From Alabama to Colombia: Pickpocketed Peace

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From Alabama to Colombia: Pickpocketed Peace

Scientists say our universe consists mostly of a mysterious substance known as dark matter. The stuff doesn’t shine or even react to light, but it has gravity and may make up 90 percent of the universe.

I wonder if dark karma exists too?

Last week, on a pretty October afternoon, I stepped from an Uber in the city center of Bogotá onto a wild scene not too far removed from Berkeley in the 1960s. Several hundred people, many students from downtown universities, crowded a park beside the Planetario Distrital, the city planetarium. In small groups, the assembly prepared for a march, stretching out white sheets with hand-lettered messages: “Ahora la paz!” (Peace now!) and “Mujeres por la paz!” (Women for peace!)—as they took photos (lots of selfies on smart phones) and documented a moment of national history.

The Gran Marcha Colombia Pacífica—the Great Colombian Peace March—took place simultaneously in 10 cities. Tens of thousands of Colombians turned out to contribute support to an imperiled peace agreement between the government and the rebel group FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The peace accord would end a civil war that, like a low-grade fever, has drained Colombia for decades. Imagine an armed conflict in the United States that claimed just under 100 lives every week for 52 years. In all, 220,000 Colombians have died and 5 million have been displaced.

Most Colombian families have a war story. Adela, my fiancée, remembers ignoring her father’s warnings about visiting a nearby town. On a day drive, she confronted a roadblock by rebel soldiers. They forced people from their cars and spray-painted fenders and hoods. Panic struck Adela. Her family, Castro, was known in Valledupar, her home city near the Venezuelan border. The FARC used kidnappings of prominent citizens as fund-raisers, supplementing illicit sales of coca to finance its insurrection.

As Adela waited in terror, someone fired shots. She heard shouting. Somehow, like cavalry riding up in a Hollywood western, government soldiers appeared. The rebels vanished into the wild countryside to fight another day and a chastened young woman made it home safely.

The latest efforts to end the Western Hemisphere’s last and longest-running war began more than four years ago with talks between the government of Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, and FARC leaders. Promising signs included a cease-fire and an accord on paper that would reintegrate rebels into society and the nation’s political processes.

Colombians felt peace in the air until an October 2 plebiscite. By 50.21% to 49.78%—a difference of just .4%—Colombians voted NO to peace.

It shocked nearly everyone.

The defeat left huge questions about Santos’s power as head of a nation with a huge fiscal deficit and the challenge of determining Colombia’s place between yesterday’s third world and tomorrow’s world without borders.

Then, just five days after the vote, Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the war. Suddenly his stature and fading prospects for peace got a shot in the arm. The president has since met with his political opponents, and talks to hear their demands are ongoing. The Gran Marchas in the streets of Colombia’s biggest cities took place to boost Santos’s efforts, to give peace a chance.

Ironically, the man leading the NO vote can actually be largely credited for setting the stage for peace. Álvaro Uribe, the president before Santos, launched years of intense government attacks on the rebels, weakening their forces and their will. After Uribe, FARC saw no hope of victory on the battlefield. A negotiating table with Santos became the next best option.

Uribe and his conservative supporters alarmed voters with misleading claims that the peace agreement offered rebels total amnesty and that it would ultimately lead to socialist takeover, a profound fear in Colombia. The nation has warily watched the decline of next-door-neighbor Venezuela under socialist leader Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Just 20 years ago, Venezuela, and symbolically its capital city Caracas, was considered the Dubai of South America, an oil-rich, affluent, glittery land of rising hotels, fast cars and easy money.

Since Chávez rose to power in 1999, Venezuela’s oil-based economy has collapsed. Citizens endure long, hot lines to get meager food supplies and basic necessities. Hospitals lack supplies, including drugs. Educated men who once worked in corporations and universities toil in abandoned gold mines to pan out a few grains of glitter. So many venezolanos fled the nation that Maduro abruptly closed the border with Colombia last year.

Colombians want none of that. So Uribe’s people used the Marxist fears to drive NO votes. They also insisted that the cost of assimilating thousands of rebels back into society would skyrocket taxes, and that the agreement let rebels dodge punishment for wartime violence. (For their part, the rebels point out that the Uribe government itself, and especially paramilitary groups it allegedly sponsored, committed many bloodthirsty acts.)

In the end, by a razor-thin margin, the NO forces have stopped, for now, Colombia’s best chance for peace in 52 years. But does NO mean no?

Maybe not. It’s why the YES people took to the streets all over the country for the Gran Marcha and other national demonstrations after the plebiscite.

The October 20 Bogotá demonstration proceeded a dozen or so blocks from the planetarium to Plaza de Bolivar, the immense stone square flanked by the grand buildings of Colombian government and the historic Cathedral of Bogotá. The crowd chanted raucously, a chaos of songs and drums and vuvuzelas. Vendors along the route sold ears of roasted corn and little paper doves of peace. Colombian tri-colors and the white flags symbolizing the peace movement gave marchers the look of a medieval army as they passed old churches along the Septima, one of Bogotá’s major streets.

Long after dark, a chilly wind blew down from the eastern mountains. In the center of the plaza, a crowd of about 3,000 demonstrators knelt for a moment of silence, then a prayer for peace. Many lifted smart phones with bright beams, the votive candles of the 21st century. Busy crews of TV and social media organizations did their jobs, capturing the next day’s headlines.

It felt important to be part of this event in my newly adopted country. For an unselfish afternoon, Adela and I left the comforts of home and the responsibilities of the office to march for peace here in Colombia, a peace for people and families we love. I personally felt proud of putting my shoulder to the wheel, no matter how big the load to move, and adding my energy to Colombia’s.

Then came the dark karma.

On the way home from the march, my pocket was skillfully picked by some dexterous fingersmith on the crowded streets of Bogotá. It felt so weird to search my pockets four times, then five, then six, and finally comprehend that my cell phone had been liberated.

I tossed and turned that night, with my pockets picked and no peace … like 60 million other Colombians in this wonderful, baffling country I now call home.

Image: U.S. Army, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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