Reflections on a Friday Afternoon in Late November, 2010
Yesterday I participated in an important forum on transitional justice in Colombia featuring Natalia Springer, a charismatic, bright and attractive woman whose career is filled with well-deserved accolades. Unfortunately, due to travel conditions, her participation was long distance via a jury rigged teleconference, but even at a distance she was compelling. I very much regret not having been able to meet her in person. Her thesis however, although fully synchronous with my beliefs, hopes and aspirations, was one that I cannot fully accept from a pragmatic perspective, a solution to Colombia’s generations-old crisis being so essential to me that with deep distaste I find myself believing that in this instance pragmatism may trump principle.
Essentially, she believes that those who have so thoroughly, ruthlessly and selfishly violated the human rights of the Colombian people during our latest conflicts must be brought to justice and appropriately punished with victims fairly compensated. My heart cries out for the same solution but my head reminds me that in this as in so many other things, the future is more important than the past.
She correctly pointed out that in Colombia amnesties have been a total failure but from my perspective that’s because amnesty alone is never a solution and must be coupled with the institution of effective follow-through in the form of strict enforcement of those societal norms essential to effective social institutions and to the ethical norms she highlighted as having been eviscerated.
I was born in Colombia but at the age of six, due to the violence of that epoch, I was taken to live in the United States of America. My heart and soul, however, refused to leave.
I led a very full life in the United States, all too often too full with major triumphs and devastating disappointments but in any event a much better life than that suffered by too many Colombians: those others who also fled Colombia’s violence as well as the perception that it lacked adequate opportunities. The decision to leave was not mine and truth be told, despite all the people and things I came to love about the United States, I don’t think I ever would have left on my own (other than perhaps to travel and broaden my education).
I returned recently because I could no longer bear to see Colombia’s most important resource, its people, bleeding away to illusory aspirations in a place where not only would they, for the most part, not be appreciated, but where in too many instances they would be despised. My diaspora taught me many things and gave me a sense of perspective difficult for even the brightest and best Colombians who remained to attain; a holistic perspective of Colombia and Colombians, seen from a distance by someone completely in love with them. What I saw most of all was a wonderful future locked securely away, an incredibly beautiful future full of all of our dearest aspirations, a future most attainable by the Colombian people who have so much to offer in a nation so blessed by nature’s bounty. And one of the things I most clearly perceived was that the only way to free that future was by discarding the hideous baggage of the past.
The sins we Colombians are guilty of in our almost uninterrupted internecine strife of the past century (and really much longer than that) are so profound and so widely shared that true justice, that beautiful concept I so love and respect, would need to destroy us all and incomplete justice would be no justice at all. So the only option, distasteful as it is to me, is complete forgiveness, a reboot and a new beginning. But not just any new beginning, a new beginning with clearly identified rules and a total dedication to their enforcement. I think that under the right leader, perhaps Natalia, Colombia’s wonderful people might attain that vision and through that vision, their birthright. The examples Colombians might then provide could help lift the world out of the horrible state in which it finds itself today.
I was trained as a political scientist and in the law and currently serve as acting chair of the department of political and juridical sciences in a Colombian university where, among other things, I teach history of political ideas, comparative governmental systems, international law, human rights law and United States studies. My students give me hope for the future, Colombia’s’ and the world’s, despite the intellectual, ethical, moral and personal “funk” in which I find myself.
I have a problem with modern definitions of democracy and the emphasis placed on democracy as the only form of government capable of attaining a just society based on the greater good and the greater happiness. That is so despite my absolute belief in liberty (a very unrelated concept) and that the popular welfare is the sole justification for any form of government. I just don’t believe that real democracy exists anywhere and, in fact, I am convinced that those governments that most espouse it are most actively involved in its subversion. It may be that real democracy is unattainable right now, especially since the concept has been filled with so many contradictions that it has become a beautiful box bereft of any real content. If that reality cannot be changed another alternative may prove necessary albeit one I at least cannot yet envisage; perhaps a transitional democracy but one where the term democracy is realistic, consistent and logical; something I do not believe exits today even among the most well-meaning adherents of that political philosophy.
I especially have a problem with the propagandist perspective of self-proclaimed exemplars purporting to illustrate modern democracy but which instead seem to involve varying degrees of self-serving oligarchies controlling most purportedly democratic political institutions and entities. I earnestly believe in justice, equality, fairness, liberty and the need to attain universal well-being and happiness, I earnestly believe in rights: human, social, cultural and natural. But I see little hope in their attainment through today’s political institutions whose primary characteristic from my perspective is an orthodox hypocrisy.
I realize just how pessimistic I sound but that’s not an accurate reflection of who I am or the future I can almost taste, the future perhaps hidden around the corner behind that locked door but straining to break free. Perhaps what’s most frustrating to me is that there is not just one answer to the problems I perceive but that there are so many; so many good, viable answers and that they come from so many different perspectives but that like the future whose echoes call to me, they too are stifled behind a locked door which desperately needs to be breached.
Perhaps if I ever get to meet Natalia Springer she can open up vistas I’ve failed to perceive.
 © Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2010; all rights reserved