Here is a translation of a piece that several people have e-mailed to me over the past few days. It is an open letter to Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez from William Ospina, a noted Colombian writer and poet. It ran in Sunday’s edition of the Colombian magazine Cromos.
Ospina’s message is that ChÃ¡vez has committed a grave error by seeking to confer political legitimacy on Colombia’s guerrillas without first demanding dramatic changes in their behavior. Coming from a messenger who recognizes that social injustice is very real in Colombia, distrusts Ãlvaro Uribe, and even claims to admire ChÃ¡vez, Ospina’s gentle but firm message is several times stronger than any rage-filled speech from President Uribe.
A Letter for President ChÃ¡vez
By William Ospina
Cromos magazine, January 20, 2008
I have always thought, unlike the Colombian government, that Colombia has an armed conflict that must be resolved through a political negotiation.
I have always thought – without erasing the many crimes they have committed and continue to commit – that the guerrillas had, at their start, a political reason for their insurgency.
I have always believed that the Colombian state’s management of this conflict was wrong from the start. Even the current government, through the voice of the President of the Republic, has admitted that one of the causes of the guerrillas’ existence was the state’s irresponsibility, its lack of commitment to guarantee the community’s rights, the lack of state presence in many regions of the country.
I believe that many decades of exclusion, lack of opportunities, and a regime of privileges for some sectors and vulnerability for others favored a climate in Colombia in which violence was a recourse to settle all kinds of conflicts.
The current government has repeated many times that it is making a serious effort to correct everything that its predecessors did not know how to confront during so much time, and I think it is true that there is an effort on behalf of authority, administration, and justice. Today, nobody can deny that violence, kidnapping and massacres have diminished in Colombia, and that state forces’ presence is felt more firmly throughout the territory.
However, we are far from having achieved a democracy like the one we truly need. In the regions [that is, away from major cities], the electoral system is still captured by all kinds of pressures and violent actors. Many supporters of the current government have also been supporters of paramilitarism, which produced a genuine holocaust during the last twenty years in Colombia. Many more are complicit in vast, intricate phenomena of corruption.
For this reason, I believe that we are in no condition to say that ours is an exemplary democracy, or that there are no reasons to criticize it. In fact, in his own discourse the President of the Republic himself has undone many things that his political philosophy claims to support. He has shown himself capable of using words like “guerrillas” and “bandits” to describe members of Congress elected by popular will, who are doing nothing but exercising their right to oppose him politically while respecting constitutional norms.
Under these conditions it is fair for one still to doubt whether the Colombian state has been able to reform its old exclusionary and corrupt practices, which have even included open resort to violence to persecute and silence the opposition. None ignore that the National Front [a power-sharing arrangement between the Liberal and Conservative parties, 1958-1974], which gave Colombia peace for fifteen years, was later taken away for thirty because it incubated many of today’s evils. By closing off democracy, it stimulated the growth of insurgent forces, cleared the way for corruption, turned the state into a bipartisan collusion free of oversight, and once again stimulated – as in the times of La Violencia – the practice of privatized justice through support for self-defense groups that degenerated into all sorts of paramilitary phenomena.
There are important intellectuals who think that in moments when the state is undergoing a transformation, it must be helped along by silencing criticisms and celebrating each and every one of its advances. I think that is a mistake. When the evils have been so many and have gone on for so long, democracy will only go forward if every citizen understands that democratic advances are not generous concessions from the state, but rights that have been delayed for too long. It is more necessary than ever to point out errors in order to help the community’s knowledge of its rights to ripen.
For thirty years, since the beginning of the National Front, Colombia did nothing more than accumulate problems that nobody resolved. The guerrillas of the FARC, ELN, EPL, and M-19, narcotrafficking, corruption, and paramilitarism were the outcome of that era of passable administrative activity but total political ineptitude when it came to confronting problems and finding democratic solutions.
The first priority of political solutions is to guarantee the greatest possible citizen tranquility. Here, instead, war was seen as the only mechanism for managing problems that have objective causes, which had – we could say – a primitive political justification. Who today can deny that all these guerrillas were born from an exclusionary state and an authoritarian society in which some did not stop believing in citizens’ rights, and in which union members’ rights were denied, as were the students’ arguments and the campesinos’ demands, which were all stupidly and gratuitously dismissed as “agitation” and terrorism?
Through these means, many sectors were pushed into succumbing to resentment, and the hatred that these campesinos and rebels feel toward the state grew worse. Even more serious: decade after decade the hatreds were fed by reciprocal distrust, until some minor conflicts turned into a gigantic war, which has not ceased to exist just because some people refuse to call it by this name.
The Colombian government affirms that in the past five years, between 50,000 and 70,000 illegal fighters have demobilized. Shouldn’t this make us Colombians think that we have been living through a conflict, that in fact we have passed through a very deep crisis, and that some of the elements that motivated that crisis have still not been removed from the scene?
And now, in the past few days, and moved – I’m sure – by your willingness to help Colombia overcome its problems, you, Mr. President, have made two affirmations about which I think it is necessary to think deeply. First, you have said that the existence of the conflict must be recognized, and even that the FARC’s and ELN’s character as insurgent armies must be recognized. Maybe this is true, because I think that only by recognizing them as political adversaries is it possible to have a political negotiation with them. But it is clear that the guerrillas themselves must take the first step, by freeing all the hostages whom they are maintaining in subhuman conditions, and by demonstrating that they will follow – not as an external imposition but as an intimately held conviction – the norms of International Humanitarian Law.
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