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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We Need to Talk About Coke

You had to know this conversation was coming eventually. Yes, I spend a lot of time talking about how Colombia isn’t the country it was 20 or even 10 years ago, how there’s so so SO much more to this amazing place than “machine guns and murders,” as my father so aptly put it in a recent conversation about how apparently nobody we know has seen any news since 1985. Colombia is no longer Pablo Escobar’s Colombia, but it’s also not paradise, despite what the tourism ads tell you. As much as I’ve fallen in love with this place, my love isn’t blind: this is still very much a country at war, and it’s a war that extends far beyond the geographic borders. It’s a war that probably touches you.

If you know anything about anything, you’re aware that Colombia has been mired in a civil conflict for decades. A quick and dirty primer for those of you who failed Endless Civil Wars in Latin America 201: The modern conflict began in 1948, with a decade-long political civil war known as La Violencia, which killed more than 300,000 people, most of them farmers or rural residents. In the meantime, the number of people affiliated with the Communist party had been slowly growing since the years following WWI; by the early 1960s, many rural regions had formed their own leagues based on communist principles, calling for increased rights to land ownership, services and access to resources that were controlled by the land-owning class. Because god forbid the threat of Communism be allowed to flourish near our own continent, the U.S. of course had to get involved: in 1962, our proud nation created a paramilitary intervention, known as “Plan Lazo,” which trained and encouraged the Colombian military (as well as the paramilitary civil defense groups they created, which of course don’t conveniently vanish when the plan ends) to attack these leagues and their adjacent communities, many of whom were generally unarmed. Such good neighbors, we are. In response to a 1964 raid on a small town, when 16,000 U.S.-sponsored Colombian troops attacked a group of 1000 villagers, a group of 48 men who had been involved in the battle created the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known as the FARC by their nearest and dearest friends, and everyone else.

The group quickly grew to include hundreds of guerrillas, with the ostensible purpose of defending their territory and land from these imposed, colonialist attacks. However, somewhere along the way (sometime in the early ’80s, to be more precise), the FARC lost most of their revolutionary political ideals, and turned into something closer to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Cocaína. Cocaine is a hell of a drug fast way to make a profit, and when you’re spending all your time hiding in the jungles and fighting the paramilitares/army/police/idiot lost tourists/capybaras/anyone who crosses your path, you need all the fast money you can get. Current statistics estimate that the FARC brings in anywhere from $60 to $100 million dollars annually just from taxing the drug trade, so it’s no surprise that the guerrilla groups saw that they could leverage this system to their advantage, nor that they turned rural farms with little oversight into a production system for their new export, therefore placing the farmers directly into the lose-lose middle of this impossible situation: work with the FARC, and stand a chance of losing their farms or being sent to jail under the latest anti-drug initiative; refuse to work with the FARC, and stand a chance of losing their lives. As usual, the little guy is the one who gets screwed.

But you know what, kids? Most of us, even unwilling journalism majors, have learned a little bit about economics by this point in our lives. We certainly understand the capitalist holy grail of supply and demand — we live it. So if the supply is here, hiding in the overgrown corners of jungle-bordered Colombia, shielding themselves from the occasional pesticide-laced flyover or big military initiative — then where is the demand?

Take a look around you, dear friends and countrymen (and, I suppose, some of you non-countryfolk). Because that’s where it is. Colombia may be one of the world’s biggest producers of cocaine, but the U.S. is by far the biggest consumer. It’s no accident that in the last few years, northern Mexico has turned into a roiling nightmare of narcotraficantes and horrific cartel-sanctioned violence — someone has to protect that coke and make sure it’s getting safely to the noses of rich kids in American cities.

I have friends (not good friends, obviously) back at home who do or at least have done cocaine. I’ve seen friends or acquaintances snorting that stuff up their noses, and while it never seems like the time to give them a lecture about supporting traffickers and essentially signing off on death, both in other countries and in the U.S., being here by the source makes this just so much clearer. I see the poorest neighborhoods of Bogotá, perched up on the hills and without electricity or running water, filled with people who fled the conflict in their native towns, trying to salvage at least their lives and families, if nothing else. I teach kids who lost family members in the ’80s and early ’90s, the unstable era when Bogotá was a city filled with narcos and bombs, when Medellín was the murder capital of the world. I sense the hope, the need to break free of this past, this narrative of Colombia as eternal battleground. The scars here are still so, so visible, and no amount of smiles or makeup or plastic surgery, that Colombian specialty, can cover them up.

Maybe you can’t see them from where you are. Maybe you think it’s not you perpetuating this cycle of violence and exploitation. Maybe you just really don’t care where your toys come from, like people who buy diamond engagement rings without investigating the history of those sparkling gems. If you do care, though — if you give a shit about people, about the ability of human beings to live their lives without the risk of being killed or injured or forced to leave their entire livelihoods behind to flee from an unsafe situation to a far-away city or country — then think. Think about the implications of your actions, think about what these habits say about you or your friends as human beings, think about what you can do to distance yourself from the kind of people who, through their action or inaction, implicitly condone drug violence and the exploitation of thousands of innocent people.

At the least, think before you inhale.

Car Bombs and the Incredible Power of Solidarity

So, today, May 15th (screw all of you with Daylight Savings hours, it’s still Tuesday here), was Día del Profesor here in Colombia — and, if I’m not mistaken, in many other countries as well. Here in Bogotá, though, the celebration was rather overshadowed by the unofficial Día de Car Bombs.

I’m not talking about offensively-named drinks, nor am I trying to make light of what is a really serious situation. There really were car bombs today. Plural. Fortunately, only one of them actually went off, but one is more than bad enough.

But let’s start at the beginning. Today marked the beginning of the official operation of the new free-trade agreement between Colombia and the U.S. I won’t even pretend that I paid enough attention in economics class to explain anything about it, but we’re all adults here, so I think we’re at least familiar with the basic idea of a free-trade agreement, in that it removes a significant number of tariffs and import/export taxes on goods between countries, thereby freeing up the possibility of a lot more movement of goods and basically screwing over most producers who aren’t giant evil corporations. In this case, a majority of U.S.-produced agricultural products (including most fruits and veggies, plus more soy and horrible genetically-engineered beef, yay!) will now come into Colombia tariff-free. This, for the people who failed Econ for Dummies (hey, I barely scraped by), means that these products will now be way cheaper in Colombian markets, making competition almost impossible for Colombia’s nearly 2 million small farmers, most of whom already live in serious rural poverty.

Of course, it’s GREAT for the U.S. economy — especially my least favorite state, Florida, which, as the closest point in the continental U.S., looks to benefit a hell of a lot from all that new movement of goods and will undoubtedly use that money to build more goddamn high-rise beachfront hotels or golf courses or something else equally awful. President Santos has sworn that it will create more than 300,000 new jobs for the Colombian economy, but Oxfam, who tend to know their stuff, predicted last year that the FTA (or TLC, as it’s rather amusingly called here) could cause those 1.8 million farmers to potentially lose more than half of their incomes, as well as negatively affecting their communities and undermining anti-FARC efforts made in poorer regions. So, yay free trade! Imposing U.S. demands and crappy products on countries across the world! Ruining the lives of small farmers so Monsanto can just move right in! Yay, destructive globalization!

Anyways, we won’t go into my feelings about free trade any further. Suffice it to say, there are some people in Colombia who agree with me about the potential issues presented by these kinds of treaties. However, the difference between me and these people is that I don’t go around expressing my feelings by blowing things — and people — up.

This morning, most of us awoke to the news that the police had discovered a car with an explosive device outside the police headquarters in the centro, near La Candelaria, in the early hours of the morning. Luckily, they discovered it in time to safely defuse it, and they apparently already caught some guy who was at least somewhat responsible. So, whew. Danger averted, right?

Not really. A little past 11 a.m., a bomb detonated in the middle of the busy intersection of Calle 74 and Avenida Caracas, one of the main carreras running north-south through the city and a primary hub and route for the public TransMilenio bus system. In fact, Calle 74 is right between Calles 72 and 76, which are both major interchange stations on the TransMilenio routes. There was obviously a ton of confusion at first about what had happened — Twitter, bless its robot heart, was, as usual in these kinds of situations, both incredibly useful and totally misdirecting. I initially found out about it from Twitter, where people were reporting a bus had blown up. There were five wounded, then ten, then 19, then two dead, and so on. All of this turned out to not quite be the truth, but as the day went on, we got closer.

We’re still piecing the whole thing together, but as it looks now, what happened was this: Whoever the attackers were (the government refuses to say anything official, but everyone is pretty sure it was the FARC), they were clearly targeting Fernando Londoño, a former justice minister under the previous Uribe administration. Why he was targeted isn’t really clear to me (or, apparently, anyone so far), but the people responsible pulled up next to his car on a motorcycle, attached the bomb to the door of his car, then zoomed away. And then it exploded.

As it happened, when the bomb detonated, Londoño’s car was right next to one of the thousands of public busetas that criss-cross all over the city, so the bus and all of its passengers were caught in the explosion as well. As of right now, the official tally is three dead (Londoño’s driver, a police bodyguard and an unidentified third person), and almost 40 injured, most of them passengers from the bus.

People here were, understandably, really shaken by the whole thing. The news began to spread around my school at about noon, and most of the teachers instantly grabbed for their phones, calling their loved ones to make sure everyone was safe. It was definitely a strange, unsettling day, but I want to try to make sure to point out the positive message here, because there is one.

Even though the image of Colombia may still be, to most outsiders, something along these lines, with random car bombs and assassination attempts happening on a daily basis, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, this was an important reminder of the reality of life in this country, that there remains an ongoing civil conflict from which all the tall buildings in Bogotá can’t shield us, and that to ignore this truth is both foolish and dangerous. But the fact that people were so shocked, so horrified, so quick to take to any and all means of communication to denounce today’s violence and express their solidarity for one another and for their country, says so much about how far this city and these people have come. This is not the Bogotá of ten or twenty years ago, where such events might not have come as a surprise. In today’s Bogotá, these things do not happen. And when they horrifyingly, shockingly do, as they did today, the whole city reaches out to one another and finds not fear, but strength.

As soon as news of the attack spread across social media, “74 con Caracas” and “londoño” shot to the top of Bogotá’s trending topics on Twitter. But what I found more interesting is that the next most popular tag across the city was “#NoAlTerrorismo” (“No To Terrorism”). As in, this shall not pass. As in, we won’t allow it. People here are shaken, but they aren’t scared. This is their city — they love this place, they’re proud of it, and they’re not going to let anyone take that away from them. And you can’t make that spirit disappear, no matter how strong your bombs might be. Some things can’t be destroyed.