Colombia's Undeclared Civil War

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. But the latest upsurge in violence comes at a bad time for Gaviria. His program of economic reforms had reduced inflation, and investor confidence in Colombia's economy was on the rise.

To help cover the military expenditures for the anti-guerrilla campaign, Gaviria has announced plans to double the already repressive value-added tax and raise income taxes 17 percent. Businessmen and opposition politicians say these "war taxes" will retard economic growth. The tax hikes will also widen the already deep gap between haves and have-nots.

With his government strapped for cash, Gaviria moved to privatize Telcom, the profitable state-owned telecommunications company. Late last month, unions launched a week-long wave of strikes to protest the sale, which would eliminate many jobs.

International telephone and data transmission services were shut down, cutting Colombia off from the world; foreign correspondents had to fly to Caracas to file their dispatches. Eventually, Gaviria offered the workers a minority share in the firm.

The Army saw the strike as an opportunity to launch its anti-guerrilla campaign. The CNGSB have countered with their own offensive; press reports indicate over 100 combatants have died in the fighting during recent weeks.

A new round of peace talks isn't likely to end the fighting. Like El Salvador's bloody road to national reconciliation, both sides in the process frequently negotiate in bad faith. The Magdalena Valley, rich in agriculture and minerals, has been put under military control because of an increase in CNGSB attacks. The People's Liberation Army, a Maoist component of the CNGSB, has launched an offensive to control southern Cordoba province, where cocaine shipments protected by the Shining Path move into Colo mbia.

Violations of basic human rights guaranteed by recent constitutional reforms are commonplace on both sides of the conflict. "Self defense groups," funded by drug cartels, have stepped up attacks in urban and rural areas where there is popular support for the CNGSB. According to a study released last year by the Latin American Council of Churches, 42,777 people died during the 1980s as the result of Colombia's civil conflicts.

Gaviria remains committed to negotiating with the CNGSB. Recently, however, the respected daily El Espectador editorialized that negotiations with the guerrillas had failed and that the nation expects a response from the government in keeping with current reality. Although Colombia's democratic institutions are too stable to collapse into a Peruvian scenario, its violent political culture is undercutting Gaviria's effort to make his nation a competitive player in the world economy.

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