The Colombian internal conflict is one of the most protracted civil wars in world history. During the period between 1958 and 1974, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had established its position as the most stable guerrilla group in Latin America with abundant resources at its disposal (Richani, 2001). To this end, the issue of political economy arises in a war system as actors compete for scarce natural resources to fund their operations.
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Rebel groups always prompted the escalating war crisis as they embarked on rent-seeking tendencies to cause more instability for their resource gains against the state (Richani, 2001). The guiding research question here is how the historic conditions of politics and economics caused the protracted Colombian Civil War. The main goal of this literature review, therefore, is to discuss the main political and economic reasons for the protracted Colombian Civil War.
For several decades, political scientists and economists have focused on intrastate wars and as a result, much evidence is now available on the issue. In the period of the Cold War, intrastate wars were often regarded as proxy conflicts supported by superpowers to advance or defend their key interests in various parts of the world (Richani, 2001). Richani (2001), applied systems analysis to various intrastate wars in order to elucidate the political economy of some of the most protracted wars and their possible solutions.1 The systems analysis method is applied to explain the political economy of local conflicts and possible solutions to them. The definition of the dynamics of political economy in a protracted civil war is based on two major elements:
- the set of assets acquired by players in the war, and
- the importance of these assets as shown by actions of players in influencing military activities, territories, incomes, and support.
In addition, the accumulated resources also influence how a state distributes its national wealth. Richani (2001) argues that the witnessed intensification of conflict in Colombia was associated with the crisis of the war system triggered by the fight for the exploitation of natural resources among the warring factions, the state, rebels, and paramilitaries.
Conflict in Colombia was triggered by the skewed protection provided by the state, which only favored dominant members and neglected less significant classes (Richani, 2001). Consequently, many peasants and popular groups allowed armed groups to emerge as providers of security. Richani (2001) claims that FARC was created to protect small farms from large landowners… Therefore, the author emphasizes the failure of the state to protect minorities. The FARC subsequently embarked on a rent-seeking mission for resources. Richard blames President Belisario Betancur for allowing the development of rebel movements.
The president failed to prevent the rapid growth of drug trafficking. It gave the rebels the opportunity to upgrade their armed forces, making them more professional. Also, Richani provides information about the operational costs required for supporting military forces. He states that the FARC did not have a fixed income as it always depended on political and economic variables. Changes in the prices of major products influenced national tax policies. The author states that it had a significant impact on the costs of the conflict that became much higher (Richiani, 2001). It explains the motivation of the FARC to promote an income tax.
Richard concludes that although the two main powers, guerrillas and state, experienced long periods of peaceful coexistence, they eventually were faced with a serious political crisis that violated the status quo.In Colombia, the war system emerged because of the state’s failure to arbitrate and solve social issues, specifically land ownership (LeGrand, 2003). Opposing actors also succeeded in coming to terms with the escalating war and, thus, they ensured that the war continued. The author’s view is similar to Richani’s. He also emphasizes the failure of the federal government, which caused a poor economic situation that fueled the conflict.. FARC had realized that it could not gain access to required assets through peaceful engagement. Based on this observation, the concept of ‘greed or grievance’ was introduced in attempts to explain civil wars (Ballentine & Nitzschke, 2005).
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The authors note that the high dependence on natural resources increases the chances of conflict within a country. Greed, according to Collier and Hoeffler (2000), is associated with economic motivations and opportunities to loot (loot seeking), and it is linked to more cases of conflicts than other factors, such as culture. The authors underline the fact that the “greed theory” neglects the effect of ethnic and socioeconomic aspects on the development of confrontation. Hence, resource wealth is responsible for triggering violence (Collier & Hoeffler, 2000).On one hand, it is noted that grievances are merely excuses used by rebels to conceal and justify their greed.
For instance, Collier and Hoeffler (2000) observe that most rebellions seem to be associated with the capture of resources, for instance, drugs in Colombia to finance rebels. On the contrary, Peceny and Durnan (2006) claim that ‘greed-driven’ rebellions cannot account for the character of the Colombian interstate war. The greed-driven rebellion thesis fails to explain the origin of the war, the enduring ideological vision of FARC, or its social base in specific sectors of rural areas of Colombia (Peceny & Durnan, 2006). In addition, it cannot explicitly demonstrate the unlikely relationship between the character of coca and FARC.
Therefore, Peceny and Durnan (2006) argue that FARC grew stronger because of ‘lootable’ wealth, specifically coca. The authors emphasize the unsuccessful measures undertaken by the government that aimed at preventing narco-trafficking. The US anti-drug policies led to the dismantling of drug operations in the state-controlled territories, but not rebel-held regions where coca cultivation thrived (Peceny and Durnan 95). Ultimately, it led to increased narcotrafficking to generate more revenues and, therefore, resources that FARC used to modernize its armed forces and make it more professional through creating military schools and accessing overseas training.
As such, it gained a tactical advantage over the state.From a political economy perspective, FARC military strategy has been strategic in terms of presence and expansion. FARC’s rapid growth resulted in the weakening of the government’s position. Altering the course of the economic development is one of the main reasons for the escalation of the conflict. According to Ross, the occupation of the wealthiest regions shifted the political and economic balance in the country (Ross, 2006).
The author emphasizes that the FARC’s policy aimed at gaining support from popular middle-sized cities, assuming modernization, and appealing to others beyond rural setups while disputing state dominance, led to significant social inequality. Rent extraction remained important for FARC to gain its political goals. Increased rent extraction allowed FARC to acquire more resources with regard to arms, personnel, command, control, and communication (Richani, 2001).
Rebels, state, and paramilitary groups are all involved in extraction and rent-seeking behaviors and, thus, compete for resources. In the 1980s, various paramilitary groups emerged at the local levels to cater to the needs of the local influential elites, who were heavily taxed by rebels and feared rebels’ growing power (Gutiérrez, 2008; Romero, 2000). While paramilitaries competed with all these actors, they related with the state in terms of dependency and autonomy for logistical support provided by armed forces. However, paramilitaries were more aggressive in their strategies relative to the state because of a lack of pressure, such as sanctions, to control their activities.
In many respects, the state government was weak, poorly equipped, lawless, and relied on poor social networks. As such, a protracted civil war could escalate as rebels and paramilitaries became more aggressive in their quests. Largely, the weakness of the state is attributed to intrastate conflict and its escalation. That is the failure of the state was associated with a prolonged crisis of hegemony that created a vacuum, which rebels and paramilitary readily exploited to establish their authority mainly through coercion.
In war history, economic dynamics are extremely important to actors. Thus, an analysis of intrastate wars from a political economy viewpoint potentially enhances comprehension of major dynamics involved in civil wars. In addition, they are vital for actors and other stakeholders who are interested in conflict resolution and post-conflict peace processes. Therefore, the political economy of the Colombian Civil War should be considered as an important component of any initiatives aimed at ending the conflict. The restructuring of the political and economic systems is crucial to moderating the conflict. Therefore, the diversification of economic activities, political pluralism, and risk reduction should be the main directions for the further development of the country.
Ballentine, K., & Nitzschke, H. (2005). The political economy of civil war and conflict transformation. Berlin: Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management.
Collier, P., & Hoeffler, A. (2000). Greed and Grievance in Civil Wars. Washington, D.C: The World Bank.
Gutiérrez, S. F. (2008). Telling the difference: guerrillas and paramilitaries in the Colombian War. Politics & Society, 36(1), 3‐34.
LeGrand, C. (2003). The Colombian crisis in historical perspective. Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 28(55‐56), 165‐209.
Peceny, M., & Durnan, M. (2006). The FARC’s best friend: U.S. anti-drug policies and the deepening of Colombia’s civil war in the 1990s. Latin American Politics and Society, 48(2), 95-116.
Richani, N. (2001). The political economy of Colombia’s protracted civil war and the crisis of the war system. Journal of Conflict Studies, 21(2), 1.
Romero, M. (2000). Changing identities and contested settings: regional elites and the paramilitaries in Colombia. International Journal of Politics,Culture and Society, 14(1), 51-69.
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Ross, M. L. (2006). A closer look at oil, diamonds, and civil war. Annual Review of Political Science, 9(1), 265-300.
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- Systems analysis is the process of scrutinizing a project, highlighting its purposes to design the most effective methods of its implementation.