Historical memory in Columbia.
I’m standing on a roof in Tolima, Colombia, talking to a man in a red shirt named Juan Bermudez. We have both just attended a meeting with members of the Zona de Reserva Campesina Planadas, an organization that helps farmers secure titles to land that they’ve already been working for years. Their work is important, but the meeting room was hot, and the roof we are on has a cool breeze and a view that overlooks the city. Juan, who had mostly been observing in the meeting, has quick eyes and hands that move ever so slightly to the rhythm of his words.
Radio, he says to me, is the key. So many Colombians—especially out in the campo—get their news exclusively from the radio. Juan works for Marcha Patriotica, an organization dedicated to uniting pro-labor and human rights groups all over Colombia. He’s been developing a national framework to help collect and spread the stories of victims of state and military violence. Right now, he’s trying to convince me of the importance of the radio, and the power that it has to influence how millions of Colombians understand their nation’s history.
This past July, I spent ten days in Colombia travelling with an organization called the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ), which—among other things—organizes delegations that facilitate networking between humanitarian and social justice groups throughout the Americas. From June 30 to July 10, we met with dozens of representatives from all sorts of groups. I learned about their work, which included advocating for the peace process, assisting labor organizations, supporting victims of political violence, advocating for political prisoners, providing legal support for the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP), and more.
Juan, like so many left-leaning political and human rights activists in Colombia, operates at a delicate intersection of personal secrecy and political broadcasting. He wants his ideas to reach as many people as possible, but would fear for his life if the wrong people were to learn his name. Political violence has been the modus operandi for powerful Colombian operatives since long before the formation of the nation as it exists today. During the Cold War, the U.S. provided funding, training, and weapons to the current Colombian government to exterminate communists. In response to a particularly brutal set of killings of unarmed left-wing populists from 1948 to 1958, the FARC-EP formed as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist party. For more than 50 years they waged guerrilla warfare from the mountains, in a conflict estimated by Al Jazeera and the Washington Post to have left more than 200,000 dead and seven million displaced.
On November 30, 2016, the Congress of the Colombian government unanimously ratified a peace treaty with the FARC-EP, officially ending the conflict. Surprisingly, the treaty that would end the war was rejected by the Colombian people in a popular plebiscite on October 2, with 50.2 percent voting against its ratification to 49.8 percent voting in favor. Though this rejection was overruled and the modified treaty passed a month later, it raises certain questions to those unfamiliar with the conflict: Why would so many Colombians vote against ending such a destructive war?
The answer lies within the deep divisions between how various Colombian actors and groups understand the history of their country, divisions that Juan is trying to cross with his radio campaign. Luis Fernando Lugo explained this discord to me. Luis, who is the Secretary of International Relations for the Federación de Estudiantes Universitarios (FEU) at the National University of Colombia’s Bógota campus, spoke to us clearly, with a confident smile, and he seemed optimistic, even if the content of his speech is grimly pragmatic. He told us, During the war, guerrilleros were not widely considered real people with dreams and aspirations. The only thing on people’s minds was killing them and winning the war.
Luis and others believe a significant number of Colombians hold this opinion, including members of the agrarian working class for whom the FARC-EP was specifically fighting for. It’s worth noting that, for the most part, I was exposed to only one side of the conversation—I was so busy meeting with left-leaning groups that I barely had time to talk to anyone else. However, on the very last day of my visit, members of the AfGJ and I staged a protest outside of the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. We were demanding that Simón Trinidad be allowed to return to Colombia. Trinidad, a once-commander in the FARC- EP, was extradited to the U.S. in 2004 and has been serving a 60-year sentence in solitary confinement in Colorado ever since. A friend and I left the protest directly in a taxi to the airport, and our driver, a middle-aged man, asked us what we had been doing outside of the embassy. Almost before we could finish telling him, he told us that our protest was unjust, and that Trinidad was a dangerous criminal who deserved to be killed. This peace is no peace, he said to us. Peace will be when those guerrilleros pay for their crimes.
As a journalist, I’d like to be impartial, but it’s impossible to talk about Colombian politics without taking a side. And yet, who am I, an outsider, to say that this man’s opinion is invalid? I’ve grappled with this question constantly since I began thinking about this article. The United Nations estimates that the FARC-EP are responsible for twelve percent of violent deaths during the conflict. Many of those who died were innocent victims, with families and friends whose anger is valid. My role as an outsider is to bring the stories of victims of violence to the U.S. I hope that by influencing people here I’ll make an impact, however indirect, on the lives of the victims in Colombia.
But how do I know that I’m representing the right victims? I’ve found that the best answer I have comes from scale. By the same UN estimates as above, rightwing paramilitary groups were responsible for 80 percent of the killings. Violence experienced at the hands of the FARC-EP is not less valid, but perhaps less significant.
The history of political violence in Colombia is as long as the history of Colombia itself. My understanding of it was greatly informed by two people that I spoke to: Alirio García, the Human Rights Director for la Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria (FENSUAGRO) and Imelda Daza Cotes, who is a Vocera in the Colombian House of Representatives. In Spanish, vocera literally means “speaker.” In the Colombian congress, Voceras are spokespeople from outside organizations, and do not have a vote. Both Alirio and Imelda trace the political violence back to the issue of land rights, which Alirio says began when Spaniards arrived in 1498.
We sat down with Alirio on a rainy Sunday morning to learn about his organization, FENSUAGRO, in our hotel’s meeting room. Alirio is much older than Luis or Juan, and the perspective conferred by his years encouraged him to deliver a lengthy oral history of Colombia, placing the country’s current struggles in the context of those past. He explained that the establishment of the Spanish colonies, and the corresponding massacres and displacement of indigenous peoples, were the beginnings of a long tradition of violence employed as a tool to control land and the wealth that arose from it. Though the names of the governments, people, and corporations that controlled Colombia’s land have changed with time, the regular pattern is the few wealthy and powefrful own, at least in title, vast tracts of land worked by campesinos, who control almost none of the wealth that the land produces.
Revolutionary movements in Colombia across centuries have frequently promised a redistribution of land ownership. Alirio told us that Simón Bolívar, the leader of the armies that liberated what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama, wanted to give back land to the campesinos and indigenous peoples, but upon his death in 1830, all laws protecting el pueblo were destroyed. One hundred years later, after the proliferation of Marxism and a smattering of communist revolutions around the world, political actors began to rise within Colombia, who promised a redistribution of land along the lines of these new ideologies. The violence employed to silence these actors led to their militarization and the creation of the FARC-EP.
Decades after the rise of the FARC-EP, popular leftist movements continued to appear in Colombia, attempting to address systemic inequality legally and from within. One of these movements was the Unión Patriótica (UP), of which Imelda Daza Cotes was a founding member in the early eighties. It too was suppressed with violence. Imelda told us that when the assassinations began, members of the UP met and considered their options. Some fled the country; others joined the FARC-EP in the mountains. According to Imelda, every single member who remained as a civilian was killed.
We’re sitting around a plastic table under a tarp at a Zona Veredal, one of the transition zones built for demilitarized FARC-EP to live in before making the full return to civilian life. The camp is in full motion around us: Men and women are washing, building, cooking, digging, and performing various labors side by side. Imelda is a gifted speaker, with a rich voice and bright eyes. She manages to sound brave while telling us that she was not. I left because I was afraid. I’m not afraid to say that I’m afraid—I suffer from none of that masculine crap. When my kid was five months old, the paramilitaries started to threaten me. I knew they didn’t threaten idly, but followed up on their threats with death.
Imelda fled Colombia in 1988 and was granted political asylum in Switzerland, where she lived for twenty-six years before it was deemed safe for her to return. Switzerland is a marvelous country, and they treated me wonderfully. Nonetheless, it was dark, cold and very different over there. I’m from Valledupar, a city on the Caribbean—we are a people of warmth, of laughter and of dance! I hated that I was so far away, and it was very, very difficult. For twenty-six years, I dreamed every day of coming home.
With Colombia under close watch from the United Nations after the peace treaty’s signing, Imelda and other members of the UP are appearing from the shadows. One of the stipulations rewarded to the FARC-EP was the right to form a political party, around which many of their old allies who had been forced into hiding will most likely appear. This is a new era in Colombian politics: Agrarian reform and left-leaning populism are being given another chance, this time with an involved international community watching.
Will this be enough to make peace last? The greatest problems Colombia faces must be decided by the Colombian people alone. As Fernando said, Reintegrating the FARC is not only done by the state. We must make space for them culturally, and change the minds of so many people who grew up believing the FARC are monsters.
To that end, many of the activists we spoke to—especially students—are starting up alternative media corporations. These are mostly created on social media and the internet, and have been generally successful in communicating with the younger generation. However, there are millions of Colombians, especially in the campo, who do not have computers. They get their news from the radio and along with it, their political opinions about the entire outside world. Who and what they vote for will be decided by a form of media that has existed for decades. What makes things tricky for Juan is that radio has been controlled by many of the same people and groups for so long—people and groups who don’t necessarily share Juan’s passion for peace and justice based in agrarian reform.
With such stark divisions, it’s no wonder that many question whether the FARC-EP can be successfully reintegrated into mainstream Colombian society at all. Outsiders like myself can afford to ask this question from a distance, but Juan, Fernando, Imelda, Alirio, and many other Colombians cannot. For them, it’s a matter of life and death, of economic justice for their people, of honoring the memory of lost loved ones.
I put my hands on the railings, looking alternately back at Juan and out at the avenue below. There are mountains just behind the low skyline of the city, and the sky is beginning to grow gray around the corners. Space becomes a daunting obstacle in this moment: space soaked with history and the blood of generations imprinted on every mountain and street corner. There’s great space between Juan and the people he’s trying to reach. That’s why it’s so important for Juan to get his hands on the radio, so he can work toward reshaping the collective memory of his nation’s history, and pave the way for a more just and less violent future.