Citizens International

Imperialism and Violence in Colombia

by James Petras

posted June 5, 2012 by Information Clearing House


Invited paper to be presented at the national conference on “Multinationals, Violence, Trade Union Freedom and Democracy in Colombia” organized by the SINALTRAINAL International Trade Union on its 30th anniversary, July 26, 2012 at Autonomous University of Colombia in Bogota, Colombia.

June 05, 2012 “Information Clearing House” — The US military intervention in Colombia constitutes the longest counter-insurgency war in recent world history. Beginning with President John F. Kennedy’s launch of the “Green Berets” in 1962 and escalating in the new century with President Clinton’s $7 billion dollar military program (Plan Colombia) in 2001 to Obama’s inauguration of seven new military bases in the present, the US has been at war in Colombia for 50 years. Ten US presidents, 5 Democrats and 5 Republicans, both liberals and conservatives, have alternated in carrying out one of the most brutal counter-insurgency wars ever recorded in Latin America. In terms of civilian killings, trade union and human rights activist murders and the dispossession of peasants, the US backed oligarchy has the dubious distinction of being at the top of the list of tyrannical rulers.

To understand the bloody history of US imperial intervention in Colombia requires us to examine several key dimensions of the relation in a comparative-historical framework that highlights the specificities of Colombia’s ruling class and the strategic geo-political importance of Colombia to US hemispheric dominance.

Colombia: A Ruling Class in Search of Hegemony

Violence is endemic in a society ruled by a ‘closed’ ruling class governing through 19th century oligarchical parties (and their competing factions) for the greater part of the 20th and 21st centuries. Colombia differs from most of the rest of the major countries of Latin America which early on in the 20th century expanded representation to diverse middle class parties. In the post-World War 1 period and certainly by the World Depression of the 1930’s, Latin America witnessed the emergence of socialist, communist and national populist parties and Popular Front type regimes. However, Colombia remained frozen in a time warp of a closed political system dominated by two oligarchical parties which competed with bullets and ballots.

When in the immediate post WWII period a dynamic nationalist- populist figure emerged, Jorge Elicier Gaitan, he was assassinated and the country entered a period of a society-wide blood bath, dubbed “La Violencia”. Factions of Conservative and Liberal oligarchs financed armed bands to murder each other resulting in over 300,000 killings. The oligarchs ended their internecine war by signing an agreement to alternate electoral office, the so-called “National Front” further consolidating their stranglehold on power and forcibly excluding new political movements from achieving any significant representation.

Even when a pseudo alternative emerged, under the rule of rightwing populist, Rojas Pinilla, the mass urban and rural poor were subject to the private armies of the landlords, while the urban workers movement was brutally repressed by the military and police. Dissident democrats usually formed a faction of the Liberal Party; while activist workers were drawn to the militant trade unions and the clandestine or semi-legal Communist Party or smaller socialist parties.

The Cold War and US Imperial Penetration

With the onset of the Cold War, Washington found a willing accomplice in the bi-party oligarchical alliance, especially after the elimination of Gaitan and the savage repression of militant class based unions in the US agro-business complexes. Beginning with the bi-lateral and multi-lateral anti-communist military agreements of the early 1950’s, Colombian politics was frozen into a pattern of subordination and collaboration with Washington, as the US extended its empire from Central America and the Caribbean into Latin America.

The similarities between the bi-partisan political systems of Colombia and the US and the exclusion of any effective opposition in both countries, facilitated continuity and collaboration. As a result, Colombia’s oligarchy did not face the challenges that emerged from time to time in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.

The Cuban Revolution and the US-Colombian Alliance

The Cuban revolution, especially its transition toward socialism and the multiplication of guerilla movements throughout Latin America, marked a turning point in US-Colombian relations. Colombia became a pivotal country in Washington’s counter-revolutionary strategy. Colombia served as a US “laboratory” in the effort to defeat the revolutionary upsurge of the 1960’s.

Colombia served as a trampoline for Washington to launch a counter-offensive based on military regimes to establish an empire of dependent client-states, open to US economic interests and obedient to Washington’s foreign policy dictates.

US Imperialism and Latin American Nationalism: Impositions and Adaptations

The US Empire did not emerge ready-made at the end of World War II. It confronted and had to overcome many domestic and overseas obstacles and challenges. Domestically at the end of WW II, after years of war, most US citizens demanded a military demobilization (1945-47) which weakened the capacity to intervene against the emerging progressive governments in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere. However, with the Cold War and the “hot war” in Korea, the US rearmed and launched its quest for world dominance. Social democratic and progressive governments and leaders were ousted from governments and jailed in Venezuela, Guatemala and Chile. Throughout the 1950s Washington embraced the “First (but not last) Age of Dictators and Free Markets”. They included Odria in Peru, Perez Jimenez in Venezuela, Ospina and Gomez in Colombia, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Duvalier in Haiti; Somoza in Nicaragua, Armas in Guatemala, Batista in Cuba.

Between 1948-1960 the US Empire totally relied on the brute force of the dictators and the complicity of the local agro-mineral oligarchy to secure its dominance.

The Empire, built on the basis of rightwing dictators, however, did not last beyond a decade. Beginning with the victory of the 26th of July Movement in Cuba, a decade-long (1960-1970) continent-wide revolutionary upsurge challenged imperial power and client collaborators of Empire.

US imperialism, faced with the demise of its dictatorial clients, was forced to adapt to the new configuration of forces composed of reformist middle class electoral parties and a new generation of radicals and a revolutionary movement of intellectuals, peasants and workers inspired by the Cuban example.

In 1962 Washington launched a new strategy called the “Alliance for Progress” (AP) to divide reformers from revolutionaries: the AP promised economic aid to the reformist middle class regimes and military advisors, arms and special forces to destroy the revolutionary insurgents. In other words imperial violence was more selective; it was directed against the independent revolutionary movements and involved greater direct military involvement in the counter-insurgency programs of the electoral regimes.

Colombia the Exception: Repression with Reform

In contrast to the rest of Latin America, where agrarian, democratic and nationalist reforms accompanied the counter-insurgency programs (Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela), in Colombia the oligarchy retained power, blocked the emergence of a reformist – democratic alternative and relied wholly on a strategy of total militarization – polarizing politics between revolution and reaction.

In Colombia the US Empire did not face a choice between a reformist middle class regime or a revolutionary movement because the oligarchical bi-party system dominated the electoral arena. The US did not need to combine the “carrot with the stick” – it concentrated all its efforts in strengthening the military power of the dominant oligarchy.

The Colombian ruling class ruled out any “agrarian reform” like in Chile, Peru and Ecuador for the obvious reason that they were the landowning elite. The Colombian oligarchy did not face a ‘nationalist military’ pressuring to nationalize strategic industries, like in Bolivia (tin and petrol), and Peru (oil and copper) because the military was under US tutelage and was closely linked with the emerging narco bourgeoisie. The Colombian ruling class served as the US “counter-point” to launch its second and most brutal counter-revolutionary offensive beginning with a coup in Brazil in 1964.

By the end of the 1960’s Colombia became the centerpiece (“model”) of US policy for Latin America. The region moved from reform to radical nationalism and democratic socialism in the early 1970’s – especially among the Andean countries and the Caribbean. Colombia was the anomaly in an Andean region ruled by nationalists like Guillermo Rodriguez in Ecuador, Juan Velasco Alvarez in Peru, J J Torres in Bolivia and democratic socialists like Salvador Allende in Chile.

Subsequently the US invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic in 1965/66 and supported the overthrow of Allende, Rodriquez, Torres, Velasco Alvarez in the Andean countries.Later the US backed military coups in Argentina (1976) and Uruguay(1972).

The Pentagon organized mercenary death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala killing nearly 300,000 peasants, Indian workers, teachers and other citizens. The US organized a mercenary army (the “Contras”) in Honduras to destroy the Sandinista revolution.

Colombia’s ruling class, backed by US and Israeli counter-insurgency experts, tried to follow the US counter-revolutionary lead by engaging in a “scorched earth policy” to defeat the popular insurgency. But narco-presidents Turbay, Betancur,Barco , Gaviria and Samper were only partially successful – they destroyed the popular legal Union Patriotica but increased the size, scope and membership of the armed insurgency.

The second wave of “Dictators and Free Markets” (1970’s – 1980’s), including Pinochet (Chile), Videla (Argentina) and Alvarez (Uruguay) came under popular pressure and faced the insurmountable debt crises of the early 1980’s. Once again US imperialism faced a challenge and choice: continue with the dictators and a deepening financial crisis or engineer a “democratic transition” which would preserve the state and the neo-liberal economy.

The Golden Age of Imperialism … Neoliberalism and Elections 1990-2000 (except Colombia)

The 1990’s witnessed the greatest pillage of the Latin American economies since the times of Pizzaro and Cortes. Presidents Menem in Argentina, Salinas and Zedillo in Mexico, Cardoso in Brazil, Sanchez de Losado of Bolivia and Fujimori in Peru privatized and de-nationalized over 5,000 public enterprises, mines, energy resources, banks, telecommunication networks – mostly through executive decrees – worth over $1 trillion dollars. During the 1990’s over $900 billion dollars flowed out of Latin America in profits, royalties and interest payments to multi-national corporations, bankers and speculators. In Colombia, narco-trafficking became the principle source of profits as the traditional oligarchy joined with the new “narco-bourgeoisie” in laundering billions of dollars via “correspondence” accounts with the major US banks in Miami, Wall Street and Los Angeles.

The “transition” from military dictatorships to neo-liberal authoritarian electoral systems in Latin America was paralleled in Colombia by the transition from an oligarchical to a narco-state. In Colombia the military and para-military death squads dispossessed millions of peasants, and confronted the armed insurgency. There was no “democratic transition” – the democratic opposition was murdered! Between 1984-1990 over 5,000 members of the Patriotic Union were slaughtered.

US empire builders looked on neo-liberal Latin America in the 1990’s as the “model” for expanding on a world-scale. The formula was to combine pillage via privatization in Latin America and dispossession via militarization in Colombia.

The Crises of the Neo-liberal-Militarist Model of Empire 2000-2012

The entire basis of US imperial supremacy in Latin America in the 1990’s was built on fragile foundations: pillage, plunder and corruption led to a profound class polarization and economic crises which culminated in mass popular uprisings overthrowing US backed client regimes in Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador. In Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela the incumbent neo-liberal Presidents were defeated by center-left and national populist’s parties and leaders.

In Colombia, mass rejection of the ruling neo-liberal narco-bourgeoisie expressed itself via massive electoral abstention (over 75%): the exponential growth of influence and the presence of the armed insurgency in over one-third of the municipalities and the tactical retreat of President Pastrana. He accepted a demilitarized zone for direct peace negotiations with the FARC-EP.

The entire basis of US imperial rule built on the collaboration of the neo-liberal client regime crashed. Between 2000-2005 popular social movements succeeded in defeating a counterrevolutionary coup and lock-out in Venezuela(2002-3). A victorious President Chavez accelerated and radicalized the process of socio-economic change and deepened Venezuela’s anti-imperialist foreign policy. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay rejected US free trade agreements.

Once again Colombia went against the progressive tide of the region. Colombia’s narco-bourgeoisie and oligarchy opted for total militarization to avoid the popular democratic movements occurring in the rest of Latin America. The Colombian-US response to democratic revolution in Latin America was “Plan Colombia” – a $10 billion dollar war on the Colombian people financed by the governments of the US, Colombia and the European Union.

Plan Colombia: Imperialism’s Response to Latin America’s Democracy Movement

“Plan Colombia” was the US response to the spread of the popular democratic revolution throughout Latin America. Plan Colombia represented the biggest US military aid program in the entire region and was designed with several strategic goals.

1. To ‘fence in’ Colombia from the “contagion” of the anti-neo-liberal revolution which had undermined the proposed US Free Trade of the Americas agreement.

2. Plan Colombia served to build-up Colombia’s capacity to threaten and pressure Venezuela’s anti-imperialist government and to provide the US with multiple military bases from which to launch a direct intervention in Venezuela if an ‘internal’ coups took place.

3. ‘Plan Colombia’ had an important internal political and economic function.

It was designed to militarize society and to empty the countryside; 300,000 soldiers together with 30,000 death squad paramilitary forces, forced millions to flee guerrilla controlled territory. The guerrillas lost important intelligence and logistical support but gained new recruits. As a result of the Uribe/Santos “scorched earth policy” and the mass violence, entire new economic sectors, especially in mining, oil and agriculture, were secured for foreign investors, laying the groundwork in 2012 for the Obama-Santos free trade agreement.

There is a direct connection between Plan Colombia (2001), militarization of the state, mass repression and dispossession (2002-2011), the deepening of neo-liberalization and the free trade agreement (2012).

4. Colombia serves a strategic geo-political role in the US militarized empire.

In the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa the US has used the pretext of the “War against Terrorism” to invade and establish an empire of military bases, in alliance with Israel and NATO. In Latin America, the US in alliance with Colombia and Mexico and under the pretext of the “War on Drugs” has built an empire of military bases in Central America, the Caribbean and increasingly in Latin America. Currently the US has military bases in Colombia (8), Aruba, Costa Rica, Guantanamo (Cuba), Curacao, El Salvador , Honduras (3), Haiti, Panama (12), Paraguay, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico (several).

The US: A Militarized Empire

Because of the relative decline of US economic power and the rise of militarism, the US Empire today is largely a military empire engaged in perpetual wars. Washington’s close ties with Colombia reflect the close structural features of the state – heavily weighted toward military institutions – and economy, skewed toward neo-liberal and free market policies.

Once again, Colombia is the anomaly in Latin America. Nearly ten years after Latin America rejected neo-liberalism and eight years after the center-left regimes rejected a free trade agreement with the US, Colombia under Uribe-Santos embrace neo-liberalism and a free trade agreement with Washington.

Facing two major economic initiatives from Venezuela , Plan Caribe and ALBA, challenging US hegemony in the Caribbean and Andean region, Washington tightens its ties with Colombia via the free trade agreement.


US Empire depends on collaborator regimes everywhere in order to defend its military dominance. In Latin America, Colombia is the biggest and most active collaborator, especially in the Central American-Caribbean region.

But like the US, Colombia’s militarized state does not ‘fit’ in with the rest of Latin America. The US has no new economic initiatives to offer Latin America and has lost significant influence and witnessed a relative decline in trade, investment and market shares. Because Colombia, as a militarized-neo-liberal state complements the US global project, it became a special recipient of massive US military aid – precisely to prevent it from joining the new bloc of independent progressive states and further isolating Washington.

Colombia’s increasing dependence on the US economy via the free trade agreement sacrifices a large sector of domestic producers in agriculture and manufacturing but increases vast opportunities for the oligarchy and foreign investors in mining, oil and finance. The free trade agreement will increase the opportunities of the powerful narco-financial-bourgeoisie which launders over $20 billion dollars annually in drug revenues through leading US and EU banks.

Colombia is the ‘model state’ of the US Empire in Latin America. Colombia is ruled by a triple alliance of a narco-oligarchy, neo-liberal bourgeoisie and the military. The Santos regime depends increasingly on the large scale inflow of foreign capital, which is oriented toward producing for overseas markets. The military expenditures, the mass terror of the Uribe regime, the political isolation from the regional economic powers (Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina) and the limitation of the stagnant US economy are serious obstacles to the neo-liberal model. President Santos is attempting to reconcile these “internal contradictions”. Santos has replaced mass terror with selective assassinations of key activists in the trade unions and the human rights and social movements. He has focused on co-opting electoral politicians and centering the activity of the paramilitaries on eliminating popular opponents in the new mining and investment zones. He has combined major economic agreements with Venezuela and deepened military ties with the US.

The Santos-White House agreements and the strategy of diversified dependence and free markets rest on very fragile domestic and global foundations. The repression of dissent, the regressive taxes, the depression of living standards, the millions of rural dispossessed have led to the vast growth of inequalities and pent-up mass demand and rising popular pressure. The military commitments to the US impose a heavy economic cost with no economic compensation. The cost of US promoted militarism undermines efforts by Colombian business to expand in regional markets. The US economy is stagnant, the EU is in recession and the outlook for 2012 is precarious, especially for an open economy like Colombia.

At the turn of the 21st century Latin American countries faced a similar situation: neo-liberal regimes in crises, the US in economic decline and a ruling class unable to grow externally and unwilling to develop the internal market. The result was the popular democratic revolutions which led to a partial rupture with US hegemony and neo-liberalism. A decade later Colombia faces a similar situation. The question is whether Colombia will follow the rest of progressive Latin America in breaking with imperial militarism and embracing a new developmental road. The time is ripe for Colombia to cease being a ‘political anomaly’, a client of a militarized imperialism. The popular movements in Colombia,as evidenced in the Patriotic March movement are ready to make their own popular democratic and anti-imperialist revolution and establish their own Colombian road to 21st century Socialism.

James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books).


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