Queremos Paz

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This past Tuesday, April 9th, was an important day here in Colombia. It was the 65th anniversary of the 1948 assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, which set off the riots known as the Bogotazo, which killed between 3,000-5,000 people and destroyed much of downtown Bogotá in just 10 hours. That riot and the ensuing instability led to widespread violence across the country and set the stage for the beginning of the civil conflict that still exists today.

As if that weren’t enough, Tuesday was also the Day of Victims, created by the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which was created to facilitate the process of remittances and returning land to the millions of internally displaced refugees across the country. Of course, this law has yet to actually accomplish much, but some recognition is better than none, right? Across the country, people commemorated this day in different ways — and here in Bogotá, almost a million people marched to the city center to demonstrate their support for peace (here’s an article in English for you gringos). Both the president and the mayor of Bogotá participated in the march, as well as several other famous Colombians and a whole lot of people from a whole lot of different places on the political spectrum. No matter your feelings about the politics of the situation (and, as always, there are more than enough feelings to go around), it was an impressive show of citizen participation and expression.

Now, people have different definitions of what peace means, and how they go about supporting it. For some, it means getting on board with the ideals of the talks currently taking place in Havana between representatives of the Colombian government and guerrilla groups. Others may believe in the end more than the means, or take action on a more local scale. Yet others, like those who criticized the march as apologizing for or even supporting the FARC rebels, may believe that the road to peace does not lie through these kinds of negotiations. And for others still, it is less political and more personal — a goal that every Colombian can work toward in his or her private life.

Ending a war is not like winning a video game — you don’t just beat the last level, save the princess and suddenly it’s all over. Not in the DRC, not in Syria, and not in a country ravaged by decades of civil conflict. These things take time, and effort, and extraordinary amounts of courage. They take forgiveness — for the fighters who may hope to reintegrate back into civil society, for the military and state police apparatus that have committed serious crimes in the name of winning the war, for the perpetrators of violence that has driven millions of people from their land and family homes. These things are not easy. These things are beyond the capacity of many people, and hard for many of us to even imagine. I’ve never lost a family member to drug violence, answered the phone to hear a voice on the other end tell me my father’s been kidnapped, driven around in an armored car full of bodyguards because it’s the only way to feel safe, or wondered whether today is the day I’ll be in the wrong place when the newest bomb goes off. Most people here have grown up or lived under the shadow of violence. It’s always been there, just like the mountains.

The shadow is beginning to fade. But it won’t disappear on its own. Chasing away the darkness requires positive actions. It requires hope. It requires faith. It requires people who truly believe in the potential of peace, and who are willing to work toward that, who are willing to cooperate and help one another move through and past this painful history. It requires people with great strength of character and the ability to remain positive through dark times. It requires, in other words, Colombians.

I wasn’t born here. I’m not Colombian by birth, and I have no right to claim any sense of belonging to this process. I recognize that. This situation, both the positive and the negative, is their birthright, not mine. But I live here, I love it here, and I care deeply about the people I know here. They deserve this. They deserve to wake up and go to work in horrible traffic and arrive home at night to see their family together and safe. They deserve to work in good jobs without worrying that they may be jeopardizing people they love. They deserve to travel through their gorgeous country without feeling threatened or avoiding certain regions altogether. They deserve their land back. They deserve their livelihoods back. They deserve to be seen as more than narcos. They deserve to be treated with the same dignity and afforded the same opportunities granted to citizens of other countries, not interrogated at every border and repeatedly denied visas based only on their nationality. They deserve the opportunity to make their country what everyone believes it can be, to rise to their potential instead of being held back by jungles filled with men with guns and destructive wars on drugs inflicted on them by foreign powers. They deserve their real birthright: not the one dripping with blood money and long-held grudges, but the one that moves to the rhythm of salsa and cumbia and bursts with the colors and joy of the country’s natural beauty.

They deserve peace. Merecen la paz. Que la llegue.

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Some Thoughts About Visas and Victories

So my grand plan to move triumphantly back to Colombia and have a life here as a strong, independent woman (or at least a woman who really likes coffee and arepas) hinged upon one very important detail: getting a visa. As those of us hailing from the Great White Devil know all too well, working under an illegal visa is generally frowned upon by governments, and can lead to scary consequences like alarmingly large fines or even deportation. These are not consequences I want to face at any point in my life, and certainly not now, when everything else is proceeding according to plan. So then. A visa was required.

But how, one might ask, does a brunette gringa with a serious addiction to maracuyá ice cream go about obtaining a visa? They’re not exactly handing them out like candy these days, although it’s certainly easier to get one here than somewhere like my dearly beloved homeland. Of course, I had one last year through WorldTeach, but it expired in December, and I couldn’t renew it because I wasn’t going to be doing the same kind of work, or working with the same organization. So renewing was out.

This left me with three options, which are the three basic options facing any foreigner who wants to be able to work for an extended period of time in Colombia:

1. Stay on a 90-day tourist visa, renew it once at the immigration office for a maximum stay of 180 consecutive days, and then leave the country for 72 hours and come back in on another (non-renewable) 90-day visa. Wash, rinse, repeat every 90 days until the Colombian government catches up with you and asks you to cease and desist. This is a perfectly acceptable choice for people who don’t intend to be here longer than 6 months or so, or people who are only looking to pick up part-time, under-the-table work like private classes or manning the desk at a hostel or something. I am neither of those people, and this was going to add totally unnecessary amounts of stress to my life, so this wasn’t ever anything except an absolutely last resort.

2. Find work with a company willing to sponsor a work visa. This is what the vast majority of people end up doing, and it works fine if you find a good, dependable organization that actually keeps its visa-sponsoring promises (which is more difficult than it sounds). If you come here with a school or organization, you already have this set up; otherwise, if you manage to find an institute or other business that’s willing to commit to sponsoring you, great. The company I’m teaching with actually did let me know that they could sponsor a work visa for me if I needed it, which was good to have as a fallback plan. However, from my personal point of view there are a few issues with this option. The first is that, once you have a visa with a company, you are tied to that company. As far as the Colombian government is concerned, you are only allowed to work in Colombia if you are working with that company. The minute your job status changes (and it will, for most of us expendable, commitment-phobic foreigners), that visa is no longer valid. Of course, lots of people ignore this, and I know people that are here on work visas from places where they no longer work, and they probably won’t get caught, and it’ll be fine, but you know, it’s still not what you’re supposed to do. I’ve never been a massive stickler for rules, but when it comes to things like international work status requirements, I like to stay on the right side of things.

The other issue with this kind of visa is a logistical one. For some inexplicable bureaucratic reason, you can’t actually get this visa issued in Colombia, which means you have to go to the consulate in a neighboring country: Panama, Ecuador, or Venezuela, which is where most people go. This is a pretty significant hassle and you lose at least a whole weekend, if not longer, going back and forth to the border and waiting in a bunch of lines. Obviously it’s not the worst thing in the entire world — I certainly wouldn’t cry about going back to Ecuador for a few days — but I preferred to get the whole thing taken care of without having to leave Bogotá.

3. Which brings us to option #3: apply for an independent worker visa. I will readily admit that I am not smart enough to have thought of this by myself — I borrowed the idea from the fabulous Zoë over at La Blogotana, who, in addition to having a great name for her blog, wrote an invaluable series of posts last summer about this very process. She (and several other people I know) applied for this visa as independent English teachers, which seems to have worked for most of them. However, I decided to apply for it as an independent journalist, since that’s what I’m planning to do this year, more so than teaching. From everything I’ve heard, it’s much easier to apply for this kind of visa when you can show past experience and, even better, a degree, since Colombians are all about appearances and seeming official. Well, lucky me, with my college degree in journalism and published clips, I thought I had a pretty decent shot at it. Which is to say, kids, unless you have a journalism degree, don’t try this at home.

It’s not the easiest or most fun process in the world, but dealing with government offices rarely is. To make a labyrinthine story somewhat short, getting an independent worker visa requires three steps:

  • Going to the DIAN office at 7:30 in the goddamn morning on a Saturday because that’s the only time you’ll actually be able to see a representative, still being the 232nd person in line despite getting there before the office even opens at 8, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a huge freezing room for 4 hours while freaking out that you’ve somehow missed your turn as the one mean guy in all of Colombia reminds all of you at least every five minutes that if you miss your turn it’s too bad, finally getting to actually speak to someone around 11:30 and explaining to him that you want to work as a freelance journalist, waiting for him to pick some mysterious code that identifies this activity and then finally taking your shiny new RUT form that qualifies you to exist as a commercial entity in Colombia and getting out of there as fast as humanly possible. Eating an enormous brunch-type meal is highly recommended after this step.
  • Going to the Cámara de Comercio (Chamber of Commerce) office to register yourself as an independent business, forgetting one crucial document that you need, having to go back the next day because of course there isn’t time to go home and come back with it before the office closes, submitting the application, waiting four days for the certificate to arrive, going back a third time to pick it up, only tolerating this whole process because the incredibly pregnant young woman working at the CC desk is possible the sweetest and most helpful person in the entire city of Bogotá. Eating arepas from the cart on the corner outside the office is highly recommended during each journey.
  • Two weeks after starting this whole shenanigan, taking all of these forms plus a massive pile of other documents (including, but not limited to, copies of three different pages of your passport, official visa request form filled out, formal letter stating why you’re applying for this visa, resumé, copy of diploma, letter of recommendation from a potential employer [optional but helpful], copies of published clips, recent bank statement and several unflattering photos) to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriories office near Calle 100, getting a number, sitting and trying to read a book but failing because you keep checking the screen every ten seconds to see if they’ve called your number yet because they seem to call them in an order similar to the bombing pattern in Gravity’s Rainbow, finally getting your number called after a surprisingly short wait of less than an hour, thanking all the higher powers that you got assigned to a youngish guy (this is why you showered and brushed your hair this morning!), explaining to the very nice youngish guy why you want this visa, making sure to include the phrase “I just love Colombia” as many times as reasonably possible, handing over all of your documents, getting sent back to the waiting room while he reviews them, trying not to gnaw off the two existing fingernails you have left, getting called back in less than 20 minutes, watching with ferocious glee as the guy controlling your destiny prints off a new, shiny visa that qualifies you to work as an independent journalist until February 2014 and attaches it to your passport, and trying not to hug the dude or do an obvious victory dance until exiting the doors. Going to the awesome vegetarian restaurant around the corner and eating a giant lunch is the only way to celebrate this resounding victory.

So there you have it. One month and a lot of smiling at government employees later, I am legally allowed to be here working until one year from now. I can’t imagine going through this process without speaking at least a competent level of Spanish — it certainly makes explaining your case significantly easier. Plus, sometimes people find accents endearing. Whatever the magic key was (maybe it was the lucky underwear? Who knows?), the point is that it worked. I can finally take a deep breath, relax, and start doing all those things I’d been putting off until I was legal.

Now I just have to go get my Colombian ID card…