Tag Archives: conflict in colombia

Ten Years in Colombia

It’s more or less ten years to the day from when I stepped off the plane having decided to move my life to Colombia. It had been a rollercoaster ride up until this point, near death experiences, the life of a freelance vagabond and journeyman journalist and plenty of tall tales to share over a drink or two. I was prepared for Colombia, or so I thought, after seven years on the highways and byways of the Americas. Certainly, Colombia was not foreign to me with a work trip to the Pacific for WWF in the late 1990s under my belt and various other visits prior to my move in 2007.

La Paz

Ten years ago I would never have taken this photo. Ten years in Colombia

So, as I sit here at my desk in my Bogotá apartment, I move from one opinion to another about my life in Colombia, perhaps displaying all of the loyalty of a brood parasite. I am not Colombian, I will never be a Colombian and I will continue to be infuriatingly punctual to almost any appointment. Some things you just cannot shed. But, I live here, have a Colombian family, own a business, pay taxes and therefore, have the right to share an educated opinion on the goings on in my adopted homeland.

I realize that this narrative stream of consciousness reeks of creeping narcissism. It’s our need these days to convert from “being”, to always filling time with “doing”. It’s as if our society is on course for a precipitated catastrophe due to our all-out hedonistic quest for self-exploitation and relevance.

Which brings me neatly to the subject matter of my doomsday entry reflecting on how life has changed after ten years in Colombia. Not only life has changed, but I have changed too, of course. Everything is a spectacle today. We are all armchair activists, although this was momentarily lifted when we marched the streets to push for Colombia’s Peace 2.0 after the plebiscite referendum was rejected back in 2016. The peaceful demonstrations long now resigned to our collective imagination we are back to believing the illusion of a digital reaction making a difference. To quote President Trump: “Wrong!” Virtual hordes are one thing, but the actual physical presence of thousands of people united for a just cause and flooding the streets and present, demonstrates a much stronger social cohesion.

Ten years in Colombia

“Wrong!” Ten years in Colombia

Studying Colombia, the politics and the country’s culture transports me through periods of naïve optimism, paralyzing pessimism and punctuating my days with academic prophecies of potential outcomes. That it has now been reported that the contracts for the construction of the Zones of Concentration organized to receive the FARC guerrillas across the country were fed out as political favours to companies with no business in this field has left me disillusioned. What of this now? And so, we mobilize on Facebook, Twitter and all of the other platforms in what is then declared as an unstoppable social movement proving that this “democratization of the debate” will herald a new way of thinking and will enforce a new degree of transparency on those insistent on manipulating further an already corrupt system for personal gain.

Ten years ago, I would never have spoken out so vehemently against unjust behaviour. Back then it was simply a reflection of the “Colombian condition” and normal conduct here. And yet, our moral outrage is designed to bring about change but without a physical presence it is presented with a feeble social cohesion. And before I continue, remember that these outbursts of indignation are spread on platforms which are all owned by someone. These owners all have an agenda too. There is no democratization of the debate.

Let me clarify this. I use twitter almost religiously and this allows me to replicate what I want to read. That’s why I am led to believe that my side will win the Brexit vote, the Yes vote in the Plebiscite and bury Trump in the elections.

“As is so often the case in a foreign country, even in one that starts to feel like home, the compiled differences in language and life experience isolate you, making you hyper aware to minute details.” wrote Nolan Peterson in Newsweek.

So, ten years in and with no plans on going anywhere else, unless of course the dream job pops up and permits us to transfer en famille to Rio de Janeiro, part of the package is to grapple with the local politics in all of its complex morass of intrigue. And once you come to terms with this, remember then that the act of governing itself is an act of marketing. Political opinion polls are equivalent to market research and…we are no longer active agents but passive consumers. Just like what is today known as” Public Relations” would have been referred to as “Propaganda” in the past.

1984 Graffiti in Bogotá. Ten years in Colombia

An older generation of gents in suits found conversing in downtown Bogotá speaks of an “impoverished” culture. But they are mistaken as this is to bow to an extremely bourgeois definition of the concept itself. If there’s a message to be delivered or a lesson to be learnt from a reflection on ten years, it’s that you must be adaptable to different forms of eclosion which are today’s cultural expressions and demonstrations.

Peaks and troughs, ups and downs but they have been rewarding, these past ten years in Colombia.

 

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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: http://thecitypaperbogota.com/opinion/colombian-revisionism/#sthash.IK7Xj69H.dpuf

This piece first appeared as an Op Ed in the September 2014 edition of the City Paper Bogota
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The Revolution has Evolved in Colombia

The mist is low over the mountains and as the rain falls in Bogotá, the weather appears to reflect my feelings about the current scandals and political situation in Colombia. I’ve been scouring the news since 5.30am and despite being a news junky there is so little broadcast to really suggest the miasma of trouble in which Colombia finds herself at this precise moment. Colombia has always presented herself as the ideal breeding ground for social discontent and revolution (in whatever form this takes). But, I would like to suggest that there is an evolution to this rebellion now. What has traditionally been a manifestation of feudal vs serf and rural vs urban has changed significantly. For better of for worse, the revolution has evolved in Colombia.

Drunk and Proud

Borrachos y Orgullosos

On the one hand you have the traditional forms of protest. There are the protest marches, social disorder (the guerrillas taking up arms) and politically inspired graffiti – bursting onto the scene with a claustrophobic halitosis in an airless room – and on the other, a new rippling of an undercurrent of disgruntlement expressed by those in opposition to the feudal class and the cult of dinero rapido inherited from those halcyon days of the boisterous and visible excesses of the cartels. There is too much access to information and communication in today’s world to blindly proceed as if Colombia were rooted in the 1950s. The general populace, el pueblo, if you will, is aware that there are benefits to be enjoyed, there is education to be digested, there are loopholes to take advantage of and that they cannot be muzzled further.

Traffic accident

Car Crash on the Septima

The presidential elections on May 25 are almost upon us and one gets the feeling of a general lethargy and unbridled ennui towards the political class, call them whatever label you choose, Conservative, Liberal, Green, Communist, whatever. Far from the listlessness that you might expect, Colombians are politicized, debate is good, but the options are just not there to offer a change from the norm. The Colombian electorate feels impotent and this is reflected in the struggle for the elections. President Santos has played his only hand, that of suggesting that he is the only candidate who will be able to secure “peace” with the FARC. Somehow he has survived wiretapping, accusations of corruption, J.J. Rendon, Petro and an unfortunate outburst from his vice German Vargas Lleras. Zuluaga has been outed in a dirty tricks campaign of bugging members in or close to the negotiating team in Havana, even the president’s email and kowtowing to the Uribe bugbear. I would venture their neither Santos, nor Zuluaga nor Peñalosa knows much more about the campo (countryside) than the interior of the confines of their exclusive country clubs and golf courses. And while we are on the subject of Peñalosa, how is it that he has been unable to benefit – significantly at least – in the polls in the wake of this cataclysmic catalogue of scandals shrouding Santos and Zuluaga?

IDPs

Desplazamiento Forzado

“An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport,” argues Enrique Peñalosa in his TED talk of September 2013. I would venture that his statement that, “Buses represent democracy in action” is a nice idea but that it only tickles the surface of what is needed in Bogotá let alone Colombia. Therein is the unelectability of Peñalosa, he simply cannot represent the country beyond the urban educated electorate. What can he possibly offer a colono in Guaviare or a farmer in northern Antioquia? Sure, you may argue that these examples are hardly representative of Colombia as a whole, but what have we heard from Peñalosa, regarding the agricultural strikes in Huila?

What Peace?

Cual Paz?

In theory, as we all well know, there should be a feel good factor in Colombia right now. Unfortunately for Santos though, the World Cup in Brazil begins after the elections and he cannot benefit from a wave of euphoria should a fit Radamel Falcao or James Rodriguez steer the cafeteros into the second round. Were I a Colombian politician running for office I would be keeping a close eye on the developments in Venezuela and perhaps more importantly the demands of the rightly irritable legions of Brazilians demanding that funds be directed at education and health rather than towards white elephants in Cuiabá, Recife and Manaus.

police tank

Demonstrations and police tank

Colombia has a growing middle class, this is an educated and well-traveled sector of society who can no longer be denied the demands that they so crave. Pay is low, rents are high and costs are increasing here. Put bluntly, low pay means higher staff turnover, higher absenteeism (imagine that with all of the puente bank holidays here!), poor morale and lower productivity. And this is what we are seeing here, right before our eyes. I am still ploughing through the campaign promises of the presidential candidates to see if they have some response to this. Santos claimed that he will create a further 2,5 million jobs should he be elected for a second term between 2014 and 2018. It was interesting to note that there was no explanation how this might be achieved. Hasn’t Obama been trying to do the same in the US with some fuzzy maths?

Ignorance

Pueblo Ignorante

And all the while there are those who remain confoundingly stuck in the archaic thought processes of the past. Only the other day we were discussing university education here in Colombia and I was relating a story of how a friend of mine was obliged to increase the grades of some students so they wouldn’t fail the course. One person about the table blurted: “I have paid for the course,” suggesting that naturally, by paying for the course, he should be receiving a degree. Education is of course a right, but it must be treated as a privilege, perhaps something that needs to be reminded to those in their ivory tower. Everyone should be able to have access to an education, but with that access comes the responsibility of the student to better themselves. In becoming a better individual indicates a willingness to be socially responsible. Incidentally, the same person demanding his “paid for” degree, also mentioned that he would be buying a second car to bypass the pico y placa traffic restrictions.

Toxicomano

Toxicomano

Protests will increase, hacking will become the norm and information will remain key. The families in charge cannot rein in the press forever, the truth emerges at some point or another and this discontent has created a public that is craving representation. Watch this space. Whoever is installed in the Palacio de Narino after May 25 will be responsible for overseeing a massive social transition in Colombia. The Colombian 99 per cent is awake and is aware.

The revolution has evolved in Colombia

 

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When Trip to Santa Marta Becomes a Journalist’s Ethical Nightmare

I started the week thinking that this post was going to be all about a business visit to Santa Marta, a promotion of my hotel among other business owners and a reflection of how Santa Marta and the nearby seaside village of Taganga have changed in the years since I was first here. Events unfolded differently and my blog is going to take a serious turn and focus on the ethics of journalism and those of a journalist. My trip to Santa Marta was punctuated by an untimely, unpleasant and altogether unnecessary shock to the system.

Since 2012 rolled around I made a decision to move back into news reporting, while not abandoning travel and culture, I am more than aware that I cannot live on fluffy pieces of writing lauding the most recently opened “boutique” hotel in Cartagena which differs from the rest in that perhaps there are Bose speakers in the commode. Not only is this not the kind of journalist I wish to be, but after the novelty of gimmicks and freebees wears off, there is no escape from cliché. And, of course, being a hotel proprietor myself I am duly aware of the damage that can be done with a snide remark in place of some constructive criticism. Really, is it that bad if a top end hotel has plastic toilet seats? Is this going to ruin your enjoyment of your chosen holiday destination?

So, I have started finding my way back into news and political reporting here in Colombia and perhaps this is foolhardy and dangerous, but, at the very least life remains interesting and I can stay abreast of what is going on in Colombia to harness a greater understanding of the complexities of my adopted homeland.

Only a few days ago I was able to publish a piece on BBC online about the role of the army in a post conflict Colombia. I had spent, at the behest of the military, two days in seminars listening to the Colombian top brass speaking of their fears, all about FARC propaganda and about the turns in the conflict. There is a very real belief; unquoted and unspoken of course, that something massive is afoot regarding the peace accords between the guerrillas and the government. I don’t claim anything, but, after listening to hours of speeches and conversations, the progressive thinkers in the military –  and I assure you, they do exist – are planning for a post conflict role.

So, the piece that I was able to publish was written from a military angle and was decidedly pro military and the establishment in its vein. Of course, I was listening and recounting their fears. Along with my editor, we rewrote the article four times to ensure the delicate nature of the information left no ends bare and that it was well informed and most importantly, true to the source and voice.

I was pleased with the end result and felt that I had actually done a service for the Colombian military.

Somewhat worse for wear the following morning after a couple of drinks with friends I turned on my phone to see missed international calls, direct messages on twitter and then my manager in Mompós calling me to let me know that a BBC editor had called there trying to reach me. I started scanning my emails frantically and yes, there was the suggestion that the military was upset with the piece.

As I headed for the launch of a new guidebook of which I am the author at the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the finca at which Simon Bolivar was once resident and now a museum to the great liberator of northern South America, my cell rang again and it was a General. He was polite and respectful but wanted to know why I had likened the military to the guerrilla. Speechless I couldn’t respond. I wanted to react with an academic response or laugh it off but this clearly was not going to happen. But, what the General said gave me an insight into what had taken place.

Due to the nature of my piece, the notable Colombian news magazine Semana had picked up the article and run with it on their website. I have always liked Semana for its insightful editorials and interesting features, but now it seemed I was becoming the victim. For me there’s nothing worse than when the person telling the news becomes the news.

The General had indicated that they were fine with the article aside from the third paragraph. But this was not the third paragraph in my original piece; he was referring to the summarized, translated and abbreviated copy in Semana. Taken out of context and hurriedly translated this text made me look like Tanja Niemeyer’s best comrade in arms.

Had I wished to make the statement that Semana had suggested I would have done it myself and taken full responsibility, but, to have this thrust upon me was nothing short of sickening. I consider myself relatively level headed in my reporting and after all I live here, have vested interests here and intend to stay here. But this is Colombia. This is a violent country and journalists are expected to apply certain measures of self-censorship despite there being a supposed complete freedom of the press. In hindsight, had I written exactly what Semana had credited to the BBC, my editor in London would never have approved the article for publication.

Frantic calls from a bench in the Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino to London to the editor, receiving calls from the military and then speaking with the BBC correspondent in Bogota, we were able to calm the situation and amend the problem and place it consistently within the context of my remarks and the way they were translated into Semana.

So, what of the journalist just trying to tell the news? For me there is no such thing as completely objective journalism, one is always going to employ a language that implies your standpoint, your editor will weed out most of it, but the piece has to read and make sense. But due to an error in translation and context suddenly I felt as if I was on the front-line.

I will never fully understand why this happened, this may sound glib, but why would another publication working towards the same end…to inform, seemingly and deliberately thrust this problem upon another journalist. Perhaps it was just an idle and careless mistake, but one that could have very serious implications. The ink on this blog is fresh and there’s no way of knowing right away whether my career is seriously damaged or affected. I guess you’ll know soon enough. When you find me ticking boxes as to whether a hotel has air conditioning and writing about the “next hidden gem” in Cartagena, you’ll get the message. If not, then all is well!

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