Elites, Violence and Peace


Professor Jenny Pearce

Peace Studies

University of Bradford


Summary of a paper delivered at the conference on “The Santos-FARC peace talks: A Colombian liberal peace?”, University of Sussex, 12 April 2013

This paper takes a brief historical look at the role of violence and elites in the reproduction of violence in Colombia and then asks whether the peace process is likely to lead to an intra-elite settlement as well as one with armed counter-elites. Indeed, it argues that the former is as important as the latter. The paper first of all explores the difficulties of defining the term ‘elite’. There is little agreement in the literature on whether the term refers to a ‘ruling class’ or pluralist competitors? To enlightened promoters of virtue or anti-democratic defenders of privilege? To concentrated or diffused power? In the context of Colombia, a broad definition can be helpful, such as that of Higley and Burton (1989), that elites are ‘persons who, by virtue of their strategic locations in large or otherwise pivotal organisations and movements, are able to affect political outcomes regularly and substantially’. However, the authors include in addition to top politicians, important businessmen, senior military officers and high-level civil servants, ‘counter elites’ such as leaders of mass organisations, such as Trade Unions, and voluntary organisations. In Colombia, power remains so asymmetrically distorted, that the focus on elites rather than counter elites is justified. However, Colombia does not only have sectorally differentiated elites, but regionally differentiated ones as well. This elite fragmentation complicates the Peace Process hugely. Nevertheless, the concentration of power of all kinds in Colombia is very clear. The Economist (20 April 2011) found that the income of the top fifth of the country is 25x that of the bottom fifth. This makes it one of the most unequal countries of the world.

The term ‘elite’ reemerges amongst each generation of political scientists to try and capture the way overlapping political, economic and social power still limits democratisation in the global South and the global North. Recent literature has also sought to explore how elite settlements and pacts play a role in reducing violence and violent armed conflict, particularly in the global South. This is a very important issue in Colombia, where elites historically not only fought violently (as well as electorally) between themselves, but they also mobilised the society to fight for the two parties which came to articulate the deep fracture lines between them. This diffused the use of violence throughout all social sectors, and accounts to a considerable extent for the intergenerational cycles of violence which have blighted the country. The Colombian National Front of 1958 to 1974, following the very bloody inter party civil war known as La Violencia, is an elite pact which did for a while reduce violence in Colombia. However, it did so at the cost of the exclusion of the population from the fruits of the economic modernisation which the pact ushered in, as well as from political participation. It gave birth to new generations of armed counter elites. While it enabled Colombia to develop a more robust set of institutions than in many parts of the global South, they served elite interests, with Bogota based parties reaching the regions through pacts with regional elites and clientelism and patronage to incorporate the electorate when necessary.

The elite pact began to break down when it became clear that the state could not offer protection to regional and local elites who fell under extortion and kidnapping from guerilla forces. North, Wallis and Weingast (2009) and North, Wallis, Webb and Weingast (eds, 2013) suggest that the basis of the kind of elite pact that gives rise to what they call Limited Access Orders, is one where potential violence between elites is discouraged through the manipulation of economic interests, whereby groups agree to divide the land, labour and capital and opportunities among themselves and to enforce each leader’s privileged access to resources. Elites come to gain more from these privileges under conditions of peace than under violence. This settlement ceased however, to have traction in Colombia, once the state no longer protected the rents and privileges of particular sectors of the elites (and threatened all elites to some extent), and these then turned to paramilitary, private armed  groups. Evidence of this is now firmly in the public domain.  As one former paramilitary commander, Duque, told US journalists who interviewed him in prison “Could these three groups – I’m talking about political people, economic people, the institutional people, meaning the military – operate without having contact with the chief of chiefs? That’s impossible”. It was time for the elites who helped the paramilitary to come clean he argued. The paramilitary groups had 17,000 armed fighters and more than 10,000 other associates, from cooks to driers to computer technicians and informers. It was plain for anyone to see. (Washington Post 23 May 2007).

So one question overshadowing the Peace Process today, is whether regional and sectoral elite divergences will scupper the peace process, given that economic and political incentives persist for elites to prefer ongoing insecurity and violence? They can also appeal to a frightened and despairing population who are not yet fully convinced that peace with the FARC will bring sustained security. As some economic areas decline (eg cattle ranching to which many elites opposed to the peace process remain associated), the battle will be for control of mineral, oil and other extractive industries. Many emergent elites from illegal drugs trafficking and violent expropriation of land are also now actors in the competition which is likely to intensify over the coming years.

Another question, therefore, which is less often discussed, is whether a second elite pact might follow if the FARC-Santos government peace is signed? A peace agreement will favour the Bogota and some regional elites over others and is at present deeply opposed by the cattle ranchers and those associated most closely with alliances with paramilitary groups, and whose figure head is former president Uribe. President Uribe won considerable political support in delivering a tainted and arguably temporary reduction in violence, but one which nevertheless improved the security situation.  However, this does not mean that a new elite alignment might not follow such a peace agreement. This would enable Colombian elites to once again unite around a second phase of economic modernisation in which their privileged access to the countries’ resources will be protected in return for agreement to strengthen institutions and the rule of law. This may reduce violence, and indeed is welcome to that extent. However, it may also perpetuate the sources of violent criminality which followed the demobilisation of the paramilitary under Uribe, for instance. And it may also perpetuate the social, economic and political exclusion of the majority of Colombians.

The FARC does not represent the voice of these by any means, even if some discount its social base too hastily. If they were to become a political movement and the lives of ex combatants who turn to political struggle is protected (unlike what happened to the Patriotic Union in the 1980s) that would be progress for Colombia. However, it would not guarantee that Colombia is on a path to democratisation and to an economic model which guarantees the means to life for all. That will require an ongoing political struggle, in which Colombian elites abandon not only violence amongst themselves, but also violence against those who challenge their interests ‘from below’, including those who have never used violence to pursue those aims or have passively and reluctantly backed that option. Colombian history is also the story of thousands of social and political activists murdered for social and labour organising and for defending human rights, not for participation in armed struggle.

In conclusion, the Colombian Peace Process offers a vital opportunity for opening up meaningful and safe political participation for all, not just for FARC combatants negotiating in Havana. However, the building of conditions for Colombians to live without violence – a sustainable and meaningful peace – will depend on what happens after Havana and what kind of intra elite settlement emerges.

One thought on “Elites, Violence and Peace

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s