[Documents menu] Documents menu
Date: Sat, 24 Jul 1999 16:39:41 -0500 (CDT)
From: lnp3@columbia.edu
Subject: Revolution in Colombia, part one: historical background
Organization: Columbia University
Article: 70757
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.21173.19990725121521@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Revolution in Colombia, part one: historical background

By Louis Proyect, 24 July 1999

To paraphrase Tolstoi, every Latin American country is unhappy but each in its own way. What follows is the story of Colombia's unhappiness.

Simon Bolívar tried valiantly to carry out a bourgeois-democratic revolution in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, but the cowardly and unpatriotic bourgeoisie would not lead it, let alone cooperate. Symbolic of this failure was his own vice-president Francisco de Paula Santander, who had no grand vision for the continent but merely articulated the petty ambitions of the agrarian gentry and urban middle-class.

Just as Carlos Fonseca visited and sought aid from Cuba a century and a half later, Bolívar made a voyage to newly liberated Haiti to raise funds and material aid for the fight against Spain. Bolívar's army, composed of mulattos and meztisos and anticipating the guerrilla armies of Sandino and Castro, proved inadequate to the task of revolutionizing society. After Bolívar retired in 1830, the army lost resources and shrank. No longer a guarantor of revolutionary plebian interests, it soon became superseded by civilian political rule, divided between the two major parties, Liberal and Conservative, who would betray Colombian national interests until the present day.

The two parties saw each other as rivals, but their real rival were the popular classes. The Liberals sought to modernize the state and reduce the influence of the Catholic Church, while the Conservatives sought to maintain the status quo. No matter how much they disagreed with each other, even to the point of resorting to arms, they agreed on the big question, which was how to exploit Colombia's agricultural wealth without allowing the mass of peasants ownership or control over the land, or the right to share in its benefits.

The fundamental contradiction in Latin American capitalism is this: Capitalist agriculture for the export market requires preservation of the hacienda system, which provides the social base for the Conservative Party and semifeudal reaction. On the other hand, the modern state requires tax revenues and democratic participation from a mass social base of small proprietors, such as the shopkeepers and peasants who provided the shock troops of the French Revolution. Since Colombia, and no other Latin American country, can resolve this contradiction, tensions persist and periodically erupt in bloody conflicts where the two bourgeois parties become surrogates for deeper class antagonisms.

And when it comes to capitalist agriculture, no other commodity defined Colombia as did coffee. Just as cocaine, another addictive stimulant, provides the fuel for the Colombian economy today, so did coffee in an earlier time. Although Colombia entered the 20th century with the weakest economy next to Haiti's, by the 1930s it had become a powerhouse. Coffee production rose from 40 to 70 percent of exports by 1930 and Colombia ranked fourth in Latin America in terms of volume of external trade.

Trade, as we know, involves two parties. Just as it takes millions of cocaine users in the United States to unleash dollar circulation in the Colombian economy today, so it took millions of American coffee drinkers in the early part of the century to prime the pump.

A 1994 Johns Hopkins University study found that caffeine is an addictive substance. Withdrawal symptoms include headaches, lethargy and depression. Some evidence suggested that the dependency rate was about the same as it was for alcohol users, namely fourteen percent. At the time of the study, 80 percent of the adult population consumed caffeine regularly with an average daily dose of about 280 milligrams. (A five ounce cup of coffee contains about 100 mgs.)

The rise of coffee drinking is intimately tied to the rise of industrial capitalism in the United States. Michael F. Jimenez points out that between 1870 and 1900, coffee imports grew from 231 to 748 million pounds. Per capita consumption grew from almost six to thirteen pounds just after the turn of the century. This was just the beginning. The year 1927 saw an all out binge that reached garish proportions:

"In January of 1927, Gus Comstock, a barbershop porter in the small Minnesota town of Fergus Falls, drank eighty cups of coffee in seven hours and fifteen minutes. The New York Times reported that near the end, amid a cheering crowd, Comstock's 'gulps were labored, but a physician examining him found him in pretty good shape.' A nationwide marathon coffee-drinking spree had been set off two years earlier by news from the Department of Commerce that imports into the United States amounted to five hundred cups annually per resident. While amused by this 'newest form of athletic exercise' on the North American scene, the coffee industry nonetheless expressed dismay at the possible negative impact of 'such things uncommon' on its efforts to promote the healthfulness of the beverage."

Changes both in the technological mode of production and the social composition of the American work force accounted for much of the increase in coffee consumption. Jimenez points out that "Coffee roasters successfully used German gas technology to standard roasting and Naperian urns provided mass service to restaurants and hotel patrons cheaply and more efficiently." By the same token, sophisticated merchandising systems and the growth of huge nationwide retail companies like A&P ensured the efficient distribution of the addictive commodity. Imagine cocaine being legalized, advertised on television and sold on the shelf in supermarkets today, and you get a sense of the powerful capital accumulation process being unleashed.

The other important factor was the growth of suburbs and the increased separation between workplace and home. Restaurants cropped up in factory and downtown financial districts, where coffee drinking became part of an everyday ritual to get the depressed and alienated worker through the day, just as cocaine use became widespread on lunch breaks in the Wall Street area during the 1980s.

Despite the immense growth of coffee consumption, the market became relatively saturated by the 1920s. Furthermore, just as reformers targeted alcohol consumption in this period, there was a crusade against coffee as well. The coffee industry fought back on two fronts. It sought to reduce the price of imports and to open up consumption in new venues. The first prong of the attack had a terrible impact on Colombia, just as the increase in cocaine usage did in the 1980s. Brazil had enjoyed a preponderant position in the export market, totaling a 62.4 percent in 1924, so American importers cultivated new sources in other countries such as El Salvador and Colombia. Colombia's share grew from 4.3 percent to 9.1 between 1909 and 1923. These cold numbers, impressive on one level, can not describe the explosive consequences felt on the ground as peasants and landlord confronted each other in bids to increase their particular class interests with respect to the cash crop.

The drive to intensify capitalist agriculture to satisfy the American marketplace coincided with a general collapse of the world economy. From 1885 to 1930, the Colombian government was controlled by the Conservative Party, which despite its founding principles, staked out a typically liberal development program. This involved strengthening the state, extension of the transportation and communications systems into the countryside, encouragement of foreign investment, etc. The Great Depression manifested itself in Colombia through a drop in export earnings. As unemployment in the advanced capitalist countries grew, coffee became less affordable.

A general sense of helplessness led to a Liberal Party victory in 1934, as the new president López Pumarejo called for a "revolution on the march," a Colombian version of the New Deal. The trade unions provided Pumarejo with one of his main bases of support, while the Communist Party served as his most trusted lieutenant within the union movement. Support for the Pumarejo government turned out to be disastrous for the labor movement as it relied on him to solve their problems rather than using their own independent power. Real wages fell between 1935 and 1950 and social expenditures were virtually stagnant in the same period. This was a "New Deal" without teeth.

It was in the countryside, however, where resistance to the Liberal government was mounted most sharply. Peasants, especially in the eastern part of the country, sought to grow coffee on their own plots in order to take advantage of the continuing external demand for the stimulant. In many cases they occupied the land of large haciendas and pressed for ownership. The Liberal government tried to co-opt the squatters movement and bring it under control, just as the PRI in Mexico had done with the followers of Zapata. To some extent, this policy paid off as a layer of the peasantry won title to land and became less militant.

However, just like in the United States, a section of the bourgeoisie regarded Liberal Party reformism as Bolshevik and began to organize a counter-revolution. One of the main props of the Conservative Party's right wing assault was the Catholic Church, which viewed the "revolution on the march" as a threat to its influence on uneducated and insecure peasants. After 1935, paramilitary associations cropped up with the support of bishops and businessmen. Conservative Party intellectuals openly identified with Spain's Franco at this point and Laureano Gómez in particular promoted the concept of 'hispanidad,' a Colombian version of Falangist thought.

The concrete social and economic goal of the Catholic-Conservative axis was to break the back of the agrarian revolt, which they saw the Liberals as temporizing with. In particular they wanted to abolish Law 200, which gave landless peasants the right to occupy and own land. These differences continued to divide the two parties, even after the end of the depression and WWII, as the lingering effects of the 1930s downturn combined with the structural imbalances of the Colombian countryside served to maintain class tensions. Poverty and unequal land distribution simply could not be resolved within the Colombian two party system, although electoral politics did provide a medium for the voiceless to raise their concerns.

As the Conservatives pushed relentlessly from the right, the Liberals began to cave in. Upon taking office in 1945, Alberto Lleras Camargo, Pumarejo's Liberal successor, immediately appointed three Conservatives to his cabinet as a concession. As the 1946 elections approached, the Liberal Party split into two factions. One, advocating compromise with the right-wing, was led by Gabriel Turbay. The other was led by Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a populist who openly called for resistance to the bourgeoisie and a deepening of the agrarian revolt. He was hostile to the trade unions which he saw as a bureaucratic apparatus dominated by the Communist Party in bed with right-wing Liberals. The statements of the Communist Party of Colombia left no doubt as to their loyalties. In their newspaper, they declared in 1937: "Our post is at the side of the reformist government of López [Pumarejo] . . . Today we are not subversives. The only subversives are the falangist Conservatives. We Communists aspire to become the champions of order and peace."

Despite the CP's fondest hopes, order and peace were impossible. When Gaitán's wing of the party won control of the Colombian congress in 1947, working class strikes and protests broke out in the cities and land seizures intensified in the countryside. The masses felt emboldened by the populist victory. Right wing paramilitaries lashed back at the popular movement and political violence would claim 14,000 lives by the end of the year. On February 7, 1948 Gaitán led a silent protest of 100,000 people through the streets of Bogotá and delivered a speech for peace. Two months later, he was assassinated, thus setting off "La Violencia," described succinctly by Eduardo Galeano:

"The violence began with a confrontation between Liberal and Conservative parties, but the dynamic of class hostilities steadily sharpened its class-struggle character. The Liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán--known half contemptuously and half fearfully to his own party's oligarchy as "The Wolf" or "The Idiot"--had won great popular prestige and threatened the established order. When he was shot dead, the hurricane was unleashed. First the spontaneous bogotazo--an uncontrollable human tide in the streets of the capital; then the violence spread to the countryside, where bands organized by the Conservatives had for some time been sowing terror. The bitter taste of hatred, long in the peasants' mouths, provoked an explosion; the government sent police and soldiers to cut off testicles, slash pregnant women's bellies, and throw babies in the air to catch on bayonet points--the order of the day being 'don't leave even the seed.' Liberal Party sages shut themselves in their homes, never abandoning their good manners and the gentlemanly tone of their manifestos, or went into exile abroad. It was a war of incredible cruelty and it became worse as it went on, feeding the lust for vengeance. New ways of killing came into vogue: the corte corbata, for example, left the tongue hanging from the neck. Rape, arson, and plunder went on and on; people were quartered or burned alive, skinned or slowly cut in pieces; troops razed villages and plantations and rivers ran red with blood. Bandits spared lives in exchange for tribute, in money or loads of coffee, and the repressive forces expelled and pursued innumerable families, who fled to seek refuge in the mountains. Women gave birth in the woods. The first guerrilla leaders, determined to take revenge but without clear political vision, took to destroying for destruction's sake, letting off blood and steam without purpose."

This counter-revolution resulted in the murder of 300,000 people, one of the great bloodbaths of Latin American history. Was this bloodbath necessary? One of the things that is difficult to gauge in Colombia is the extent to which such excesses are a function of bourgeois "over-corrections" such as the kind that ideological frenzy often leads to. Would Colombia have been better off if the Conservatives had been open to the idea of allowing Gaitán's populism to prevail? Certainly he did not intend to abolish the capitalist system, but only to eradicate some of the more glaring injustices. In this, he was no different than Guatemala's Arbenz, or any other middle-class reformer who has emerged in the past half-century. Suffice it to say that right-wing anticommunism involves a level of fanaticism that once unleashed is difficult to bottle back up like a genie. When the history of this barbarian epoch is finally written, anticommunist fundamentalism will be recorded as much more demonic and violent than anything ever encountered in the middle ages.

In setting the context for Colombian politics today, we must point out that today's most powerful guerrilla group in Colombia, the FARC, is a product of this period. The July 19th NY Times reports that the FARC's top leader:

"was born Pedro Antonio Marin and took the name Manuel Marulanda after he became a guerrilla half a century ago. But all over Colombia, people know him simply as 'Tirofijo,' which translates as 'Sureshot.' He acquired that intimidating nickname because of his military prowess, but in recent years his political aim has proved nearly as unerring.

"Mr. Marin was born into a peasant family in a coffee-growing area of west-central Colombia, in 1930 by his account, in 1928 by most others. The oldest of five children, he received an elementary school education before going to work as a woodcutter, butcher, baker and candy salesman.

"His family supported the Liberal Party, and when a Liberal President was assassinated here and civil war erupted in 1948, Mr. Marin and a group of cousins took to the mountains. Although his ideological loyalties have changed markedly since then, he has never ceased being a man on the run."

In my next post I will go into greater depth about the FARC and other left groups, but it is key to point out that the FARC is no newcomer to the Colombian political scene. This group predates the Cuban revolution historically and can be seen in many respects as a throwback to Sandino's guerrilla movement of the 1920s which also rested on a populist political program. The big question, of course, is to what extent the FARC has transcended its origins in peasant populism.

That being said, peasant populism has always been the number one enemy of US imperialism and its Latin American puppets throughout the century. The Communists and Trotskyists have concentrated their forces in the urban trade union movement, but most of the serious fighting in the class struggle, except for Argentina, has taken place in the countryside.

Furthermore, rural protest movements in Colombia have an unbroken tradition going back to the 1930s, when the Pumarejo government raised hopes that an agrarian new deal was possible. Even if the government proved faint-hearted, the peasants knew how to take matters into their own hands. As Catherine LeGrand points out, "Those who participated in the hacienda invasions of the 1930s justified their actions with the argument that the land was truly public land. Against the written titles of the landlords, they advanced the idea that the frontier land belongs first and foremost to those who work it."

Thus, the challenge to US imperialism rests on a very powerful foundation, namely the right of the overwhelming majority of Colombians to own and control the main mode of production: the land itself. The grandparents of Colombians living in FARC-controlled territory transmitted this belief to their children and grandchildren, just as the FARC itself is based on the idea that is a god-given right to use guns to defend their claim to the land


Eduardo Galeano, "Open Veins of a Continent: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent"; Monthly Review, NYC, 1973

Michael F. Jiménez, "From Plantation to Cup: Coffee and Capitalism in the United States, 1830-1930", in "Coffee, Society and Power in Latin America", edited by Roseberry, Gudmundson, and Kutschbach; Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, 1995

Catherine LeGrand, "Agrarian Antecedents of the Violence", in "Violence in Colombia: the contemporary crisis in historical perspective", edited by Bergquist, Peñaranda and Sánches; Scholarly Resources, Wilmington, 1992

Jenny Pearce, "Inside the Labyrinth"; Zed Press, London, 1990

(For Marxist discussion: www.panix.com/~lnp3/marxism.html)