections and fears expressed by the leaders of the opposition to the first accord. The changes to the original included some significant concessions on the part of the FARC and reassuring clarifications of some clauses on the part of the government, but they did not affect the fundamental elements of the original accord. (29) In spite of the changes, the leaders of the “no” vote declared that they could not support the new accord. At that point the Santos government and the FARC decided to validate the new accord not through a new plebiscite but through legislative means. Supporters of President Santos had a clear majority in congress and when the vote came up, opponents of the new accord, led by ex-president Álvaro Uribe, refused to vote and walked out of the chamber. Although the peace accord enjoys considerable international support, including that of the U.S. government, and Santos himself was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for peace, the degree of domestic opposition to the new accord and the lack of ample support for it expressed in a plebiscite will compromise implementation of the complicated terms of the agreement. Already there have been efforts to sabotage or curtail several of its provisions.

Yet even if the terms of the peace accord with the FARC are met and current negotiations with the smaller guerrilla group, the ELN, bear fruit, the central problem faced historically by the Colombian left will remain. This problem, evoked at the beginning of this essay through the testimony of Nicolás Buenaventura, is epitomized by the contradiction between the socialist ideals of the Communist Party and the aspirations for ownership of the land by the Colombian coffee workers whose attitudes Buenaventura surveyed. This is a problem that transcends the Colombian case, however. It is one that involves the core practices of socialist societies in the past and basic interpretations of Marxist philosophy in the present. It is a problem that will affect the future of the left not only in Colombia but on a world scale.

Colombian communists, like the Marxist left in general, have viewed the aspirations of workers to become owners of productive property as a petty bourgeois error. Nicolás Buenaventura himself, as the leader of an investigative team sponsored by the Communist Party in the department of Valle del Cauca in the 1970s, subscribed to this orthodox position. The team interviewed 338 migrant agricultural workers and asked them, among other things, if they thought that the land in Colombia was divided in a just and efficient way. Ninety-two per cent responded that it was not. When they were asked how the land could be divided better, seventy per cent chose the option “it would be better parceled out in family owned farms” while only thirty percent chose “it would be better organized as cooperatives or communal enterprises.” Buenaventura categorized the first response as the “campesina” or peasant response and the second as the “worker” response. (30)

These categories reflect the interpretation of Marx authorized by communist parties around the world and implemented in the socialist societies we have witnessed to date. Fixated on who owns the means of production and who, in contrast, sell their labor, these Marxists, like the mature Marx himself, see the proletariat as the force that will overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a socialist order. But the historical record shows this has not been the case. Organized proletarians have been an important reformist and democratic force in the industrial capitalist world, but they have not been a revolutionary class. The socialist revolutions we have witnessed have in fact been spearheaded by non-proletarianized rural people, as revealed in the celebrated study by the anthropologist Eric Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. And earlier, in Europe, it was artisans, not proletarians, who proved to be the main motor of social revolution, most spectacularly in the French Revolution.

Why is this the case? I believe the answer also lies in Marx, but in his early humanistic writings. In them, Marx argues that what makes us human, what distinguishes us from other animals and industrious insects like bees is purposeful work. Human beings make a plan to accomplish a task and then execute it. This unity of mind and hand is what defines human labor. But that unity is broken under capitalist relations of production, in which the tools of work and the conception of tasks are removed from workers and concentrated in capitalist hands. (31)

The so-called “peasants” of the revolutions of the twentieth century and the artisans of eighteenth-century Europe fought so tenaciously in part because they sought to preserve and enhance the unity of conception and execution in their work. That is, they were fighting to preserve their humanity. But the aspiration to control how and when we work does not disappear with proletarianization. It survives as a goal of all who work, be they blue or white collar, a goal that has not been realized in any industrialized society, capitalist or socialist. (32)

From this perspective, the struggle for the land by coffee workers in Colombia takes on new significance. By gaining ownership of a parcel of land sufficient to cover one’s sustenance and that of one’s family, plus a surplus to sell in the market, day laborers or renters or sharecroppers win autonomy over their work: they are able to decide when to work, how to work, with whom to work, and, they are able in addition to enjoy the fruits of their labor. In other words, they achieve unalienated labor, and it is this condition that explains their remarkable productivity despite the limited technology at their disposal. It is this condition that explains how during the 1930s and 1940s small and medium coffee producers in Colombia increased their portion of national coffee production at the expense of their big capitalist competitors and how, during the same period, Colombia increased its share of the world coffee market at the expense of its Brazilian competition.

Clearly, realization of this unalienated labor in the Colombian coffee economy was not pure or perfect. These small and medium producers usually depended on patriarchal relations that often exploited women and children family members. And, as we have seen, the aspiration to acquire a farm or increase the size of one could generate lawsuits and even violence between neighbors. These same aspirations were channeled by the traditional parties in ways that exacerbated political tensions and the potential for violence between farmers. Nevertheless, once fully understood and coordinated by parties of the left, the aspiration to control one’s work and the product of one’s labor could give rise to productive relations at once generous, efficient, and peaceful. Something like this in fact happened in the communist-controlled enclaves of the coffee zone like Viotá, described by Buenaventura in his 1992 book, although he, who had not yet completely liberated himself from communist orthodoxy, could not yet see such things with clarity.

Study of Colombian coffee production thus holds out promise for a reconstituted Marxism and a renewal of the left in Colombia, and (why not say it?) other parts of the world as well. Were the left to center its labor politics on the importance of worker control over the labor process, it would have a powerful tool to reorient not only its politics vis-à-vis small and medium farmers like those in coffee production in Colombia. It could also redefine its position in the face of other sectors of the working class, from agricultural workers to industrial workers organized in unions to the armies of temporary workers and people who work in the informal sector and in the so-called “sharing economy” and the so-called “gig economy” so in vogue in advanced capitalist societies today. The aspiration to exercise more control over how, when, with what, and with whom we work is universal, yet resisted and denied in capitalist relations of production (and those of socialist societies as well). Acknowledging this human aspiration and constructing a labor and electoral politics around it offers the most promising path forward for the left in Colombia and elsewhere. Nevertheless, this promise will have no future in a nation that continues at war.

Constructing a solid and enduring peace in Colombia will require much more than approval by a majority of peace agreements between the guerrillas and the government. A minimal requirement for construction of such a peace hinges on general acknowledgement that we all share blame for the disaster that has befallen the nation over the last half century. Blame is not simply held by the ruling class, whose stubborn defense of its privileges has retarded the economic, social, and political development of the nation. Nor is it confined to the elements of the armed forces, the police, and the paramilitary groups that have violated the human rights of the population, and the sectors of the general public that have approved or have ignored such abuses. The left, especially the armed left, also has to assume its portion of blame. It may be comprehensible that at the start of the 1960s progressive, idealistic people decided to take up arms against the government hoping to replicate what had happened in Cuba. But once their inability to win popular support was clear, and their tactics had been rejected by most Colombians, once their insurgency had been transformed from an altruistic effort to build a just socialist society into a violent business of kidnapping, extortion, and drugs, once the promise of the Cuban Revolution began to fade and the Soviet Union collapsed, and once, finally, that it was impossible to deny that the insurgency had spelled disaster for the peaceful left in the country, was it not time to give up on armed struggle and find a way to peace?

Half way through the armed insurgency, in 1992, Colombian intellectuals answered “yes” to this question and wrote the public letter addressed to the insurgents previously cited in this essay. The dozens of people who signed the letter, the cream of Colombian intellectual life, among them the great leftist novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, urged the insurgents to lay down their arms. They argued that the insurrection was no longer useful, that it had become counterproductive. But their reasoning, instead of challenging the historical narrative the armed left used to justify the insurgency (the history of the bloody repression of dissidents perpetrated by the elite since the dawn of the republic), implicitly confirmed it. In its reply to the letter, the umbrella command of the guerrillas not only rejected the idea of ending the struggle, but categorically reconfirmed the historical justification for the insurgency that the intellectuals had failed to question. (33)

Twenty-five more years of a destructive war without hope of victory on the part of the insurgents have now passed, and still today, judging from their pages on the Internet, the FARC and the ELN remain wedded to this same historical narrative and speak as though they represent the popular classes of the country, a position they never had and a dream that today seems even more than in the past completely divorced from reality. Until they acknowledge their portion of blame in the national tragedy it is hard to see how they can hope for significant electoral influence in the future.

And with this we come to a final group of people who need to accept blame for the tragedy of the last half century, the professional historians who specialize on Colombia. For a long time we have failed to confront, complicate, and discredit the historical narrative wielded by the armed left to justify the insurgency. In my own case, I had at my disposal the tools to challenge this narrative—an alternative understanding of the fundamental causes of the weakness of the left—much earlier than the publication of the intellectuals’ letter. And although my Colombian co-editors, the historians Gonzalo Sánchez and Ricardo Peñaranda, and I included that letter and the defiant response of the guerrilla in the book about the violence we published in 2001, we failed to critique the guerrillas’ rendering of Colombian history. This despite the fact that the book, like its predecessor published in 1992, (34) had as its purpose presenting a comprehensive analysis of the reasons for the violence in Colombia for English readers. Today, more than twenty-five years after the publication of the intellectuals’ letter, and more than a half century since the start of the insurgency, professional historians continue to exercise great caution when it comes to criticizing the historical understanding touted by the insurgents. A good example is the historical synthesis of the armed conflict, ¡Basta ya! [Enough!], recently published by the National Center for Historical Memory, which in my opinion grants too much credibility to the historical narrative championed by the armed left. (35)

Part of my differences with the historical philosophy of the research team that produced ¡Basta ya! has to do with the postmodern relativism much in vogue in the historical profession these days. This approach seeks to give voice to all sides involved in history, and although it insists on corroboration of events that occurred in the past, it tends to avoid the task of evaluating the validity of one historical interpretation of events over another. I do not share this position. I believe that interpretations of the past that conform to the methodological pillars of professional historians are superior and, in a real sense, truer than those that do not. (36) These pillars of the historical method—the necessity of mastering, evaluating, and conveying to readers extant scholarship on the subject one is studying, a recognition of the centrality and inherent bias of primary sources in advancing historical understanding, and a commitment to the principle that all aspects of historical change are interconnected—are fundamental to the professional historians’ craft and they are generally agreed upon by all historians regardless of their specialties, political commitments, and the ideological traditions (be they liberal, conservative, or Marxist) in which they work. But each of these pillars of the discipline has a democratic corollary, although in practice these are ignored or denied by many historians. Evaluation of the extant scholarship on a subject and critical discussion of bias in primary sources provide readers of historical works with tools vital to weighing the validity of historical interpretations. Informed understanding of how things got to be the way they are is a prerequisite for effective political action in the here and now, a vital component of a democratic polity. Recognition of the interrelationship of all aspects of history, including the notion that just as all of us are affected by historical change, we in turn affect the course of history, prods the historian to write in a way the general public can appreciate and understand. Thanks to these corollaries, over time, however imperfectly, democratic interpretations of the past are the ones that come to be accepted universally. To those historians who deny this proposition, I ask: Whose interpretation of slavery do we accept today as the most valid? That of the slave owners or that of the slaves?

Are some historical interpretation better and more democratic than others? Let the reader be the judge!





1. A good overview is Javier Duque Daza, “Un plebiscito innecesario, una derrota inesperada,” Razón Pública, Web. Oct. 3, 2016. A discussion of the vote by academic “experts” sponsored by the Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Relaciones Internacionales (IEPRI) at the National University in Bogotá is summarized in Jamira Gómez Muñoz, “Los motivos por los que ganó el No, según catedráticos y analistas políticos,” El Espectador. Web. Oct. 20, 2016. A candid personal account of the rural-urban and generational splits is Lina Britto, “Generation War,” NACLA, Web. Oct. 10, 2016. In “Power Over Peace in Colombia,” Jacobin, Web. Oct. 7, 2016, Forrest Hylton describes the deplorable conditions of the marginalized poor in Colombia’s cities and speculates on the possible “no” vote among them.

2. The first, “The Left and the Paradoxes of Colombian History,” was presented at the University of California, Berkeley, February 14, 2002. Later, at a conference on the crisis in Colombia held at the University of Calgary in Canada on January 19, 2003, I presented “Where is the Left in What is Left of Colombia?” On May 25, 2004, I gave a talk entitled “La historia paradójica de la izquierda colombiana” at the National University of Colombia, in Bogotá, and two days later I spoke on the same theme at the branch of the National University in Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín.

3. I should point out that such sympathy and support, both in Colombia and abroad, is no longer as strong as it once was.

4. A geographic and administrative entity roughly equivalent to a state in the United States.

5. Literally, “people of the fields,” this term is used to describe rural day laborers, sharecroppers, renters, and small and medium landowners in Colombia and much of the Spanish-speaking world. Unfortunately, it is often translated into English as “peasant,” a term with its own confusing and value-laden connotations.

6. The quoted material is from Nicolás Buenaventura, ¿Qué pasó, camarada? (Bogotá, Ediciones Apertura, 1992), pp. 84, 89, 122-24.

7. The tables are taken from Jonathan Hartlyn and John Dugas, “Colombia,” in Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America, eds., Larry Diamond, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset (Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 1999). The Conservative Party abstained from voting in 1934, 1938, and 1942. The gap in the data between 1950 and 1957 marks the era of the right-wing Conservative regime of Laureano Gómez and the dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a departure from Colombia’s record of formal political democracy through most of the twentieth century.

8. The books include Coffee and Conflict in Colombia, 1886-1930 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1978) and Labor in Latin America: Comparative Essays on Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986).

9. In a recent regional study focused on the department of Tolima, Brenda Escobar discounts the extent of political partisanship in the War of the Thousand Days in Colombia at the end of the nineteenth century emphasizing instead the pragmatic motivations of elites and popular forces. There is no doubt that such motivations play a role and that political motivations and identities are complex and multiple, but what stands out in comparative Latin American context is the depth of political party motivation in Colombia. See her De los conflictos locales a la guerra (Bogotá: Academia Colombiana de Historia, 2013).

10. Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of Latin America since Independence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 68.

11. I examine this history in Colombia in Coffee and Conflict and in other Latin American nations and the United States in Labor and the Course of American Democracy: U.S. History in Latin American Perspective (London: Verso, 1996), pp. 8-42.

12. James E. Sanders, Contentious Republicans: Popular Politics, Race, and Class in Nineteenth-Century Colombia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004). Another example is the armed indigenous movement led by Quntin Lame at the start of the twentieth century and its successor at the end of that century, movements studied by Ricardo Peñaranda, Guerra propia, guerra ajena (Bogotá, Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica / IEPRI, 2015).

13. The figures are reproduced in Frank Safford and Marco Palacios, Colombia. Fragmented Land, Divided Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 261.

14. See tables 5.l to 5.4 in Bergquist, Labor in Latin America, pp. 299-302.

15. Among recent contributions the careful study of Rocío Londoño Botero, Juan de la Cruz Varel: Sociedad y política en la región de Sumapaz,1902-1984 (Bogotá:
Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2014) is especially notable.

16. Table 5.5 in Bergquist, Labor in Latin America, p. 426.

17. Carlos Miguel Ortiz Sarmiento, Estado y subversión en Colombia: La Violencia en el Quindío, años 50 (Bogotá: Fondo Editorial CEREC, 1985).

18. Carlos F. Díaz, “Algunas notas sobre la historia económica de América Latina, 1920-1950,” Ensayos sobre historia económica colombiana, in Miguel Urrutia, et al. (Bogotá:
Fedesarrollo, 1980), Table IV.

19. To be sure, the reasons for the weakness of the left in recent decades go beyond this coffee dynamic. Land colonization outside the coffee zones, much of it devoted to elicit drug production, has served as an escape valve for social unrest. Also telling is the neglect by the left of urban sectors, especially those involved in the informal economy. On the fortunes of the left in recent decades see Forrest Hylton, “The Experience of Defeat: The Colombian Left and the Cold War that Never Ended,” Historical Materialism 22:1 (2014), pp. 67-104.

20. A typical example is Colombia Support Network, a U.S.-based organization whose position on the historical origins of the current situation closely mirrors the interpretation of the Colombian armed left. See the article endorsed on its website on October 14, 2016 written by Cecilia Zárate-Laun, “Are We Going Back to Square One in Colombia?” The article originally appeared in the leftist U.S. magazine Counterpunch the same day.

21. These documents, analyzed below, were widely distributed and commented on in Colombia. They are reproduced in English in Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Peñaranda, and Gonzalo Sánchez, eds., Violence in Colombia, 1990-2000: Waging War and Negotiating Peace (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001), pp. 214-245.

22. While many leftists try to interpret the ten convulsive years that followed the death of Gaitán as an aborted social revolution, most historians have focused on the political events of the decade: the repressive Conservative Party governments; the dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla; its replacement by a military junta; and finally the agreement that produced the National Front. Two works that explore the fundamental role of economic elites in these events, particularly industrialists, are those of Eduardo Sáenz Rovner, La ofensiva empresarial (Bogotá: Uniandes, 1992) and Colombia años 50 (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2002).

23. Álvaro Delgado and Juan Carlos Celis Ospina, Todo tiempo pasado fue peor (Bogotá: La Carreta, 2007). The prologue to the book, written by historian Medófilo Medina, amplifies this criticism.

24. I outlined these differences in an interview conducted by Lina Britto, “La historia de Colombia no es la de Cuba,” published in the Colombian daily El Espectador, June 2, 2014, pp. 4-5.

25. A telling denunciation of kidnapping as a violation of basic human rights is the account by Jake Gambini, a petroleum engineer and a brother-in-law of historian Herbert Braun. Braun recounts the kidnapping of Gambini by the guerrilla group ELN (Ejeécito de Liberación Nacional) in Our Guerrillas, Our Sidewalks (Niwot, CO: University of Colorado Press, 1994). See, in particular, the testimony of Gambini on pages 60-65.

26. Forrest Hylton and Aaron Tauss, “Peace in Colombia: A New Growth Strategy,” NACLA 48:3 (2016), pp. 253-259.

27. The data come from the article by Duque Daza, cited in footnote 1.

28. Statistics on these killings are provided in Mauricio Archila, et al., Violencia contra el sindicalismo, 1984-2010 (Bogotá: CINEP, 2012).

29. A list of the demands for modification of the accord and the changes adopted was published in El Tiempo, November 13, 2016. A succinct and favorable summary in English appeared the next day in The New York Times.

30. Nicolás Buenaventura, “Proletariado agrícola: temporeros,” Estudios Marxistas 9 (1975), pp. 3-32. These rich and revealing interviews are analyzed in more detail in Bergquist, Labor in Latin America, pp. 372-374.

31. The most eloquent explanation of this process, which culminates in Taylorism and Fordism, is Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 1974). On comparative labor processes in capitalist and state socialist societies see Michael Burawoy, “The Contours of Production Politics,” in Labor in the Capitalist World Economy, Charles Bergquist, ed., (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1984), pp. 23-47 and Michael Burawoy, Politics of Production (London: Verso, 1985).

32. I discuss this issue in more detail in Labor and the Course of American Democracy, especially in chapter 3 on popular culture, pp. 114-159 and in the section on control of the labor process in chapter 5, pp. 183-185.

33. As noted previously, the letter, published in El Tiempo, November 22nd, 1992, and the guerrilla’s response, published in Voz, the newspaper of the Colombian Communist Party ten days later, were amply discussed in the Colombian national media. Both were published in English in the previously cited book, Violence in Colombia, 1990-2000, pp. 214-220. Gonzalo Sánchez, one of the co-editors of the book, was one of the signers of the intellectuals’ letter.

34. Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Peñaranda, and Gonzalo Sánchez, eds. Violence in Colombia. The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1992).

35. The Center, coordinated by Gonzalo Sánchez, is an official government institution formed to stimulate historical investigation and promote national reconciliation. In recent years it has financed research on and the publication of dozens of important historical projects representing a variety of political postures and methods of analysis.

36. I advanced these ideas in a critique of a four-volume history of the Colombian Caribbean coast written by sociologist Orlando Fals Borda in 1990 and reformulated them in abstract form in Labor and the Course of American Democracy, pp. 197-209. The article is “In the Name of History: A Disciplinary Critique of Orlando Fals Borda’s Historia doble de la costa,” Latin American Research Review 25:3 (1990), pp. 156-176.