Colombian Revisionism

Gleaning what I can from the various media outlets which see fit to report, let alone publish, any news from the closely guarded dialogues taking place between the FARC and the government’s negotiators, I find myself returning to mull but one key question: “Was the only solution for the campesinado back in the late 1950s and early 1960s to go to war?”

Newspaper Bogota

The City Paper Bogota

A general overview of 1958, as a key flashpoint for today’s conflict in Colombia and as an example of a period of worldwide upheaval alongside the fustian melodrama of the Cold War, is impressively telling. Putting the events orchestrated by the de facto dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla and then President Alberto Lleras Camargo into context, perhaps violence and an armed uprising inspired by Radio Rebelde in the Sierra Madre was the only answer? Imagine the time, as Fidel Castro is making inroads to oust Batista in Cuba, the Nottinghill Race Riots are underway in London, Faisal II is assassinated in a regicide in Iraq, Nikita Krushchev is in power in the USSR, De Gaulle creates the Fifth Republic in France, Bertrand Russell heads up the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and in Colombia, the ten years known as La Violencia come to an end as the era of the Frente Nacional is ushered in. Turbulent to say the least.

Upheaval and change were clearly de rigeur in 1958. The rhetoric from the period is profoundly archaic and anti imperialist befitting of an epoch that is witness to the exhaustion of colonial dynasties. With the benefit of historical revisionism it can be said that the vernacular from this period belongs exactly there and in no way lends itself to a negotiation or a period of reconciliation that contemporary Colombia now requires. Even as far back as in 1958 Colombia was an unknowing participant in a world entering the fray of a globalizing society, and today is the result.

But, that was then and this is now. The tub thumping and language that comes out of the “mountains of Colombia” from wherever Timochenko may be sounds fatigued and useless. Even his image is more befitting of a soapbox at Speaker’s Corner as a caricature of what once was and not what is. But sadly, this camouflage-clad bombast and grandiloquence is not going to go away. Timochenko, Ivan Marquez and the postcolonial pin up, Tanja Nijmeijer will all make well-worn declarations of political convictions which stem from the most basic and fundamental belief that they are fighting for good over evil or right over wrong. And so, to negotiate with them, we as participants in Colombian society must study and understand the historical and outdated context to which – due to years sleeping beneath black bin liner bivouacs in the jungle – they make reference. While theirs is a coward’s explanation hiding behind the excuse of cause and effect, we need to hear it. This is, I hope and assume, the path which was taken by Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo.

Gaitan’s assassination in 1948, La Violencia which resulted in anywhere upwards of 200,000 deaths in a decade and of course Operación Lazo (or Laso depending on your political standpoint) in Marquetalia in 1964 are all defining moments insomuch as they delineate the FARC’s identity and their luddism towards the chaos of a 21st century reality. Tirofijo’s folksy yet loaded comment about livestock and fowl, to some might mask the barbaric reality of their actions over 50 years, but their language has not changed as they stubbornly avow their situation as the first victims of Colombia’s armed conflict.

There is a culture of blame here to which no one wishes to take responsibility. That Humberto de la Calle should, on behalf of the Colombian people, apologize for Marquetalia is bordering on the ludicrous. So then, why should Colombians remain subject to hackneyed speeches announcing the ills of neo-liberalism, the crimes of the oligarchy and the power mongering of the feudal elite? Marquetalia, to one side is read and seen as the start of a glorious history of a revolutionary armed struggle and to another it represents a serious error made by the Colombian elite. The wounds are open but we are discussing an event that occurred 50 years ago. Even President Santos has changed his tune since those heady days as President Uribe’s Minister of Defense. Formerly his language was aggressive, conflictive and triumphant when referring to the FARC guerrillas escaping like “rats in tunnels.” But, we can say that he was an ersatz minister back then and his orders were clear.

A negotiation requires some ceding from both sides. We have yet to see this publicly from the FARC. President Santos has stopped far short of reading Michael Longley’s poem Ceasefire which was published just days after a truce was called in Northern Ireland but, to his credit, he appears to have unlearned the culture of the Uribista doctrine. Both sides need to check their language and this over time will reflect in the public’s reception of news out of Havana. Reconciliation can be reached down a lengthy and precarious route, but there are small elements which result in huge repercussions and one of these is a change in the language of triumphalism. Can the communiqués from the jungles of Colombia and the Palacio de Nariño exude some humility?

As the final stanza of Michael Longley’s poem so tellingly says:

“I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.”

– See more at:

This piece first appeared as an Op Ed in the September 2014 edition of the City Paper Bogota

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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