Coming of Age in Colombia: “No Podemos Perder La Esperanza”

When I think about Colombia, I think about its music and dances–vallenato, porro, bambuco, cumbia, salsa, merengue, son. I dream about its food, landscapes, exotic species, and variety of climates. I smell the coffee and remember the beautiful colors of its emeralds and flowers, mountains and beaches. I also think about its people–Costeños, Pastusos, Bogotanos, Paisas, Santandereanos, Llaneros, Caleños, Indian, black, mulatto, and mestizo. I think about the people who work hard in cities and farms in order to provide for their families, persons who love watching soccer with their friends, who enjoy family life, and who dream of a better life in the future.

However, the reality today is that many of my friends and their families are fleeing or planning to flee the country with the intention of not coming back. Go to any North American college campus–American University for instance–and you will find a community of Colombians who have left the country. In my class, for example, three of the four Colombians are planning to stay in the U.S. for a longer period of time. We are willing to change our style of life, leave our families and our friends, and start a new life in order to feel secure. We are part of a brain-drain chain that grows longer every year.

According to U.S. immigration statistics, approximately 800,000 Colombians have fled the country for various reasons related to the country’s internal conflict. However, despite this large number, they represent only a small group of Colombians: those who have the opportunity to study abroad or the chance to start a new life in a different place are the most economically and professionally privileged. On the other hand, the campesinos, who are bearing the brunt of the conflict, do not have the financial resources or educational and technical skills to avoid Colombia’s reality. They are instead part of the two million people who have fled their homes to become internally displaced or refugees in neighboring Venezuela or Ecuador. They are still struggling, afraid of going back home, and waiting for the Colombian government or the international community to do something to end the violence and bring them back to their homes.

It is hard to describe what it feels to be a young Colombian. I am proud of my culture, my customs, my family, and my people. I believe in my country’s potential. I want to live there, work there, and I want my kids to grow up in my country. However, while it is hard to accept, the reality is that a protracted armed conflict is destroying my nation. The reality of conflict shapes the life of all Colombians, even if we do not directly feel it. It is embarrassing and sad to come to the point where we are used to hearing in the news about massacres, abductions, selective killings, disappearances, drug trafficking, guerrillas, and paramilitaries. It is hard to listen to your parents saying, ” You might have to look for a different place to live.” It is hard to accept that we have learned to live with the conflict.

Colombia’s internal conflict involves approximately 30,000 combatants consisting of both paramilitary and guerrilla groups. This equals less than 0.06 percent of the country’s population of 39.6 million. Moreover, in all public opinion polls done by private, independent pollsters in Colombia, including several polls done by international institutions, it is very clear that the population of Colombia does not support the guerrillas, or consider them legitimate. Furthermore, Colombians do not support the illegal paramilitaries, the so-called “self-defense” groups. However, many Colombians do not believe in the government either. When talking to peasants or other people who have suffered the consequences of the armed conflict more directly than I have, their feelings are that the Colombian government is not doing enough to protect and help them. Besides, the widespread corruption throughout different levels of the government bureaucracy have left Colombians without a strong basis for believing in their leaders and their institutions.

Nevertheless, as we say it in Colombia, “hope is the last thing to lose” (“la esperanza es lo último que se pierde”). Since President Andrés Pastrana came into office in 1998, we have hoped that a negotiated solution could be achieved between the warring parties. We Colombians understand that a peace accord will not represent the end of all of our problems, but it will be the beginning of a period of transition. Moreover, we acknowledge that we need the assistance of countries and organizations outside Colombia.

What Colombia needs is a multi-task, multilateral approach to its problems. A multitask approach because Colombia’s problem is not only drugs. Colombia also needs to restructure its political and legal systems, strengthen its economy, and eradicate the injustices and inequalities that have helped to give rise to the armed conflict. However, no simple, straightforward path to peace exists. We have to work on all of the above issues at the same time by creating different teams with specific tasks and goals. Those teams must be composed of Colombians and foreigners professionally prepared to plan, give advice, bring new ideas, and organize and develop the petitions of the Colombian public.

At the same time, a multilateral approach is also needed. As has been true in many other peace settlements around the world, involvement of the international community is vital to bringing the warring parties to the negotiating table and achieving an agreement in a shorter time and with longer lasting, more positive results. “Plan Colombia” is the most recent example of an international approach to the Colombian conflict.

Nevertheless, I believe it is not really a plan for peace in Colombia; rather it is in reality a plan to stop drugs from leaving Colombia. It is certain that what we all call “Plan Colombia” is mostly a part of the U.S.’s war on drugs policy. The fact that most of the financial aid (1 billion) will go to improving the Colombian military’s capacity to suppress coca planting shows that this specific objective is being camouflaged by a broader title that makes it appear as if it’s an improvement plan for all of Colombia. Moreover, strengthening the Colombian military means escalating the conflict, and therefore, more violations of human rights and humanitarian law. This is not the kind of international help that we need.

Rather, we need and are willing to accept technical and financial assistance in support of a multi-faceted peace process, which includes, among other elements, diplomatic pressure, international observers to ensure human rights compliance, alternative economic development programs, and trade initiatives to help Colombian apparels, textiles, coffee, flowers, and other legal exports enter international markets. Perhaps those countries that can be most helpful are those that have recently gone through their own efforts to end their internal conflicts. This is a call to our Central American counterparts to bring their assistance and experience to our peace process. Also, we invite South African diplomats and leaders to come to Colombia and share, for instance, their experience with creating institutions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Japan, the U.S., and members of the European Union can contribute by giving economic incentives and providing assistance to Colombia’s private sector in order to diversify the country’s exports. These countries can be of assistance also in the process of post-conflict reconstruction and peace building. We also need foreign NGOs working together with national NGOs to organize civil society, to mobilize the Colombian people, to protest against continuing the conflict, and to support implementation of the peace process.

But most fundamentally peace is up to us, the Colombian people, not only those who currently live in Colombia but also those who are abroad. If we do not do anything for our own country, who is going to do it for us? It is time to rethink our attitude toward the conflict, the killings, and the kidnappings. It is about time we realize that we all have an obligation to work for peace even though we, sometimes, are not directly touched by the conflict out in the mountains and the countryside. We, the young Colombians, have the responsibility for and moral obligation of working for Colombia. It is fine if we study or live abroad. However, we cannot forget about our country. We must go back and apply the knowledge that we are getting while studying abroad. Colombian youths, studying in Colombian or foreign universities, are well prepared to be part of the multi-task teams mentioned above. We can also work from the outside, educating people about what is happening in Colombia and the possible actions they can take to help the cause of peace: organizing protests, sending letters to our government, and so on. We cannot lose hope. Let’s do something to keep the Colombia we all love, and to build a Colombia where our kids can grow up safe and happy and healthy. It is time to say ” ya no más” and to join together to build a genuine movement for peace.