Race and Class War in Colombia: The Root of Violence


The brutal character of political and social conflicts across Latin America has sometimes led to the view that the region possesses a kind of inherent propensity for violence. The complicated nature of violence in Colombia since the middle of the 20th Century has led to interpretations that see it as random. With this article, I intend to demonstrate that violence in Colombia has nothing to do with randomness or its people’s nature but, in fact, with the material interests that local and global capitalists have in the region.

A serious explanation for the violence in Colombia is commonly overshadowed by focusing on symptoms, such as political rivalry, drug cartels or corruption, rather than its colonial and capitalist roots. The focus on superficialities to explain ongoing violence in Colombia lies in the interest of powerful and dominant groups that need its structural roots hidden from view. The assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, for example, far-reaching in its consequences, has overshadowed earlier and more diverse catalysts that could bring to the fore a more nuanced understanding of the country’s history of violence.

Race, Gender and Class as Factors in Colombia’s Ongoing Violence

The official explanation of La Violencia (The Violence) period in Colombia is that it was a bipartisan conflict that was ignited in the early- to mid-1940s and peaked in its violence between 1948 and 1958. However, the start and end dates can and must be broadened to understand the phenomenon properly. Although a more in-depth investigation should necessarily include the colonial era as well as “independence” and the few decades that followed, this article will focus on the roots of violence since the 1930s, when Colombia’s inclusion in the world capitalist system first peaked.

The early 1930s saw the new liberal president, Alfonso López Pumarejo, make some labor reforms that benefited the industrial working class. This, combined with an extraordinary expansion of Colombia’s industry into the world economy, ignited an atmosphere of acute class tension as the country’s bourgeoisie saw the new labor laws as a barrier to their profit growth. Protests, strikes and general conflicts between workers and bosses reached a climax in the mid-1940s, when progressive labor laws were rolled back by the new Conservative government. Those who reacted against the government were all labeled “depraved bandits” who acted in “isolation” and were persecuted by state forces as mere “criminals.” The economic and political character of these mobilizations were conveniently ignored and the participants were, to the state and the national media, simply outlaws with no comprehendible claim. This, of course, continues to be a policy as those who act against oppressive state policy and law continue to be labeled outlaws or, more recently, as “terrorists.”

A survey of the regions most affected during La Violencia in Colombia reveals that those targeted with violence were considered to be in the way of an economic, racial and cultural homogenization project pushed by the country’s more central zones and their political and economic elites. Parallels can be drawn today when we consider that the regions that are still most affected by violence are found within the periphery. That is, the countryside where campesino and Indigenous peoples reside, as well as the coastal areas, where Afro-descendant communities are the majority. The already-existing negative racial and cultural stereotypes of Indigenous people in regions such as Antioquia, Cundinamarca and Boyacá helped to justify the violence that was unleashed on them by more dominant groups in the central zones, coinciding with the expansion of the national economy in the early 1930s. In other words, there’s a direct correlation between the race and class of those affected by the violence and the interests that these communities and their lands represent for expanding capitalists.

If we link Colombia’s ongoing violence to the decades prior to La Violencia, the racial and class character of the conflict becomes clear. Colombian scholar Mary Roldán has pointed out that scholars have favored “black and white, easy to understand and pinpoint” explanations for the violence. This, in turn, feeds a simplistic narrative to mainstream commentators and outlets. Furthermore, the country’s capitalist elites have an underlying interest in using simplified explanations as a veil in order to keep the masses distracted.

Former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, for example, has regurgitated these inaccurate talking points. Santos, who negotiated a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, claimed the primary cause of violence is the “lack of state presence in many rural areas.” Therefore, according to Santos, the solution is the “strengthening [of] democratic institutions across our territory.” In his statement, Santos makes two problematic implications. First, he absolves the state from its direct role in the violent conflict. Second, he suggests that the extension of the dominant social order to rural areas will bring about an end to the conflict. As Roldán has argued, however, the extension of the dominant social order to rural communities in the periphery has not only failed to bring about peace. It has, in fact, been the catalyst for the structural violence that developed prior to La Violencia and which continues to exist today.

The placement of Colombia’s catalyst for violent conflict beyond 1948, and its end-point beyond 1958, necessarily means the acknowledgement of factors outside the limits of bipartisan war. The root of violent conflict in Colombia, as well as in other Latin American nations that suffer from acute violence, can be traced to colonialism, its racialized social organization and economies that force the masses into servitude for global capitalists and their neo-colonial intermediaries. When we go beyond simplistic explanations of violence in Latin America, we find that there are a variety of causes which are comprised of geographical, racial, gendered and class-based elements; all of which consequences of colonialism and capitalism-imperialism.

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