By Lautaro Rivara,

June 23, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

After an uncompleted Peace Agreement, and as a consequence of an unprecedented social explosion, Colombia will now be governed by a progressive coalition. Could a country burdened by 70 years of war turn into a world power that embraces life?

Thirty years. Seventy years. Two hundred years. Everybody can count it the way they want to, or if their memory reaches back in time, they can cite the origin of Colombians’ frustrations. But certainly the national trajectory of this South American republic has been the least typical of the Latin American and Caribbean scenario, at least since the time that Gran Colombia was dissolved, and since the attempted overthrow of the Bolivarian project at the beginning of the 19th century. In fact, that would have been in Barranquilla, in the Colombian Caribbean, where Simón Bolívar would coin his famous metaphor for overthrow: “one who serves a revolution is plowing the ocean.” Already in 1830 he was predicting that the country would fall into the hands of “almost imperceptible petty tyrants.”

Colombia has tried everything to transform itself: slave uprisings, Creole rebellions, civil wars, laborers’ strikes, popular fronts, guerrillas, insurgent coordinating boards, peace agreements, farmers’ strikes, indigenous mingas, constituent processes, social explosions, and a long etc., etc. “Very Rebellious People” was actually the suggestive title chosen by Professor Renán Vega Cantor to narrate, in four large volumes, some of the vicissitudes of a battered but indomitable country.

In the fields of Cain and Abel

“In Colombia, I haven’t been able to find out which is Cain and which is Abel,” concluded the Colombian photojournalist Jesús Abad Colorado, who for decades has dedicated himself to photographing and narrating the internal armed conflict. His photos, like the one of the “Mutilated Christ” of Bojayá, which is famous all over the world, have sensitized thousands and thousands of people to awareness of the worst atrocities of the war. A conflict that has been going on for more than 70 years and which, according to the Unique Registry of Victims, an agency of the Colombian government itself (the belligerent part of a ménage a trois that for decades has involved the Armed Forces, the guerrilla insurgents, and the paramilitary actors) has a historic accumulation of 8.1 million victims, just since 1985 until today.

In nearly all of the indices of horror that one could compare, Colombia is at the peak, generally in the same ranking as the nations that have passed through civil wars or declared international wars: murder of social leaders, environment defenders, and political opponents; displacement and refugee statistics; even on the hunger map prepared by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), where Colombia appears in the same category as Haiti and Honduras with 7.3 million citizens suffering food insecurity, a grotesque fact in a nation of traditional and campesino agriculture. In a Latin America consolidated as a peaceful territory—at least as compared with other regions of the planet—Colombia remains frozen in the eternal loop of a war that has practically become natural to us, but above all hushed up by its most ardent promoters, not only local but international. In particular after the “conservative revolution” headed by the former President, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, that at the beginning of this century, with a hegemony without any cracks, seems to have sealed off any popular expectations forever.

But Colombia also stands out in relation to a series of events

that are sui generis (unique), patterns specifically Colombian, in the counterinsurgency doctrines.  Those were invented by France and used in its colonial territories, and disseminated worldwide by the United States, as in the case of the so-called “false positives”. “False positives” are extrajudicial executions by which campesinos and other victims are murdered summarily and then presented as “guerrilla kills” in exchange for a system of awards and stimuli. According to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which was created after the Havana Agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP, 6,402 people were victims of that procedure between 2002 and 2008, although different analysts and the families of the victims estimate that the real number could be twice that figure.

Coffee Country is the colloquial way of referring to Colombia in sports competitions. But coffee, the star product of the Colombian economy for decades, and a powerful element of national identity, has long ago been displaced by the illegal economies of opium, marijuana, and most of all, the coca leaf.

Exportation of cocaine, to the United States in particular, produced 1.88 percent of the GDP in 2018, more than double the riches produced the same year by coffee. And just as the coffee boom produced a coffee elite, the incessant growth of the illegal economies produced a powerful drug trafficker elite and also a subculture: the “bandit” culture, characterized by vulgarity, ostentation, violence, and death. The so-called narconovelas, responsible for glorifying criminals of the Pablo Escobar dimension, are one of the best known and most stigmatizing products of this culture.

A few days ago, we had the opportunity to travel around in the rural areas of the Department of Cauca in the southwestern part of Colombia. Going through the town (vereda) of Yolombó,, the town that Francia Márquez is from, in the Municipality of Suárez, and we saw the coca there, as visible as it is illegal. It extends its uniform green blanket on the slopes of the mountains and the valleys as far as the eye can see. And not because of any criminal predisposition on the part of the campesinos and the growers, but because the logic of the perpetual war—the locality was bombed the day after our visit—the territorial control of the armed actors, and the complete absence of the government have made it impossible for decades for the rural people to produce their subsistence with traditional crops, and Alfredo Molano has documented this in his innumerable reports.

The extremely high price of the coca leaf—it’s the highest when it’s the most criminalized and most targeted–, but most of all its facilities for conservation and transport, have made this woody little shrub the dominant image in entire regions of this country, a country with geography as unusual as that of Colombia, framed by two oceans and divided by three mountain ranges.

The rebellion of the audacious citizens

Cynicism is the psychological superstructure of war. A kind of shell that armors the subjectivities beleaguered by the lacerations, the pain, and the routine of death. That’s why the cynical humor of Colombians can be coarse and even indigestible for the unsuspecting visitor.

One of the most notable intellectuals in Colombian history, the sociologist Orlando Fals Borda, alluded to this in the most recent edition of one of his most celebrated books, “Subversion in Colombia”, writing that the country had reached a historic point of saturation that would no longer endure the accumulation of increasing levels of violence. Violence has been such an important problem for understanding the national reality that a new field of knowledge arose, precisely to try to find out its causes and consequences: “Violentology”!

But if on one side we find the violent, the “violentists”, and the “violentologists”, on the other side we find the audacity and the audacious. An expression, from the castizo (mestizo), which we could translate as a mixture of bravado, ferocity, and fortitude. Audacity is the difficulty, but it is also its surmounting. Audacity is the war, and the audacious are the ones that survive it. It was not by accident that this was one of the most bombastic words used in the social explosion that rocked this country in April of 2021.

Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in those days, driven by an unpopular tax reform that was decreed and signed by President Duque, who was trying to burden the backs of the working classes with the heavy costs of the economic crisis. Many things changed in April, as the crowning point of a process that was precipitated from the constituting of new and massive social movements in 2010, with even a series of agrarian strikes and indigenous mingas that were developing almost constantly in recent years.

The explosion, but especially, the retaliation of the power centers, had an undoubted educational effect on the Colombian population, when it produced the displacement of the war from the rural areas to the centers of the largest urban conglomerates. Police, the military, but especially paramilitaries tried to use violence to retake the localities that had been occupied by the protests.

Some patterns could be traced to the explosions in other countries, like Chile and Ecuador. There were arbitrary arrests, serious eye damage from shots directly in the face, and sexual violence against the demonstrators.

But here they also included sophisticated military artifacts like the Venom armored car, and even, it’s suspected, signal suppressors, that caused a digital blackout in outlying neighborhoods in Cali and other cities, in order to cover up the repressive government and para-government actions that resulted in numerous disappearances.

The protagonists clearly were the young people, the campesinos, the Afro-Colombians, and the indigenous peoples. And their main epicenters were the capital, Bogotá, and the departments of Córdoba, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca. Because of that, anybody that tried to explain anything about what happened in terms of the elections without that reference would fail savagely, as established by the perfect overlapping of the geography of the protests and the electoral map of these elections.

In some of these regions, notably in the southwest, the Historic Pact Party achieved votes on the order of 60, 70, and even 80 percent that, along with those from the capital, made the difference in explaining the triumph, for the first time ever in the history of this nation, of an alternative, progressive social and political force, with a popular cut. Perhaps the greatest symbol of the virtuous connection between protests and elections would be the songs, heard yesterday all over the country, from “The dance of the leftover people”, the song by the Los Prisioneros group that was heard all over the region, intoned by the discontented young people in the different social explosions that were heard throughout Latin America and the Caribbean ever since 2019. So the equation of less fear and more election participation was greatly responsible for the arrival at the President’s Palace of Gustavo Petro Urrego and Francia Márquez Mina.

A world power that embraces life        

In recent weeks a very significant anonymous message has been circulating on social media: “My grandparents tried it with Gaitán, my parents tried it with Galán, and I’m going to try it with Petro”, referring to the respective assassinations of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, and of Luis Carlos Galán in 1989 (To those, we have to add the murders of the leftist candidates Jaime Pardo Leal, Bernardo Jaramillo, and Carlos Pizarro Leongómez.) And so we can’t exaggerate the historical importance of Gustavo Petro’s election victory. After 70 years of democratic frustrations, faced with an exclusionary and murderous elite, for the first time the popular aspirations encountered—for now—a rich stream of something that isn’t weapons of war.

The Historic Pact Party’s principal slogan reveals the minimum and yet elusive aspirations of this diverse mosaic of political parties, social movements, and personalities who want to make of Colombia a “world power that embraces life”, in a country that has turned into an exporter of paramilitaries (the Colombian hit men, so powerful on the international level, are proved to have been in action from Venezuela to Haiti, from Europe to the Middle East).

That is the source of some of the highest political priorities underscored by Petro in his first speech as President-elect, in the Movistar Arena in Bogotá: a regional integration “without exclusions” (with a clear reference to the failed Summit of the Americas called together by Joe Biden in Los Angeles); compliance with the Peace Agreement and calling to a negotiating table of the remaining insurgents (in fact, the National Liberation Army claimed that they are now disposed to sit down and negotiate); a policy of development that is not extractive, that would place Colombia in the vanguard of the fight against climate change; and the broader freedom and right to take part in politics. For that he demanded that judicial authorities set free the political prisoners from the explosion, and also the young people jailed in recent days in the framework of Plan Democracy 2022.

“We are moving from the resistance to having power,” Francia Márquez says to the emboldened multitudes of “the nobodies”, who may just now have started to aquire faces, voices, and presence for the government of Colombia. Or better yet, “from audacity to power”, because it has been that ancestral instinct, that authentic instinct of life, which has kept a people standing and walking on, when many others have already bent the knee. In the famous novel “La Vorágine”, José Eustasio Rivera has the protagonist speaking these words: “Before when I had been carried away with passion for some woman, I gambled my heart and The Violence won me.” It will still take a while, but Colombia now has the opportunity to play with a new deck and lay out the cards again.

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