Author: Tom Feiling
Review by: Kirk Bowman, Jon R. Wilcox Professor of Soccer and Global Politics, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Tech; Founder and Director, Rise Up & Care
Colombia is likely the most interesting country of Latin America and a beacon of optimism and hope in a rather dreary world.
After nearly 60 years of the “violencia” (1948-58), narco-violence and civil war (1964-2016) that together claimed half-a-million lives, displaced 8 million people and still produces more land-mine casualties per year than any place outside of Afghanistan, Colombia appears to be embarking on a new positive trajectory. Colombia is Caribbean, Atlantic, and Pacific, and as the heart of the Americas with 50 million inhabitants a sustained and enduring peace would be transformative for the hemisphere.
This singular historic moment attracted me to this Andean nation where I interviewed dozens of Colombians in 2016. The common observation across the class and political spectrum was the desire to shift the national narrative and discourse of violence to a narrative and discourse of optimism and peace.
I read a number of books, both fiction and nonfiction, to try and understand the emergence and construction of the hegemonic discourse of violence. Feiling’s Short Walks from Bogotá is an intelligent and compelling explanation of the conditions and incentives that produced a culture of violence. It also offers some hope for Colombia and the region and would benefit anyone interested in the country, region or cycles of violence.
Feiling travels to villages and towns that were until recently too dangerous to explore and introduces a range of characters and stories that are shocking, ruthless, and insightful. Combining the 11 chapters of short walks builds a complex portrait of a country that is both tired of violence but that has violence and impunity as part of its cultural and political DNA.
Much of the violence of the past 60 years is in large part a cycle of vengeance whereby young men experienced the violent death of a father or other family member and subsequently joined or formed leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, or death squads to avenge their loss.
Like One Hundred Years of Solitude [reviewed here by Global Atlanta editor Trevor Williams], at some point the ideologies and political causes dissolve. After six decades of extreme cruelty and violence, nearly everyone in the country has a reason to seek vengeance and inflict death on others. At the same time, the weariness of violence and vengeance may be producing conditions for an end of these endless cycles of massacres, tortures, and assassinations.
Feiling published this work long before the current peace process bore fruit and President Juan Manuel Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. We would be wise to remember one of the constant themes of Short Walks from Bogotá, that peace in Colombia will not come from the top down, from peace accords, or from government programs.
The United States has spent billions of dollars to weaken the leftist guerrillas and battle the narco-traffickers. Plan Colombia and a military solution may help end the civil war, but it will neither transform the national narrative nor end the violence. A real transformation of Colombia will come from civil society, from below, and from common people making the uncommon choice to forgive and to reject an eye for an eye.
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