Colombia Was a World Pioneer in Peace Processes

June 13, 2018

Photo credit: Richard McColl

Robert Karl's book Forgotten Peace has been released in Spanish translation as La paz olvidada. He spoke with Colombian newspaper El Espectador about the book and its significance for Colombia's national conversation on violence, peace, and the past.

"Colombia Was a World Pioneer in Peace Processes": Robert Karl

By Lina Britto, El Espectador

Almost two decades of scouring public and private archives led the historian Robert Karl to conclude, against the grain, in his book Forgotten Peace, that the country was a model of reconciliation. He spoke from the United States about the hopes that led to peace and the disappointments that led once more to war, and the clues that our past gives us in the present.

A dark cityscape of empty avenues and street dwellers was what initially attracted Robert Karl to Colombia. It was a photograph of downtown Bogotá displayed in an exhibition at Harvard University, his alma mater. Months later, he visited the city for the first time, and one Sunday night he found himself walking alone inside that image. And the young historian realized that his path lay in that connection made of memory and reality, that connection between him and a country in twilight.

After years of archival research and interviews, informal conversations, published articles, conferences, and even failed drafts, Karl offers us a light on our riddle: La paz olvidada : Políticos, letrados, campesinos y el surgimiento de las FARC en la formación de la Colombia contemporánea (Lerner, 2018). The book, initially published in English [Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence, and the Making of Contemporary Colombia (University of California Press, 2017)], is a journey through the hopes and efforts of different sectors that wagered on peace to put an end to what we call today La Violencia. And it is also the study of a process of disenchantment, of political moves and entrenched interests that led to the loss of hope and the return of war with its unrelenting logic.

From the panoramic perspective of history, Robert Karl, now a professor at Princeton University, spoke to El Espectador about the lessons and warnings that forgotten peace of the late 1950s and early 1960s has for Colombia, which is once again debating between an imperfect peace and a perfect war.

Your book is very provocative, because it starts from a premise that seems illogical, namely that Colombia, a country that for nationals and foreigners is synonymous with conflict and violence, was also an example of processes of peace, memory and reconciliation, because decades before Central America and the Southern Cone, with their dictatorships and truth commissions, stood us Colombians and La Violencia. Tell us about that argument.

The argument has two parts, because I differentiate between violence as an idea and violence as practice. As an idea, the biggest revelation is that La Violencia, in capital letters, did not exist at the time. It was a category later created by a generation of intellectuals politically committed to the construction of peace and of a memory of what had happened. And in terms of violence as a practice, the biggest discovery is about the origins of the FARC, which is not part of the history of the Cold War, or at least not completely. That image of the FARC as [FARC leader] Jacobo Arenas and the class struggle breaks down when we look at what [FARC founder] Tirofijo was doing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the petitions he sent (to the government) that dealt with cattle rustling and the civil rights that authorities were violating. That is, their concerns were local. There was some anti-oligarchic discourse, but it was not very marked, it was not what one associates with communism.

 Read the full interview in English translation.

Read the original article in Spanish.


Robert Karl's book "La Paz Olvidada" (Forgotten Peace). Photo credit: Libreria Lerner

Photo credit: Libreria Lerner