Sinecures of Conciliation

Colombian artists advance peace process

“The Central Bank has played an important role in Colombian society for the past half-century, supporting the national arts in a period that saw the worst violence in the country’s recent history.“

Peace talks between the government of Colombia and the ELN guerrilla group in Sangolqui.

The ‘father’ of the American nuclear navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, once said that “the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” As Colombia officially—and officiously—enters its ‘postconflict’ era, never in the past century has this statement been truer. For any long-term settlement, three issues remain paramount: first, the question of crime and punishment. Who gets locked up and for how long? Though the country remains deeply divided over this, it is surmountable. FARC leaders are likely to “make room for the penal experience” if, beyond a reasonable stint behind bars, lies the promise of electoral redemption.

Second is the question of land reform and which, if any, of the land expropriated during five decades of civil war—by left- and right-wing extortionists alike—will be restored to its pre-war owners. For both campesinos and multinational corporations, at the end of the day the precariousness of property rights is one of the country’s greatest obstacles to ever taking its seat at the table of prosperous, peaceful nations.

Third, and perhaps most difficult to establish, is the question of long-term reconciliation and the social broadening of Colombians’ “mental geography” that this will entail. For a country still in the midst of a violent homesteader period, state and society, much less national culture, often arrive in far-flung, neglected parts of the country much later than those who toil the land.

Ironically, this is one of the few issues that the half-century war against the federal state has forced: the state is now building roads, schools, and hospitals in areas the Bogotá-, Antioquia-, and Caribbean-centered state mightn’t have penetrated for many decades more. Infrastructure is one thing, an actual ‘imagined community’ another: how does the country intend to heal the wounds of 50 years of civil war and sweat, as Admiral Rickover implores, in such a fashion that a real culture of ‘nunca más’ actually takes root?

Enter Colombia’s Central Bank. Tasked under normal circumstances with keeping inflation low and growth steady, for fifty years the bank has also been unique in the world for its commitment to sponsoring cultural programs that strengthen Colombia’s social fabric. As the governor of Colombia’s Central Bank recently told TBY, never has this task been more important.

“In this time of peace agreements, it’s crucial that we advance cultural activities,” said Juan José Echavarrí­a soberly. “That’s how we regain the mental health of Colombia’s citizens.” If the bank achieves anything under his tenure, he stressed, “I would like to be remembered for the development of cultural activities related to peace.”

Can’t we all just get along

Colombia suffered three terrible phases of violence in the 20th century, each growing longer in duration and more ideologically ambiguous than the last. The first, the War of 1,000 Days, lasted from 1899 and 1902, pitting the Conservative government, which had remained in power through fraudulent elections, with the Liberals, themselves allied to various indigenous groups seeking land reform. The second, simply known as La Violencia, lasted from 1948-1958, again with Liberals and Conservatives clashing, the latter largely backed by the church.

Set off by the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the capital was burnt to a crisp by the latter’s supporters in the notorious Bogotazo, which alone claimed the lives of 5,000 people. In the ensuing decade, peasants of both political persuasions were encouraged to use La Violencia as a pretext to seize their intended victims’ land. Around 200,000 people, mostly peasant farmers, lost their lives this way, and millions of hectares changed hands.

The third and final conflict, only now reaching its final stages, began when the army attacked several remote peasant communities known to be communist (sympathizing) redoubts in the remote southern mountains in 1964. The FARC, in large part an outgrowth of pro-Liberal peasant communities from previous episodes of violence, was established to to defend them. The larger the stakes grew, the fiercer the struggle.

On the government side, Colombian veterans of the Korean War soon infused a heavy Cold War-flavor into the conflict. On the rebel side, a combination of urban, university-educated, Marxist, and/or liberation theology-inspired guerrilla movements emerged in the 1970s to up the ante. Most marked, however, was the arrival in the 1980s of cocaine production, in which both sides more than profitably dabbled.

This period also saw the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries, funded and personally led in large part by cattle-ranching, drug-smuggling landowners bent on retribution for crimes suffered at the hands of the FARC. As the atrocities mounted on both sides, millions of people were affected. When the dust began to settle from the worst of the violence in the early 2000s, an arable landmass the size of Ireland had changed hands.

One of the last dying embers of the global Cold War, the world is right to hail Colombia’s nascent peace process as a great leap forward for Latin America and a medium step for mankind. Yet despite its early signs of success, enthusiasm over the guerrillas’ disarmament masks one of the major monkey wrenches to reaching a longer-standing settlement: it’s less about the economy, stupid, than about the land. And it’s also about the political culture.

Credit where credit is due

This is why the bank launched a countrywide initiative in Autumn 2016 called “La paz se toma la palabra,” or “Peace takes the floor,” a series of exhibitions, art shows, and talks held in collaboration with the state-backed Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR) and the Department of Land Restitution. These colloquia will bring together not only artists, activists, and academics, but former combatants and average civilians to confront the traumas of the war and the bittersweet promise of peace.

The largest of these is an ongoing exhibition called “Facing the Other: Drawings from the Post-Conflict Period” that is being shown in towns across the country heavily affected by the war in, but not limited to, Cúcuta on the Venezuelan border, Colombia’s number one “contraband city” and home to thriving organized crime; Ipiales, a town on the Ecuadorian border in the conflict-ravaged province of Nariño; Leticia, the country’s small and isolated springboard for penetrating the Colombian Amazon; Neiva, capital of the southern province of Huila, of which more than 85,000 of its 370,000 inhabitants are victims of the conflict; Quibdó, capital of the Pacific province of Chocó, a much-neglected Afro-Colombian enclave long terrorized by the FARC and right-wing paramilitaries; and Sincelejo, capital of the Caribbean province of Sucre. A town of 280,000 souls, some 165,000 of Sincelejo’s inhabitants are displaced persons who have arrived in the past decade alone.

Framed as a conversation between 12 artists and 130 reintegrated former combatants, the drawings that figure in “Facing the Other” narrate a difficult and painful dialogue that touches upon the doubts and certainties of a group of Colombians whose lives have not only been battered by the conflict, but also shaped it. Recreating critical moments of their experiences in the field with the designated artists, “Facing the Other” encourages former combatants to confront the memories of the conflict from a distance. Depicting their suffering in ink, chalk, and watercolor, the burden of the inability to convey is lifted.

In other projects supported by the Central Bank, the Colombian poet and writer Javier Naranjo gathered the phrases, tales, affirmations, hopes, and fears of 900 children from various regions affected by the conflict for “Peace Through the Eyes of Children.” Given the simple task of answering the question “What is peace?” many of their answers were then conveyed by noted Colombian cartoonists and exhibited to the public.

The bank also sponsored a series of conferences called “At the crossroads: citizenship after the conflict,” which gathers academics and practitioners to sort through the responsibilities and challenges facing average citizens in molding the fabric of the post-conflict era. In another, a collection of images entitled “Lí­nea de hechos de paz,” or “Peace in uninterrupted fragments,” celebrates specific moments of social harmony throughout the country’s turbulent history, whether they came during the War of 1000 Days or the Havana peace talks that concluded last year.

At the end of the day, these are but a small fraction of the Central Bank’s program of cultural events. Their wider portfolio, which includes museums (including the mind-shattering Museo del Oro), libraries, concerts, and permanent exhibitions, are crucial to the sanity of any society at peace. For one casting aside a half-century of scorched-earth civil war, they’re as vital to the health of the nation as land, bread, or peace.

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