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Associate Peyman Vahabzadeh on "From Colombia… With Hope: A Travelogue of Solidarity"

November 01, 2022
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Peyman Vahabzadeh
University of Victoria

In September 2022, I had the distinct honour of being invited by Unidad Especial de Paz to deliver 3 public talks and 3 academic lectures, in the city of Medellín and town of Amalfi in the Department of Antioquia. These talks were on the subjects of violence, nonviolence, peace, pain, pedagogy and related topics. For me, this turned out to be an outstanding and moving week-long trip to a country I had never been to before, and my gracious hosts at Unidad facilitated my being in touch with the complex realities of Colombia, a country that is admirably trying to leave behind its long history of violence and conflict in spite of incredible adversities and setbacks. Unidad Especial de Paz is a unit within Universidad de Antioquia (UdeA, founded in 1803), a public, research university, and a highly respected one. My presence and dialogues with audience and colleagues gave me a unique opportunity to further reflect on the issues of violence and nonviolence – questions that have been a focus of my works through a phenomenological lens for several years and continue to drive my work. 

I visited Colombia in the aftermath of the historic 2016 Peace Accord between the Colombian state and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP), that ended 52 years of conflict – reportedly the longest running civil war in modern history. The Accord was reached during the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos (in office, 2010-2018), and won him the 2016 Noble Peace Prize. The top commander of FARC, Rodrigo Londoño (aka Timochenko) signed the agreement. Reaching peace was a momentous breakthrough, achieved only after failed previous attempts (namely, the 1999-2002 peace talks by president Andrés Pastrana). Still, reaching peace continues to be complicated by the presence of smaller armed groups fighting the state, the paramilitary forces, and narco-cartels that control several regions in the country and have sophisticated private armies. 

I am not qualified to offer a history or analyses of the Colombian struggle for national peace and collective integration, and I leave this task to the experts. What I offer here are some of my reflections on the arduous task of peace-building and admirable efforts of civil society activists as well as the knowledgeable members of Unidad Especial de Paz. These personal reflections of a diremptive mind inevitably bring together various memories, elements, issues, and observations that otherwise might not have converged.  

An Iranian Latino

What I write here is inevitably narrated through the eyes of a thrown person: an Iranian exile in Canada who has been living here as a permanent outsider for over three decades, a denizen of the generous mountains and forests of British Columbia on the unceded territories of indigenous peoples. I have long learned and appreciated how to live my life as an incurable outsider akin to Georg Simmel’s figure of “the stranger” who is “the potential wanderer,” someone happily caught between belonging and non-belonging. My “thrownness” in this world is of course deeply existential, a là Martin Heidegger, but this thrownness is also an effect of the generalized conditions of global capitalism in our age and the various states’ monopolies over the legitimate use of gewalt within a territory, as Max Weber had famously carved out the image.

Thrownness, however, has complications. 

I came of age in Iran in a loving and progressive family, son of a librarian and a teacher, learning about Latin America, reading the revolutionary literature of Che Guevara, Carlos Marighella, and Tupamaros, endlessly grieving the overthrow and death of Salvador Allende, memorizing popular Latin American songs (without knowing Spanish) and those of la Nueva Canción (Victor Jara and “el pueblo unido…” comes to mind), and loving the ethereal indigenous tunes of zampoña pan flute. Images unfurled in my mind through these sensory experiences. It felt as if Latin America was next door to Iran! At 17, I was not just an internationalist but a global young man already. I am not young any more but somehow I’ve remained global, with Latin America having a special place in my thinking. 

The Historic Turning Point

My trip coincided with two momentous events, two turning points, two “firsts” in Colombian history that qualify as watershed moments. 

The first event was the election of Gustavo Petro to presidency, which commenced in August 2022. Holding a PhD in Public Administration, Petro was a former M-19 guerrilla (Movimiento 19 de Abril) in his youth. After spending under two years in prison, he “demilitarized” (to use a common expression in Colombia) and turned to politics. In his long political career, he was elected a senator and also the Mayor of Bogota, before running (unsuccessfully) for president in 2018, and then in 2022. Petro is the first leftist president and the first president who is not from the white, male, upper-class political elite. His running mate and current vice-president is Afro-Colombian woman, lawyer, human rights, and environmental activist Francia Márquez, the first black vice-president in Colombian history. She brought to the campaign acute legal and advocacy work for women, minorities, and the victims of violence. In 2014, she took part in the Colombian Peace Process, held in Havana (for 3 years), to raise the issue of victims of violence with the negotiators. The “Petro-Francia” campaign of “Change for Life” (Cambio por la Vida) ran on progressive objectives such as demilitarization of not only various guerrillas but also the paramilitary, improving women’s rights and the rights of LGBTQ community, addressing the needs of victims of violence, taking action regarding climate change, increasing taxes for the richest families, investment in healthcare and transportation, and find a solution to the complex issue of illicit drugs and coca farming.  

The second momentous event was the release, in June 2022, of the massive report (8,000 pages) of Colombia’s Truth Commission. The report registered the enormous human cost of 50 years of civil conflict in Colombia, a conflict that had claimed nearly 220,000 lives, of which 80% were civilians, and left behind over 5.5 million internally displaced persons. During the conflict, 27,000 individuals were kidnapped, mostly by the guerrillas and for ransom. 3,000 union members were assassinated by the paramilitary. The government is currently investigating 4,200 extra-juridical murders, allegedly by Colombian military. Countless acts of sexualized violence have been reported, nearly half-a-million between 2001 and 2009 alone. 

Still, the country left me with a distinct impression of a cautious hope. 

Unidad Especial de Paz

Standing out as an exemplary university-based institute, Unidad Especial de Paz is dedicated to peace, reconciliation, nonviolence, and reintegration. Unidad is the only such project or unit in Colombian academy. It is an outcome of a grassroots academic movement: a number of faculty volunteers started intermittent meetings in 2015. This group was called Mesa Universitaria por la Paz. In 2017 they proposed to UdeA the creation of a special unit for peace. Consequently, Unidad was founded in 2018 and began its work officially in 2019 (right before COVID hit), and it is already having an impact in Antioquia. Unidad brings together professors from different faculty, but it is structurally comprised of a small group of dedicated staff. It is directly under the auspices of UdeA Rector and as such avoids bureaucracy. Despite its small size, Unidad represents what an advocacy academic unit can do for the greater cause of peace, justice, and dialogue. It is specifically tasked with teaching, research, and community outreach regarding peace and reconciliation in Antioquia. Unidad is connected to an interdisciplinary undergraduate program (designed by multiple departments) called “Pedagogy, Rurality, Peace,” and the students who complete this program receive a certificate awarded by Ministry of Education. The Unidad has designed an MA program called “Conflicts, Peace, Human Rights” that is currently in the process of certification by Ministry of Education. 

Among the community activities of Unidad is their assisting coffee-producing peasants in storing their coffee, free of charge, in two buildings in UdeA campus for 3 years, so that the peasants won’t have to go through big corporations to sell their products. 

The public commitment of Unidad is evidenced through the vast network of academic and community contacts and the regular scholarly and community events that Unidad holds, promotes, supports, or in which it partakes. Unidad runs on a fairly modest budget and does not have resources of its own; it is funded by UdeA mainly through the channelling of university resources. It receives funds for its projects. Unidad regularly invites academics nationally and internationally to speak about peace-building and to have dialogues with academics as well as community or civil society organizations. It is run by the attentive dedication of educator and director, Hugo Alberto Buitrago Montoya, and academic coordinator, Maria Cristina Rengifo Ramirez. It is housed in the central campus of UdeA in Medellín, a lovely, green campus with an organic feel to it, whose concrete and red-brick buildings, none of which disturbingly tall, blend with the web of promenades, numerous coffee stands, sophisticated political graffiti, and equatorial trees and vegetations including tall guava trees where, if one’s lucky, one can see the permanent residents of the campus, aside from the birds, Titi monkeys (I wasn’t lucky! In my UVic campus the permanent residents are the deer; one can hardly miss them!). 

The campus is a sanctuary – the police cannot enter it (unlike Canada!). Entry is allowed at the gates by producing university ID or registering upon arrival (a common routine in Colombia). The fact that university is a sanctuary indicates the power of civil society and safeguards student activism. The university is a utopia, to borrow the idea from late Jerry Zaslove, where dialogical ruminations about another world and an alternative future flow freely. Just like the campus of UNAM in Mexico City, this campus registered with me the potentials of the young people, and reminded me of my year (1979-1980) as a university student at the (now renamed) National University of Iran, before I was expelled due to political activism. The process of my exile began with that dismissal. Walking through UdeA main campus, I could not help but regret witnessing the sterile, hygienic, hegemonized, and even corporatized campuses across Canada.  

And yet, I was told that dealing drugs was big on campus. Here, as in elsewhere, drug networks are powerful and dangerous. What’s more, on occasion, if one’s lucky (I was lucky!), one can see some young militants, this time members of the newly-formed EP-C (Emanicpación Popular-Clandestina), in a group of about eight, roaming across the campus in full, black military outfit, black berets, with their faces covered with black balaclavas and sunglasses, distributing revolutionary literature and writing (rushed) graffiti on the wall. The University administration is unable to stop any of these activities, considering the potential catastrophe that might follow any confrontation. And the students know how to keep a distance. In fact, keeping distance is a daily routine in many situations. 

The UdeA central campus is a microcosm of the Colombian reality, which makes peace and reconciliation processes all the more complicated. Utopia, after all, has its challenges… 

Unlearning War

Speaking of EP-C, I was told that there are currently at least 12 (I also heard 16 and 26 in my conversations) small militant groups, and at least 6 of them are influenced by the ELN, according to a report. Unlike the ELN, which stands at 2000+ strong, and is now the primary leftist militant organization in the country, these smaller militant groups do not have a social base and are mostly comprised of radicalized and alienated young people who wish to fight for justice. But the road to liberation and justice has unending switchbacks, in Colombia as in elsewhere, in the age of neoliberalism: this road has already been traveled in Colombia, and the outcome (52 years of a devastating civil conflict) was only a prolonged self-destruction and routinization of violence. And this is precisely the lure of violence, as Hannah Arendt teaches us: it delivers results. The irony of violence in Colombia is precisely the fact that even unhindered violence delivered no outcome. 

The point is: desaprender la guerrilla y aprendar la paz (unlearn war and learn peace). Hugo Chavez, the former president of neighbouring Venezuela, had famously said that the age of guerrilla warfare in Latin America has long passed. He was an advocate of peace negotiations in Colombia. 

But the point is precisely this: the history of Colombia in the twentieth-century has been an history of violence, with a decade-long period of civil war between conservatives and liberals known as La Violencia (1948-1958).[1] This period was ignited by the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán of the leftist wing of the Liberal Party in Bogotá. This period was the immediate precursor of FARC’s rebellion, notwithstanding the significant differences between the two phenomena. La Violencia’s legacy and its impact on Colombia’s political development in the rest of century is hardly deniable. From my point of view, it seems that a certain syntax of action had overdetermined much of Colombian mode of communication between different and conflicting social groups. Let us not also forget that M-19, Petro’s former guerrilla group that later became a political party after de-militarization, was an armed reaction to the fraudulent elections of 19 April 1970. Resorting to arms at the time of political impasses means that the political edifice is closed unto itself and foreclosed unto others, and that it is so vehemently guarded by the rich, political elite and so brutally shielded by the state’s military and privately-funded paramilitary that any objections against the fraudulent workings of the system can only take the form of a visible exit from institutional politics. Armed struggle, as I have pointed out in my work on the Iranian Marxist guerrillas, is the attempt at political re-institutionalization.[2]Still, how can the younger generation “unlearn war” if such is their history and if this is carved in their parents’ memories? 

The good news is that the Petro government will resume the peace talks, suspended since 2018, with the ELN in November. This is a complicated matter: FARC was a typical Marxist-Leninist group, styled in the manner of the twentieth-century communist parties and with hierarchical command structure, approximately 13,000 strong by 2016, and as such, its central leadership was able to negotiate peace on behalf of the membership, although a small faction known as FARC-Dissidents (of roughly 2000 members) has refused to lay down arms. The ELN is a different type of organization with a more participatory and democratic structure that gives ELN units greater autonomy. Lower ranks of ELN will debate the terms of potential peace accord. The future peace agreement will have to go through the entire group and debated, as the terms of negotiations, I imagine, might already have. 

Yet, perhaps the greatest challenge will be the demilitarization of the paramilitary – about 18,000, many of them also engaged in drug trafficking. Paramilitary began a as protective force of landowners against Marxist guerrillas, but then gradually the paramilitary constituted a block of power that supported right-wing governments, in recent years, that of ex-president Álvaro Uribe (in office: 2002-2010). Under international pressure, Uribe wanted to disarm the paramilitary to improve the image of Colombia. Now, after the Peace Accord with FARC, the paramilitary has grown into a force that is no longer needed. But what can Colombian politicians do about this phenomenon?

“Unlearning war and learning peace” means, in sociological terms, launching and supporting a multifaceted and prolonged process of socialization, and Unidad Especial de Paz and many civil society groups, to three of which I had the honour to present, are indeed agents of socializing Colombian peoples away from violence and toward reintegration and peace. Socialization was a key theme that ran through my public talks. My attending a peace festival was an affirmation that socialization for nonviolence was going strong. 

The City of Eternal Spring

Medellín, la ciudad de la eterna primavera, is characterized by its red-brick buildings, its dense and lush green vegetation, abundance of guava (or fruit of the people, as they call it), majestic, old-growth laureles trees (reminding me of old-growth horse chestnuts in Cook St. village in Victoria), pleasantly 20+ temperature all-year-round, and yes, traffic congestion on the main roads.

Before this trip, Colombia was to me the land of Gabriel García Márquez, and in my arrival I got the impression that the country seemed so fit for his world-renowned magical realism. Civil conflict, rampant drug trade and use, staggering inequalities, crime and violence flow alongside incredibly hospitable and kind people, a vibrant but always threatened civil society, and the activists who try to turn the page on the violent chapter of their history. If this reality is not magical, I don’t know what is. Before my trip, Medellín was the city where Colombian priest and liberationist Camilo Torres had revealed his platform. Torres turned out to be the first great martyr of Latin American revolution when he died in the ranks of the (Fidelista) guerrilla group ELN(Ejército de Liberación Nacional or National Liberation Army) in 1964. 

Madellín appeared in my view differently, however. I was fortunate to attend the festival Hecho en Paz (Made in Peace) in the city’s Jardin Botánico, a microcosm of Colombian equatorial jungles with curling promenades, several book exhibitions, a children’s storytelling show on stage, and multiple resting areas and food vendors. The showcase was the booths where the women who were victims of violence presented their products and artworks for sale. It was a moving site, as one noticed how pain and suffering could be embraced by creative and productive works, and how in the process, these works could help the victims of violence with their long process of recovery. “Healing comes when you dispossess others of your pain and make it your own,” I once wrote in a poem. Peace in Colombia has had an “outward” political beginning through the peace process, but peace also needs to be cultivated “inward”—within the lives of the victims of violence who have and will overcome victimhood, by courageously taking ownership of their pain and becoming agents of their own liberation from violence. To me, this was what “Made in Peace” really meant. 

Violence descends upon us: it crashes into us with force and then it leaves (at time only to return multiple times thereafter). Violence is a shapeshifter, as it varies in kind and execution. Violence carves the memory and leaves deep scars. But it always leaves a disproportionate impact on the receiver of violence who most often needs to deal with throughout an entire lifetime. 

In the festival, I was accompanied by two dear and young friends, David Esteban Builes Morales and Diana Paola Jerez Durán. David is an associate researcher with Unidad and often does remarkable field work in communities affected by civil war in Antioquia. He is also an engaged phenomenologist. My friendship with David goes back to some email exchanges in 2013 and being in touch thereafter. He was also the co-editor of an edited volume on the 50th anniversary of Berger and Luckmann’s influential The Social Construction of Reality (1966), to which I also contributed through a study of the “secret connection” between Husserl, Schutz, and Berger and Luckmann.[3] It is amazing how phenomenologists belong to a nation of their own! Diana is a trained psychologist who works with the victims of the civil conflict. She is anything but a detached therapist. As we walked through the festival, she introduced me to many women she knew, all victims of violence, who either presented their artwork or products at the festival or were simply tending to their licenced street stands to make a living. These licences were issued through a special policy of the City of Medellín to help the victims of violence. The unsuspecting tourist would never guess that such ordinary phenomena of city life were public expressions of a society that was trying to overcome a violent past. Diana offered many precious insights into the peace process from the point of view of those affected most severely by violence. 

In Amalfi: Violence, Memory, Education

I delivered 3 public talks. Unidad was the host of them all, but with collaboration with local associations. It all began with a 3-hour car ride, from Medellín to the north, mostly on the narrow roads through mountains and lush forests, to Amalfi. It was a town with 27,000 inhabitants and 17,000 bicycles, as a resident jokingly said. There are no dedicated bike lanes or wide sidewalks (thank God!), and I loved merging with the pedestrians, bicycles, and motorists who skillfully roamed the narrow, busy streets without the slightest mishap in the evening when it seemed that the entire town was descending on the main square. Friendly stray dogs roam the central square and their robust bodies suggest they’re generously fed by locals. One can’t miss the town’s symbol, Tigre de Amalfi. It refers to the legend that in the 1940s residents killed a Bengal tiger near the town, but for some reason all depictions and statues of “tigre” were actually jaguar! My hosts could not explain this either. UdeA has a satellite campus in Amalfi: UdeA Sede Nordeste. The sessions in Amalfi were invited by Unidad Especial de Paz, Secretaría de Gobierno, and Casa Amalfitana de la Memoria.

I spoke in the lecture hall of the municipality to the secondary school teachers. Some of the teachers were associated with Listones Rojos para RecordArte (Red Ribbons for RecordArte), an advocacy group dedicated to fostering the collective memory of victims. A few attendees were from the local government. I spoke of storytelling as means of teaching nonviolence to the younger generations. I know that telling one’s story has been a widely-used method is counseling and carries therapeutic powers. What I suggested was more of a pedagogical approach: to tell a story of violence, nonviolence, revenge, and forgiveness that was, with emphasis, no one’s story. This is where, I imagine, fiction reveals its pedagogical power. By allowing the students to interpret the story time and again and debate their interpretations, the teacher can unearth the complexities of violence layer by layer. In this way, one can speak of violence and relate to one’s own experience without having to deal with the potential pain of speaking of these sensitive subjects directly. The teachers commented that the greatest challenge in reconciliation was the history of cycles of violence. How can we guide, they asked, society toward forgiveness? Criminal gangs, they said, were now, after the peace process, one of the greatest sources of violence. Sustained peace, it seemed, was as ephemeral as the morning dew. 

The next talk in Amalifi was delivered to the victims of violence. As one can imagine, this was the most moving engagement, as we shared personal stories with tearful eyes. The attendees were from Mesa Municipal de Víctimas and registered by Unidad para las Victimas, which indicates that they had received the special designation of “victim” by the Colombian State. Here, I spoke of the importance of pain and traumatic memory for a transition to nonviolence. Pain is akin to death: it is an absolute. No human wants to receive pain but when pain and trauma are a part of who I am, I can only “overcome” them by integrating them and redirecting them toward life. One must leave behind victimhood and grow into the agent of justice, I submitted. It turned out that the attendees had already practiced what I had uttered in my paper: they refused to be called “victims” and instead called themselves “survivors.” Almost all of the audience were women, and they were the most inspiring and yet the humblest persons I had ever seen. Despite the hardships and violence that they had endured, they glowed with hope and resilience. As one lady with disability told me her incredible life-history of violence and survival, she uttered the most matter-of-fact thing: that despite all that had happened (to her), “one simply needs to go on with life.” 

I was presented the book of prose and poetry by victims of violence who had attended a workshop, En Vuelo del Fenix: de Las Cenizas al Fuego de la Palabra (In Flight of the Phoenix: From the Ashes to the Fire of the Word, 2017). The Phoenix project intends to transform anyone with a personal story of violence into a writer and liberator, so that the work of healing begins. The “phoenix” aptly captures the victims’ overcoming their victimhood and their advent as agents of their own destiny in Colombian society. In this event, we had conversations that continued long after the time we had booked the room. 

I left Amalfi with mind-blowing reflections and a deep sense of belonging. I took many notes that I am going to develop into the ideas of my next book on the subject. My companions and attendees to my talks were generous, kind, and attentive to my many questions. 

The next morning, Maria Cristina Rengifo and David Builes took me to central Medellin to present in a bright and beautiful room with large, exposed bricks in a nineteenth-century building (a Municipality government’s building), to present to the public servants. This one was by Unidad Especial de Paz in cooperation with the Municipality’s Secretaría de la No-violenciaHere, I spoke of my concept of “institutional violence” that I had developed in my 2019 book. I knew that the attendees were advocates of nonviolence and I wished to convey the dynamics of institutional work and the cautionary note about how institutions, as they grow sclerotic in responding to the changing needs of diverse publics, deploy procedures that violate the populace. My emphasis was on the power of the institutional staff and how they can significantly contribute to the process of critical assessments of institutional processes and procedures. The lively questions and comments were around the practical ways in which the needs of subaltern groups such as women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, and other minorities can be brought to the institutional agendas. The precondition for having institutions that wish to reduce institutional violence, my audience said, was for society to learn and promote nonviolence. 

The struggle for nonviolence was a national one, as my Colombian friends often pointed out. 

The Last Tear

Amalfi had suffered immensely by the conflict. The campesinos were hit hard by the paramilitary. The town’s new mayor, I was told, was a former (demilitarized) paramilitary commander. One Amalfian told me that this town was the (a?) birthplace of the paramilitary. I was told about vehicles called La Última Lágrima (the last tear): these were paramilitary cars that would stop at the homes of the activists to take them away in front of their family… and disappear them. 

I often read about the atrocities of the (right-wing) paramilitary in Colombia, and the Colombian Truth Commission has spoken of them extensively. But having witnessed the particular complexities of Colombian reality, I suspected that there was more to this picture. I spoke to Colombians who told me that in the beginning the paramilitary were self-defence groups in the rural areas that protected the estates of landowners against encroaching guerrillas who often kidnapped them to extort money. Consequently, the paramilitary units were paid by the landowners and businessmen as a protective force. A young woman reminisced that at some point in the past they could not go to the beach or on a road trip unless they would join an army convey. Imagine that! 

I understand that for FARC, this was all about class war. At the same time, though, it was not a winnable war. In a way, FARC inevitably produced its own dialectical negation: the paramilitary. As society was sliced into zones of interests and control, and as the civil war polarized the country, the spaces of everyday life shrunk for ordinary people. Lost, disappeared, and damaged lives gradually became statistics. Civil society was hit the hardest, with thousands of activists and union members killed and disappeared, while the ordinary folks, the poor, and the vulnerable bore the brunt of the conflict. 

Iran, October 2022: the Revolt of Dignity 

While I am writing these lines, dignity’s revolt by the courageous young women and men in Iran is going through its first 40 days despite the brutal suppression of the theocratic regime of sclerotic cavemen, their parasitic cronies, and demonic henchmen. The movement of “woman, life, freedom” – a women’s revolution that has captured the world’s imagination and garnered vast international support for the movement – goes strong for the liberation of Iranian peoples. Society is increasingly polarized: a vast majority, led by young, high school and university students and supported by all walks of life – workers, teachers, retirees, and business owners – stands up to a brutal regime and its instruments of repression. The state discourse increasingly stresses ruthless action against protesters. By the time I write these words, over 300 people were killed, at least 31 of them minors, as young as 7 years old. The regime’s forces drive armoured vehicles into elementary schools. Imagine that! Thousands are arrested, and the regime is releasing common criminals to make room in prisons for protesters. 

Liberation requires polarization. One cannot remain neutral: revolution requires the decision (not) to join the movement. For the young people of Iran, the continuity of the Islamic Republic is not an option: it represents a grindingly painful and slow death. May Iranian people soon embrace their liberation in joy!

Liberation and Attrition 

Following a long, transnational tradition that went strong in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the FARC launched its guerrilla warfare in the early 1960s for the purpose of liberating ordinary Colombians from imperialist plundering of their resources and the concomitant political oppression.[4] The process of liberation, a lá Frantz Fanon, inevitably necessitates polarization. There is no doubt about that. The problem arises when polarization does not lead to emancipation, when the objectives of revolutionary war of liberation are exhausted in a stalemate. Revolutionary violence, as Irving Wohlfarth argues, represents “a violence to end all violence.”[5] This moment, as I observed in my work, stands out as a messianic break in history that leads to justice. Because of its outcome – justice – this liberatory violence in fact sparks with nonviolence.[6]

But the Colombian reality was far from this abstraction. The messianic moment never arrived. And this is when society is left with warring factions in autonomous regions of control and engaged in an unsustainable war of attrition whose price is paid by ordinary people and civil society activists. As far as the revolutionaries are concerned, this is also how revolutionary values of dignity and respect are gradually eroded: FARC is responsible for thousands of kidnappings for ransom, an unthinkable act for most revolutionaries of the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s. Although they have been flatly denying it, FARC also engaged in narco-related activity, the extent of which remains debatable, to finance the organization. FARC had no hesitation to cause environmental damage, if it served its tactics. 

It seems that when the vista of revolutionary victory grows dim, everything becomes permissible. 

For me, the question is this: where is that unique point at which emancipatory action degenerates into self-righteous participation in a “war of all against all”? Are we equipped with that knowledge in advance? This, it seems to me, is fundamentally an epistemological question.

An offshoot of radical student movement of New Left and influenced by Black Power, the Weather Underground in the United States was founded in the late 1960s and launched armed struggle, in the context of the Vietnam war, with the intent of “bringing the war home.” The group, organized in urban guerrilla fashion of autonomous chapters, bombed federal buildings, held up banks, and arson attacked the home of a New York Supreme Court judge, among other things. The FBI was frustrated with this hermetically sealed group and unable to dismantle it. Then, on 6 March 1970, a massive explosion in one of the Weather Underground’s bases in Wilkerson left three members dead. This was the beginning of the group members’ rethinking their group’s raison d’être. Many left the group and found refuge in anonymity (this includes one “Weatherman” who settled in Vancouver and died of natural causes in 1997). Others had their lawyers negotiate surrender in exchange for reduced sentence. The explosion provided a moment of reflection: they faced violence and recognized its logic: with no prospect of emancipation, violence would only turn into a vicious cycle.[7]

Did FARC, ELN, and other groups ever experience that moment? Did they ever seriously reflect on violence? I really don’t know. But this is only half of the story. The state, with its proclaimed monopoly of violence, would leave no space for dialogue or negotiation. The fact of stalemate and the fact that the previous failed peace negotiations go back many years do suggest that the warring parties had realized the viciousness of violence. And yet they continued on the old ways for decades to come. 

One Way to Demilitarize

Luckily, I got the chance to attend a book launch of Colombia’s refashioned communists in Medellín. The book was Petro y Francia, written by professor Juan Guillermo Gómez García. The book’s publisher was CEPDIPO, a sort of think tank of ex-RARCs. The party, Comunes, was founded in 2017 by FARC ex-combatants. Held in historic neighbourhood of Prado (in one of the two headquarters of Comunes), the event was modest and the attendees represented a balanced mix of older generation and younger people. Among the attendees, I was told, were a couple of ex-commanders and former urban guerrillas. Personally, the event filled me with a distinct nostalgia for my time with Iran’s leftists and our events back in 1979-1981. The signature leftist camaraderie and friendship, and of course unrelenting criticism of each other’s positions, filled the air. Peace Agreement allows 5 seats in the Senate for Comunes (ex-FARC) representatives. Other than that, my friends suggested, the party is too small electorally to have had a measurable impact on the electoral victory of Petro-Francia. 

Still, the process of integration of ex-combatants has been anything but smooth. The provisions in the Peace Agreement, under the auspices of the United Nations, for the transition of combatants through re-education and re-socialization camps was indeed a fantastic step forward. And yet, as David Builes and Diana Jerez related, being an ex-combatant bears a stigma, and as such, after completing their reintegration process, the thousands of rank-and-file ex-combatants who return to civic life prefer to remain anonymous. There is also the problem of paramilitary that still can and do “disappear” the ex-FARC upon identifying them. This has resulted in the problem of “in-transit publics” (la publación flotante): the envisioned settlement of ex-FARCs resulted in many cases only in their unceasing displacement. 

Scholarly Talks

I also delivered three academic talks. One was delivered to the “student leaders,” and this one was the probably the most attended of my talks. Many of these students were also activists of civil society and came to my talk with an abundance of concrete experiences. My talk was titled, “Imagining Nonviolence,” and I wished to speak about how difficult it is to imagine nonviolence in this violent world that we share. I spoke of the privative or negative in non-violence which alludes to something curious. Peace is the opposite of war, and both words have referents and even some substance attached to them. What is the opposite of violence, other than the negation of violence? Why is it that we cannot name the opposite of violence? There are common acts that we categorically identify with nonviolence: love, care, artistic creation, and so on. The audience’s feedback was profound: a reflection of Colombian reality. Activists are already tired, even after the Peace Agreement, of the extent of everyday violence that they encounter. They all agreed that the state was too violent, to the extent that it had an impact on the civil society’s way of thinking nonviolence. I was told that when activists in communities try to create change, violence against them only increases. Rural Colombia suffers the most, and in most cases, help (e.g., government programs) never gets there on time, if it gets there at all. A teacher spoke about the power of words that carry love and care, words that need to be spoken and taught to the young minds, if a nonviolent future for Colombia is possible. 

One of the staggering things about Colombia, as I repeatedly said to my Colombian interlocutors, was the resolute and unrelenting presence of civil society and grassroots activism. Despite all adversity, despite the fact that still today the activists disappear, civil society, in its rainbow diversity, is going strong, being a continuous watershed for change. In fact, as my friend David Builes observed, Petro’s leftist government was pushed into political victory by grassroots social movements and civil society associations that collectively deemed that it was no longer possible, after the Peace Agreement, for Colombia to function on status quo. The nation needed to change the syntax of its engagement. 

As the present Iranian uprising goes on (while I am writing these lines), I regret witnessing how the Iranians have been effectively deprived of a viable civil society by their theocratic-totalitarian state. The cunning ruling clerics had recognized from the beginning that civil society was, and in the long-term would stand, opposed to their power. The destruction of civil society, which had flourished admirably in the first couple of years after the 1979 Revolution, leaving behind fascinating yet unstudied and forgotten experiments, began in the 1980s with the massacre of activists of my generation and closing down on all potential organizations. The reformist president Mohammad Khatami (in office: 1997-2005) provided a space for and encouraged the expansion of the badly battered civil society by mobilizing youth in his attempt at “democratizing” the Islamic Republic, but he did not have the substance, the backbone, to stand up for the people against the ruling hardliners. Not only did he and his reformism lose momentum, they left thousands of civil society activists at the mercy of the brutal regime. Once again, civil society was crushed, and with it the hopes of an entire generation were lost.  

The topic of my talk to the graduate students was the three types of violence: structural, institutional, and hubristic. The talk was meant to bring awareness to the shifting and deeply connected modalities through which violence phenomenalizes itself. I wanted to show how human action and activities are connected to violence and nonviolence. Once again, the students’ engagements were sharp and observant. A main concern that I consistently encountered in my talks was the issue of how to socialize nonviolence in Colombian society. A sense of frustration was felt, especially among the younger generation, regarding the ongoing violence despite the Peace Accord and the government’s funding of programs that promoted peace, nonviolence, reintegration, and healing, all being a part of restorative justice programs in and following the Peace Accord. The global perspective of graduate students was interesting as they connected the Colombian experience to various aspects of politics of USA, Iran, and Sweden. 

My last talk was delivered to the faculty associates of Unidad. I spoke of two types of politics that I had developed in earlier works: politics of immanence and politics of transcendence. I wanted to relate these general types of politics to the Colombian experience and offer a way of looking at Colombian reality through the lens of two fundamental and opposing (and abstract) political grammars. The main critique of my model was that in Colombia any actor sees their adversaries as enemy and this has been at the cause of many conflicts. It is therefore hard to reach consensus on issues, since the latter requires negotiation. I think the key question, as an interlocutor pointed out, is whether peace can be a violent process. I believe it can. We have at least one recent theoretical study of how in the works of some philosophers peace is perceived only as an intermission between wars, and thus, it has no substance of its own.[8]

Is Negotiation the Opposite of Violence?

In “Critique of Violence” (Zur Kritik der Gewalt), Walter Benjamin speaks of negotiation as an alternative to violence. He asks, “Is any nonviolent resolution of conflict possible? Without doubt. The relationships of private persons are full of examples of this.”[9] The affirmative, for me, stands at odds with the rest of his influential thesis. He continues, “legal and illegal means of every kind that are all the same violent may be confronted with nonviolent ones as unalloyed means.”[10] Benjamin speaks of “conference” as an example of “civil agreement.” “For in it not only is nonviolent agreement possible, but also the exclusion of violence in principle is quite explicitly demonstrable by one significant factor: there is no sanction for lying.”[11] This last condition requires that, first, the agreement should stand outside of the law, and second, the nonviolent conference should be kept out of the reach of violence. The Colombian Peace Accord did indeed observe these two aspects. 

While various engagements with this view, within the context of Benjamin’s own framework, are possible, and as regards my Colombian experience, it primarily strikes me as being odd for a Marxist to simply stay within the ambit of the law (-making or -preserving modes of violence) and not speak of the material conditions of the agreement. Peace Accord in Colombia was indeed a moment of nonviolence finally overriding the rampant logic of violence in the country, but one must not forget that the roots of violence, in my view and without trying to be reductive, was the continuous decline of the conditions of life for the populace and the concomitant disenfranchisement of the masses and civil society from the political process that had been, until the 2022 Petro-Francia administration, monopolized by an exclusive elite that had historically arisen to power in the process of colonizing modernization and maintaining power through imperialist connections. The Peace Accord was a momentous undertaking and it has given momentum to future peace accords. And yet, what has led to these negotiations had been militant, violent resistances to the political elite and their ancillaries in military and paramilitary. There is power-play in all negotiations. I wonder if negotiation can be deemed in its own right at all, detached from the violence and the conditions that contextualize and thus call for negotiation. There is an uncanny dependency of nonviolence on violence. After all, it seems to me, every negotiation on this scale is an outcome of violence, a blessed outcome notwithstanding. It is never too late to turn to nonviolence, although peace and nonviolence never come soon enough.

The Last Word: Social Justice

The enormous challenges Colombians are facing today have made many of my interlocutors to have doubts about the prospect of a nonviolent homeland. I noticed that the hope that was born with the Peace Accord and was then spread by the Petro government has also accentuated the expressed frustration of the people. Colombia needs peace and nonviolence, but neither can be built without addressing the fundamental issues relating to social justice: rampant poverty, the issue of land and campesinos, gendered violence and violence against the LGBTQ communities, the struggles of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian minorities for improved socioeconomic conditions, illicit drugs and criminal violence, healthcare and employment, security and safety… to name just a few. Nonviolence is not a “thing,” a package or a state of being, that can be owned and achieved. There is no permanence attached to nonviolence, because it is a process that starts with the shapeshifting violence enacting itself. Nonviolence remains the loyal companion of justice and social justice and as such peace and nonviolence only emerge through practicing them and through socializations that make such practices desirable. Addressing the issues of social justice need political will and a vibrant civil society, and Colombia is blessed to have them both at this historic junction. 

I returned from Colombia with hope, a hope that was in the air, a hope that is fragile and thus, despite all adversities, needs continuous caring and love.

Victoria, British Columbia
25 October 2022

Notes: 

[1] Richard Gott, Guerrilla Movements in Latin America (London: Seagull Books, 2008), 201-208.
[2] Peyman Vahabzadeh, A Guerrilla Odyssey: State, Secularism, Democracy and the Fadai Period of National Liberation in Iran, 1971-1979 (Syracuse University Press, 2010).
[3] David E. Builes M. & Federico Vélez Vélez (eds.), Objectividad, subjetividad y vida cotidiana: A 50 años de la aparición de La construcción social de la realidad de Peter Berger y Thomas Luckmann (Manizales, Colombia: Universidad de Manizales).
[4] See Gott, Guerrilla Movements in Latin America, 199-288.
[5] On the subject of “the violence that ends all violence,” I invite the interested reader to the trilogy essays relating to Walter Benjamin and RAF by Irving Wohlfarth: “Entsetzen: Walter Benjamin and the Red Army Faction, Part One.” Radical Philosophy 152 (2008): 7-19; “Critique of Violence: the Deposing of the Law; Walter Benjamin and the Red Army Faction, Part 2.” Radical Philosophy 153 (2009): 13-26; “Specters of Anarchy: Walter Benjamin and the Red Army Faction, Part Three.” Radical Philosophy 154 (2009): 9-24. The reference to this quote is in Part 2, p. 23.
[6] Peyman Vahabzadeh, Violence and Nonviolence: Conceptual Excursions into Phantom Opposites (University of Toronto Press, 2019), 74.
[7] On this particular episode of the Weather Underground, see Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (University of California Press, 2004), 173-183.
[8] Murad Idris, War for Peace: Genealogies of a Violent Ideal in Western and Islamic Thought (Oxford University Press, 2018).
[9] Waltern Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Selected Writings Vol 1, 1913-1926, ed. M. Bullock & M. W. Jennings (Belknam Press, 1996), 244.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.