Colombia's Undeclared Civil War

Article excerpt

THE growing gap between rich and poor has sparked a new wave of violence in Colombia.

Guerrilla attacks on oil pipelines and power lines were a factor in President Cesar Gaviria's decision last month to ration electricity. Businessmen and politicians are being kidnapped with impunity and offices of United States companies, including Citicorp and Texaco, have been bombed. Unlike neighboring Peru, which suspended constitutional rule to fight the Shining Path, Colombia has drawn no international outcry with its undeclared civil war.

Violence is endemic to Colombia's political system. For more than a century, Conservative Party families tied to land and capital battled the Liberals, whose urban outlook appealed to a growing middle class. More than 300,000 people died in the 1948-56 civil war between the two parties, known as La Violencia (the violence).

A 1958 truce brought two decades of power sharing that legitimized the Liberal Party. But fighting erupted anew as left-wing groups attempted to mobilize disenfranchised Colombians who couldn't trade votes for food and jobs.

Formed in 1970 by followers of assassinated Liberal Caudillo Jorge Gaitan, the April 19 Movement (M-19) quickly became Colombia's largest guerrilla organization. Advocating a mix of Gaitan's populism, social democracy, and Cuban-style communism, M-19 abandoned the search for compromise, believing that violence would secure its place in Colombian society.

Following a 20-year struggle, which included the seizure of the Supreme Court building, M-19 won the respect of Colombia's political class and, after negotiations, accepted an invitation from Mr. Gaviria to join his government.

After two years of supporting the government, however, M-19 leader Antonio Navarro Wolff has announced that the movement will resume its traditional opposition role in order to overturn elements of Gaviria's economic program that affect the poor. Health Minister Camilo Gonzalez, the sole M-19 representative in Gaviria's Cabinet, has agreed to stay on in his post.

Gaviria, whose own career turned on Colombia's political violence (he became the Liberal Party's presidential candidate after front-runner Luis Galan was assassinated in 1988), may be unable to avoid another episode of La Violencia. Pressed by his Army, he has allocated $210 million to fight the guerrillas of the Simon Bolivar National Guerrilla Coordinating Board (CNGSB).

Former allies of M-19, the CNGSB are a militarized confederation that includes communists, Maoists, and practitioners of Roman Catholic "liberation theology." They escalated their terror campaign last month after peace talks between the organization and the government, held in Mexico, were suspended.

Tenuous peace accords between the government and the CNGSB are a feature of Colombian political life. …