One out of every nine Colombians took to the streets of the country’s main cities on Thursday. They were called to march by President Uribe himself, though the event wasn’t completely stage-managed: members of the opposition participated as well. In MedellÃn, they were serenaded by pop star Juanes. In BogotÃ¡ and Cali, seas of people dressed in white filled the plazas and the main avenues.
Millions of people gathered to – well, to do what exactly?
- Certainly, they rejected the practice of kidnapping and called on the FARC guerrillas to release all hostages in their custody. This outcome is unlikely; the FARC’s extreme indifference to public opinion is a key reason why the group has never stood a chance of taking power. Still, it is important that Colombians issue constant, unanimous and public rejections of the brutal tactic of hostage-taking.
- As President Uribe had requested, many took to the streets to support his government’s hard line. They shouted a resounding “no” to a negotiated exchange of prisoners in a demilitarized zone, refusing to give an inch to the guerrillas. This is a tough, consistent position, though it offers almost no hope of winning freedom for the guerrillas’ hostages. The chance of a successful military rescue of all 47 of the FARC’s so-called “political” hostages is microscopically slim.
- Some, including the hostages’ relatives, gathered to call for a negotiated “humanitarian exchange,” which would take place in a temporarily demilitarized zone. While it doesn’t show as much “firmness” against the guerrillas and may not even succeed, this option offers the most hope for freeing the FARC hostages.
- While a minority marched Thursday to try to score political points for “their side,” the vast majority of the participants simply wanted to grieve and to voice their outrage. All directed this outrage at the FARC, who bear the responsibility for this tragedy. Some directed outrage also at the Colombian government, which has made the situation worse with a strange combination of hard-headed stubbornness and occasional displays of willingness to make concessions.
Thursday’s protests showed Colombians unified in their grief and anger. But they also showed extreme polarization. Sociologist Juan Carlos Guerrero Bernal vividly described the division in an online column for Semana magazine.
A close observation of some of the placards in the Plaza de BolÃvar [in central BogotÃ¡] was enough to notice this division. Those of the relatives of the policemen and other hostages called for a demilitarized zone and a humanitarian exchange accord, and rejected an all-out rescue attempt. By their sides, clusters of Uribistas carried slogans calling for firmness against the terrorists of the FARC, such as the rejection of any demilitarized zone. As the shouting quieted and the crowd of people in white shirts began to return to their jobs, the difference between both positions became more visible and audible.
Increasingly alone in the middle of the Plaza de BolÃvar, in an new attempt to be heard with firmness, pain and desperation, the relatives of the hostages yelled through megaphones: “The people say it and they’re right, a humanitarian accord is the solution.” Not far away, every once in a while, the President’s sympathizers replied: “Uribe, friend, the people are with you.”
Elsewhere, Semana asks some of the big questions left by Thursday’s protests.
The question today is, will this be of any use? What does it mean that more than five million Colombians went out to demonstrate against kidnapping and the FARC? Is this the role that a society should play against the constant whiplashes of violence? Who or what will capitalize on this gigantic collective expression of pain and solidarity? Could this be the beginning of something big that we still have yet to glimpse? Or is is simply an expression of pain, ephemeral and spontaneous, from a society that will soon return to normality, and whose memories will be nothing but headlines in the press?
Right now, with so much polarization and lack of clarity about what to do next, last Thursday looks more like a catharsis than a turning point.
It will be interesting to see whether, as a result of the past few weeks’ events, Colombians’ attitudes about negotiating a humanitarian exchange have shifted at all. In April [big PowerPoint file], the last time Colombia’s Invamer-Gallup polling firm asked urban respondents with telephones whether they supported a “humanitarian exchange” negotiation, 48 percent were in favor and 46 percent were opposed. Opinions have been similarly divided for about 2 1/2 years.
Citing data from a poll taken Friday (numbers that we have not seen elsewhere in Colombia’s press), Semana columnist Guerrero reported that 60 percent of respondents now favor a humanitarian exchange. However, only 27 percent support an exchange if negotiations must take place in a demilitarized zone.
Colombians showed impressive unity this week in their rejection of violence. But they remain bitterly divided about where to go from here.