The World Today
12 June 2015 , Volume 71, Number 3

The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was prescient in predicting an uprising in Colombia which lasts to this day


Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas CMG OBE

Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House


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. And Guantánamo Bay, leased from Cuba by the US indefinitely under a 1903 agreement, remains an obstacle to normalization.

Hobsbawm would also have been cautiously optimistic that the Cuban transition (a word the Havana government still refuses to use) will be conducted at a pace controlled by the Cubans rather than the US government. Although President Raúl Castro will step down in 2018, the succession is already clear and the Cuban government intends to manage change at its own pace. Ironically, therefore, the Cuban leadership may privately welcome some of the obstacles that the US Congress is likely to put in the path of full normalization as this makes it easier to resist the demands for faster progress by the Cuban people itself.

Hobsbawm was not always right about Latin America. He was, for example, over-optimistic about the radical agenda of 
the Peruvian military that seized power in 1968. However, he lived long enough to witness the rise of the left through the democratic process that started with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Yet he recognized the risks that the exercise of power entailed for former revolutionaries. After downing a celebratory bottle of champagne following the election of Lula in 2002 
in Brazil, he told his long-time friend Leslie Bethell ‘I suppose now we wait to be disappointed.’(1)

(1) Leslie Bethell’s introduction to his edition of Hobsbawm’s Latin American writings (Little Brown, 2016) contains this anecdote

From the archive
Raw material for social revolution
Colombia is a country which can make a decisive difference to the future of Latin America, whereas Cuba is not likely to do so. It is a rich country with a potentially balanced all-round economy. Its situation makes it the strategic link between the Caribbean and Central America and at least the Andean mass of the South American continent. And it would be far harder to bring pressure to bear upon a Colombian revolution than upon a Cuban one. 

That Colombia, in common with most Latin American countries, with the possible exception of Argentina and Uruguay, contains the raw material for social revolution both of the peasantry and of the urban poor is patently obvious. As in other Latin American countries, the problem is not to discover inflammatory material but to explain why it has not yet burst into flames or – as in the Colombian case – why, having spontaneously flared up, it has settled back into a smoky mass showing only an occasional glimmer …

The disintegration of traditional rural society is proceeding at an accelerated rate, as the rush into the cities demonstrates; and the structure of land tenure and the standard of agriculture remain anarchic. Above all, the conviction that something must change, and radically, is universal. Though the students are relatively passive, 82 per cent (91 per cent after their first year) are convinced of the need of such a change; and 72 per cent would be Gaitanistas if Gaitan were alive. 

It is difficult to predict the form of political and social change that is likely or its consequences. But any observer who believes that Colombia is living through anything but a pause of exhaustion is likely to have a very sharp awakening.
The Revolutionary Situation in Colombia, E J Hobsbawm, (1963)