The situation in Colombia in recent years in many ways resembles the experience of other Latin American countries in the 1980s and 1990s. The devastations of neoliberalism — economic turmoil, poverty, an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, the collapse of agriculture, and the destruction of nature — finally sparked a mass movement resisting the country’s economic model and rejecting its ruling elite. However, unlike many of their Latin American counterparts, the Colombian left has been unable to convert this popular energy into a significant political force. They have lacked the conditions, but also the capacity to transform resistance to neoliberalism into an alternative political project.
A long history of systematic state-sponsored violence against all forms of collective activity has repeatedly thwarted the Left’s organizational efforts. The Patriotic March (PM), one of the country’s most important social movements, has denounced the assassinations of ninety-five of its leaders this year alone. The Left fears it is on the cusp of a new wave of political violence akin to the 1990s, when far-right paramilitary forces killed over four thousand members of the Patriotic Union, almost entirely wiping out this left-wing party.
But political repression alone cannot fully explain the Colombian left’s weakness. The strategic questions it must answer — about sustaining the energy of a mass movement, organizing in urban slums, overcoming fragmentation, and building coalitions — raise contradictions, tensions, and divisions that remain unresolved. These challenges have undermined the Left’s ability to deal a decisive blow to the establishment in this time of crisis.
The Agrarian Strike
In 2013 Colombia experienced a massive series of nationwide mobilizations. With 1,027 protests occurring throughout the country, this was the biggest upsurge in social struggle Colombia has ever seen. The national agrarian strike, which grew out of rural protests against neoliberal dislocations, became the most important of these actions.
Colombia’s agrarian crisis is most commonly linked to the country’s neoliberal turn, including free-trade agreements with the United States and the European Union as well as its economic opening in 1990. But its roots can be traced much deeper: to the failure of the land reform movement, to the oligarchy’s tight control on politics, to the counterinsurgent war on the peasantry — which today goes by the “war on drugs” — and to the destruction of ecological resources. This broad crisis has affected an array of rural sectors, which have developed new forms of social protest.
The shift in the Colombian economy to an extractivist model in the past two decades has generated major territorial struggles against large-scale mining and other mega-projects. In Córdoba, Huila, Meta, Santander, and Tolima, groups of peasants and indigenous people, often in coordination with city residents, students, and environmental activists, have fought this appropriation of land, water, and other natural resources.
In June 2013, what began as spontaneous protests of coca farmers against aerial crop spraying in Catatumbo ended as a fifty-three-day action during which around six thousand peasants coordinated roadblocks. They demanded the immediate suspension of crop eradications, the development of agricultural support programs, and the creation of a peasant land reserve.
In February of the same year, 150,000 small, medium, and large coffee farmers had blocked roads in thirteen departments across the country in response to the crisis of the coffee sector under the neoliberal agrarian regime and the declining legitimacy of political institutions such as the Colombian Coffee Growers’ Federation.
Between June and August, these mobilizations cohered into an explosion of resistance to neoliberalism, particularly its effect on the countryside. Small and medium farmers producing domestic crops such as potatoes, rice, and milk started roadblocks in Antioquia, Boyacá, Cundinamarca, and Huila, among others. Identifying themselves as the Agrarian Dignities Movement, they protested the government’s failure to protect the agricultural sector, and the signing of free-trade agreements with the European Union, the United States, Mercosur, and the Pacific Alliance.
Shortly after, the rural components of Colombia’s two largest leftist social movements — the Patriotic March and the People’s Congress — convened a nationwide agrarian strike. They linked the agrarian crisis directly to neoliberalism, which they declared “favors the interests of national and international capital at the expense of peasant, indigenous, and Afro-descendant communities.” Various peasant groups organized marches and roadblocks in twenty-two of Colombia’s thirty-two departments.
The indigenous movement came out in support of the strike, calling a minga (the Quechua word for a collective work action) that brought forty-eight communities together to participate in roadblocks across eighteen departments. Their demands linked their struggle for territorial autonomy to the need to resist large-scale mining projects and neoliberalism.
Urban sectors, including truck and taxi drivers, teachers, public-sector workers, community organizers, and radical young activists, soon came out. In thirty cities across the country people marched in the streets and took over plazas, banging pots and pans and wearing ruanas — a traditional peasant overcoat. The protesters declared that “we are all children of peasant farmers,” simultaneously recognizing the peasantry’s central place in the national identity and standing in solidarity with the rural sector against neoliberal devastation.
The support of students and organized labor was another major gain for the strike. The United Workers Central (CUT) provided financial support and sent solidarity delegations. Students and young people, who had developed impressive creative and organizational capacities during the 2011 educational reform protests, played an important role in mobilizing urban forces.
The government and mainstream media tried to downplay the movement or stigmatize it as a guerrilla infiltration, but people used social media to show their solidarity with the peasants, convene new protests, and denounce the state’s violent repression.
With twenty-two thousand participants blocking roads, taking over plazas, and banging pots throughout twenty-four departments, the strike brought the peasants’ demands to national prominence and eventually forced the government to initiate a dialogue.
President Santos announced a cabinet reshuffle which he called “the new cabinet for peace.” But he sparked further anger by replacing the minister of agriculture with the manager of one of Colombia’s largest agribusiness firms, already notorious for its massive land purchases and precarious labor contracts. The government chose to negotiate only with the sector of farmers associated with the Dignities Movement and offered them a “great agrarian pact.”
In contrast, the peasant, landless workers, Afro-descendant, and indigenous movements associated with the People’s Congress and the Patriotic March convened a Popular Agrarian Summit, gathering thirty thousand participants and twelve national movements. The summit was designed to bring together the array of rural popular movements into a single column united around issues of shared concern, including buen vivir — a Quechuan notion meaning the collective well-being, agrarian reform, food sovereignty, democracy, mining, and the peace process. Based on participatory discussions carried out over three days, they drew up an eight-point petition of joint demands. This was a crucial moment of unification and strength for the Left.
The strike represented a departure from previous forms of social organizing. Despite the ruling class’s attempts to denounce it as a guerrilla action, these protests had little insurgent participation. The labor movement also took a back seat. Unlike the national strike of 1977, organized labor was not a leading force in the mobilizations. Instead, the agrarian strike allowed new popular movements — in the countryside and the cities — to emerge and coordinate with older social organizations. This dynamic mirrors the experience in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s when social movements came to the front line of resistance to neoliberalism.
Division and Discontinuity
However the energy that emerged in 2013 was not maintained. Subsequent strikes failed to recapture the momentum of the initial eruption, and instead revealed a number of unresolved tensions: the fleeting and unorganized nature of the protests, the Left’s difficulties organizing in urban zones, as well as fragmentation and infighting.
The midsize farmers of the Agrarian Dignities Movement rapidly stepped away from the ongoing protests, making little effort to coordinate with other sectors. Instead, they organized themselves into a national farmers’ union to defend sectoral interests.
The government played upon this fragmentation in order to weaken the peasant movement. It negotiated separately with certain “reasonable” groups for a set of immediate and limited demands such as price floors, subsidies, and tariffs, while excluding other sectors as radicals.
The strategy was successful insofar as many peasant sectors failed to participate in the longer-term political project. Seeing state violence and stigmatization against the protesters, they decided to distance themselves from what was being portrayed as subversive activity. The need to tend to the harvest interrupted the peasants’ ability to maintain sustained actions, and the roadblocks and negotiations were often dispersed and uncoordinated. Rarely were they accompanied by the kind of organizational work that would bring political education and collective structures to the process.
While the urban mobilizations raised public awareness of the neoliberal devastation of agriculture, they failed to fully comprehend the complexity of the peasant question in Colombia. In general their support only extended to an idealized sector of middle peasants — symbolized by the ruana-wearing Boyacenses — who own their own land and run their farms as small businesses, producing foodstuffs for domestic markets. The urban protests focused on domestic farming that had been overrun by foreign imports.
The recent mobilizations, however, demonstrate the error in thinking of the Colombian peasantry as a homogenous group. Rather, it includes several sectors divided along the lines of class, region, ethnicity, and gender. Urban protesters may have shown solidarity with a romanticized peasant hurt by free trade, but they did not necessarily extend their support to the landless and frontier-settlers of the Catatumbo or Middle Magdalena regions. Urban populations still see these groups through the images of the right-wing media, which portrays them as terrorists or narco-guerrillas. The strike was unable to fully dispel this image.
Fragmentation of the Left
The outcome of the 2013 mobilizations highlighted the weakness and fragmentation of the Left. Torn apart by decades of war and neoliberal onslaught, but also internal troubles like ideological differences, sectarianism, and fragmentation, the Left has been unable to form a cohesive alternative bloc.
The left-wing political party, the Alternative Democratic Pole, is more interested in fighting for its own electoral goals than any broader societal project. They have rejected coalitions with more radical sectors, and even joined the Right in redbaiting leftist popular movements. In recent years the party has rapidly disintegrated through infighting, corruption, and “caudillismos.”
For its part, the traditional labor movement is no longer a major actor on the Colombian political scene. Factory closures and precarious work conditions have undermined the unions’ base, while systematic violence has eradicated radical traditions within the movement. In response to this offensive the labor movement has largely abandoned efforts at grassroots organizing and collective action in favor of technical and legalistic tactics such as lobbying and international campaigns.
It is, rather, social movements such as the People’s Congress and the Patriotic March that stand at the forefront of today’s struggles. These movements have sustained Colombia’s radical left-wing traditions, which political repression had brought to the brink of extinction in the 1990s and 2000s, through grassroots mobilization, political education, and solidarity-building in local communities, particularly in rural areas.
The Popular Agrarian Summit represented a high point for these movements, opening the door for a broad coalition of forces to surpass traditional divisions and form an alternative social bloc with the potential to inspire new followers from broad sectors. However, as the process unfolded it became mired by unresolved frictions.
The backdrop of the peace negotiations caused tensions. From the outset, the government insisted on separate negotiations between the FARC and the ELN. While FARC talks advanced, the ELN was increasingly marginalized and became more critical of the deal.
The government used ongoing armed confrontations to intensify these divisions. The military reduced its attacks on the FARC — in what amounted to a de facto bilateral ceasefire at some points — while launching major offensives against the ELN. This both strengthened the government’s negotiating position and further heightened resentments between the two insurgencies.
In turn, the government’s strategic separation of the two groups, along with the diluted nature of the terms in the peace deal, became major points of friction between social movements. While some argued for preserving the peace process above all else and building support for its socially progressive components, others were more critical of the deal and offered only limited support.
As a result, not only couldn’t they present a unified platform, but they even at times worked at cross-purposes. Following the 2013 mobilizations, while some sectors sought to uphold the momentum through further strike actions, others opposed this strategy, fearing that any attempt to destabilize the Santos government would only strengthen the far-right opposition. Nor could they present a unified and coherent position on the crucial issues of land reform, food sovereignty, and the constituent assembly. The confusion and disorientation had a paralyzing effect on subsequent mobilizations, and undermined the Left’s capacity to push for more substantive reforms at the negotiating table in Havana.
The crisis of capitalism, and neoliberalism’s inability to resolve the severe problems the Colombian people face, has sparked a wave of discontent from broad sectors of society and delegitimized the ruling elite. Rebellious multitudes have taken to the streets, blocking roads, banging pots, and taking over plazas. But such mobilizations, even those involving hundreds of thousands of people, cannot turn into a force for deep social transformation unless accompanied by longer-term strategies of political formation, organization, and coalition-building.
Violent repression of the Left, but also its own dispersion and fragmentation, have thwarted its capacity to build a coherent political instrument that can unite the popular classes in opposition to neoliberalism and the ruling elite. Both the agrarian strike and the peace negotiations called for the unity of popular forces to deal a blow to the ruling elite and neoliberal hegemony at a time of crisis. The Left, however, missed this opportunity.
As a result, it might not be the Left but the far right that capitalizes on neoliberalism’s discontents. The forces of Uribismo, aligned with the church, drug traffickers, and paramilitary gangs enjoy political control over the sprawling urban slums. Here, a culture of individualism, competition, and mafia values (known as la cultura traqueta) provides a solid base for Uribe’s right-populist opposition to Santos’s technocratic liberalism.
For the Colombian left to win, it must not only overcome its own fragmentation, but also help rebuild collective social structures devastated by war and neoliberalism. For rural movements, this means refuting the portrayal of peasants as terrorists and narco-guerrillas and educating other sectors that the problems in the countryside are about land distribution and the devastating impacts of capitalism. For urban organizers, this means reconstructing collective values and class-based solidarities among precarious workers. For all the Left, it means building the type of unity and collective strength that will allow it to act as a sustained political force representing broad popular sectors in the fight against neoliberalism, the ruling class and war.
With peace on the horizon, the Left’s future seems hopeful, but we will have to work hard to create a lasting political movement.