October 7, 1984, 36 years from today, marks the signing of one of the most important historical documents produced by Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The letter, entitled “Memorando del Estado Mayor Central de las FARC-EP, a la plenaria de la Comisión Nacional de Verificación de cese al fuego, tregua y paz,” was sent to Colombian President Belisario Betancur to denounce the Colombian government’s alleged violation of the Uribe Accords.
Far from a mere denunciation however, the letter pointedly expressed new reforms proposed by the FARC to instate meaningful socio-political change in the South American nation, otherwise ravaged by elite-led displacement of the peasantry, rampant abject poverty, and the virtual disenfranchisement of the country’s voting majority. While both Colombia and the severity of its 56-year-old armed conflict (1964-present) have certainly changed since then, the reforms proposed in the FARC’s letter serve as a reminder of both the striking similarities that the nation’s rural populations continue to endure in the present and the meaningful change that has yet to occur.
Many popular news reports on Colombia’s neoliberal “success story” love to underscore how chronic abject poverty, malnourishment, violence and urban wealth disparities have gone down in recent years amid free trade agreements with the U.S., and how a renewed sense of security has begun to attract more international investors. Yet what many of these news pieces fail to account for is how the nation’s rural dwellers still bear the brunt of the nation’s maladies. With rural poverty and extreme rural poverty hovering around 36% and 15.4% respectively, a Gini coefficient bordering .5, and the recurrent assassination of social movement and Indigenous leaders, Colombia continues to be used as a golden standard for explaining how inequality and poverty can perpetuate violence in the present. For the recently demilitarized FARC, however, not only is this statement evident, it is also a testament of their lived experiences.
Born out of a long-lasting, elite-led, and state-centered assault on the nation’s peasantry, the FARC emerged in 1964 as an armed revolutionary peasant organization bent on transforming the conditions it was subjected to in the Colombian countryside. As an outgrowth of peasant communes posited as economic alternatives for a peasantry that was being displaced at alarming rates amid capitalist, agricultural-export interests, these communes also became centers for organizing the nation’s radical opposition otherwise barred from electoral participation.
As time passed, and the Colombian state continued to pursue guerillas for the greater part of the 1960s and 1970s, the organization went from waging predatory tactics on elites to ensure survival, to forging a proto-state like system with welfare and justice provisions for peasants. In this context, it began to tax all productive activity under its military control, which soon included coca growing activities for which the organization became heavily dependent on. As the organization moved into the 1980s, and the war started to accrue new political and unaffiliated profiteering actors vying for control of the coca economy, the FARC held its seventh congress in 1982 explicitly delineating many of the reforms expressed in the aforementioned letter.
Of the more notable points, the letter called for:
- An electoral reform which would allow for minority electoral participation.
- The decentralization of political authority.
- Price controls for necessary consumer goods.
- The construction of public housing projects in the nation’s urban centers (which were then experiencing some of the most elevated rural to urban migration trends in all of Latin America).
- Free public education at all levels of Colombian society.
- The subsequent lowering or elimination of unpopular taxes.
- The nationalization of much of the nation’s private industrial activity.
- The elimination of political persecution wielded against union leaders (among other frequently assassinated political opposition actors).
- Constitutional reforms with many positive rights provisions reminiscent of the era.
While it would be unrealistic to assume that everyone in the present would agree with the nationalization of much of the nation’s private enterprise, the enforcement of price controls, or even some of the less controversial petitions, the reforms presented in this letter may serve to remind peacekeepers and other interested parties of how little has actually changed in Colombia, and how much more has to be done to ensure lasting peace.
Currently, although the bulk of the FARC’s and right-wing death squad’s (otherwise euphemized as “paramilitary forces”) rank-and-file have largely demilitarized and abided by special justice provisions, the armed conflict continues to haunt the nation’s most vulnerable and the socio-political actors that defend their grievances. Evidencing this is a proliferation of profiteering armed actors vying for control of mining and coca ventures, and a continued upward trend of pointed assassinations of Indigenous leaders, mining rights activists, union leaders, former left-wing guerilla combatants, left-wing political leaders, and anyone who is thought to oppose the unchecked exploitation of the nation’s resources and its most vulnerable. Before this, the Colombian state was routinely charged as being a complicit actor perpetuating the nation’s agonizing violence as it has failed to uphold its end of the peace accords which includes security provisions for former combatants, and land reform reparations for victims of the armed conflict (among many other stipulations).
In this sense, the legacy left by the FARC and its commemorative letter should not be mistaken as a statement of support for the atrocities it committed against peasant populations, but rather as a reminder that the violence experienced in Colombia for the greater part of six decades is an outgrowth of class-conflict that continues to exploit and effect the nation’s most vulnerable for profit. Until peacekeeping actors and Washington security “experts” can come to this realization and put adequate pressure on the Colombian government for developing meaningful, state-centered reform to mitigate poverty and inequality, peace will not be attained.
Jenaro Alberto Abraham II is a PhD student at the Department of Political Science at Tulane University. He tweets from @JenaroAbraham.