Why you should care
Because peace isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
We should’ve expected nothing less from the land of Gabriel García Márquez. Colombian leaders recently signed a peace deal that would have ended 50 years of conflict, only to see it rejected in a Brexit-like referendum. Then, weeks later, they managed to piece together another deal.
Everyone assumed that voters, fed up with violence, would be champing at the bit to say yes. But, just like many Colombians’ visceral reaction to the hit Netflix series Narcos, they surprised the world with a loud no.
Colombia is historically myopic, and its blindness came close to condemning the whole country to continued bloodshed.
The frosty attitude toward the peace process, much like critical reviews of Narcos, demonstrates how the country is still coming to grips with its recent history. Narcos dramatizes events in Colombia between the 1980s and 1990s, focusing on drug lord Pablo Escobar, one of the most cataclysmic figures in the country’s recent past. Many Colombians took issue with Escobar’s portrayal as a complex character worried about his family’s safety. They also weren’t too pleased with their homeland being portrayed as a land rife with violence, drug trafficking and criminality.
Granted, the show isn’t perfect. Brazilian actor Wagner Moura’s Spanish accent is cringeworthy (albeit much improved by season two), and the writers take some creative liberties, especially regarding the seminal Palace of Justice siege and the M-19 storyline. Nonetheless, the show is remarkably accurate: Escobar did have a large following among marginalized sectors of society; he was once a congressman; gunfights and massacres in the streets were common; car bombs did go off; and the drug trade permeated every sector of society and government.
But Colombia is trying to move away from this dark history — even if it keeps tripping over itself in the process. In an effort to move forward, Colombians tend to portray history as a dichotomy: us vs. them, good vs. evil, with any shade of gray being nonexistent: Pablo Escobar is pure evil, there are no more car bombs and the drug trade is in the past. The reactions to the peace agreement show this dynamic too. Issues of inequality, land distribution, and political, at times violent, persecution of the left — FARC’s main grievances — are unimportant. The FARC are to be dismissed as evil and as criminals.
Furthermore, our repudiation of the past blinds us to the current realities of the conflict. Analysts speak of “two Colombias” — one that is urbanite, relatively wealthy and removed from the conflict. This Colombia is certain the conflict is “not as bad” as before, that the nation has moved away from what is portrayed in Narcos. This Colombia can afford to reject a peace agreement and continue the war. The second Colombia is poor, often rural (although not always), marginalized and suffers the daily effects of the war and the drug trade. Notably the areas hardest hit by the conflict overwhelmingly voted yes for the peace deal.
After the shock of the October vote, Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos and his conciliatory efforts saved the peace agreement. The second peace deal is being spoon-fed to the citizenship, many of whom are desperate for peace but embittered by the idea that their loved ones died at the hands of thugs who will never be held accountable. The newer iteration of the peace agreement has just been ratified by Congress, bypassing a popular vote.
Even though the new agreement implemented some of the comments from the “No” campaign (and included provisions that cover Álvaro Uribe and his cronies under an amnesty law), the country remains divided. Leaders of the “No” campaign and members of the far-right Centro Democrático party (Uribe’s party) poignantly remain against any peace agreement. In the abstract reality of post-truth politics, the nuances of negotiation don’t seem to matter. In the eyes of many Colombians, the issue is black and white. The “No” camp says, “FARC are criminals, and as such they must not be rewarded with forgiveness and deserve long prison sentences.” Expert evidence, media and international efforts to push for peace fall flat with them.
As a native-born Colombian, I think the country is historically myopic, and that its blindness came close to condemning the whole country to continued bloodshed. The path to peace will not be an easy one, and the country remains bitterly divided. Once again, we have proved that Colombians remain ignorant about their own history, failing to learn from it or critically engage with it, even if their complex history is packaged in an easily digestible gringo TV show.
Escobar was a man of extremes, giving his “business” allies two options: Agree to his terms or be killed — no room for nuance or gray areas. In the land of magical realism, we know no other way: Plata o plomo, hijueputa.