There are bigger and more desperate caravans in the world trying to abandon wretched lands than the ones from Central America that President Trump paints as gangs of terrorists, drug dealers and criminals. Most importantly, neighboring countries try to accommodate the influx of people driven by hunger and despair. Each day, 50,000 Venezuelans enter Columbia in search of food and medicines that are not available in their country. One tenth of them leave Venezuela for good. More than 3 million Venezuelans have gone since 2015; 1.2 million have been accepted and resettled in Columbia. Not unlike Trump, in 2015 the authoritarian leader of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, shut down the border with Columbia claiming that it was used by criminal gangs to smuggle price-controlled gasoline out of Venezuela. The border was re-opened a year later, and thousands cross each day on foot over two bridges. Many others use clandestine trails across the river.
For anyone who spends a little time in Columbia as I just did, it is hard to ignore the reality of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who are trying to rebuild their lives in a foreign country. Their only consolation is that Columbians speak the same language and try to help in many ways. Many young Venezuelans become vendedores or sellers of water, beer and trinkets in Cartagena and on other Caribbean beaches. Many find jobs in Medellin, an emerging economic powerhouse that once was the cocaine kingdom of Pablo Escobar, whose life and brutal deeds now generate a substantial tourist trade. More than 220,000 people died as a result of the drug wars since 1960. Escobar was finally killed by police in 1993. Medellin was the epicenter of his cocaine business, supplying 80 percent of America’s coke.
Columbia is a relatively peaceful country at this time but the roots of the cocaine trade have hardly been eradicated. There still are many channels of cocaine produced in the hinterland that come to the shores and find their way to the United States and other countries. The guerrilla war that lasted six decades between the Columbian state and the left wing guerrillas of FARC created no fewer than 260,000 victims. Columbia was the battleground of Latin America, with a massive number of murders, massacres and terrorist attacks. These days, the tourists that disembark daily from three cruise ships in Cartagena have no idea that so much blood was shed in this beautiful tropical country. They hardly know that most of those victims were civilians. The killers were the Marxist guerrillas and the paramilitary forces that fought them.
In August 2016, a peace agreement between the government and FARC was signed after lengthy negotiations in Havana. It was submitted to a referendum in October, but a narrow majority of Columbians rejected it. A month later, President Santos and FARC signed a revised peace deal, and both houses of Congress ratified it without holding a second referendum. The spadework for the negotiated end of the conflict had been done by President Alvaro Uribe, who enjoyed wide popular support. His successor Juan Manuel Santos signed the peace agreement that called for the cessation of hostilities and the surrender of weapons by the guerrillas. The central issue that was settled was the guerrillas’ acceptance of the political institutions that FARC had rejected and fought for decades. The demobilized FARC was able to register as a political party that received public financial assistance. The political arrangements, however, have not placated the opposition of the majority who voted against the referendum and continues to harbor resentment toward former President Santos for his inability to achieve a true and effective surrender of arms from the former guerrillas. People say that he got nothing in return.
It is quite apparent that the distrust is very much alive and hangs like a Damocles sword over the new and future governments. The other issue is that FARC continues to be involved in the drug trafficking business. It is well known that FARC elements work with Mexican cartels to smuggle cocaine to the United States.
Columbia appears to be a country in suspended animation. It still has terrorism of the sort that FARC employed and at least one guerrilla movement, ELN (National Liberation Army), is active under the leadership of Catholic priests, as revolutionaries devoted to the cause of liberation theology. Last month ELN car bombed the police academy in Bogota, killing 21 cadets. This action put a damper on negotiations that the new president Ivan Duque was hoping to start by following the model of the peace dialogue with FARC.
A simplistic rendition of the future of Columbia is that the country will continue to live dangerously. Its social and economic progress will complement the twin source of wealth incorporated in tourism and coca. Columbia also extracts oil, coal and rare minerals. It is Latin America’s third largest economy. Just as in Spanish colonial times, when Cartagena was the principal shipping port of the new continent’s gold to Europe, Columbia is the gateway between the South and the North.
One thing the visitor is reminded of is that Columbia is the only two-ocean country in South America. The poverty rate has fallen and well-financed government programs are pushing education. A middle class is rising. Most dramatically, it seems that the country has finally shaken off the cycle of violence and the bloody convulsions of the struggle against the guerrillas. They may still keep their weapons hidden, as everyone knows, but they are slowly being assimilated into the civil society with the assistance of organizations such as ARN, the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization. It is a novel approach aimed at reintegrating former FARC guerrillas and members of paramilitary groups. In a real sense, everyday life shows that Columbia has emerged from the shadow of the drug king Escobar and embraced the revival spirit of her beloved son, the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.