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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .

State Building and Conflict Resolution in Colombia, 1986-1994
Harvey F Kline

(Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999)
240pp. Index. Bibl. ISBN 0-8173-0943-8.

The main contribution of this book is to provide strong empirical support for what most observers of the last decade of Colombian politics know very well. Violence increased in Colombia during the Presidencies of Virgilio Barco and Cesar Trujillo Gaviria, 1986-1994. The book demonstrates the failure of the policies of the two governments towards guerilla, paramilitary and drug violence. The author calls these public policies: "conflict resolution". It is difficult, however, to see where government policies fit under this rubric as generally understood. Both governments did attempt various elite-level negotiations with armed actors. Each had some limited success. The demobilisation of the M-19 guerilla group and its reintegration into the political realm took place under Barco, and Gaviria had some success with the Medellin drug militia; three other smaller guerilla groups also demobilised during this period. However, elite negotiations produced no other positive results, and the two major guerilla organisations, the FARC and the ELN, grew in strength. As did the paramilitary groups, although Kline's book does not pick up on this until the epilogue. Drugs mafias were as strong as ever come the mid to late 1990s, while drug production and export increased and was financing all the actors of the conflict as well as members of the political elite. Although to be fair, the book only covers the two Presidencies, it was published in 1999 yet doesn't really explain why since 1994 violence in Colombia has escalated to such an extent that today the country is deemed by some to be in a situation of actual civil war.

It is hard to conceive the government sponsored negotiations in the years cove red by the author, as a serious effort at "conflict resolution", unless this term is to mean only elite-level deals. The government was certainly no "independent" third party negotiating an end to conflict. Significant members of the government armed forces were known to be involved with paramilitary groups or in tacitly assisting them, and drugs money had had a severely corrupting impact on government security forces as well as high ranking politicians. Controversy surrounds the precise relationship between government, army and paramilitary groups. The government had done nothing to ensure civilian control over the army or bring armed offices accused of human rights violations to justice, or to investigate the large body of evidence that the army "allowed" the paramilitary groups to operate in conflict zones. Some would argue that the government was unable to control the armed forces, others that it remained ambivalent towards their counter-insurgency tactics even when they cost the lives of civilians, ultimately tolerating what they felt was necessary to defeat the guerillas. While the Gaviria government was paving the war for negotiations with the FARC in 1990, the army attacked the guerilla group's headquarters in Casa Verde. It will never be known whether the President had or had not been informed in advance of an offensive which would cost a huge amount of the trust necessary to convince all parties to seek a political not military solution to the conflict.

Given these facts, the most important question to examine would be the nature of the Colombian State and its relationship to Colombian society. Why was it that reforming initiatives foundered so quickly after each new President's early efforts? And why was there always an essential ambivalence towards any peace negotiations, which meant that all sides ultimately stuck to military solutions?

Kline does make the Colombian State a focus of his book, but his argument is much less analytically developed than the work put into the empirical overview of the policies of the two Presidents towards armed groups. Indeed, his conclusions are fairly obvious ones: "Clearly, then, Colombia lacked a strong state at the beginning of the time span this study covers. It might have been slightly stronger at the end of the Gaviria government, depending on the results of the reform of the national police. However, the state was not then, and still is not, strong enough to meet its challenges" (pg. 195)

Is the real problem that the Colombian state is not strong enough? Or, as Kline and others have argued, a modern state has never existed in Colombia? Superficially, it is possible to look at violence in Colombia is a problem of order, of the failure of the State to establish control over all its territory. However, taking the other word in Weber's classic definition, that of "legitimacy", perhaps we can come a little closer to the problem. The Colombian state has performed for certain sectors of society. The powerful coffee growers federation have been able to operate a virtual state within a state. The two traditional parties have fended off efforts to democratise and open up the political system, and have protected the interests of a narrow political class. The electoral system is about competition for votes amongst an electorate that is deeply disenchanted with the political system and which mostly abstains at election time. Elections can be won by the purchase of a relatively few number of votes in each locality.

The kind of politics that is missing in Kline's description is that of the people who don't believe in the formal political process and seek other forms of non-violent participation to express their profound rejection of the way power operates in Colombian political life. The urban trade union and rural peasant organisers, for example, municipal social and civic reformers, students who have not taken the armed road but seek serious social, economic and political reform. It is not just armed actors who have died in the violence of recent years. The deaths from political violence are mostly of these civilian campaigners. Their civic social and political protest have put them in more danger than the actions of armed actors who have weapons to defend themselves, in a political system closed to legitimate social protest and political opposition outside the two traditional parties. Sometimes, new parties have been formed to express this discontent with the prevailing political order. In the case of the Patriotic Union, originally an attempt by the FARC to develop a competitive political wing, it cost the lives of literally thousands of electoral candidates and local representatives.

It could be argued that rather than a problem of a weak state. Colombia's problems reside in the lack of a legitimate, democratic and representative State, capable of incorporating the interests of all social groups rather than just those of a few. Those who argue that the problem is one of order, pave the way for what is one of the greatest challenges to the Colombian political system to date. That is not the army per se, nor the guerilla groups and drugs cartels as such, but it is the rise of an authoritarian response to the country's problems, which appeals to the profound fear of the middle and lower middle classes, who have been touched for the first time in the 1990s by the violence that most of rural Colombia and poor urban Colombia has always known. This authoritarian response has found expression in the rise of Carlos Castano, now heading a paramilitary force with a coordinated and national project of extremely authoritarian character.

In conclusion, Kline's book offers a useful overview of two important Presidencies and their efforts to negotiate with armed actors. It is less helpful as an analysis of their failure and why Colombia is today more polarised and violent than ever. In excluding from the analysis the many societal movements and actors that have risked their lives for a more peaceful Colombia from the grass-roots, the author contributes to the vision of Colombia as a contest amongst elite armed groups with only the Presidents attempting to end the violence. It is then too easy to conclude that the failure of those Presidents is simply a failure of the state. It is rather the closed and unrepresentative nature of that state that is the problem, and the solution lies in democracy not order.

Dr Jenny Pearce
Dept of Peace Studies

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