Think politically but speak personally says my host. This is a volte face from my previous experiences here in Colombia over eight years. Ordinarily the suits, members of a white upper class, placed in positions on power in vulgar displays of nepotism, keep to themselves and reveal very little. Exclusive clubs modeled after those in Pall Mall represent an ivory tower where entrance is permitted to only those with the correct surnames. But, change is afoot and a prospect for peace is on the table. There is a clear evolution in the vernacular of the elite, has the prospect of peace humanized Colombia’s conflict? Can private industry and the Colombian diaspora club together for efforts in reconciliation?
“We have been victims of the violence for so long; we know what’s at stake. My older brother was killed by two sicarios on the doorstep of my mother’s house 15 years ago. We all have our own pain and suffering.”
This is not the type of language employed by those in charge. Yet, here I was, present at a forum for social prosperity and we were hearing out an intensely personal and overwhelmingly private memory. This is it though, Colombians are being asked to reflect on the past 50 years and think about the future but, taking into account the past. As a community leader from a troubled northern city present said: “We are constructing from our memories. Memories for we the victims are incredibly important.”
Imagine hailing from a country that has more or less known only conflict since 1958. On paper, Colombia can take pride in being the oldest liberal democracy in Latin America and holding regular elections and respecting people’s right to vote. Yet with Colombia ranking 84th out of 140 countries in terms of the fulfillment civil and political rights and a mere 42.5% of those registered to vote actually voting, there is clearly a long way to go before Colombia can truly claim to be a functioning democracy. This worryingly high abstention rate coupled with a law perpetuating the two-party system Colombia, which comes into play when any party failing to win 350,000 votes suffers from their say essentially erased.
And so Colombians, strive forwards with neither respect nor faith in their political class. There those dreaming of upping sticks and moving abroad, those who dream of a prestigious overseas MBA so as to become the next Gordon Gecko in Bogota and there are those who want to give back, and so, we can see a trend and a shift in attitudes. Altruism is the key. And altruism seems to be the only way right now with small enterprises trying to make a change.
If you take the average income for a new graduate in Colombia coming in at around US$600 per month and an average rent in a reasonable area of town coming to much the same, how is a young Colombian supposed to contribute? Not to mention become independent and move out of the family home? Part of this pay package will go into a pension fund and another mandatory slice ends up in social security – embroiled in scandal due to the mysterious riverine course this cash takes – and then transport possibly amounting to US$2 per day for the commute, not to mention other expenses there’s no money available for gifting or philanthropic activities. So, the young are disenfranchised, disconnected and frankly in need of a change. Why did so many citizens tumble out in to the streets last year in support of the striking farmers? To keep it simple, Colombians, rural and urban, feel close to the countryside and the agricultural significance of their country. It is land reform and agricultural inequalities that are cited as possible beginnings to the conflict and when you think of the biggest urban centre, Bogota, and were to take a glance in 1940 from what is now the Calle 72 at the heart of the capital’s financial district you could see fields spreading out west along the Avenida Chile. The population by 1940 of the country’s capital city still numbered less than 400,000. In short, all Colombians, in their short history since independence from Spain on July 20 1810, are related to or have forbears and farmer ancestry.
Reconciliation in Colombia, as we hope to round the corner after some 50 years of civil conflict, is going to be one of the most exasperating themes that civil society is going to have to address. How can we provide demobilized former members of armed groups (from the right and left) a dignified lifestyle free from the stigma of their past? And how can civil society aid this?
Altruism and a different approach to money in the sense that all sectors of society and perhaps in particular tourism ventures, as one obvious example, are going to have to plan ahead thinking of the best way to create the trickle-down effect of prosperity in the most disastrous and unequal areas. Economic philanthropy has no place here, it has to be a hands on, unpretentious and inclusive sharing of knowledge, ability and intellect. After all, we have seen the damage wrought by fast gains from Colombia’s illicit businesses.
Make mention of money laundering and the cocaine trade and critics will jump on the bandwagon pointing to Peru as the No.1 producer of coca paste and that the drugs trade only accounted for a tiny percentage of the country’s GDP. I’ll answer thus: the declining importance of cocaine to Colombia’s economy is likely due to the fact that Colombia’s GDP is expanding rapidly well alongside falling profits from the drugs trade. The economy grew 5.5 percent in 2011, and 5.1 percent the following year. It doesn’t mean that this is a decreased measure of cocaine in the GDP, only that it is better hidden. Dinero rapido y facil hasn’t gone away.
However, it is evident that Colombia is on the verge of a massive change. Not only has the economy opened up in recent years, allowing swathes of foreign business and investment into virgin territories, but soon, depending on the results of the presidential elections, a political solution to the tired conflict will be decided and the FARC guerrillas may well be welcomed into the political system. Now that the incumbent President Santos is back in power, there is a greater hope for the future. In a country that has experienced so much violence and corruption, democracy is the only way to ensure that the powerful are reigned in and govern for the good of the people. The international community is looking on with increasing interest as the Colombian government negotiates with the force they have labeled terrorists for so many decades. This delicate and fragile moment of Colombian history will have repercussions across the world and the way the opposition parties are treated in this coming election will have tangible impacts on the future for inclusive and democratic politics in the region.
But first perhaps, Colombians need to take stock of what they already have before they can reconcile and move forwards. Now is the time to pull together as a nation, ask questions of your politicians, demand answers and create a socially responsible country for the future. This requires an evolution in the manner of thinking and behaving, not just looking north with envy, putting aside neighbouring rivalries and concentrating on within. Colombia can do it but Colombians themselves must believe in the possibilities of a future.