By Diego Arias, EL ESPECTADOR, September 6, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Professor Sánchez, Director of the National Center for Historical Memory between 2011 and 2018, talks with EL ESPECTADOR to analyze the post-conflict in Colombia. He invites us to find ways of resolving what the war has left to us, ways to deepen our democracy, and to ask ourselves how to think, using our historical memory of another time when our “authoritarian temptations” were exacerbated.
The trajectory of Professor Sánchez is extensive and notable. It embraces studies and research on violence and conflict, but it also includes significant contributions to the construction of peace. He does this from his diverse experience and understanding of peace, of wars, and of the human condition, as he is a philosopher, historian, lawyer, and writer, and above all, is a Colombian committed to his country.
What especially stands out among these commitments is that from 2011 to 2018—the period of the Juan Manuel Santos administration—he directed the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH in Spanish).
In this dialog with EL ESPECTADOR, he gives us his view on understanding the conflict, on the complexity of the present time, and on the challenges, both present and future.
A text of yours evokes one of the generals in the War of a Thousand Days, Benjamín Herrera, who stated that wars are like rivers: “When they get to the sea, they aren’t the same as when they started, they’ve added a lot of inflow.” How would you characterize the current conflict?
I often cite that simile because it effectively sets forth the theme of the transformations of a long conflict like ours. The origins matter, obviously, but not seeing the trajectory, the unraveling of the pathways, leads to a lot of errors in characterization. In broad strokes, we have traveled from a conflict between the government and insurgencies to a multidimensional conflict with intersectionsfrequently difficult to delineate. The conflict today is much more extensive, more heterogeneous, and more intricate. And it’s not just against the government. This one has been permeated with complicities, the draining of resources for war, networks of international support . . .
Do you think, as Francisco Gutiérrez suggests, that we are looking at the imminence of a new cycle in the war?
With some limited exceptions, I agree with Professor Gutiérrez in his major characterizations and cycles of violence in Colombia: the cycle of civil wars, the cycle of La Violencia, the cycle of insurgencies, and for a while now, the cycle of what we could call the criminal structures. I think that what Francisco is trying to emphasize is that there are many signs that point to the eventuality of a new cycle, but he’s not perceiving that as a fatality. His intention is to alert the government and the society to the risk: if we don’t lock in the commitments of Havana, and if we keep on paying the disastrous consequences of the previous administration’s failures, we could be heading off a cliff. There’s a statement at the beginning of his book that identifies the current time as a competition among racehorses: those that are pushing for peace and those that are pushing for continued destabilization. That leaves open the question, “Which horse will win?” That is a preventive diagnosis . . . one that we’re in right now.
In the report entitled “Enough Already”, that you published when you were the Director of the CNMH, you seriously criticized our society’s incapacity to recognize the existence of a conflict and take on the consequences of what would have to be changed in order to overcome the warring . . .
The mountain of information and argumentation that exists now through the hearings by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), about the overwhelming statistics on victims and the revelations of the atrocities, make it almost impossible to continue denying the conflict. The divergence now is mostly on how to resolve it, whether by digging into democracy more deeply, or by exacerbating the temptation toward authoritarianism. It’s the intellectual atmosphere toward which we’re moving all over Latin America.
Are we continuing to seriously misunderstand the voices of the right, of the “contras” of the political and peace processes?
We have a lot of understanding of liberal ideas, and of socialist ideas. Our great debates have been among those close to us, and the closer they are, the more sectarian. We haven’t believed in debating with the antagonists. The study of rights has been left to foreigners: Christopher Abel’s doctoral thesis at Oxford on the Conservative Party; the study by James Henderson of the ideas of Laureano Gómez; and the recent study by Harvey F. Kone about Álvaro Uribe.
But we have to go beyond that. The political spectrum is now much more colorful. Now there isn’t just the right, but the rights. And those rights are much different from the dictators of the Southern Cone, although they share foundational traits. The rights now are not as immovable as we paint them. In fact, now the left seems more immovable, installed in the old but still used banners of equality. Sleeping on their historical inheritance, they have allowed the right’s yesteryear function as transgressors to be snatched away from them.
Do you mean that they are erasing their differences?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that they are updating at different rates, to the disadvantage of the left. The Argentinian historian Pablo Stefanoni underscores that swerve, alluding to the rise of an “insurgent right” which criticizes the vices of both the left and of democracy, while the left thinks they have built everything, and sleeps on its old laurels.
And what is the outlook for Colombia?
Bringing the Colombian left up to date is more complicated, as it has not yet totally overcome the tension between politics and guns. The slow democratic apprenticeship of the old insurgent left slows down the rate of modernization of the collective left in this country. The war is a dead weight for democracy and for the left.
How do we explain the fear of reform in this country?
We start with this premise: the election of the first leftist President showed that Colombia was prepared socially for the change, but not institutionally. The mismatch between the social movement and the legal-institutional rigidity marks the drama of the Petro administration. I lamented that situation in a recent interview with CAMBIOColombia. Any proposal for institutional reform is interpreted here as a threat, as a subversion of the democratic order.
And how does the insurrection model play here?
The promise of transformation through arms has lost momentum all over the continent. Refusing to recognize that could cost much useless spilling of blood. But let’s be clear, if the modus operandi is no longer in effect, the content, the demands, and the tasks delayed become much more urgent. That’s something that the political, social, and economic elites of the country will also have to understand. Historically, we have confronted negotiable violence. When what remains is only the ever more non-negotiable but highly organized violence, we will be lost. The frustration could take forms much more complicated and devastating than armed rebellion.
Do we have a historical incapacity to put an end to war?
That’s what’s been happening to us, at least until now. The pragmatic calculation has been imposed upon the strategic calculation: “Let’s make a deal with these people, and then we’ll see what we can do with the others.” Inconclusive negotiations and repeat; leaving nothing but the inexorable reproduction of the violence. That’s what makes “Total Peace” necessary. Incredibly complicated, yes. But the difficulties in putting together what’s negotiable and what’s not negotiable, the criminal and the political, the narco and the social, are not an argument against “Total Peace”. That’s the big challenge exactly: starting out from complexity. Up to now, we have started out from the simple, and it’s gone badly for us. Now let’s start with the complicated, which is reality.
And how is the administration doing with this strategic gamble?
The country has to understand that the issue isn’t whether Petro fails or not. The issue is do we fail, or do we rethink ourselves as a nation. After the experiment, successful or frustrated by the change, Colombia will never again be the same country politically. Whatever happens, the Petro administration has made the inevitable transformation visible. Petro has given the country an agenda for the coming decades.
The National Agreement is not a charter for the survival of the administration; the National Agreement is historic urgency for carrying out the great unfinished tasks of democracy that go far beyond electoral fixes or parliamentary games. The architecture of the Agreement requires statesmen and women who can go back to the fundamental, but with a vision of the future.
You have pointed out that the focus on partial negotiations, with all of its supposed achievements, was nevertheless the seed for future wars.
The line that may say, “let’s go for part of it, and the parts will accumulate,” has left the doors open for the eternal revival. The history of negotiations from the National Front to the present demonstrates that. What does history teach us? That we ought to go for it all, so we can close off the predictable floodgates of repetition.
As long as we don’t find a way to confront the diverse angles of the violence in an integrated manner (even though differentiated), the groups that didn’t find a place in the agreements will be looking for support in the surviving criminal structures. So many times we have experienced the illusion that we are attending the definitive conclusion, and the history of installment negotiations follows, resolutely reproaching us for the persistence of repetition. The difficulty of closing it down is what has brought us to a history of forced re-politicization so as to be able to confront what we haven’t solved.
And the need to come up with some new incentives?
Yes, it’s necessary to generate differentiated incentives for the different actors. We have to respond simultaneously to demands that have to do with origin (the justice of taking up arms); demands that have to do with identity or with recognition (those that can be the subject of negotiations); and aspirational demands (their future home in politics or in society).
And what’s the hardest part about that?
Achieving public support. Without broad support and social legitimacy, the armed actors will find it hard to lay down their cards. They’re playing with the inertia that drug dealing or illegal mining provided for them.
A final reflection on this conversation . . .
Colombia has to re-invent itself, not in continuity, but in a complete break with its violent past. This isn’t a revolution, but rather a simple modernization. Stopping that is making the game of isolation into a national microproject. We deserve something more.