Since Monday, I have accrued fourteen small-notebook pages full of dates, names and events of Colombian history from the Indigenous peoples to about 1960’s (in Spanish!) as well as a head full of the stories from a former-Catholic-nun turned ELN-guerilla, turned Gender-equality-antimilitaristic 80 year old awesome woman. After spending all of last night on Wikipedia and watching “Capitalism: A Love Story” in order to give a 5 minute presentation on US history from Kennedy to present (yes, I failed—got about half way through Nixon.) I’m also feeling immersed in my own history (mostly US, although France jumps in a lot around independence and Panama canal time…) and seeing parallels and trends. a key question for me this week has been “What is it important we ask of history? What stories do we chose to remember and teach*?”
History is made by the victors, this we know, and so it becomes easy to hide important stories and nuance under the covers of simple phrases—easy to forget the indigenous populations here resisted colonialization with mass suicides and armed resistance and to say only “the Spanish arrived”. It’s easy to say simply “Colombia gained it’s independence in 1819” without questioning the nature of that independence, mentioning that the first five national leaders essentially followed colonial policy, that true agrarian reforms never happened, that it wasn’t until 1851 that slavery was abolished, that the Catholic church remains one of the largest land owners in a country where land ownership is at the heart of the conflict.
Colombians never hear about Benjos Biojos, the escaped African slave who attained a peace treaty with a local governor and founded a community of escaped slaves, thereby becoming a symbol of resistance. Canadians forget the land they gave out freely required displacing indigenous populations, United-States-ians. (we really need a more usable but PC term…) never hear the Mexican side of the Mexican-American war.
What I was taught about the construction of the Panama Canal in high school, for example, was essentially that it as one of Roosevelt’s many ingenious large projects, that it greatly aided our trade, and that Panama gained its independence out of it! I was not taught that the US offered Colombia a ludicrous deal to purchase land that was rightly theirs while they were in the midst of a civil war, or that Panama’s “independence” was a total sham (a la Cuba, pre-Castro) intended only as Roosevelt’s plan B for attaining what he wanted—a better trade route. I didn’t realize that when the US acknowledged the wrong with a pittance of 25 million dollars in reparations in 1925, that sum came with a caveat that Standard Oil would be protected in Colombia. When I heard this, I automatically thought of my conversation with Juan earlier this week. I was trying to do the math on gas prices here and realized the Texaco station was selling a gallon for almost twice what it’s going for in the US right now. So I asked Juan where Colombia gets its oil from. “Here” he said. Except the oil is then bought by US companies that sell it back to Colombia for far more than they bought it. Ingenious.
The negative impact of corporate interests in politics has been an unfortunate theme—from ITT’s key role in the US installing Pinochet in Chili, to the role of corporations in securing Reagan’s tax-cuts for the rich, and the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations now have the same rights as individuals, it feels like every time we, as a society, place blind trust in the good-intentions of an institution aiming only at financial gain, someone gets terribly hurt.
What I’ve realized again this week is the importance of looking at history from the point of view of the masses, not the leaders; looking at effects, not necessarily theories or intentions, and always asking: “How?”, “Why?”
How did fumigating coca fields in the south of the country affect narcotrafficking? (A:The fields move north and West, bringing violence to peaceful areas and not changing the supply of coca one bit) Why were so many Colombians distraught at the death of Pablo Escobar? (A: Because he instituted more social services and took more care of the people than anyone else had.) Why does a Catholic nun join a secular armed guerilla group? (A: Because it became apparent that the landed/wealthy classes were unable to see or care about the vast inequalities and injustices in front of them and violent revolt felt like the only option) How and why did the FARC originally begin? ( A: After being displaced once already, their farming community of campesinos was napalmed and again, violent revolt felt like the only option.) Why, after so much proof to the contrary, do so many of us insist that free-market capitalism and securing national resources without thought for the consequences on others, is the way to create a stable and just society? (A: ???????) How can we, who are so embedded within the companies and cultures that justify and propagate massive exploitation and entitlement move out of those systems in love and create alternatives?
The answer is complex, and my short version might look something like this:
However, it also seems clear to me that re-learning our history, from the ground up, and taking the time to look at the histories of others we are in relationship with (which, granted, in a globalized world can feel like an insurmountable task) is an important first step.
(Oh PS I finished El Principito and tomorrow we’re going to our first MCC retreat, fyi.
Also, if you would like to see some sweet pictures of Bogota and our group and/or read a different perspective on our time here, my friend and team-mate Anna also has a lovely blog which you can access here: http://thellamadiaries.wordpress.com/)
*Though the way US history is taught in the US (and the textbooks the Texas board of education approves) is mostly terrible, in my opinion, I have to give a deep and sincere word of gratitude for those history teachers who do push students to think, question, and dig deeper. You’re part of the solution, thanks.