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The Experience of Defeat

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The Colombian Left and the Cold War that Never Ended

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AbstractThis paper argues that throughout the Cold War, the Colombian Left focused on building local power in the countryside, and abandoned the burgeoning urban working class, much of it informal, unwaged and unorganised, to the Right. Yet at every turn, landlords linked to local and regional political machines and military and police officials blocked or reversed reforms designed to modernise the countryside, as government-subsidised agro-industrial development replaced smallholding. Then, in successive conjunctures, landlords and their allies, including cocaine exporters from whom they were increasingly inseparable after 1985, augmented their political power through dynamic counterinsurgent paramilitary movements based in provincial cities and towns. This made democracy impossible, led to a new feudalism characterised by parcellised sovereignties, and upheld, into the twenty-first century, the semi-authoritarian parliamentary system that has ruled Colombia since the 1880s.

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