Ripe for Revolution

By Bulmer-Thomas, Victor | The World Today, June/July 2015 | Go to article overview

Ripe for Revolution


Bulmer-Thomas, Victor, The World Today


Eric Hobsbawm's analysis of South American politics was prescient, writes Victor Bulmer-Thomas

In June 1963 The World Today carried a long article entitled 'The Revolutionary Situation in Colombia'. It was written by Eric Hobsbawm who visited South America on a three-month fellowship paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation. The article had first been presented to the Latin American Study Group at Chatham House convened by Claudio Véliz.

This study group produced two books - Obstacles to Change in Latin America (1965) and The Politics of Conformity in Latin America (1967) - in which leading scholars of the region from around the world addressed a series of contemporary issues.

Hobsbawm's article in The World Today explained the roots of social violence in Colombia and traced them to the 1920s, if not earlier. The violence had erupted in 1948 when Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated, after which there was a civil war, then a dictatorship and then a pact between the two main political parties. Hobsbawm was at pains to point out the unstable nature of the pact and to warn of dangers to come. He was, of course, absolutely correct with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known as FARC, being formed the year after his article was published and immediately launching a guerrilla war.

Fifty years on Colombia is still searching for a definitive peace that will reduce, if not end, the endemic violence. The peace talks in Havana, brokered by the Cuban and Norwegian governments, have made substantial progress in the past couple of years, but nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and there are too many vested interests on all sides who favour a continuation of the civil war to be sure that the negotiations will reach a successful conclusion. It is not for lack of trying by President Santos, who has twice been nominated for the Chatham House Prize, but the obstacles - as Hobsbawm would have recognized - are still immense.

Colombia was not the first Latin American country that Hobsbawm visited. That was Cuba in the summer of 1960, when he accepted an invitation from Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, a leading figure in the Cuban Communist party. He travelled to Cuba directly from the United States, where he had been teaching at Stanford. Hobsbawm was enchanted by Cuba, still in its revolutionary honeymoon, but always argued that what happened in Colombia was likely to be of much greater importance for Latin America than what happened on the Caribbean island. His affection for Cuba never dissipated, but - like other members of the European Communist parties - he disapproved of the Cuban strategy of supporting revolutionary movements among the Latin American peasantry. He regarded this as pure 'adventurism' and was not surprised by Che Guevara's defeat and death in Bolivia in 1967.

Hobsbawm, therefore, would have approved of the recent initiative by Cuba and the United States to move towards full diplomatic relations, especially as this has involved many more adjustments by the latter than the former. Essentially, President Obama had been left with little choice following the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Colombia, since the governments present had made it clear there would be no future summits without a Cuban presence. Thus, Obama needed to reach out to Cuba if he was to avoid a fiasco at the 2015 Summit of the Americas, which took place in Panama in April.

With the summit out of the way, it is clear that Obama's room for manoeuvre is very limited. While full diplomatic relations will surely be restored (even if the US Senate delays the approval of whoever is nominated as US ambassador), it is also clear that this will fall well short of normalization. The trade embargo, or at least the ban on Cuban exports to the US, remains in place, as do restrictions on travel by US citizens and investment by US companies. …

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