Students, Peasants, and Communism in Colombia: An Interview with Oliver Dodd (Part Two)

Devon Bowers | Social Movement Studies | Interview | August 5th, 2019

This is Part Two of our interview with Oliver Dodd, a PhD student at Nottingham University, where we expand upon his April 2019 article in the online edition of the Morning Star. Read Part One here .

What is the current political and economic situation in Colombia?

Since the early 1990s Colombia engaged on a process of neo-liberal restructuring, largely to finance the counter-insurgency war against the powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In return for economic and military aid, the United States and the International Monetary Fund, demanded neoliberal reforms that entailed economic privatisation, liberalisation of foreign trade, financial deregulation, and reduced tariffs. As a result, Colombia's economic model today is largely extractivist and its capitalist accumulation strategy is dependent on those multinational corporations based in the core of the international political economy.

In terms of production of revenue from exports, Colombia's traditional export - coffee - which in the 1980s produced more than half of the country's export revenue, now represents only around 5% of export revenue. Currently, coal, oil and gas, make up more than 60% of export revenue. These economic changes have led to political changes. The multinational corporations invested in extractivism are overwhelmingly based in the capitalist core. The majority of the profits generated in Colombia's economy are put into the pockets of the finance capitalists, based outside Colombia. Furthermore, relative to other sectors - manufacturing (around 10%), services (around 35%), oil, coal and gas generates significantly higher profits. This trend puts multinational corporations in a stronger economic position vis-à-vis Colombia's declining national bourgeoisie. Nationally based companies are increasingly being bought out by multinational corporations, further extending foreign based influence over Colombia's economy and making the country more vulnerable to social forces organised at world order levels.

The peace accord signed with FARC in 2016 is under severe threat. Paramilitary killings of social activists since the signing of the peace agreement have increased, thousands of FARC combatants have either remobilised or refused to demobilise because of what they perceived as betrayal on the part of FARC's leadership, or the danger of paramilitary killings - more than 85 FARC ex-combatants have now been murdered since November 2016. FARC dissident leaders that have taken the hard-line position of refusing to demobilise basically argue that armed struggle is the only path to transform Colombia's political economy. In short, the 2016 peace accord has not brought peace.

However, I would argue that "peoples war" is no longer an applicable strategy in the historically specific conditions of Colombia today. The overwhelming majority of citizens live in urban areas and many of the insurgent social structures formed in the countryside have become corrupted and bureaucratised. The so-called "revolution in military affairs" (RIMA) has allowed the armed forces, notably in the form of air-power, to increasingly put the leftist insurgents on the defensive. Today satellite technology can be employed to detect guerrillas based in the mountains, let alone the countryside - where peasants, especially the youth, are increasingly departing for the towns and cities. This is not to suggest that guerrilla warfare cannot play any useful role as part of an overarching political strategy, but a military-centric strategy is becoming more difficult to implement effectively. Colombia's state, largely due to Plan Colombia and the military technology and intelligence capabilities it provided, has shown a consistent capacity to target even the most protected and important of guerrilla commanders. Until 2008, not a single member of FARC's 7-person secretariat had been killed, but since then, at least four have been successfully targeted and significant numbers of FARC's and ELN's medium level command have been killed. I know of some highly capable and politically educated leaders within the ELN, who were made "High-Valued-Targets" and very swiftly killed. This suggests to me that RIMA is changing the balance of forces in favour of the Colombian military and its main sponsor - the U.S.

There is also a significant shortage of intellectuals within both FARC dissidents' groups and the ELN, largely because they were successfully targeted by the Colombian military. This means that "militias" - those responsible for recruitment and upholding law and order in rural villages and towns, which are usually organised some distance from the more disciplined and politicised structures of the armed guerrilla units - sometimes tend to act without discipline and bring the organisations into disrepute among the civilian population. There is then, the realistic possibility that following another peace accord, these "conflict entrepreneurs" will continue to function as strictly criminal entities, thus leading to no practical end in the conflict.

ELN's strategy however, as already mentioned, does not entail a "military solution" to the conflict. Armed structures are understood by ELN as permanent, unless the conditions of class struggle within Colombia's periphery change to undermine guerrilla struggle completely - this conception of armed struggle is distinct from the more military-centred strategy of people's war, based on surrounding the cities from the countryside. The ELN's strategy implies that armed force has a utility in class struggle, not that political power will necessarily come through the barrel of a gun. This has been one of the fundamental differences in strategy between ELN and FARC for decades.

Regarding Colombia's trade-union structures, neoliberalism is making it more difficult for the labour movement to organise. On top of having a significant and dispersed informal sector in Colombia, repeated right-wing governments (I include the Santos administration here) have favoured economic growth along neoliberal lines rather than extending the political and economic rights of workers; this has amounted to government policies and a political economy that makes it harder for the trade-unions to organise, in the midst of paramilitary violence. At the same time, recent changes to agricultural economic policies have made it more difficult for peasants to earn a living, thereby increasing displacement and opening up land for capitalist investment. It is important to note that such rural-to-urban migration, of the constant supply of formerly rural labours desperately looking for work in the cities, enables urban based capitalists to benefit from the increased competition for work and therefore to keep wages low.

Even the peace agreement seems to have been conceived, to a large extent, as part of a neoliberal economic growth strategy. By signing the peace accord with FARC, multinational corporations have been able to access territories, wealthy in natural resources, which were previously governed by the FARC. Indeed, a key motivation for the accord, unveiled by the former President, Juan Manuel Santos, was that "A Colombia in peace will attract more investments that will create more and better jobs" - in other words, the neoliberal capitalist accumulation model will be strengthened because there will be no leftist insurgent forces to put pressure on international investors.

Still, the fact that Gustavo Petro placed second in the 2018 presidential elections is significant. The last time a leftist candidate in Colombia's political system challenged for president, he was assassinated - Jorge Gaitán in 1948. As such, we have seen the rise of a left-wing surge in Colombia, like in other countries - Bernie Sanders in the U.S., Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Podemos and Syriza in Spain and Greece respectfully. The current right-wing president, Iván Duque, who employed populist discourse to get elected, is being unmasked as no different from the establishment. This may create some opening for the left in the next elections, enabling it to open up some political space for the labour movement to organise a fight-back.

In what ways does the US supporting anti-guerilla efforts in Colombia linked to a larger, regional strategy push back against leftist movements in Latin America?

U.S. support for the Colombian state goes back many decades. Colombia borders five countries and, with ten U.S. military bases, permits the U.S. to effectively project its military power into Central and South American countries. Also, Colombia's economy is potentially very balanced, and benefits from several natural resources and has very fertile land for agriculture. There exist the resources to develop powerful industrial and manufacturing sectors, moving away from what is currently an economic strategy of extractivism.

A socialist state in Colombia, supported by a powerful labour movement, could have a transformative impact on Latin America and change the correlation of social class forces in favour of the socialist movement. It would be possible for a socialist government in Colombia to pursue a relatively independent political economic strategy, while focusing on economic and political independence for the region as a whole. The experience of the small and economically impoverished island of socialist Cuba on Latin America's left and labour movement - situated only ninety miles from the U.S - is an example of what a revolutionary state in the much wealthier Colombia could achieve, in terms of potentially shaping the future of the region. In other words, a left-wing or socialist-led Colombia could represent a major defeat for U.S. imperialism.

Additionally, Colombia's capitalist system is difficult to transform constitutionally, and the country boasts of having one of the longest surviving liberal-democratic systems in Latin America, although state terrorism employed against workers and peasants has remained constant throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Historically, the two dominant political parties, the Liberal and Conservative party, solidly represented capitalist interests, and rarely disagreed over fundamental questions relating to economic change. These trends make Colombia a reliable ally for the U.S. in its "backyard".

For these reasons, the Colombian state has been a consistently reliable ally of the U.S. Having only ever had pro-capitalist governments, a free-trade agreement is in place, Colombia's economy is dominated by U.S. multinationals, and the state has loyally followed the U.S. government's policy of open hostility to the so-called "Pink-tide" - the surge of South American based, left-wing, anti-imperialist influence over the last two decades. In its fight against the leftist rebels, Colombia opened up its economy to U.S. corporations in return for economic and military aid. And currently, Colombia is being used as the main proxy to further aggravate the political and economic crisis in Venezuela. The dominant capitalist classes in Colombia will benefit enormously from regime change in Venezuela.

Initially, the U.S. drew on the pretext of combating drugs to justify intervention into Colombia. The U.S. State Department insisted that Plan Colombia, the U.S. military and economic initiative implemented at the start of the 1999-2002 peace negotiations with FARC, was about tackling the drug-trade. In reality, Plan Colombia was employed as a counter-insurgency measure that upgraded and restructured Colombia's armed forces and was used largely to target the leftist rebels, as opposed to the drug-cartels and right-wing paramilitaries. It also led to the major expansion of U.S. military influence in Colombian society, including the building of several U.S. military bases. In other words, the pretext of anti-drug activity, and then anti-guerrilla activity, was exploited by the U.S. to establish a base of political, military and economic influence in a strategically located country of South America.

Where can people learn more about ELN and your own work?

There is a momentous amount of work on the armed conflict and the insurgent groups published in Colombia. Unfortunately, very little of this work has been translated from Spanish into English. This needs to be rectified, and I am surprised that so little effort has been put into this process of translation, as it would allow international audiences to learn about Colombia's complicated history - Colombia is understood as an "outlier" in politics and international relations scholarship. Indeed, the depth of Colombian scholarship on the armed conflict is strong.

Regarding the ELN in the Spanish language, "La Guerrilla Por Dentro" by Jaime Arenas, a former ELN guerrilla gives an insider perspective on the first stages of the movements' formation. Darío Villamizar has also published, in Spanish, one of the key histories of the several insurgent movements in Colombia. Carlos Medina, in addition to other important works on the ELN, has just written a history of ELN's ideas from 1958 to 2018, in Spanish, where he talks about the worker-peasant-student alliance. Carlos Medina's works are very detailed and significant; relatively little has been written on the ELN in any language. I haven't come across a book dedicated to understanding the ELN's trajectory in English, but the journal article by Gruber and Pospisil, entitled "'Ser Eleno': Insurgent identity formation in the ELN", vigorously contests some of the significant misconceptions about the movement.

I am in the first year of my PhD at Nottingham University working on Colombia's 2016 peace agreement with FARC, which analyses the underlying dynamics from a historical materialist perspective. My MA dissertation, slightly modified, was published in the Midlands Historical Review and can be found online. I have also written two journalistic pieces on the ELN in the Morning Star newspaper. I am currently working on a journal article relating to the "political" inside the ELN - challenging the narrative that the ELN has "lost its way" and merely become a criminal entity - based on my five months of ethnographic research in 2015. My blog about armed conflict in Colombia can be found online at