A Century of Violence in a Red City: Popular Struggle, Counterinsurgency, and Human Rights in Colombia

A Century of Violence in a Red City: Popular Struggle, Counterinsurgency, and Human Rights in Colombia

by Lesley Gill

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In A Century of Violence in a Red City Lesley Gill provides insights into broad trends of global capitalist development, class disenfranchisement and dispossession, and the decline of progressive politics. Gill traces the rise and fall of the strong labor unions, neighborhood organizations, and working class of Barrancabermeja, Colombia, from their origins in the 1920s to their effective activism for agrarian reforms, labor rights, and social programs in the 1960s and 1970s. Like much of Colombia, Barrancabermeja came to be dominated by alliances of right-wing politicians, drug traffickers, foreign corporations, and paramilitary groups. These alliances reshaped the geography of power and gave rise to a pernicious form of armed neoliberalism. Their violent incursion into Barrancabermeja's civil society beginning in the 1980s decimated the city's social networks, destabilized life for its residents, and destroyed its working-class organizations. As a result, community leaders are now left clinging to the toothless discourse of human rights, which cannot effectively challenge the status quo. In this stark book, Gill captures the grim reality and precarious future of Barrancabermeja and other places ravaged by neoliberalism and violence.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374701
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/04/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Lesley Gill is Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University and the author of The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, also published by Duke University Press. 

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A Century of Violence in a Red City

Popular Struggle, Counterinsurgency, and Human Rights in Colombia

By Lesley Gill

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7470-1



* * *

Nowadays, in Colombia, when the topic of Barrancabermeja arises in conversation, people often raise their eyebrows and inhale deeply, or they purse their lips and shake their heads. While their expressions reflect a range of emotions — horror, dismay, disgust, and sometimes approval — about the dirty war that scarred the city, Barranca has always provoked strong passions among Colombians. Some have viewed it as a symbol of working-class resistance to foreign imperialism; others have insisted that it is a hotbed of communism, moral decay, and unruliness, a place where "the dangerous classes" run amok. The roots of these contradictory images lie in Barranca's birth as a foreign-dominated oil export enclave and the organization of a powerful working class that was not averse to rattling the chains of power.

In this chapter, I reconstruct a history of the Barrancabermeja labor movement in the early twentieth century based on secondary sources and the recollections of residents I interviewed at the time of fieldwork. My analysis begins to lay out the importance of class as an analytic category that captures the violence that gives form to social relations under capitalism. It highlights the fluid, highly contingent "making" of class, a process in which diverse working people built alliances across different categories of work (industrial, agricultural, commerce), established institutions to voice their concerns, and attempted to create scale-spanning solidarities, and in which a foreign oil company and the Colombian state tried to disrupt and marginalize these nascent connections and organizational forms. My perspective runs counter to prevailing views of the working class as a static category associated with industrial proletarians. It does so by placing politics at the center of analysis and focusing on the tendency of power-laden social relationships to cohere around the pursuit of capital accumulation on the one hand and making a living on the other hand. It also emphasizes the violence, disruptions, and contests over the control of space associated with class formation. In this way, we can better grasp the level of solidarity and the organizational strength achieved by working people in early twentieth-century Barrancabermeja and appreciate the scale of their defeat at the end of the century, when the intensification of paramilitary violence and the rise of neoliberalism "unmade" class and obliged people to find new ways to reestablish what had been lost.

In the early twentieth century, after the invention of the internal combustion engine and the airplane, oil permanently transformed the way humankind lived; the mass production of gasoline-powered automobiles alone redesigned the physical geography of cities. Although most of the oil came from the United States and Europe, a number of powerful corporations began to scour the planet for the newly precious commodity, and the Middle East and several Latin American countries, including Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia, attracted their attention. In Latin America, the oil firms leveraged states for territory, often in sparsely settled, weakly regulated frontier regions with vulnerable populations. They mobilized enormous political resources and economic clout to concentrate capital, technology, management, and labor within spaces carved from the national territories of sovereign states, where they created new imperial connections that linked "foreign" enclaves to corporate headquarters in North America and Europe. They then set about disciplining emergent working classes, in part by localizing class relations within the confines of export-oriented zones of commodity production over which they strove to exercise complete control. The importance of the oil giants lay less in the total number of people they employed than in the strategic position they occupied in the global economy and in their ability to produce space, control labor, and command power.

In Colombia, with the exception of the United Fruit — dominated banana enclave on the Caribbean coast, immortalized in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Barrancabermeja was the country's most important export enclave. It was forged at the nexus of uneven relationships of social, political, and economic power between the most powerful corporation of the time — the Rockefeller-owned Standard Oil Company of New Jersey and its subsidiary, the TROCO — Colombian state officials, regional elites based in Bucaramanga, the provincial capital, and diverse working people who migrated to Barrancabermeja and the Middle Magdalena region. To the extent that the Middle Magdalena registered at all on the compasses of early twentieth-century corporate managers and urban Colombians, it was as a "wild," "uncivilized" place where the institutions of the central state barely reached. Corporate and national elites viewed indigenous peoples and mestizo peasants who inhabited the riverbanks as obstacles to the advancement of "civilization" and did not consider their various livelihood strategies "work," which they understood as the production of commodities for profit by human laborers under their control (Larson 2004). The Middle Magdalena never lost its stigma as a turbulent, ungovernable region with an ambiguous relationship to the institutions of the central state. This infamy, in turn, marked labor struggles, which expanded at times into battles over membership in the nation and the meaning of national sovereignty.

Nowadays, the region is generally understood to encompass parts of five provinces — Santander, Antioquia, Boyacá, Bolívar, and César — that border the Magdalena River. Stretching along the riverbank for 340 kilometers, from Puerto Nare in the south to Rio Viejo in the north, the Middle Magdalena region sits in a torrid valley between two spectacular mountain ranges. Barrancabermeja today is its most important commercial center, with a population of some 350,000 people. Small boats called chalupas and motorized canoes carry passengers and goods between Barrancabermeja and other river ports, and a recently modernized airport accommodates travelers from much farther afield. Still visited by foreign oil engineers and supervisors, the city is home to Colombia's largest refinery, which is now owned by the Colombian state and processes approximately 70 percent of Colombian crude oil. A two-hundred-foot flare burns above the refinery, and a wire statue of Jesus Christ — el Cristo petrolero — commissioned by the state-owned oil company and inaugurated in 1995, rises with outstretched arms from a contaminated lagoon. On certain days, a thick, sulfurous odor spreads across the commercial district and hangs in the air like a noxious belch, while at night, the grunts and bangs emitted from the refinery's tangled intestines of metal pipes float across the city.

Barrancabermeja's emergence as a corporate-controlled oil export zone raises questions about how power operates in and through long distance connections and how these connections transform social relationships and societies. It also poses tricky questions about national sovereignty. How, for example, does the creation of export-oriented enclaves concentrate power in the allegedly sovereign territory of the nation-state and make the extreme foreign exploitation, domination, and subordination of working people possible? How, too, does the accumulation of labor in these "strategic hamlets" of empire (see Kramer 2011: 1356) fuel radical popular struggles? This chapter examines the tense dialectic between corporate control and working-class formation and resistance that shaped the growth of the enclave and its ultimate demise over an approximately forty-year period from 1920 to 1960.

The chapter first explores the corporate effort to control space and concentrate labor in ways that allowed it to take on state-like characteristics in a frontier region and regulate the lives of people in the emergent enclave. It then considers how a heterogeneous group of working people — peasants, oil workers, and merchants — crafted new relationships to each other and created a militant political culture that enabled them to push back against the overweening power of the oil company and demand that the institutional state mediate conflicts with the corporation and better control the exploitation of natural resources. Finally, the chapter examines how popular struggles eventually contributed to the demise of the enclave and the nationalization of the oil industry. It demonstrates that processes of state and class formation involved intense conflicts over geography and capital accumulation, as well as the social relations and organizational forms through which working people came to understand and articulate their relationships to the oil company and the institutional state.

The Domestic Politics of a Foreign Enclave

In early twentieth-century Colombia, the notion of the monolithic state that regulated social life and monopolized violence within a given territory was less a reality than a claim asserted by Bogotá-based government officials. Colombia was a fragmented country of regions divided by high mountain ranges, turbulent rivers, and dense tropical forests. Highland elites were divided between the Liberal and Conservative Parties and sat atop regional social hierarchies, where they competed with each other to control national politics and the patronage and wealth-making possibilities that flowed from them. These interparty rivalries generated constant intrigue, unrest, and partisan hatreds. Even though the victors of political struggles acted in the name of the state, they could neither exercise direct control over the entire national territory nor monitor the population in a consistent manner, and they viewed the interior tropical forests, eastern plains, and Pacific and Caribbean coastal regions as ungovernable territories where Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples existed beyond the pale of civilization.

The end of the Thousand Days War (1899–1902), a conflict between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, which the Conservatives won, enabled a tenuous peace to spread across the country that spurred the growth of commodity production. The national government funded infrastructure projects that tied some geographic areas to the world market and better integrated portions of the national territory. Coffee cultivation exploded in the central and western mountains; cattle ranching expanded on the Caribbean coast; sugarcane developed in the Cauca Valley; and foreign- controlled banana and oil enclaves arose on the Caribbean coast and in the Middle Magdalena River valley. The commodity boom and the Conservative government's willingness to finance road, railroad, and port projects gave rise to new spatial configurations of land, labor, and power that accentuated regional differences. Coffee and oil epitomized new configurations of class power and geography and illustrated how the expansion of capitalism was tied to particular regional dynamics.

By the late nineteenth century, coffee production had become Colombia's leading export commodity, spurring the colonization of new lands in the intermountain valleys of the western mountains. In the early twentieth century, settlers and entrepreneurs from Antioquia province propelled an expanding coffee frontier that became associated with the image of a democratic society of entrepreneurial small farmers defined by their Catholicism and "whiteness" (Applebaum 2003). Such racial imagery and cultural claims constituted the bedrock on which the coffee frontier was associated with "civilization" and on which the new commercial and entrepreneurial elites differentiated themselves from other developing frontiers, such as the Middle Magdalena (Arredondo 2005: 45–46). The cultivation and sale of coffee remained mostly in national hands, and the profits underwrote the development of light industry and expanded the domestic market for manufactured goods. Coffee production therefore never provoked the development of strong anti-imperialist sentiments as in the oil sector (Bushnell 1993: 169–74), and the social organization of coffee cultivation undermined the formation of the kind of collective solidarity that emerged in the oil zone. Coffee growing was based on family-centered, labor-intensive production arrangements on smallholdings. It was characterized by exceptionally high levels of exploitation, which drove a violent struggle for land among small-scale producers and workers and between them and elites to better their position or to avoid proletarianization. This contest, in turn, did less to foster collective values and challenge the status quo than to promote conservative individualism and strengthen Colombia's paternalist two-party political system, all of which undermined the growth of the Colombian labor movement (Bergquist 1986: 274–75).

Unlike coffee, oil represented the intrusion of foreign capital and the dominance of a North American corporate elite in the nominally national space of Barrancabermeja, and it fired collective struggles stoked by anti-imperialist nationalism. In 1919, Standard Oil's subsidiary, the Tropical Oil Company, received a territorial land grant — the DeMares concession — from the Colombian government to extract petroleum in a region where oil literally oozed from the ground and collected in surface pools. The concession completely surrounded the river port of Barrancabermeja and encompassed over 300,000 hectares, mostly covered in dense tropical forest that measured eighty kilometers long and forty kilometers wide. The TROCO operated only nominally under the jurisdiction of the Colombian government, which arrogated virtual sovereignty to it to pump oil, mobilize a labor force, and organize social life in and around Barrancabermeja. The subsequent development of the oil enclave was tied to the construction of roads and pipelines and the expansion of fluvial transportation that integrated the oil zone more tightly with world markets and the corporation's North American headquarters than with Colombia.

The rise of the enclave on the smooth surface of national sovereignty blurred the distinctions between the "foreign" and the "domestic," as the TROCO, with its infrastructure, technology, and capacity to concentrate a huge population of migrant workers, became a powerful actor in a sparsely populated region, where regional elites hoped that the modernizing impulse of market relations would transform the allegedly slothful ways of dark-skinned people who lived beyond the frontier of modernity. While it assumed some of the regulatory characteristics of a state, the TROCO never intended to replace the institutional Colombian state. The company's administrators recognized the importance of working with government officials, who saw the advent of foreign corporations as the harbinger of national "progress." They understood that the institutional state remained the best way for them to secure the social, juridical, and administrative order that the TROCO needed to extract oil effectively and efficiently. In 1922, for example, the TROCO pressured state officials to make Barrancabermeja an independent municipality, even though the port town and its hinterland had neither the population nor the historical importance to meet the requirements for independent status. Part of the agreement to create a new, self-governing locality included the use of 5 percent of the TROCO royalties to finance services and infrastructure and to support the salaries of municipal officials. Yet because the TROCO had constructed Barranca as a base of operations for oil extraction and refining and therefore owned most of the utilities, infrastructure, and services, the royalties were simply returning to corporate hands, and the new municipality quickly became dependent on the company for its budget (García 2006: 262; van Isschot 2015: 53–54).


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Table of Contents

List of Acronyms  ix

Acknowledgments  xiii

Introduction  1

1. Black Gold, Militant Labor  29

2. Cold War Crucible  61

3. Terror and Impunity  95

4. Unraveling  123

5. Fragmented Sovereignty  152

6. Narrowing Political Options and Human Rights  183

7. The Aftermath of Counterinsurgency  216

Conclusion  237

Notes  249

References  263

Index  275

What People are Saying About This

Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman - Greg Grandin

"Lesley Gill's A Century of Violence in a Red City reads like a nonfiction version of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Compelling in analysis, empathetic in interpretation, Gill's sweeping narrative of political struggle, social solidarity, and public-private repression in the Colombian city of Barrancabermeja is required reading for anyone hoping to understand Latin America's twentieth- and early twenty-first-century history."

Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class - Aviva Chomsky

"Lesley Gill's extraordinarily original scholarship and use of interviews and firsthand accounts gives a vivid view of Colombia's contemporary scene. Beautifully written, this book makes a very important contribution to the literature on Colombia and on class and social movements throughout Latin America. There is virtually nothing like A Century of Violence in a Red City."

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