On 9 April 1948, Colombian Liberal Party politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was murdered on the streets of Bogotá. The killing ignited urban riots and spurred a new round of partisan violence across the countryside. The following decade, so central to the national narrative that it became known simply as La Violencia (the violence), saw perhaps 200,000 people killed and tens of thousands displaced. Violence provoked a coup and several years of military rule—an aberration for Colombia. Historian Robert A. Karl's exceptional new book, Forgotten peace, recounts efforts to end the pattern of violence. As Karl notes, Colombia's history is marked by an unusual combination: relative democracy and staggering levels of internal violence. That pairing continues to this day, alongside efforts to create peace, making his book strikingly current. While spectacular in its scale and intensity, La Violencia continued old practices of settling political scores. The Colombian Conservative Party ended a period of Liberal rule in 1946 and used its ascendancy to solidify local political control and seize land through forced displacements. This merged violence, politics and economic motives—all indicating that peace would require more than halting the killing. In 1957, political leaders forged a power-sharing agreement called the National Front to ease the transition back to civil rule. The pact's originator was Alberto Lleras Camargo, a former Liberal provisional president and the first secretary-general of the Organization of American States. The statesman embodied the optimistic ethos of the early years of the National Front, which saw real progress, with a reduction in the violence and the gradual return of the displaced. Some combatant groups disbanded and the national state engaged the countryside with resources to support peace and meet longstanding demands for land, loans and roads. In short, there was a substantial effort to create local peace pacts, a so-called ‘paz criolla’ (creole peace) as the 1950s ended. Above all, Karl sheds light on the contributions of the letrados (men of letters), whose involvement emerged, in part, from the disconnect between urban elites and the realities of rural violence. The National Investigatory Commission on Violence sent letrados into the countryside for an exceptional effort of investigation, memory collection and peace-building. Commissioners visited far-flung regions with little history of state interaction—exercising a combination of inchoate sociology, political symbolism, negotiation and Christian fellowship (clergy were central participants). Colombian understandings of this period were substantially developed by or in contestation to work that emerged from the Commission. The victories of the creole peace soon spurred contestation. The local distribution of resources often followed partisan logics, sparking Conservative criticism. As the displaced returned to their lands, they clashed with those who had claimed the territory. International interest in development was accompanied by increasingly inflexible anti-communism provoked by events in Cuba, which Conservatives referenced to reject social reforms. A more surprising threat to conviviencia (roughly, coexistence) originated from the work of the Commission. In 1962, these letrados published La violencia en Colombia, drawing on the Commission's earlier research. The study treated violence as a defining feature of Colombian politics; in later iterations, its authors converted lower-case ‘violence’ into the capitalized La Violencia. The book uncovered barely submerged partisan rancour and the ensuing storm threatened the tenuous political truce. Meanwhile, the Colombian military launched offensives against holdout ‘independent republics’, at times accompanied by military-led modernization efforts. However, this ‘could not substitute for civilian neglect of the frontier’ (p. 208), which remained a feature of the Colombian conflict. Coupled with increased militarization, this neglect set the stage for the emergence of Colombia's best-known rebel band, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Engagingly written and peppered with anecdotes, Karl's book is both a part of and a rejoinder to the new generation of studies of Latin America and the Cold War. Like Forgotten Peace, many of these studies draw on deep archival research in Latin America. They have supplemented our knowledge of local dynamics of the Cold War and demonstrated that local actors retained agency and often centrality. This is visible in the National Front and its creole peace, but it is even more evident in the event most associated with the Cold War in Colombia—the emergence of communist guerrilla forces. Karl firmly situates the FARC's creation and historical leadership in grievances springing from local politics. Only later, and somewhat hesitantly, did the FARC's founders embrace the internationalized rhetoric of their urban, communist brethren (p. 183). Karl's history celebrates a remarkable effort at peace-making in Colombia while also reminding us of its tremendous challenges. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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