The armed conflict in Colombia is often called the oldest war in the Western Hemisphere. It is usually said that the insurgent group FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of columbia – was founded in 1964 as a response to a military attack on the remote outposts where communist farmers had retreated after the end of a previous conflict between liberals and conservatives. However, when we try to reach that mythical origin, we find many problems. For instance, a few years after popular leader and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated, a communist organisation called the Estado Mayor came into being. If we keep going back in the past, we will never find a moment in Colombia without conflict. This 52-year war between the state and FARC isn’t so much a separate conflict as it is a period in a continuum of violence that stretches back to colonial times.
The rise of FARC
By the 1960s, the conservatives and liberals had resolved to unite against the threat of organised workers’ and farmers’ movements. The rules of the deal were simple – the liberals and conservatives would get an equal share of elected officials and would rotate the presidency. The deal did not end all violence, but merely displaced it towards areas that did not matter to the ruling elites at the time.
FARC chief Pedro Antonio Marín, known by his nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda Vélez, was one of the many peasants who began fighting in the southern part of the country. Before the National Pact, farmer rebels like him were welcomed in the fight against conservatism. However, sensing possible treason from city liberals, many retreated to the mountains where they felt safe. There, they chopped down the jungle and built small farming communities. Soon they made contact with the Communist Party of Colombia (now known as the Colombian Communist Party) and became influenced by their ideas.
In 1964, President Guillermo León Valencia (grandfather of Paloma Valencia, who is among the most vocal detractors of the peace accord at present) convinced the senate that these outposts were a threat to the nation because they constituted independent republics outside the authority of the state. After breaking through the siege, the surviving fighters resolved to remain a mobile guerrilla army instead of attempting to occupy territory.
In 1965, guerrilla fighters from the area met, in what is today known as the first conference, and they adopted the name Southern Bloc. In 1966, by the time of the second conference, they had adopted the name FARC and had decided to expand into other areas. In 1982, at the seventh conference, the group added Ejercito del Pueblo (people’s army) to its name to become what it is known by now – FARC-EP.
Uribe’s brand of politics
Over the next two decades, the conflict continued to expand until it had engulfed much of the country. The guerrillas became known for extortion, kidnapping and attacking infrastructure. Their paramilitary adversaries responded by creating a fearsome reputation: they would hold towns for days and force the people to watch public torture and rape in a carnival-like atmosphere.
By the beginning of Álvaro Uribe’s government (2002-2010), the Communist Party had been decimated (losing over 4000 people), several elected officials were being held in chains in the jungle and neither side was ready to reconcile.
Uribe then championed a controversial peace process with the right-wing paramilitaries. The process was heavily criticised by the left, and led to a scandal in which hundreds of politicians were convicted for supporting or financing the paramilitary groups. Despite the criticism and scandal, Uribe was miraculously unharmed by any investigations, even if his allies were. At present, the Supreme Court is investigating episodes that could see him locked away for war crimes, but then again, he could also find a way to protect himself.
President Juan Manuel Santos was Uribe’s favourite minister. They both seemed to share an enthusiastic hatred for the guerrillas and support for neoliberal policies. Under Uribe’s government, Santos led controversial episodes like the bombarding of a guerrilla camp in Ecuadorian territory, an incident in which FARC number two Raul Reyes was killed. Uribe then anointed Santos as his successor and provided him with all political support.
Attempt at peace
During his first mandate, Santos surprised the political elite by making a clear departure from the policies of his erstwhile mentor. Uribe’s followers soon began referring to Santos as Judas for his efforts to repair ties with Venezuela, his persecution of paramilitary-linked politicians and his frequents hints at peace.
By the time Santos sought reelection in 2014, Uribe had become the leader of the opposition. Santos had effectively divided the hegemonic National Unity Party and forced the extreme rightwing to form a new party, the Democratic Centre. But with the promise of peace, Santos was able to secure the vote of the left, who nonetheless continued to oppose his economic policies.
National discourse has degraded due to the vast polarity between the Santos and Uribe camps. To Uribe’s followers, Santos and his supporters are secret communists who are in league with the Cubans and the Venezuelans. To Uribe’s enemies, he is a war criminal who deserves to go to jail for crimes against humanity, and his supporters are blindly allowing him to avoid prosecution.
The practical result of this is that any support for either part is seen as a reaffirmation of their ideology. Uribe’s followers have then tried to include all supporters of peace in the conspiracy to take over the country; US President Barack Obama, the Pope and the UN have all been called secret communists.
In a fatal mistake, Uribe’s campaign manager, Juan Carlos Vélez, gave an interview explaining how the campaign against the peace deal had tailored lies about it to several key demographics in order to confuse them. The main part of the financing came from only 30 individuals and 30 corporations. This reinvigorated supporters of peace to ask for implementation of the accord. The Supreme Court is due to hear a case against the Uribe campaign for election fraud on account of his lies.
Awarding Santos with the Nobel Peace Prize accomplishes many things – it gives legitimacy to the peace agreement, encourages Santos to continue his efforts and puts pressure on the opposition for its reluctance to accept the deal. This is the most wonderful aspect of the Nobel committee’s support for Santos; every time somebody endorses the peace deal, the paranoid must widen the scope of their conspiracy theory, and in doing so, they make things more transparent for moderate Colombians.
Sergio Andrés Rueda is a philosophy student at the Universidad Industrial de Santander.