when and where words fail

Reading this book (Stephen Dudley’s Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerilla Politics in Colombia) was both depressing and exhilarating, which I guess is a good a phrase as any for encapsulating the Colombian experience.

The other week I was sitting with some co-workers by a pool and they began clamoring for me to tell them a story. “Una his-to-ria! Una his-to-ria!” they chanted, banging the white plastic table with their hands and almost knocking over the empty beer cans. I desperately tried to think of something, but unsurprisingly it was mildly difficult, being put on the spot like that. I replied (much to their chagrin) that I would get back to them once I had thought of something. For the rest of the evening, I kept trying to think of what story I could tell. Something about my childhood, about what it was like to grow up in Colombia? About what it was now like being back, in a vaguely “adult”-like role? What stories did I have about Colombia? Words seemed to fail me.

The one classic anecdote I keep referring to, again and again, as it’s the one that seemed to induce the most raised eyebrows and exclamations of surprise among my fellow college freshmen or CTY classmates, is that of the mafiosos that lived across the street from our house, behind the giant stoned walls. They had a collection of exotic pets, including a peacock, a spider monkey (it once attacked some guests that were arriving for a dinner party at my parents’ house, and (at one point) a lion that roared. All of these animals seem paltry compared to Pablo Escobar’s collection of exotic animals, especially the tragic anecdote of Pepe the “narco” hippo. (Fortunately, his companion Orion seems to be alive and well.) To me, the story of Pepe captures the fundamental spirit of Colombia, the weird mixture of absurdity and violence that’s difficult to summarize.

This is a very well-written, excellently researched book, albeit with a devastating conclusion. To put it simply, this book is about the creation of the Union Patriotica, a political party that was meant to intergrate the FARC into the mainstream political process, thus enabling the guerrilla forces to lay down their arms. However, due to a systematic extermination of party members (by government, paramilitary and narco forces alike, sometimes all three working together at the same time), the FARC ended up retreating further into the jungle and the mountains and there’s the situation as we know it today. The FARC now exists solely as a military endeavor with no political aspirations to speak of. The conclusion is depressing because we’re left with the feeling that there really is no end in sight to Colombian violence. The FARC can now use the UP as justification as to why they could never reform into a political party, and thus the armed struggle (financed by kidnapping and narco trafficking) is the only one that will work (even at the time of the UP extermination, it seemed to be in the interest of some FARC leaders for UP members to be murdered, because it would further justify the need for a guerrilla army). What’s worse is that Colombia is left without a genuine third party alternative, and instead it’s just an endless recycling of Liberal vs. Conservative candidates, the established oligarcy (though I guess I don’t see how this is all that different from the U.S.).

The current political situation in Colombia is one I’m still trying to understand, after years of ignoring it more than I should have. I first heard the word “guerrilla” on the kindergarten playground, when one of my childhood playmates commented matter-of-factly that she could hear the “guerrilla fighting” around her finca (or rural farm that most rich/middle-class Colombians own). My head was filled with images of gorrillas beating their chests and baring their teeth, like I’d seen in images on the Betamax tapes my grandma mailed use from the States.

Dudley does a good job at filling me in. Throughout the book he has a mouth-watering access to sources that range from revered Communist party members, high-ranking FARC generals and paramilitary leaders. The main thing I kept thinking while reading of this book was “why the heck didn’t we learn any of this in Colmundo?” (our senior year Colombian history class) The main thing I remember about that class is desperately memorizing timelines and years in which presidents were elected. There’s a part near the end of this book in which the intrepid author/reporter speaks with some younger-generation Colombianos about the Union Patriotica (the political party started by FARC members; the “political genocide” of party members is the book’s primary subject matter), only to be greeted with blank faces. “To them, the UP was little more than an asterisk in a book, a brief mention in a newspaper article, a segue in a lecture.” (180) And this attitude only ten years after the UP presidential candidate was murdered by a “suizo” (suicide) assasin in the Bogota airport! Those blank faces could have easily been mine before reading this, and possibly any of my high school classmates. That… that’s sad. Dudley astutely points that that “in most countries, a politically motivated assasination would have been front-page news.” (180) Here he seems to be approaching the core of Colombia’s culture or attitude towards violence: there’s just so much of it, at a certain you just go numb and start blotting it out.

Dudley also gives excellent historical context to Colombia’s violent, politically troubled history. It left me wanting to read a straightfoward history book about Colombia; strangely enough there’s not a lot of them out there. It’s especially interesting to think about the “dirty war” of the paramilitaries in Colombia in the context of the other “dirty wars” going on at the time in Central American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala. Sometimes it feels like my generation (or maybe it’s just me) keeps forgetting how strong and prevalent the “fear of Communism” was in the 50’s and 60’s. It seems utterly surreal and bizarre to me, but it was a very, very present fear and preocupation in those days, the communists vs. the capitalists. There’s interesting discussions throughout the book of Marxism vs. Stalinism. “The principle of Marxism is that there is incessant change; everything is in movement… Marx said don’t try to accomodate reality to the theory; do the opposite. But Stalin, he decided to make Marx a religion.” (229) Thus everything becomes very dogmatic with Stalinism. One of the problems with the FARC seems to be is that the y chose Stalinism over Marxism, leading to very rigid policies and little room for adaptability to current situations (i.e., taking into account that they’re murdering the campesinos they’re supposedly fighting for).

Much is made in this book of Colombia’s long and troubled history of violence. Dudley consistenly muses on how “what’s amazing is that the majority of UP militants seemed to accept these initial fatalities as part of the business of doing politics in Colombia.” (93) It made me think of The Hurt Locker, a movie that I haven’t really thought about since seeing it last year, and its troubling depicton of war and violence as addictive. That war-as-drug theme feels a lot more real to me after reading this book.

Colombia’s history of violence also made me think about 10th-grade AP Politics class, doing research about the UK, and learning that they didn’t actually have a written constitution (I hope I’m remembering this correctly). As in, the only basis for government decision is not based on anything officially written down, but simply what’s always been down in the historical precedent. There are weird echoes of the power of historical tradition in Colombia. Apparently the Colombian constitution is considered one of the most liberal in Latin America, guaranteeing equal and sovereign rights for indigenous groups, but what actually happens vs. what is written is dramatically differently when you have nearly two centuries worth of politically-based murder (the UP was guaranteed protection by the government in the Constitution, but look how well that turned out).

Another reason to treasure this book is the trove of surreal anecdotes, so completely and utterly and indescribably Colombian. There’s the FARC commander who carries a pendulum around and uses it to make all his decisions, as well as to if his food is poisoned. There’s the surreal detail about the FARC buying its weapons from the “neighborhood store” in Bogota, during its lean early years. There’s the mega concert that takes place in FARC territory, in which the rebels provide concert security Hells Angel-style (some of them carrying cameras instead of rifles), and the controlers of the “legendary water cannons” take “special care not to wet the guerrillas” while drenching the attendees. (174) Or there’s the visit Dudley pays to a Communist party member who’s on an extreme diet with his wife and they both ogle Dudley’s huevos pericos, before relating an anecdote about finding an old buried cementery with his father in the middle of a parking lot. (185)

My favorite character in this book was Sebastian, maybe because he reminded me of myself, or of a boy I could have easily had a crush on in high school: skinny, idealist, intellectual. He talks about his years as a FARC and UP militant the same way most people talk about their college experiences. calling it the best five yars of his life: “It was like I entered the real world, you know… It was like I’d gotten a graduate degree in defending the people who were getting ***ed by the establishment.”  The early days of the FARC in the 1980’s, back when it still held romantic appeal for many, is paralleled with Sebastian’s own youth, who was in “the prime of his life” during the years in which he organized theatre performances and taught FARC soldiers math and birth control methods (just for the record, telling a girl to swallow an uncooked lentil is not a viable form of birth control). His decline is paralleled with that of the FARC’s political idealism: by the book’s end, he’s selling “miniature replicas of famous Colombian churches that his neighbor made from clay,” living in a tiny apartment and struggling with alcoholism, much in the manner of a traumatized Vietnam vet. There’s a Bildingsroman novel in the style of El juguete rabioso lurking in here somewhere…

The most heartbreaking sections in this book (among many) are those that detail the slaughter the ordinary people of who made up the UP party: at a certain point the typical members became “young, energetic, idealistic… most of all, anti-war,” (134), people who could just as easily be you or me. Young university students, mayors of rural towns who wanted to pave their roads, people who didn’t like the way things were going. Imagine if you could get shot/raped/tortured for voting for Nader, and you might have a rough approximation of what it’s like to be a supporter of third-party politics in Colombia.
The sections about the paramilitaries are especially eerie and fascinating to read. There’s strong echoes of Blackwater (which I’m going to have to read more about) in the U.S. dealings with the paramilitary groups in Colombia. There’s a terrifying passage in which paramilitaries discuss how they’ve been hired to protect “business interests” in Colombia, particulary those of international companies (some of those listed include Texaco, whose name pops up again and again in this book in relation to narco and p.m. groups, Coca Cola, and Chiquita. This is the part that really freaked me out, drawn from Dudley’s interview with a famed p.m. leader:
“By working closely with U.S.-trained troops and protecting U.S. business interests, Castano seemed to be sending a message to what he liked to call ‘our neighbors to the north.’ He loved the United States. After Colombia, it was his favorite country. He dreamt of living there and studying sociology. He also admired the way the U.S. took charge of its own security… it was a feeling that many Colombians shared.” (201)
This is a guy that led close to ten thousand soliders, was heavily involved in narco trafficking and helped eliminate an entire political party, including a presidential candidate. There’s another paramilitary who’s particulary Bolano-esque, getting involved in the rare art trade, forging relationships with the world’s cultural and economic elite, and traveling frequently to galleries in New York and Paris. The relationship between dirty politics/wars and arts left me with a strong icky feeling, like I needed to take a shower.

Dudley frequently touches upon the bizarre Colombian tendency to forgive the paramilitaries for their actions and exonerate them for their crimes. As one judge puts it (re: the p.ms,) “At least they have some ideals. They’re fighting the guerrillas. Yeah, sometimes they do things they shouldn’t. But whatever.” (204) Dudley goes into more depth with his analysis of Colombian political culture in one particulary striking passage:

“Colombia’s politics has been called ‘the politics of anesthesia.’ There is so much death that people simply turn it off; they stop feeling. You see it in politicians that disreguard death threats. You see it in wealthy city dwellers who ignore the increasing poverty and murder in the countryside. You see it in the newspapers who bury the constant reports of massacres, bombings, and combat. The anesthesia only wears off when they’re directly affected by the war or when someone prods them with a stick. I would get berated by Colombians who thought international journalists were “only showing the bad side.” What other side was there? I would ask. But then, after a while, I understood why they had gotten angry with me. What choice do they have? This is their country, and the easiest way to deal with the everyday violence is to ignore it.” (180)

Yeah. This sounds like my childhood in a nutshell. There’s a certain point where art, where words, where reporting seems to just plain fail. While interviewing UP party members with family members that had been assasinated, Dudely succintly wraps up the section with a simple observation: “Others told similarly horrifying stories. There’s not enough room in one book to write them down.” (190) I guess at a certain point, words just fail you.

Mostly, the feeling I’m left with after reading this book is overwhelming sadness, at how violence begets violence. As one of the Communist party members who were integral to the formation of the UP  puts it, “Violence has its own dynamic, its own engine that can lead to the destruction of its very promoters. Violence escapes from the grasp of those who use it. It’s like a snowball that ends up finishing off everything. That’s why I’m decidedly against taking justice into your own hands.” (229)

And then in face of all the turmoil and havoc this book depicts, there’s my family. I kept turning to Corey while reading this and saying “I can’t believe that my parents stayed in Colombia for so long!!” Talk about putting a fresh perspective on things. I guess they managed to do so by living the way they did: a quiet, low-key lifestyle. I remember what I LOVED about CTY nerd camp sessions in the U.S. was those group trips where you walk through downtown Baltimore or wherever to the record store or to get an ice cream. Yeah, it sounds overdramatic, but it felt like a huge deal to me just to be able to walk through a city. There was an incredible sense of FREEDOM and LIBERATION when I went to college in the U.S. that I haven’t really thought about in a while, mainly because I’ve come to take it for granted. But I can’t blame my parents for that isolation, you know? There’s children in this book who spend their lives living behind giant walls, politicians that have seventy bodyguards. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to put these stories together in a coherent form, to make them make sense.

Other books this book made me want to read:

Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill
Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden
The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself by David Bushnell (what a title, huh?)
More Terrible Than Death: Massacre, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia by Robin Kirk (Dudley cites this one especially)
Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth by Jenny Pearce (published in 1990, might be dated)


Filed under books, colombia, non-fiction, social justice

2 responses to “when and where words fail

  1. robpacker

    Really interesting blog and makes me want to read the book. I know exactly what you mean about a general history on Colombia – so little out there. I’ve recently moved to the country and it makes contextualizing so difficult. But even if you did have the definitive history, half of the people you speak to would say half of it was wrong.

  2. oooooh, steve, please hire me.

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