I could not sleep last night. I edited this post throughout the day but wrote it in the middle of the night, unable to sleep without first writing something. I was truly struck, dumbfounded, by the news that both the government of Colombia and the self-styled Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are asking the UN and the CELAC to help monitor a bilateral ceasefire and a definitive end to hostilities.
The news itself is not shocking – the peace process in Havana between the insurgents and the government has resulted in periodical historical breakthroughs (a deal on transitional justice, unprecedented participation of various victims’ groups in a peace process, etc). However, the location of this event within the 51 year history of war between the FARC and the State gave me pause.
For the first time in a generation, the dream of peace with Colombia’s most important rebel group is no longer a fantasy, but a tangible, realistic possibility. Many Colombians, including myself, would honestly never thought they would live to see this. Too many have not. Perhaps Colombia is starting to deal with its figurative ghosts.
I offer some reflections on the history that is being made here, on the war. For Colombians, one’s social location defines one’s relationship to the armed conflict, and I write this from the relative comfort of the Global North; part of my privilege is that the war is fortunately not a lived reality for me, it’s not an inescapable totality ending or interrupting life but glimpses of a brutal phenomenon in a distant supposed “homeland” to be escaped by merely putting down the book, putting back the letter, clicking past the headline, or turning off the television. Indeed, reflecting on the precarity of other lives in this war is a luxury testifying to my privilege produced by the very same violence.
A final caveat – I cannot and hope not to speak to our personal ghosts of this war. The spirits, memories, hauntings, denials, or our personal stories of war, or our connections to victims, perpetrators, and everyone in between must be respected; collective processes of attempting to reconcile with a history of brutality cannot coerce, erase, or appropriate personal narratives. I want to address collective ghosts, if we can speak of such a thing.
My thoughts on this moment in – and making – history.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez ended his Nobel masterpiece with this:
“[Races] condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth”.
This passage marked me; haunted me. It made me think, uncritically and pessimistically (as One Hundred Years is all about pessimism) that perhaps Colombia was condemned to war. From the genocide of the Indigenous peoples in the Spanish Conquests, the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans brought to work in Colombia’s mines, the wars for the word (but not the true condition) of “independence”, and the later conflicts between various ruling parties (depicted in Colombia’s most well-known book) to the conflicts of the present, for the last 500 years, violence has been the norm and peace has been the exception. Peace has been an interruption.
Now peace with the most important insurgency in the country is within reach. A momentum is building behind peace that will hopefully make for a significant interruption.
It’s hard to say what “peace” is or what it can or will be. It is something that will have to be struggled, defended, questioned, and collectively built. However, it is clear to me what peace with this rebel group will not be.
Peace with the FARC will not mean justice for the over 7 million victims of Colombia’s internal conflict. It will probably not give new opportunities to the young rebels who were raised on waging war. It will not bring back the dead, the disappeared, or return the land to the dispossessed. It will not restore the ties of Afro-descendent/Black and Indigenous peoples to ancestral lands that have been severed by the conflict. It will not heal the injured or the maimed. It will not bring back the years lost for those kidnapped by the rebels. It will not bring truth, or any kind of agreement on what actually took place during the war. It will not mean peace with the other major insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN). It will not mean peace with the drug cartels, nor peace with the paramilitaries/private armies of landed elites that displace peasants. It will not mean an end to the “Dirty War” of selective killings of labour union leaders, community leaders, dissidents, or activists; most of the nation will only come to know its leaders through reports of their deaths, and not engagements with their lives. It will not mean peace with the violences of inequality, economic exploitation, nor land dispossession by the multinationals. It will not end Colombia’s rampant classist, sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic violences. It will not bring true democracy. And despite the undoubted prominence to come of this term if an agreement is reached, it will not bring reconciliation, and we will not all forgive each others’ atrocities.
A Colombia at peace with the FARC will only be a utopia in the marketing materials of the government to tourists and foreign investors.
Peace is not an answer. It may not even be an attainable or definable condition. However, if war has been the permanent answer that Colombia has had to many of its ills, peace can be an interrupting question.
Maybe – just maybe – some communities can – for the first time in over half a century – not wake up to another day of the horrors of of a conflict in which both sides wage war against them, and no side fights for them. For some communities, perhaps machine gun fire can abandon the soundscape, letting private whispers demanding justice to be cried out in plazas. Perhaps, for some, sophisticated American smart bombs and crude rebel landmines can stop dismembering bodies and communities. Perhaps womens’ bodies will no longer be soldiers’ spoils of war, objects attached to conquered territory. Perhaps “To Disappear” will be a verb with less currency in the popular lexicon. Perhaps some will no longer have to obey the gaze of the rifles. Perhaps, for some, declared neutrality or suspected partisanship will no longer invite destruction.
Perhaps the magnitude of risking one’s life will no longer be a spectre on the minutiae of necessary daily movements. Perhaps emptying territories of soldiers and rebels will allow communities to create ‘geographies without terror’. Perhaps some of the calm felt in the cities’ shopping malls and country clubs can leap through the social chasm to ‘The Other Colombia’, to the overexploited ruralities who have experienced the waves of massacres, bombings, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, militarized sexual violences forgotten or denied by the urban elite. Perhaps the urban elite can stop ‘discovering’ their own national geography by news of the most recent massacre in an otherwise forgotten and nameless small rural town. Perhaps we can begin to not only remember, but begin to know these places by their names and complexities beyond the abjectivity of their tragedies. Perhaps comforting national narratives can be shaken by the impossibility of writing this history of war, perhaps – appropriately – history can become difficult to tell.
Maybe – just maybe – the entire country can follow the lead of many courageous movements and communities in the interminable work of demanding justice, of speaking of and to the unspeakable horrors, of confronting the incredibly present spectres of a past haunted by violence. Perhaps we can begin to engage our national ghosts. We may never exorcise all of them completely – nor should we; as memory can be act of resistance, and amnesia can dehumanize. But perhaps we can begin to learn how to live with our national ghosts, how to allow them to live with us. It will never be complete.
The armed conflict is irreducible to narratives, it is an extremely complex condition, however, these help motivate it. The war has not only produced hauntings, it has been produced by them.
Slavoj Zizek says that all revolutions attempt to redeem the ghosts of past failed revolutions.
The Marxist FARC insurgency has been haunted by the ghosts of dispossessed peasants and a repressed Left in the 40s. This spirit has been nourished by later State repression. The rebels’ religion of a people’s revolution against the owners and exploiters would be corrupted by the demons of drug trafficking, kidnapping, human rights abuses, becoming more arrogant, and turning against the population they claimed to represent.
The State’s counter-insurgency is also motivated by spectres from Colombia, and from other lands. For Colombia’s patron, the United States, the spectre of another Cuban or Sandinista Revolution in “its backyard” is terrifying, abhorrent, unacceptable and impermissible. This spectre has gripped Bogota and Washington into a deep obsession: the aspirations of alternatives to their social orders were systematically disciplined by attacking the bodies who hold them. Rallying cries for change were muted by the roar of repression, imposing silences of terror. These suspicions continue today.
The peace process is trying to purge Colombia of these spirits. However, if they remain on the land, hungry enough, being able to feed on something, they may still haunt the future.
Therefore, perhaps this peace is an illusion; a disguise for a new war which is not yet visible. Maybe the foundational violences of colonialism and/or the social stratification of Colombian society will produce new militarized social, political or criminal conflicts. It could be that certain ghosts are not ready to be laid to rest. Perhaps Marquez is right about our condemnation to history.
As the great American street poet Tupac Shakur once said:
“We can’t have peace until we all get a piece”.
As they say, only time will tell. Hopefully the future will answer some of the questions of the past…(or better yet, question some of its answers).
Let me end by coming full circle with Gabo Marquez: One of the turning points in One Hundred Years of Solitude is the Banana Workers Massacre. This was an actual massacre that was perpetrated against a labour action by workers of the United Fruit Company in Colombia and between 3 and 3,000 people were killed in 1929. It is emblematic of a larger history in Colombia of repressing organized labour through murder for the interests and designs of (usually foreign) capital. In Marquez’ fiction, only one member of the community knows about the massacre – everyone else in Macondo is told by the authorities that nothing happened. No one believes the survivor. Marquez himself has said that “perhaps only 3 or 4 people died”. Was it 3, or 3,000? Again, Marquez’s genius has much to teach the Colombian peace process. If war is a contest of soldiers, peace will be a contest of surviving memories. We may never have answers for our ghosts.
And like the silence in Macondo of the massacre, perhaps some stories will remain too true to tell………