Editor´s Note: On October 3, 2016, the Colombian people shocked the international community by narrowly rejecting a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). After more than 50 years of violence, most observers in Colombia and around the world expected that there would be widespread support for such an agreement, in order to end one of the longest-running civil conflicts in the world.
Coming four months after “Brexit”, and one month before the stunning election of Donald Trump, this result was yet another reminder that the political realities of 2016 escape easy explanation or categorization. While the government and the FARC have since reached a new peace deal – one that is not subject to a popular vote – the previous electoral result highlights the difficulties of actually implementing the agreement.
To help us better understand the root causes of this civil conflict and the recent context behind the referendum campaign, I recently spoke with Tatiana, an economist from Colombia who is now working in the United States. Tatiana was an active participant in the referendum campaign and experienced its twists and turns alongside her compatriots.
In this first part of the interview, Tatiana explains some of the historical context of the conflict with the FARC, and how it affected her family. In Part II of this interview, we will explore her views on the peace treaty and referendum campaign, and her vision for Colombia’s future.
Q: What was it like growing up in Colombia? What was your family’s experience with the FARC?
A: I had the opportunity, unlike many Colombians, to grow up in a family where political discussions happened on a weekly basis. Some people from my generation had a much broader and more critical view of current events, and it allowed us to think more critically. Part of the problem in my country is that we are a people still marked by some ignorance… we haven’t had access to analytical and critical viewpoints.
I was born in Bogota, but grew up in a small city. But since my parents are from a village, I had direct access to the conflict. I´m a victim – not directly, but indirectly. The FARC killed one of my uncles. In a certain manner, we were displaced from my grandparents’ home because the FARC took it. And it hurt us. For a long time, my father couldn’t return to his land, to the place of his parents’ home. One of my father’s cousins disappeared.
I had the fortune to not go through what many families in villages went through, a complete uprooting. They lost family to kidnappings, but I still had my mother and my father.
Q: What is the historical context for the conflict between the government and groups such as the FARC? When did this violence start?
A: This has always been the case. Since our colonial times, there has always been social injustice. That’s when the villagers began waging war. This war amongst militias became a political war between troops that were liberal versus troops that were conservatives, or as we say colloquially, the “godos” and the “chulavitas”.
I can tell you the story that my grandparents told me: My grandmother was a liberal, and my grandfather was a conservative. My grandmother hid my grandfather when the chulavitas came by, and my grandfather hid my grandmother when the godos came by to kill chulavitas. This was a completely bloody war.
We’ve essentially inherited the differences from those days; they continue today. The difference between those days and now are communication methods. Now it’s more difficult to hide the violence of war. But everything else continues in the same way. Everything that’s happening today can be traced back to our history – nothing comes about overnight.
Today’s politicians give speeches claiming a different narrative – that a particular ex-president did such-and-such, or that a particular ex-president didn’t do such-and-such. Please – this is simply demagoguery, in order to justify their actions. But this situation is a reality that we’ve lived with from generation to generation. I don’t know anybody in my family – not my grandparents, and not even their grandparents, who lived during a time of peace.
Q: What is your perception of the FARC, and of the government?
A: When the international community designated the FARC as a terrorist organization, that was a small personal victory. Because one of the advantages is that the FARC committed so many unrepeatable crimes, and yet they sold themselves as political leaders, as a political guerilla movement that was fighting for a just cause. The cause that the FARC and ELN fought for is real. That is, we are a people that despite having all the natural riches, all the possibilities to be a developed country, we are a very, very poor country, with an unbelievably high level of corruption. One of the highest in the world. To me, one of the most serious types of corruption is judicial corruption. When judicial institutions and judicial actors don’t function properly in a country, it is truly corrupt.
Obviously, the inequality is palpable. So, if someone arrives and says “We are fighting for the people, because it’s a people that’s dying of hunger, without opportunities, because the laws are like a ruana (a type of traditional country poncho), in that they create a class of ‘untouchables’…” Sadly, we are a reflection of the Spanish colonial times. We continue to be a fiefdom of those who have the power. And the people who have power obviously control the economic means.
So if you grow up in this context, you´ll think that the FARC is right in their theories. But the problem, as my grandfather used to say, is that the FARC was like a group of cuatreros – those who broke into farms and stole everything. But when the guerrillas began, led by Father Torres – when those cuatreros began to fight against the political men of the day, who were coming to wipe out the villagers from their land, they were considered united with the people. This is my grandfather´s story. If you read the history, you must be very clear in order to know the whole story. This is how they became popular. And this problem continues to this day.
Q: How has this situation evolved in recent years?
You see children dying in the street, dying of hunger. And this in a country as rich as ours? You reap what you sow.
A: Extreme poverty continues in this country, and children continue to die from hunger. Politicians continue to steal money, food, and health away from those kids. This is something inexplicable! We Colombians elect corrupt politicians.
You see serious things in Colombia. You see children dying in the street, dying of hunger. And this in a country as rich as ours? You reap what you sow. This is one of the countries most endowed with natural riches, and that there is still hunger – it’s mind-boggling. And that even today you have to see the faces of agonized children…
If you go to Africa, there are many countries where people die of hunger because they don’t have the means. But that children die of hunger in a country like Colombia, this is a political shame. And it’s a social shame, because we are the citizens that allow this to happen.
Q: What has been the recent political context of the country leading up to the referendum? How would you describe the two main protagonists in the referendum on the peace accords – President Juan Manuel Santos and the former president Alvaro Uribe?
A: President Santos isn’t a bad president. He is an economist, he’s a very intelligent person, and a very good executive. However, he lacks the charisma and populism that Uribe had. Uribe took advantage of the same kind of charisma as Donald Trump does now, or as Hugo Chavez did in his time. These are personalities that know how to capture the camera, and know how to capture the masses. Santos completely lacks this ability – that’s why he’s so unpopular. But he’s a very intelligent man.
But I don’t support him… he doesn’t completely espouse the principle that the end justifies the means, but he does somewhat. I don’t know quite how to explain it. He’s a calculating type of person – brilliant in a Machiavellian way, with an infinite amount of patience.
He is the cousin and nephew of former presidents. He has family members that are journalists, and bankers – part of the most powerful institutions in the country. He’s someone who grew up with access to all the power and all the money. In such a small and rich land, he essentially owns the country.
In contrast, Uribe comes from peasant origins. He had some economic means that come from his farm, and from the degenerate acts of corruption that took place during his government. But the “Uribe phenomenon” took off because by the end of the 2000s decade, we Colombians were sick and tired with the social malaise regarding the FARC.
It wasn’t that the FARC had recently changed their guerilla tactics – they were continuing the same violent acts from before. The difference was that by that time, we were seeing all the violent acts live on TV, in cities and elsewhere.
The difference in this moment was that the FARC began getting in bed with the narcotraffickers, openly. So, in this moment, we all had this visceral desire to go to fight with bullets, to kill them and end them once and for all. This is the real reason why the whole country voted for Uribe. If you seriously analyzed Uribe’s political plans, and the trajectory of his government, you wouldn’t have any rational reason to vote for him. But he was the only person with the tenacity and the thirst for blood to launch a military war against the FARC. The popular slogan at that time was “No more FARC”, and he took advantage of this mindset.
Looking back now after several years, I can see how mentally and emotionally sick we were. To the point that when the government announced a bounty for the hand – alive or dead – of a guerrillero, we all applauded. This was a collective form of dementia. It was completely bloodthirsty – and above all, what kind of example did it set for the children?
But everybody – even me, and I considered myself a pacifist – applauded the government.
Stay tuned for Part Ii of this interview in the coming days, as we delve deeper into Tatiana´s perspectives on the peace agreement itself and her vision for the future.