My friends and I arrived in Bogotá, Colombia, on the eve of the country’s national referendum asking the people’s endorsement to ratify the peace agreement negotiated between the Colombian government and the guerrilla organisation FARC. It would bring an end to 50 years of guerrilla warfare.
Alcohol was banned from shops and restaurants to make sure tempers would remain under control. After our initial disappointment of not being able to flush away the 15 hours of travelling, we quickly embraced this momentous occasion and all realised we were going to witness history in the making.
Bogotá woke up to a rain-filled day yet the dark grey clouds slowly made way to sunshine and the city eventually warmed up and immersed itself into a fiesta. The polling stations were busy with people eager to cast their vote. When the sun set, we were hopeful that the promises of this deal for better healthcare, equitable access to education and social security and rural reform, so passionately defended by Juan, our Colombian guide that day, would become a reality. The longing in Juan’s eyes for a better life for him and his family was tangible, so real…
When we saw the first news headlines pop up indicating the majority vote was going to NO, we were all shocked….I personally felt deflated and sad…How could a nation reject peace? How could they not want to put an end to years of this disgusting and heart wrenching violence? Did the Colombian nation fail potentially its biggest test of being able to reconcile the past, forgive and move on?
Eager to understand the outcome of the vote, we took every opportunity to engage in conversation with anyone willing to explain their personal point of view. And therein lies the core of the issue: can a referendum, a binary political tool, address the layers of complexity the Colombian people are dealing with in their every day lives?
Everyone we spoke to welcomed the democratic opportunity of being able to cast their vote. Yet every story unraveled a layer of personal experiences, strong emotions and often deep traumas.
A young mother having lost her baby girl in a drug-gang shoot out…she is unable to accept the offer of amnesty and the granting of civil and political rights to those who have caused her death and destruction.
A father of 5 who runs a small coffee finca up in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, who for many years was unable to access large parts of his land to farm coffee because the FARC guerrillas had set up a hide-out camp there….Turning a blind eye and living in poverty rather than to alert the governmental para troops was, he felt, his only option to keep his family safe. He is unable to accept the offer, under the Peace deal, of cheap land for the ex-guerilla members to enable them to set up home and contribute to the country’s “official” economy.
Although the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993 kicked off the demise of the drug & violence controlled cartel there is no denying that this hugely powerful yet parallel economy has impacted many lives and indeed has provided routes of income to families that previously had nothing.
Despite the current policy of complete eradication of the drug trafficking, the roots of Escobar’s effective, inescapable policy for dealing with law enforcement and the government, referred to as “plata o plomo” (meaning “silver or lead”, i.e. accept money or face bullets), still runs deep even today. The legacy of this modern-day Robin Hood was evident from our conversation with our bus driver in Medellin. He fiercely defended the good Escobar did by building many hospitals, schools, churches, football pitches and sports courts and the financial contributions made to various civic and political activities.
The Kogi leader we met whose personal mission was to establish a balance between the respect and preservation for the history and culture of his indigenous ethnic tribe and modern life in the 21st century, explained passionately why he could never support the Peace deal….Unlike the previous President Uribe, President Santos had never taken the arduous, hours-long, journey up muddy and landslide prone tracks to visit them, to get to know them better, to understand their heritage and their fight for respect and preservation. Uribe was opposed to the deal and as such, for the Kogi leader, it was personal: a Santos’ deal was a bad deal.
All of these people want peace. The road each of them would take is different….
We might raise our eye-brows at all of this and shake our heads in disbelief. We judge from within our own western culture, our own understanding of political democracy, our own history of war, amnesty and forgiveness.
More than ever, I have learned that we colour what we see with the pencils of our own value framework. My reality is just that…a perception, a personal story rooted in history and culture, flavoured by my own upbringing and education and spiced by own personal experiences.
I have no right to judge…I can only seek to understand….
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
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