Colombia two and half years after the historic peace treaty with the FARC: The longest civil war in history has formally been pacified – but as yet, violence continues to rock the country. This dossier is about Colombia’s current status, what has been accomplished, and what remains to be done; about conflict lines and reconciliation strategies; about how peace researchers, journalists and human rights workers assess the situation; and about peace-making efforts of civil society in Colombia and Germany. I will argue that civil society has a unique role and potential in mediating conflicts, and in rendering peace-building processes more effective and in introducing innovative concepts to reframe academia and society.
A Bloody History
To do history justice: Since the beginning of time, Latin America has never been a haven of peace, as some myths suggest. Its native populations, from the Aztecs to the Incas were fierce warriors. Their mighty empires were built on constant warfare, of conquest and submission. The Spanish conquerors in their alliance with the Catholic church perpetuated the continent’s constant struggle between privileged and enslaved, rich and poor, empowered and disempowered. The uprising for justice, equality and human rights and alternating submission to authoritarian systems and dictators seems to be within the genetic code of the subcontinent.
Mexico’s new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently caused political turmoil, when he demanded that the King of Spain and the Pope apologize for the conquista, which left millions of the indigenous people dead and impoverished the region due to robbery, looting of its precious metals and land appropriation. The stateman’s intervention is in line with the above and thereby completely legitimate, nonetheless he goes out on a populist limb with his claim. Why? National governments throughout the continent had centuries to make up for losses and injustices. Instead, the elites indulge blatantly in corruption, mismanagement, political scandals, get caught in fruitless battles between the extreme right and left. The Spaniards transferred to Latin America the feudal society of the middle ages. The colonies, later as independent states, missed out on the age of enlightenment and the democratic revolution. This may serve as an excuse to unscrupulous politicians, but does not let them off the hook when it comes to searching for new and suitable political concepts to deal with this historic and burdensome heritage and systemic deficits.
This background and context as an introduction to the subject may help to understand the situation of Colombia as an integral part of the Americas, and explain why Hispanic America is so much more vulnerable and instable than Anglo America. A huge obstacle for a better peace are the subcontinent’s extremes, especially notable in Colombia. It remains one of the countries with the most unequal land distribution in the world. A report by Oxfam International shows that 1 percent of the population holds 80 percent of the land, leaving just 20 percent of the land distributed amongst the remaining 99 percent of the population1.
Since the late 1940s, this fact has instigated open violence and fueled a civil war, at first mainly between the major political parties, since the 1970s increasingly between various guerilla groups and the state as well as landholders who fought back with paramilitary forces. Added to this, there is Colombia’s favorable climate, as another extreme, so to speak, which allows for a high biodiversity and up to three crops each year, and provides for excellent conditions to cultivate coca plants. This did not only lure drug cartels such as Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel, but also underground combatants as a source to finance their operations.
This gets us to the third reason why Colombia is very special in the subcontinent’s societal, agrarian and also geographic landscape. Its highly diverse topography, hardly accessible rainforests, jungles, mountains make it easy for illegal groups to simply disappear. In the remote areas of the country, which are rich in natural hideouts, mainly in parts of the Caribbean and Pacific coast, the Andes and Amazonia, the state and its authorities, police and the justice system have very little presence. They are corrupt and largely defunct, so gangs and mafia-type organizations as well as guerilla and paramilitary forces rule. This brief excursion into history and geography is essential to comprehend the circumstances of violence and war, truce and peace in Colombia.
To complete this overview, we also need to recognize that the concept of civil society as an actor and player in politics and society is still rather unknown in Colombia and yet needs to be introduced into the mainstream of thinking in this country, alongside with Latin America as a whole. While “civil society” and “citizens’ participation” are increasingly used in the media and political statements, and the notion even shows up in the peace contract between the Colombian Government and the FARC, it needs to be filled with definitions and philosophy, activities and goals, if it wants to be accepted as a major field of civic engagement, completion and also correction of the political, economic, technological dealings of the nation.
As the historic rundown may indicate, the Hispanic parts of the Americas remain largely patriarchal with “caudillo”-type leaders (such as General Francisco Franco). While the North became the cradle of our modern society, the South remained an archaic society, somewhat frozen in the medieval system and ruled by long-standing privileged elites and family clans. It is the overall hypothesis of this dossier that this is not only the cause of many of the violent disruptions in Colombia, but that the stumbling peace process could be stabilized and enhanced by strong civil society players and influencers. They could initiate processes, which would make up for historic deficits and promote a new post-modern, future-oriented understanding of peace-making as a key element of a democratic culture embedded in an appropriate scientific framework.