Reportage. Control of Colombian policy is shifting from violence to politics, as March elections approach. The outcome will determine whether and how the nation will rebuild from decades of social and economic decay.

Colombia is at a crossroads in its history

A country almost four times as large as Italy, with a population that will reach 50 million in 2018, Colombia has entered a new phase of its history with the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and the bilateral ceasefire between the government and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (the ELN, or National Liberation Army), which came into effect Oct. 1 and remained in force until Tuesday. It is a history that, even if we limit ourselves to only the past 70 years, has been profoundly marked by violence.

The democratic foundations of the state are frail. The Colombian Republic has always been ruled by a tiny elite, and it has never had leftist governments. When Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, a leader with such an orientation, emerged within the Liberal Party and ran for the Presidency of the Republic, he was assassinated on April 9, 1948, by perpetrators who remain unknown.

His death sparked a revolt (the Bogotazo) which spread from the capital to various parts of the country, inaugurating the period known as the Violencia (1948-1958), a civil war between liberals and conservatives which led to around 300,000 deaths and which is the ultimate origin of the liberal guerrilla groups. The internal conflict (but not the Violencia itself) ended, with the assent of the strongest political and economic forces of the country, during the dictatorship of General Rojas Pinilla (1953-57), who, with his promises, managed to convince a part of the guerrillas to demobilize. Then, the National Front governments (1958-1974) took over from the dictatorship, based on the agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Party that they would alternate in forming the government, irrespective of the outcome of the elections.

In the end, this was a stopgap measure against any change in the political framework, against which Liberal guerrillas, and this time also Communist ones, gathered up new strength. In 1964, a part of them organized themselves into the FARC and the ELN, famous for its leader, the priest Camilo Torres, who was killed in 1966. The Maoist Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) entered the fray in 1965, followed later by the initially urban guerilla warfare of the M-19 starting from the 1970s. To counter the guerrillas, the army and various paramilitary groups (encouraged by an infamous 1968 law authorizing civil self-defense) went on to emulate the Nicaraguan Contras, financed by landowners and drug traffickers with the complicity of the police and the army, and responsible for dozens of massacres and thousands of murders.

A pattern has been particularly recurring in the political life of the country: the murder of dozens of trade unionists and politicians, including the killing of Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, ordered by Pablo Escobar in 1984, and of three candidates to the Presidency of the Republic: Luis Carlos Galán (1989), Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa and Carlos Pizarro (1990), all at the hands of the paramilitary forces. These took place also with the involvement of drug traffickers, while the guerrillas were also guilty, in turn, of heinous crimes.

In 1997, the paramilitary forces joined together in the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), which distinguished itself by unprecedented acts of violence, until 2006, when most of them took advantage of the Ley de Justicia y Paz of 2005 and demobilized, while others have organized themselves in criminal gangs that are still running rampant in some areas of the country (Clan del Golfo, Los Rastrojos, etc.)

Then, in 1999, came Bill Clinton’s “Colombia Plan,” continued by George W. Bush in agreement with President Alvaro Uribe. It was a plan that called for the fumigation of coca plantations, and thus was aimed against drug trafficking, but also had many other consequences, such as the political control over, and the militarization of, South America, which ended up costing the U.S. $7 billion. The U.S. has maintained a solid relationship with the Colombian elites since the time of the Korean War, to which Colombia sent its own military contingent.

It has been estimated that the armed conflict which finally ended with the 2016 peace agreements has caused around 220,000 victims from 1958 to 2012, 81 percent of whom were from the civilian population. Some 10,000, maimed or killed, were victims of landmines, which are present on about 45 percent of the national territory. All this without taking into account the thousands of children and teenagers who were forcibly recruited by the various fighting groups.

Because of this war, the statistics describe Colombia as the most violent country in the South American subcontinent, and one that has seen its GDP despoiled by high military spending. The war has affected the territory of about a third of its municipalities, and it has distorted the landscape of human settlements, forcing more than 4.7 million Colombians to flee their residences and to abandon around 8.3 million hectares of land.

A country rich in mineral resources, with flourishing agriculture and excellent water resources, Colombia remains riven by extreme territorial and social imbalances: 17.8 percent of the population lives in multidimensional poverty, a percentage that rises to 37.6 percent in rural areas; 28 percent are living in financial poverty and 8.5 percent in extreme poverty, according to data provided by the Colombian national statistics office for 2016. The same source pegs the unemployment rate at 9.1 percent. GDP growth in the third quarter of 2017 was 2 percent.

Demographically, the country rests on a solid foundation: figures from 2015 show that 55.23 percent of the male population, and 51.64 percent of the female, is younger than 30. It is a young country, whose civil society, traditionally not very dynamic, has shown signs of revival as the peace process has proceeded, especially in the universities, which have been at the forefront of the mobilization in support of the peace agreements.

The next elections, scheduled for March, will be decisive because progress in the peace process will depend on their outcome, as the forces on the Right continue their attempts to throw a wrench in the works.

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