Colombia: The Rubble of History and the Future to Come

by | 29 Sep 2016

The Colombian peace agreement plebiscite to ratify the final agreement on the termination of the Colombian conflict on 2 October 2016 is a day when another Colombia and another world become possible.

On 2 October 2016, a country of 48 million people will confront their own history. History understood here not in its usual sense, as a ‘chain of events’, full of implicit progressivism and fixated on the separation of past and present. Instead, history here is Walter Benjamin’s history. History in the cataclysmic sense. History as a permanent storm continually constituting and reconstituting our present. In this sense, on 2 October, Colombians will confront their history as ‘one single catastrophe’ which has ‘unceasingly pile[d] rubble on top of rubble and hurl[ed] it before [their] feet.’[1. Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940):]

This is an incredibly important moment for current Colombia. This is a moment when Colombians can demonstrate to themselves that they are something different from which they have become after sixty years of civil war. Sixty years in the medium past. Two centuries in the long republican past. Five centuries in the long colonial past.

For everyone in the country it is common knowledge that the problem started with the country’s vicious colonial occupation. A history that mutated into a half-baked republic. Which transmogrified itself into the theatre of a damaging bipartisan war. Which came to feed, and continues to feed, a rapacious local elite. Which in turn impoverished and continues to impoverish the many.

For everyone in Colombia it is clear that this spiral of destruction has served foreign interests and agendas: earlier to Europeans, later to the United States, today to multinational mining corporations and a global order thirsty for resources of all kinds (see photo 1). For Colombians it is obvious that this concatenation of disastrous events gave birth to and legitimized the emergence of the guerrilla movement, and has sustained its existence until today.


Photo 1: Extraction Yesterday/Today. (Cali, 2015) L. Eslava

Recently, Alfredo Molano, one of the country’s brightest and bravest living sociologist and political thinkers, denounced this history once again.[2. See for example, Santiago Cruz Hoyos, ‘Alfredo Molano, el cronista de la otra cara del conflicto’ (El País, 17 April 2016):]

It was just not simply the longstanding exploitation of peasants by landowners which ignited the guerrilla movement, Molano argued. And it was not just the demonization, by the official political parties, of the peasants’ legitimate claims for recognition and land redistribution. At the root of the guerrilla movement in Colombia lay also the Cold War, warmed up via a series of direct interventions by the US Embassy in the country, local McCarthyism, napalm bombs designed by the Colombian army with expertise from the US (what we call ‘technology transfer’ and ‘collaborative alliances’ today) and, of course, plain orchestrated impoverishment and hunger. The global economy had, after all, decided early on that the country could only produce coffee and bananas. The rest is no more and no less than history.

Sadly, however, for many Colombians this past of violence and dispossession that underpins the guerrilla movement simultaneously legitimized the birth and ongoing operation of paramilitary forces, together with a whole array of other groups: from drug cartels to the so called BACRIMS (bandas criminals—irregular armed groups) and everything in between and beyond.

Always to be found dancing around in the top ten most unequal countries in the world, Colombia contains also several of the most unequal places in the human universe.[3. See, List of Countries by Income equality:] The tic-tac, tic-tac of violence is heard everywhere in the country. However, it is heard louder, and with more rage, in those places and by those people on the bottom of the pile.

Locked into the history of violence and this recalcitrant inequality that I just described, Colombians have slowly learned to live with violence. And they have become resigned to seeing themselves as violent.

Subtle forms of aggression, routine displays of force and appalling class assertions run across the country, manifesting themselves in the summary execution of labour and human rights activists, in the harassment of community leaders and civil society defenders, in the dismemberment of bodies in the Pacific Coast, in Antioquia, in Guaviare. Here and there. Everyday life has become full of fences and private securitization. Dogs on leashes. Bored to death. Badly fed. Ready to attack (see photo 2).


Photo 2: Corner Violence (Bogotá, 2015) L. Eslava

The (official) Colombian army has taken an active part in this culture of violence. From the very beginning of the guerrilla movement it engaged in a dirty war of infiltration, then supported paramilitaries massacres, then exploded in size on receipt of millions of dollars from ‘Plan Colombia’, which displaced millions, militarized the entire country, and bloated its foreign debt to unmanageable proportions.

An afternoon in a shopping center I (Cúcuta, 2015). L. Eslava.

Photo 3: An afternoon in a shopping center I (Cúcuta, 2015). L. Eslava.

An afternoon in a shopping center II (Cúcuta, 2015). L. Eslava.

Photo 4: An afternoon in a shopping center II (Cúcuta, 2015). L. Eslava.

Engaged in an ongoing multi-partisan war in which conquering the minds of people has become a legitimate strategy, the army now enthusiastically tries to ‘mainstream’ its ‘official’ violence. An army officer offering submachine guns to kids to hold in a shopping center is an everyday part of this new normal (see photos 3 and 4). This is ‘community engagement’. ‘Outreach.’ Parents take photos with their mobiles. Officers look brave. Kids smile. The war continues. Violence is embodied, and history hurls its rubble before our feet. This is what Taussig calls ‘law in a lawless land’. It is not lack of law. It is not absence of law. This is a different kind of law.[5. Michael Taussig, Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia (University of Chicago Press, 2003).]

The coming plebiscite gives Colombians an opportunity to say to themselves, to tell each other, that they are more than their stereotypes. To show themselves that they are conscious of their own history—that history that they carry so close to their hearts.

For guerrilla fighters this is also, of course, a moment to show that they are part of a different Colombia. This is crucial, because the country is already full of progressive energies.

The transformative elements of the 1991 Constitution were the outcome of a small yet energized and diverse Colombia which joined together against entrenched conservative interests.[6. See for example, Hernando Gómez Buendía, ‘El Partído de la Constitución’ (El Malpensante, 2011):]

The Afro-Colombian and Indigenous movements have been clear for years that they are already building a different country.

The LGTB and feminist movements in Colombia have won crucial victories and are fighting daily battles against a traditionally aggressive heterosexual macho-state.

The student movement is ready to dream about a different world.

Progressive politicians have struggled for a long time to open the necessary space in which to think a new nation.

Artist have not, and will not, stay quiet (see photo 5).


Photo 5: Tejiendo Colombia (Bogotá, 2016) L. Eslava

Workers, peasants, the self-employed, underemployed and unemployed of the country have always demonstrated that their dignity cannot be taken away that easily, or at least not without marches, blockades, informal stands on the streets, small shops on the corners, community mothers’ groups, and neighborhood associations.

Colombians are not just going to vote in order to support (Sí) o reject (No) the peace agreements that were negotiated in La Habana from September 2012 to August 2016. According to many, the most comprehensive peace agreement ever designed in our modern convoluted history.[7. See for example, Ban Ki-moon, Remarks to the Security Council on Colombia (UN, 21 September 2016):]

Instead, on 2 October the country will decide on which side of history it wants to stand.

Importantly, this is not just about Colombia. Yes, they have given up the bodies. Yes, they have endured the war. But they are metonymic of a larger configuration of power and dispossession or, even better, the dispossession of power in this—our—global moment.

In their vote there will be glimpses of other futures.

Those who vote will testify to a larger history of resistance, a history of recrafting peoples and places beyond historical constraints, which has accompanied Colombians and many of their fellow Southerners (and, increasingly, their impoverished Northerners) for years. This other history, of different ways of understanding their place on this planet and its past, of different ways of being together, first surfaced, in our present ‘international’ world, in the Bandung Conference in 1955, just as the war in Colombia was acquiring its current form. The Tricontinental Conference, whose fiftieth anniversary we are celebrating this year, was even more certain about it.[8. For a powerful account of the influence, horizons and agonies of Bandung and the Tricontinental see, Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York Press, 2007); Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of The Global South (Verso, 2012). See also, Vijay Prashad, ‘A 50-Year Civil War That Killed Over 250,000 and Devastated Colombia Has Finally Reached a Peace Agreement’ (Alternet, 28 September 2016):]

‘[I]n every epoch, the attempt must be made to deliver tradition anew.’[9. Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940):] On 2 October another Colombia and another world become possible.


Luis Eslava is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Kent.

I must thank Rose Parfitt, Paola Andrea Acosta, Jimena Sierra and Paulo Ilich Bacca for their generous suggestions and comments on earlier versions of this draft. All limitations of this post are clearly mine.

1 Comment

  1. Excelente recuento de la historia de nuestro país y relevancia del momento histórico que vivimos con Esperanza. Confiemos que el pueblo colombiano apoyará este cambio de rumbo a nuestra atribulada nación.


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