Meet the New Colombia?

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Families gather in a local park punctuated by a clear, freshwater stream, in the heart of Cali, Colombia’s third largest city. A few miles away, mountains form the city’s natural border. A group of students are enjoying the atmosphere with Professor of Political Science Russell Crandall. Crandall points out that the armed guerrilla groups they’ve been hearing about—the Marxist FARC and ELN, and Bacrims, bands of former paramilitary fighters—inhabit those very mountains.

The juxtaposition of the idyllic scene and potential violence is striking, and illustrative of the many contradictions within this country of more than 47 million people.

Each year, Crandall invites Davidson students to witness and explore first-hand those contradictions, as well as the economic and social development that has taken place in Latin America’s oldest democracy, through the “Colombia Staff Ride,” a trip during which students meet with high level government officials, former guerrillas, leaders of NGOs, journalists and others working to transform Colombia.

The Colombia trips originated out of Crandall’s “Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies” seminar. Crandall, who previously served as Principal Director for the Western Hemisphere at the U.S. Department of Defense and as President Barack Obama’s national security aide for the Andes, has parlayed his connections into a unique educational opportunity.

“I’ve been able to rely upon colleagues and friends from government and academia that help us to pursue this academic visit, and give us remarkable access,” Crandall says.

The experience, made possible in large part because of the support of Colombian nationals and Davidson College alumni Eduardo Estrada ’03 and Gustavo Orozco-Lince ’14, provides a nuanced view of the Andean nation, as well as an appreciation for the complexities of international diplomacy.

Daniel Merrill ’14 is among the students looking out at the mountains beyond Cali. “It’s never really as far away as you think,” Merrill says of the guerrilla fighting.

Currently a medical student, Merrill was the only biology major on the 2014 staff ride. Merrill brought a different perspective from his peers, who were mostly political science majors.

Colombia boasts the greatest biodiversity in the world, with its rich ecosystems and varied climate zones. Merrill explains that the country’s biodiversity is threatened primarily by the coca cultivation and cocaine production that cause toxic cocktails of chemicals to leach into the soil and rivers. Making matters worse, the efforts to combat drug production—spraying of herbicides to eradicate the hearty coca crops or planting alternative crops to replace the destroyed coca—have their own environmental side effects.

“In an attempt to promote alternatives to the relatively lucrative coca plantings, they are bringing in invasive plants that jeopardize the health of some of the local plant species, some of which may have never been catalogued and may have medicinal value,” he says, adding that there are concerns about the long-term health effects of the herbicides.

The controversial, U.S.-backed program to eliminate the indigenous plant whose leaves are used in the manufacture of cocaine is part of a multi-pronged strategy to combat Colombian drug cartels and insurgent groups. And by most accounts, the strategy is working.

Believe in Colombia

Colombia has come a long way in just a decade. Kidnappings have dropped by 95 percent to about 200 per year. Murders are down by half, tracking at a rate last seen in 1984, Crandall says.

The country boasts a solid economy with sustainable growth rates. Along with 60 percent of the world’s emeralds and the enchanting magical realism of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia exports coffee, petroleum, bananas, sugar, digital services and counterinsurgency expertise.

In the 1980s, at the height of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror, his hometown Medellin was among the most violent cities in the world. It now boasts a thriving fashion industry, clean, efficient public transportation and a library that allows patrons to check out books without providing identification, on their honor.

Pedro Medina

Pedro Medina

Despite 50 years of armed conflict, Colombians are among the most happy people in the world; in fact, twice as happy as the global average according to a WIN/Gallup International Association poll. The country ranked first out of 54 nations in the “Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness” category.

It’s not surprising then that Colombia produced Pedro Medina, the very embodiment of hope. The Davidson contingent spent time with Medina, founder of the NGO Yo Creo en Colombia (I Believe in Colombia), at La Minga, Medina’s eco-friendly retreat located outside of Bogota.

Medina, whose education includes bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Virginia and a degree in hamburgerology from McDonald’s Hamburger University, set out to “change the mind of a nation” in 1999.

At the time, Medina was a professor of business strategy and entrepreneurial development and general manager of all of the McDonald’s restaurants in Colombia. When he asked his students how many of them planned to remain in Colombia, the majority countered with a question—‘why should we stay?’

Unable to provide a compelling answer, Medina left the class determined to create an initiative that would inspire pride in Colombia among its people and enhance the country’s image worldwide.

Yo Creo en Colombia has met with enthusiasm and success. Speaking engagements take Medina and his staff to every corner of the country, and he has trained upward of nearly 2,000 volunteers to inspire Colombians to know, build and believe in Colombia, and to take advantage of the country’s potential and resources.

What began as a grassroots initiative has gone global—change agents from all over Latin America contact Medina to help them seed their own Yo Creo initiatives.

Medina’s few detractors accuse him of utopian delusions, but the social entrepreneur says he merely seeks to present a balanced picture of Colombia that counters the deluge of negative images presented by Hollywood and traditional media outlets.

“I don’t deny Colombia’s reality or its past,” Medina says, “but I do want to highlight the positive side and empower people to be part of the change.”

Post-Conflict Society?

It is within this context of significant social and political change that Davidson students were asked to consider a fundamental question: Is Colombia a post-conflict society?

In a post-conflict society, where war has ended but real peace remains elusive, sustainable systems and institutions are essential. Without them, a country or region might remain in a tense situation for years or decades under the threat of violent relapse. Among the things a post-conflict country must do: disarm combatants, repatriate refugees, encourage economic development and bridge social divisions.

Cambodia, Germany, South Africa, Rwanda…these nations were once, or are currently, considered post-conflict.

Upon return to campus, the students presented a public lecture and discussion about Colombia’s present status.

The students agreed that, without question, things are looking better in Colombia. The Victims and Land Restitution Law is in place, and the government has vowed to restore millions of acres of land to Colombians driven from their homes by violence: no small task given that in excess of four million internally displaced persons (IDPs) inhabit Colombia—more than any other nation.

On a previous staff ride, the Davidson group met with Vivan Christman, founder of UnBosque, a logging company that hires IDPs. Christman notes that his business model’s success rests in the philosophy that “reconciliation requires a focus on the future—not on the past.”

Some aspects of that philosophy in practice are a hard sell to citizens who’ve lived in the shadow of violence for a half-century. One such practice is the government program to reintegrate former guerrilla fighters into society—an important component of any post-conflict peacebuilding program.

The students spent time with a former paramilitary fighter who had completed the reintegration process.

“She talked about some of what she endured while she was a paramilitary and about how hard it was for her post-reintegration,” Merrill says. “Once people found out her background, parents would not let their children play with hers, people would stay away from her house—she even had to move a couple of times.”

The meeting underscored that, while there is a strong desire for peace—94 percent of the population disapproves of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC (Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia)—the healing process will extend far beyond the resolution of conflict.

“There is the desire to be a post-conflict society,” Merrill says. “But, because Colombia’s unique in that they’re not conducting the peace talks under a cease fire, there is still conflict.”

Perception & Reality

The question of whether Colombia is a post-conflict society remains debatable; as does the role perception might play in moving Colombia to a new reality.

“What surprised me were the disparities in what we heard from different corners of society,” says Pablo Zevallos ’16.

Those corners included a representative from the U.S. Embassy, a five-star general in command of Colombia’s First Army, a constitutional lawyer, the Mayor of Cali and the country’s Vice Deputy for Foreign Affairs and Urban Security Minister, among others.

Zevallos, a New Yorker with a keen interest in urban issues, notes that the “view from 5,000 feet” tended to be rosier than the view presented by those “on the ground.” Still, Zevallos recognizes parallels between how both his hometown and Cali, under the leadership of Harvard-trained epidemiologist Mayor Rodrigo Guerrero Velasco, successfully employed the broken windows theory to decrease crime rates—a coup for a city once besieged by a notorious drug cartel.

Each gain in security, social capital and economic growth justifies hope, a Colombian characteristic that is central in the uphill battle being waged by individuals in every corner of Colombian society. Perhaps as important as the gains touted by government agencies and communicated through statistics is public acknowledgment and celebration of the gains themselves.

“Colombia is in conflict, yes, but at the same time moving forward with post-conflict ideas, programs and peace negotiations,” Merrill says. “They have their eyes on the future and a better tomorrow.”

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About Author

Lisa Patterson is editor of the Davidson Journal. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Ohio University, and holds master’s degrees in English and public health.

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