Veneco Candanga: Episode 6 – Aragorn Storm Miller & Robert Karl

By Juan Andrés Misle


Dr. Karl, can you start by talking about the relationship between Colombia’s political elite and the violence that tore down the reformist optimism of 1960s Colombia. In other words, how did violence become such a prevailing legacy in the making of contemporary Colombia?

R.K.: One of the ways in which my book frames the problem of violence in Colombia in the 1950s and 1960s during the democratic transition that begins in 1957-58 and continues through until the mid part of the 1960s. I argue that we need to think about violence as both a practice and as an idea. So the emphasis is really on violence as an idea—where these narratives about Colombia as a violent country come about.

At the beginning of the period in 1957-58 I talk about Colombian elites’ encounters with violence. The country is coming out of what later becomes known as La Violencia, the worst internal conflict in Latin America in the middle part of the twentieth century, which began as a project of Conservative Party-led state violence against the majority Liberal Party, and then devolves into Liberal-Conservative fighting out in the countryside, the exacerbation of local feuds over land and even violence from the civil wars of the late nineteenth century. And as the country is transitioning to democracy in 1957-58 the elites are talking about and realizing that they don’t have an idea of what is going on in the countryside. Part of what I write about in the first chapter in the first chapter of Forgotten Peace is this elite encounter with violence.

Fast-forwarding to the end of the democratic transition in the middle part of the 1960s, you get a group of reformist intellectuals who have participated in maybe not the peace project of the late 1950s but in Alliance for Progress-era development programs in the 1960s. They experienced a profound sense of disillusionment with the political process and the possibilities of state-led reform and democratic reform and politics. They’ve given us this term to describe the previous period in Colombian history, so the idea of La Violencia—The Violence—is a product of these elites.

On the other side, on the countryside, there’s a group of peasants in the departments of Tolima and Huila, the central Colombian countryside, who experience their own process of disillusionment with the democratic and reformist politics of this period. In 1964, they are attacked by the state and by 1966 their resistance to state-violence takes on the name FARC, so these are the origins of the FARC insurgency. They’re very much a provincial or rural project out in the countryside that isn’t interested in getting national power. They were affiliated with the Colombian Communist Party but not really its armed active wing.

You get a younger generation of Colombians coming out from the cities in the late 1960s and the early 1970s who are excited to make a new Cuban revolution and a revolution out in the Colombian countryside. They just essentially get bored of sitting out in the jungle and getting rained on, waiting for the revolution to come to them rather than going to make the revolution themselves. From that experience some members of the armed communist movement in Colombia go on to form the M-19 guerrilla group in the 1970s, which has a really outsized effect in how we understand violence in Colombia as predominantly a popular response to exclusion in national politics.

I want to open this discussion to Dr. Miller, whose book Precarious Paths to Freedom also focuses on the legacy of political violence during Cold War but in Venezuela. I wanted to get your take on how Venezuela approached its transitioned to democracy differently during the Cold War. Your book argues that a bipartisan effort by moderates in Venezuela facilitated a consolidation of democracy. Is that a fair assessment?

A.S.M.: Yes. And I got a lot of similarities when I was listening to Dr. Karl in that you had this older generation that had been involved in peaceful agitation in the Trienio in the late 1940s, and then come in to power in 1958-59 during the AD-Copei Punto Fijo coalition. Their experience was of a revolutionary background but they were primarily a peaceful organization.

This younger generation that had been part of the AD (Democratic Action party) Youth felt as though the older generation had sold out. Their frustration was in that they had perhaps seen a real democratic moment coming in 1958 but then had faded away. For them, the only solution was to move more towards a lucha armada kind of violence. The ironic thing is that even many in the Venezuelan Communist Party sought political moderation, and saw what Castro had done in Cuba as too much too radical.

The sense here was that there was a movement toward democracy that had become frustrated, and that these older leaders really didn’t understand what it meant to be a truly democratic government. Their effort was to use violence as way to discredit the leadership, and foment a right-wing military coup, so that the public could become so frustrated with that that they would invite in this revolutionary youth into a period of true democracy.

This notion of an incomplete consolidation is what caused this rift between this older generation dedicated to moderation, and this younger generation who saw that as a half-measure, not as an authentic and genuine democracy.

It’s interesting to think how governing elites react to the threat of insurgent violence and how that can have long-lasting consequences on how disaffected or marginalized groups relate and articulate their grievances to the state. But it seems that despite the aggressive counterinsurgency campaign against guerrillas, Venezuela ultimately incorporated former rebels into a developing liberal democracy. So how did this process come to be? How was a U.S.-aligned government able to avoid decades of intrastate violence as was the case in Colombia?

A.S.M.: Within the movement—even the younger generation—there was a sense that the Cuban revolution had worked because of local conditions, but once the government in Caracas and its U.S. allies became aware of how dangerous the revolution had become, they totally revolutionized their counterinsurgency units. The ability of these guerrillas to have any success really become limited by ‘65, ‘66, ‘67.

And to Dr. Karl’s point about these guerrillas being frustrated by being rained on in the countryside, one of the experiences I got in going through the memoirs of these guerrillas—the (Luben, Teodoro) Petkoffs, (Douglas) Bravo, Américo Martin to some extent—was that they felt as though the world was saying “you guys are doing a good thing by having this revolution,” but instead of any real success they were out there with all kinds of horrible tropical diseases and getting preyed upon by these new guerrilla units. Many of them felt this myth of “if you just push harder on revolution it’ll happen, if you simply just push harder on violence this will achieve dividends” fell apart. By 1966-67, about half of the guerrilla movements simply said “this is suicide” and it makes much more sense to move back into peace and moderation. After the 1968 election, the new presidency under (Rafael) Caldera issued amnesties—at least those who ended violence were not prosecuted as much.

One of the things I recall from looking at these memoirs was that after the death of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro had made these broadcasts saying 1968 was the year of the revolutionary fighter and “you’re on the verge of success and you simply need to push harder,” and these guerrillas on the countryside were chuckling and laughing cynically when they heard these broadcasts of Castro saying “you’re on the edge of victory, simply try a little bit harder.”

R.K.: That’s my favorite anecdote from your book Dr. Miller, I think it’s the one that most stuck with me.

A.S.M.: Thank you. And I think in your case you’re talking more of a rural effort at first, and in my case it seems like it was more of city dwellers that went into the countryside, and they’re starving and not used to being able to live out in the countryside, and no longer willing to put up with it, so they just go back home.

In post-conflict Venezuela, many former Marxist rebels went on to become highly-respected politicians: Teodoro Petkoff, Américo Martin, Douglas Bravo, Pompeyo Márquez… While in Colombia, I can only think of Antonio Navarro Wolff and maybe Gustavo Petro, even if this last one is deemed polarizing to this day. Do you think this is, like Dr. Miller argues, because there has been a lack of moderation by the likes of Petro? Or do you think there are systemic issues in Colombia’s political system that undermines the insertion of former rebels into political life?

R.K.: We certainly see the entry of former guerrilleros into politics in Colombia in the 1980s and ‘90s with the demobilization of the M-19, whose origins I mentioned before, and you cited some of their most famous politicians, many of whom fell victim to violence in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But we can actually point to an earlier precedent for this. Some of the rural fighters from the Violencia period of the 1940s and 1950s who were affiliated with the Colombian Communist Party actually re-enter Colombian politics during the coalition government of the National Front in the late 1950s. The most famous example is an agrarian leader from the Sumapaz region near Bogotá named Juan de la Cruz Varela, who is really a fascinating figure. Born a poor peasant but gets educated through church sermons, and gains a broad conception of justice and politics. He leads agrarian mobilizations to help break up large coffee plantations in the Sumapaz in the 1930s into the 1940s, becomes an acolyte of the dissident Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán—whose assassination in 1948 helps worsen the violence throughout the countryside—and at that point Varela joins the Communist Party, and becomes a leader of a major armed resistance movement that demobilizes in 1953. One of the things that is not really appreciated is that he becomes an alternate to Congress under the National Front period in the late 1950s. There’s certainly violence going on in the Sumapaz, and he and his family survive several assassination attempts as we get into the 1960s.

But we can look across the Colombian left. He is sort of an extreme example at one end, a former rural fighter who is able to integrate. You get some left politicians within the Liberal Party who aren’t so much interested in armed struggle but are very critical of the existing system, and the National Front really shows the remarkable ability to absorb these dissident elements into the political system. Even as we get into the post-Cuban Revolution period after 1959 into the 1960s you have communists and socialists in Colombia’s congress participating in the agrarian reform proposals of the early 1960s as we’re getting into the age of the Alliance for Progress.

While there is a lot of exclusion I think we need to think very carefully about where our understandings come about in terms of how exclusionary it is and at what moment it’s exclusionary. So to go back to my point earlier about the M-19 shaping a lot of our ideas about violence existing in Colombia as a response to political exclusion, that’s a narrative of their own experience beginning in the 1970s, and particularly the contested 1970 election, and the M-19 forming a few years later.

One of the things I think we have to be careful about—I talk about this a little bit at the end of the book—is that we need to be careful to not read those narratives back onto the 1960s, onto this previous era of history. Which can challenging because these ideas are so powerful in the public sphere.

A.S.M.: And one thing I would add on to that too, is that it was not until 1961-62 when the violence started to get more widespread that (Rómulo) Betancourt began to strip the Communist Party members of their deputyships and their seats in Congress, and in some cases the members of the legislature who had immunity from prosecution. This kind of movement to violence in its opening stages was seen as kind of a fringe. Even the Venezuelan Communist Party had a polite society mainstream posture into the election of 1963. So while there was violence going on in terms of disenfranchisement of the left, that took a little bit of time after the 1958 revolution.

In Colombia there have been multiple efforts at creating transitional justice mechanisms to address the root causes of the conflict, even if attempts at land reform and truth commissions have been torpedoed throughout the years. Do you think the lack of transitional justice processes during the Cold War in Venezuela may be at the root of some of conflict and democratic deficits that eventually unfolded in Venezuela?

A.S.M.: I never got as much of a sense that land reform was as critical. It seems to me that the big issue in terms of the press and the criticisms that the communists and especially the revolutionary leftist movements made had to do with the economy—how was unemployment doing, how was the price of oil doing, to what extent was the government able to provide services, managing economic frustration. That seemed to be the bigger issue.

When the economy was improving, the appeal of the far left to the public was weaker, and in times of economic unrest when the oil price was low, that’s where the communists appeared to be making more progress in their advertisement of themselves as the good way forward, and the leadership as unable to get the country moving again. The one thing that is so unique about the Venezuelan experience is that the price of oil was a major factor in the success, or lack thereof, of the economy.

By the late ‘60s, not only had there been this frustration that violence had not worked and that the Venezuelan government and its allies in the United States had created better counter-insurgency units, but also by ‘66, ‘67, ‘68, the oil prices were doing quite well, and the budget of the country was sound. The overall macro scale of the economy seemed to be the bigger factor than any frustration in the countryside because of lack of land. Indeed in many cases, many of the leftists felt frustrated because they could never have any success at politicizing the peasantry who didn’t really seem to care much about what was going on in the cities. They had their own set of economic issues and imperatives.

Venezuela and Colombia are often referred as sister nations. Separated by its vast rivers and mountains, but also by the evolution of their politics. As we look towards more recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the need for some sort of democratic transition that acknowledges all political constituencies in both countries is paramount in order to move forward. In Colombia we’re seeing how the government of Iván Duque is derailing the JEP (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz) tribunals from investigating atrocities committed by all sides of the conflict. While in Venezuela, there are also no signs of a serious negotiated solution out of the current crisis. Is the future really so bleak? Are we entering a new Cold War in Latin America where conflict is inevitable with no serious efforts at truth-digging and reconciliation?

R.K.: I think one important difference to note that I focus on in my book is the terms of the international context. If we’re talking about the transitions to democracy in Colombia and Venezuela in the 1950s and 1960s there isn’t yet an international model for transitional justice. There is no international criminal court saying “if you guys don’t resolve these war crimes prosecutions we are going to come in and indict these former officials, army officials, guerrilleros, or what have you.”

I don’t think the region is going to undergo the same historical process in terms of a lack of transitional and other forms of justice. That said, the rightward swing that we’ve seen in Latin America over the last couple of years, and the alignment of Duque in Colombia, Bolsonaro in Brazil, against the Chavista political project in Venezuela. That’s a level of polarization I don’t think the region has seen in a number of years.

It’s very interesting to think about a counterfactual. What might have been with the Colombian peace process if Duque’s government hadn’t come to power, or if more time had elapsed between the signing of the peace accord and the next presidential transition in Colombia.

To site the historical example, in 1962, Orlando Fals Borda—the founder of modern Colombian sociology—he and his colleagues at the National University in Bogotá published the groundbreaking first of two volumes called La Violencia en Colombia, the classic social science study of the violence of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. It really sparked a national interest and provokes this conversation about ideas of violence that had not quite been able to occur a couple of years earlier in the democratic transition because, again, it was a very improvisational time. There were no international models around truth commissions or transitional justice to subscribe to.

The problem for Fals Borda was this broader conversation about justice and violence and who bore responsibility for the murder of perhaps as many as 180,000-200,000 largely peasants in the countryside over the course of the mid 1940s to the late 1950s. The problem for this conversation is that the National Front’s first presidential succession comes about. It’s 1962, and because of the power-sharing rules, a conservative has to be elected president. Congress is split 50-50 under the rules of the National Front power-sharing agreement, but the Conservative party gains a new ascendancy because they are in control of the executive branch.

It’s a very polarizing moment, and this book about violence triggers a national political crisis. There are rumors in the later months of 1962 that the government has censored the book, it’s pulled it off the shelves. By November of ‘62, as the discussion flares up again, there are rumors of a coup—radical conservatives are upset with their own president, and they are going to work with elements of the military to overthrow the government, so there are tanks put out on the street on a Saturday night to keep the government in power.

It’s a really remarkable moment where the politics of the past came to inflect upon the politics of the present then. I think we can talk about a similar process happening in Colombia now where the resurgence of Uribismo under the Duque administration has curtailed these discussions and these institutions that had come about under Santos and through the peace process.

Dr. Miller, can you give us your thoughts on what lessons can 2019 Venezuela learn from both the mistakes and what it got right in its violent past, from the polarization described in your book, and how it can better transition into an inclusive democracy?

A.S.M.: It’s interesting because looking at the Cold War ideological struggle, there seemed to be noble binary choices—democracy or communism—and that these were ideas that could  be given some sort of coherence, that there was a worldview that could make sense for one side or another.

Perhaps the lesson that we can learn today, is that despite its flaws and clumsiness, the dedication by Copei, AD, and at least for a little while, the URD (Democratic Republican Union) under (Jóvito) Villalba, was that there was more that could be done by working together to solve problems than by shattering the system.

I think everyone can agree in the late ‘50s – early ‘60s that Marcos Pérez Jiménez was a bad leader and that you didn’t want a tyranny, you wanted to have some kind of popular government, and that you would need to cooperate in that experiment. This was an experiment that was too important to allow it to fail. That was durable through ten, fifteen years of incredible violence and pressure on Venezuela from the Soviet Union, communist China, Castro in Cuba, and endured quite well. If that sort of cooperate coalition can survive those sort of conditions, I would hope that in the post-Cold War era that kind of coalition could emerge with the same commitment to cooperation and the success of this experiment.

Same question to you Dr. Karl. What can Colombia learn from its violent past in order to avoid falling into never-ending cycles of violence? So that marginalized groups, whether its demobilized insurgents or social leaders don’t bare the brunt of institutionalized violence?

R.K.: Just to follow up on Dr. Miller’s point, I think the international context as compared to the 1950s and 1960s is important. You had these coalition governments in Colombia and Venezuela that were able to survive in part because you had a very active, helpful government in Washington, relatively speaking. Whereas now with the current administration, there is only an interest in driving Maduro from power. You are not seeing a positive foreign policy apparatus around developmental aid and so on, that benefited the survival of both the Punto Fijo and the Frente Nacional pacts in the two countries in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

In terms of other historical lessons that Colombia can draw, the pressure of the international community and international funding is going to be crucial for avoiding a repeat of the genocide against the Union Patriotica as happened in Colombia in the 1980s and 90s.

The Duque administration has already shown that it’s not interested in protecting community leaders and social activists in the countryside, and for that matter the Santos administration showed a similar weakness and lack of interest. But on the other hand, the transitional justice mechanism—the JEP—it’s going forward whatever the Duque administration’s objections to the current bill already operating. Just recently in the last couple of weeks it launched an investigation precisely into the violence against the Patriotic Union.

Whatever pressures there are on the peace process, politically there are ways in  which it’s already been written into the institutional juridical fabric of the country in ways that are going to move forward and account for the violence of the past, bring about some forms of reckoning and justice in ways that haven’t happened previously which will hopefully have a beneficial effect on the democratic system at large.

Aragorn Storm Miller is a professor at Central Texas College and author of Precarious Paths to Freedom: The United States, Venezuela, and the Latin American Cold War.

Robert A. Karl is an assistant professor of History at Princeton University and the author of Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence, and the Making of Contemporary Colombia. You can follow him on Twitter @RAKarl

Juan Andrés Misle is a DC-based independent writer, researcher, and social & human rights advocate. He is Director of Latin American Affairs at Latino Giant.

Music by Amasonic Vibes & Simón Díaz