A quick look into a recent past

This is a piece I wrote in 2013 as part of an application (that I’m not sure I ever submitted) to enter a program in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. This text says much of what I still know and believe and helps explain why for me this whole plebiscite fiasco has been so shocking.

Brief Synopsis of Colombia’s Prolonged and Sanguinary Civil Conflict

Historically, political confrontations in Colombia have existed between ideologies that fall between a conservative right and a change-thirsty left. For centuries, the yawning inequalities across social classes have facilitated the delivery of highly polarized discourses. Thereby, as a result of decades of extreme political positions and extreme economic inequalities, the political environment in Colombia has long been plagued with resentment, enmity and violence.[1]

Colombia suffered a devastating civil war between the Conservative and the Liberal parties between the years of 1889 and 1902. This war, which came to be known as “the Thousand-day War”, was debilitating for the civic society and had long lasting effects on the political and economic institutions of the country. However, it was not until the fall of the Conservative party’s fifty-year hegemony in the 1930s that Colombia’s modern endemic conflict started.

The Conservative party had ruled the country since the establishment of the nation’s second Constitution of1886. The fall of the Conservative dominance and the rise of a Liberal regime meant that the long established status quo was at risk of reform.  The Liberal Party won the presidential elections for four consecutive terms after 1930 and was on its way to win yet another election. It became apparent that a major reconfiguration of the social order was inevitable. The political and economic elites became to feel threatened by the ongoing empowerment of the masses; thus, in a desperate effort to bring the Conservatives back to power, the assassination of the soon-to-be Liberal president, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was ordered. Gaitan was murdered in 1948; his murder triggered the anger of the people and a sanguinary episode of violence broke out. During the ten years following Gaitan’s death, both Liberals and Conservatives engaged in a large-scale witch hunt. Persecutions became so brutal that this historical period came to be known as “The Violence”.

In the elections of 1950, the Liberal party did not participate in the run for presidency. The Conservative party easily secured the executive power and gave rise to a military regime. To oppose the military regime, the Liberal party decided to support the creation of guerrillas and insurgent groups in the rural areas of the country. During the upcoming years, a multitude of small and disorganized armed groups spreading a Socialist and Communist discourse were established in the remote areas of the country.

In the meantime, the Conservative party withdrew support to its own presidential candidate as his practices became more and more questionable. In 1953, the political class in cooperation with the national military managed to organize a coup d’etat and General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla assumed power. Although Rojas Pinilla’s government was relatively successful at demobilizing the liberal guerillas, it soon became evident his assumption into power was turning into a military dictatorship. In an effort to avoid succumbing into a totalitarian regime and to avoid future waves of bipartisan political violence, in 1958, the last year of “The Violence”, a pact was signed between Liberals and Conservatives to alternate the presidency for sixteen years. This political arrangement, known as “The National Front”, was meant to put an end to the struggle for power and to end the enmity between the two parties.

The enactment of the “National Front” required the alignment of confronting political interests in the country. Not only did it force Conservatives and Liberals to put together agreeable terms but it later required the support of the electorate via a democratic plebiscite. To this end, it seemed as if the “National Front” was successful at putting an end to the violence and promoting cooperation among the political classes. However, it became clear that it also stymied other ideological parties from entering the political platform. Until this point, the bipartisan feature of Colombian politics had not been an issue since the only major parties that were active politically had been the Conservative and the Liberal Parties. However, the recent Cuban Revolution of the 60’s had inspired the creation of multiple Communist organisms interested in having their voice heard in the political debate.

Without the possibility of participating in the democratic process, Communist organisms opted to advocate for social and economic reform through violent means. Insurgent groups like the infamous FARC, the ELN, the EPL and the M-19 took arms to form a revolutionary opposition. Spreading the Marxist discourse, the guerrillas were a diverse mix of ideological and military structures formed by peasants or university students. The communist guerrillas pursued political reforms as well as socio-economic amendments such as land-redistribution, greater government spending on health and education, and the nationalization of foreign businesses. These proposals slowly gained popularity in the more remote regions of the country where the state had neglected its duties and had limited presence. During the second half of the 60s communist armed groups functioning at the regional level became critical players in the writing of Colombia’s history.

The guerrillas were stubborn and delivered a populist message that appealed to many. They soon became an economic and security problem for the State. Thus, between the late 70s and the early 80s, the government pursued a violent crackdown against communist guerrillas. The national army reached the countryside and the war against insurrectionism scaled to dramatic dimensions.

To make matters worse, the country saw the rise of a third group of militant organisms in conflict zones. Right-winged paramilitary groups were born as counter-insurgent associations between landlords, entrepreneurs, and drug-dealers to protect their possessions from the always-furtive guerrillas. In 1982, the mafia entered the conflict and added yet another layer of complexity to an already difficult situation.

Up until the 80s, the conflict in Colombia was mostly ideological and characterized by a dialectal struggle for power between political actors and sporadic episodes of violence in rural areas. However, in the 80s, drug lords and mafias that had the financial power to finance private militias became involved in the hunt for communists and conflict turned a full-blown war. The foundation of the Muerte A Secuestradores or the MAS (“Death To Kidnappers”), an army of 2000 men financed by the inexhaustible fortunes from drug trafficking, turned the ideological war and the social conflict into a shameful circus of greed and corruption.

Hitherto, Colombia had become a dangerous country, a synonym of failed states and an example of lawlessness. Yet, it was not until the paramilitary realized it could have the support of Colombian elites and the American military if it used its military power to fight communists that the country entered the downward spiral that turned the countryside into an apocalyptic landscape of death. As the paramilitary dedicated its resources to the killing of communist guerrillas and the extortion of innocent people, a few politicians became aware of the potential benefits of cooperating with the mafia. Some political representatives adopted the anti-communist discourse characteristic of the MAS and became direct beneficiaries of the windfalls of drug trafficking. This is how the paramilitary gained access to political power and began to control large extensions of land. The social war had grown into unmanageable dimensions.

With the death of Jorge Luis Ochoa and Pablo Escobar (the two principal leaders of the Colombian drug cartels) came the end of the mafia as an armed association with a political structure of national character and political ambitions. After the fall of its leaders, the MAS turned into a series of disarticulated groups without political cohesion. However, in 1997, in an effort to coordinate criminality, Carlos Castaño founded the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC (“United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia”) as a federal organization. Castaño understood that the AUC had to control the supply of cocaine to be fully financed by the windfalls of drug trafficking. Since then, drug trafficking became synonym of paramilitarism in Colombia.

During the late 1990s, the aberrations of the war in Colombia were at its climax. The communist guerrillas were not the only groups that killed, extorted, kidnapped, and engaged in drug trafficking. The far right-winged paramilitaries, with the support of more than just some in the government and the elites, did the same.  A series of massacres of unprecedented cruelty shook the entire nation and the entire world. People from rural areas began an exodus away from their homelands into the shantytowns around the large cities. The statistics of human rights violations, the so-called statistics of shame, skyrocketed.

Today, with more than 2 million internally displace persons and dozens of thousands of deaths, the tragedy of Colombia is comparable to that of the Sudan; it is without doubt the worst humanitarian drama in the Western Hemisphere. We are a country of orphans, widows and parents who have lost their children. Yet, statistics show only the symptoms. The war, the struggle for power, the insatiable greed, the shameless corruption and the moral deprivation of our leaders have put the country on its head and have sent it straight towards political and social mayhem.

A few years ago, the largest political scandal to date was uncovered; and it is so closely connection to the country’s constitutional heart that it will take Colombians many years to recover. In 2006 it was found that many of our elected representatives had been cooperating with the paramilitaries for years. “Parapolitics” is the term used to describe this scandal.

In 2001, a group of congressmen, politicians and paramilitary leaders signed a secret document, “The Pact of Ralito”. The text of the document called for the re-foundation of the country. It was, in effect, a new illegitimate social contract. Ever since, the Supreme Court, which has miraculously survived to political pressures, has been in charge of the investigation of the ties between paramilitary groups and congress. By April 17 of 2012, 139 members of Congress were under investigation, and five governors and 32 lawmakers, including the former President of Congress (who happened to be the former president’s cousin) were convicted. In short, one third of our elected representatives have been found to be a direct beneficiary of drug-trafficking and war. In early 2013, Colombia’s general attorney reopened an investigation into alleged links between the former president, Alvaro Uribe, and right-winged paramilitaries in the 1990s while Uribe was a regional governor.

The challenges Colombia face are numerous, varied and tightly intertwined. War causes populations to become fearful, resentful, and anxious. Communities become insecure and paranoid as they continue to see opportunities vanish. There are no guarantees about the future, and people lose their faith on destiny. A large population of victims has no reason to believe in its leaders or in their alleged “good intentions”.  A country without trust and with high levels of uncertainty cannot possibly grow into a peaceful and healthy society simply because individuals lack the means and the incentives to engage in market or simply social interactions.

However, the country’s economic and human potential is vast and its thirst for peace and prosperity unquenchable. In October, 2012, the current government and leaders of the FARC began the first round of peace negotiations in Norway. In January, 2013 a second round began to take place in Cuba. There is hope in the political horizon. Also, the country’s economy has performed exceptionally well in the last few years, largely due to newly found natural resources and recently established trade agreements and financial breaks for foreign investors. I truly believe, and this is my opinion, that a corner has been turned in the history of Colombia’s development. There is enthusiasm in the air, and somebody has to take advantage of this momentum to further growth.

Personal note

My grandfather was a student of engineering at the National University when Gaitan was murdered in 1948. In 1967 my father was attending first grade in the city of Ibague, 97 kilometers away from the place where Manuel Marulanda was consolidating the foundation of the FARC. I was born in a country at war. I was raised in an environment where socio-political aberrations and impunity remain widespread. I flourished while a sinister genocide was taking place in the remote towns of my country. The most puzzling part of all this is that I barely noticed the symptoms of this social, political, cultural, economic, environmental and even religious imbroglio.

I grew up believing and feeling that my country was a land of sorrow where happiness was only an ephemeral illusion that could not be sustained unless one’s existential strength laid on the conviction that God is immense and that He alone understands why we are confronted with difficulties.  I grew up as an observer, surrounded by the sad and nostalgic faces of broken-hearted people who have been deprived from their past and forced to redefine, and sometimes even erase, their expectations for the future. I have seen the scars of the war in the bodies and souls of my fellow brothers in nation. I have also witnessed the asphyxia the young feel after the recurrent frustration of their dreams. I have seen in the eyes of the homeless and the orphans hunger for food and for love. I have merely perceived the symptoms of war.

It has been said that experience shapes expectations. Well, my experience—as anecdotal as it may be—is the motivation behind this application:  My understanding of the world dictates that the vulnerable segments of society bear most of the costs of war—through land expropriation, environmental damage, cultural detachment of communities, and the aggravation of existing social and political violence and instability. I am still just a compassionate student who wishes to expand her understanding about the dynamics of the intricate relation between conflict resolution and economic development so that I can help bring happiness to the vulnerable and the abused and peace to the land of sorrows.

I was once told: “If you forget where you come from, you’ll never know where you are going”. I am beginning to understand the place I come from. I come from one of the most beautiful places I know; I belong to it and it belongs in me. However, there is something I regret about it: there is no peace. That is precisely what I want to help build at home one day.

[1] Until the crafting of a new Constitution in 1991 there had been just three effective political parties in the Colombia: the Conservative (far right), the Liberal (centrist/left), and the Communist (far left). However, for most of the country’s history, the Conservatives and the Liberals had been the parties dominating the political debate through legitimate political means. Meanwhile, the Communist party had very limited outreach in the political platform and conducted most of its political activity by supporting the creation of peasant militias.

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