The last Saturday in August, three days after the Colombian government and a rebel army signed a peace accord to end a 52-year war, a yellow taxi coasted through Cartagena on its way to the airport.
To the left of the taxi, the Caribbean glittered and sent up spray. To the right rose a spectacle: a dozen kites dancing magically in mid-air. The kite-flyers stood atop the old walls of a great fort that once defended Cartagena. They read the wind like mariners. Their kites painted the sky.
The irony in that peaceful moment struck me.
Colombia owns a bloody history. In the last five decades, hostilities in this country’s open wound of a civil war took 220,000 lives, left many times that number maimed and traumatized, and created 5 million refugees in a nation of 60 million.
The blood soaks even deeper into Colombian history. On the very walls where Colombian kids and kids-at-heart tugged the strings of little paper playthings in the sky, centuries of cannon blasts defended Cartagena from pirates and invading armies. Smoke, steel, and blood are the holy trinity of the city.
The Spanish settled Cartagena in 1533, just 41 years after Columbus accidentally ‘discovered’ the Americas as he sought the spice-rich East Indies. (Cartagena to this day bears the official name Cartagena de Indias.) Original settlers came from Cartagena, Spain, itself named for Carthage, the city in northern Africa that Rome famously destroyed, salting the earth after burning it.
Cartagena guarded the northern tip of a vast new continent, overlooking sea routes between South America, Cuba, and Europe.
South American gold brought pirates and armies in waves. Early after its founding, Cartagena survived a visit from the French corsair Jean-Francois Roberval, who took away everything he could load on his ships. Cartagena then built walls and put cannon on top of them. Another French pirate, Martin Cote, pillaged the city anyway.
Then came the English. First, Sir John Hawkins attacked Cartagena in 1568. By now, however, the city had some experience at fighting back, and Hawkins sailed away without plunder. Sir Francis Drake did better. The Englishman took the city one morning in 1586. Wanting booty for Queen Elizabeth’s coffers, he began burning houses to extract ransom. He reached 200, then discovered a letter from Spanish officials in the city that referred to him as a “pirate.” Enraged, Drake burned much more, including the city’s cathedral, then sailed away with jewels, gold, and the city’s bells.
In the 1600s and 1700s the slave trade brought its stain. The Spanish Inquisition set up practice too, brutally mistreating those without utter subservience to the crown and the Catholic faith.
In 1669, Morgan the Pirate and a scurvy crew attacked the port, lustful for gold from the old Inca Empire in Peru that offloaded in Cartagena. Morgan didn’t capture the city, but he added fresh pages to its bloody history.
In 1741, the British navy crossed the Atlantic with a vengeance. The War of Jenkin’s Ear offered England a trumped-up excuse to grab wealth and land from arch-rival Spain.
King George II dispatched to Cartagena the largest fleet in the history of European warfare (until D-Day in 1944), a flotilla dwarfing even the ill-fated Spanish Armada of 1585. The King’s 192 ships and 30,000 men attacked a city with about 3,000 defenders, these led by a one-armed, one-handed, one-eyed Spanish officer. Miraculously, Cartagena defeated the British, an event celebrated today as a national holiday in Colombia. (It was not lost on leaders in English colonies from Georgia to Massachusetts that the invincible British navy had been vanquished. Sparks of the American Revolution 35 years later began to burn at Cartagena.)
With Colombia’s independence in 1810, Cartagena’s own bloody history settled a bit, but violence flared with a vengeance in other parts of the new nation. Colombia’s history of human horrors matches just about any in the New World. Internal squabbles, brief wars against neighboring nations, sociopolitical struggles (a period from 1948-1958 is simply called La Violencia), gang and paramilitary actions, then drug cartel fighting all left gruesome memories through the decades.
As a recent backdrop stood the five-decade war with FARC, the acronym for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The leftist guerilla army rose to arms in the poorer parts of Colombia in reaction to unequal divisions of wealth and property.
The war cost Colombia much more than nearly 100 human deaths every week for 52 years. It sent millions of refugees streaming from endangered homes and farms into the relative safety of cities, straining services and social systems. The war also fueled the growth of the cocaine trade, with the evils it inflicted on citizens in Colombia and other nations. And leaders had a hard time actually leading during decades of warfare—how effective can any kind of economic or social planning be when the government doesn’t control certain parts of the country? How can you build a road from here to there, or a bridge, or send traffic down a river?
Atrocities perpetrated by guerillas, the government, and marauding paramilitary groups have given Colombia a sort of national PTSD. Many people live without much confidence in the nation, shaking their heads in despair over potential solutions. If you want to see what 50 years of war does to a culture, walk down a street in Bogotá and simply say good morning, buenos días. People stare in suspicion, or simply pass like zombies.
Now, after four long years of negotiations in Havana, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of FARC, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, who goes by the nom de guerre Timochenko, have signed an agreement to end the Western Hemisphere’s last, and only, war.
Colombians will vote on the accord October 2 in a plebiscite. A Si for peace, a No to reject the accord. Peace has a chance, though powerful forces want a no vote. They feel too many rebels who committed crimes and atrocities will receive clemency, forgiveness instead of punishment. The long-sought peace is no sure thing.
Personally, from the windows of a taxi passing through Cartagena, a city with a history written in blood, it’s hard to see how peace can’t be better for Colombia than the pains and terrors of the past half century.
“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine … for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman once famously wrote. Alabama-born writer Walker Percy added that “Peace is only better than war when it’s not hell too.”
True enough, on both counts. War has been terrible, in Cartagena and Colombia. And peace in Colombia has really only been low-grade warfare for a long time. Still, those graceful kites dancing over the walls of an obsolete fort looked like flags of a new day, a new time for Colombia. Like my fellow Colombians, I’m sending my own fragile prayers for peace up into the blue.
Photo: Jairo Paez, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.