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Approximately five million men and women have left Colombia over the past five decades. Many of us were direct victims of the war, forced to leave due to exclusionary power dynamics. Others migrated to pursue their studies or seek jobs, while yet others did so because of emotional ties. For many women and members of the LGTBI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] community, migration was the only way of escaping male violence and deeply rooted prejudices in Colombia. In all of these cases, the armed conflict has been part of our life experience.
The Colombian population abroad mirrors the country’s social and ethnic diversity, with all of its virtues but also its defects, such as classism and racism. But the migration process entails a certain deconstruction of differences given that in host countries we all share a common identity as immigrants.
Some in the diaspora show clear symptoms of trauma caused by the conflict and, in many instances, also by the migration process. This trauma becomes evident, for example, in the loss of confidence in relationships, which, in turn, leads to isolation – total isolation, or isolation within family or political affinity groups.
Despite these difficulties, the Colombian diaspora has managed to sustain a high level of activism in favour of peace and human rights, with the assistance of social organisations and institutions in host countries. This work has been fundamental in supporting the international community’s commitment to peace in Colombia.
Progress made during the peace talks in Havana (2012–16) had a catalytic effect on Colombians living abroad. It created momentum and excitement as the unthinkable – an end to the armed conflict – seemed to become possible. In view of this historic moment, many people in the diaspora showed an interest, for the very first time, in understanding and participating in the peace process. The ‘improbable dialogue’ between the government and guerrillas also fostered rapprochements and new ‘improbable dialogues’ among residents abroad with very different political perspectives.
Anxious not to be left out, and committed to contributing to a better future, the diaspora challenged themselves to develop mechanisms to enable their own participation. No one in Colombia was counting on them, so their first task was to become visible and then, eventually, to come up with ideas on how to become agents of change.
Thus, numerous initiatives arose, aimed at promoting new organisational and advocacy processes. Some examples are summarised below.
In 2012, various European social organisations, in collaboration with Colombian embassies and consulates and jointly with the Peace Commissions of the Colombian House of Representatives and the Senate, organised a series of public hearings in London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Barcelona, in order to make the voice of the diaspora heard in the Colombian legislative bodies.
An International Victims’ Forum was established in 2014 that mobilised people in Europe and the Americas to make victims living abroad more visible in the peace negotiations and to demand recognition of their rights in the peace agreement.
Shortly thereafter, women from very diverse social and political backgrounds saw the need for a space specifically for women that would enable them to focus on the need for psychosocial healing and reconciliation. They called themselves the Truth, Memory and Reconciliation Commission of Colombian Women in the Diaspora, and developed hubs in London, Barcelona, Stockholm and Brussels.
These and other spontaneous social initiatives had a real impact at the policy level in Colombia. They resulted in spaces for participation in the government’s advisory bodies and state institutions linked to the peace process. The National Council for Peace, Coexistence, and Reconciliation and the National Victim Participation Table created special spaces for the Colombian population living abroad. The government’s Victims’ Unit established a dedicated team to work with those victims residing overseas. The National Center for Historical Memory began working on a ‘cartography of exile’.
The peace agreement further created three different bodies to ensure the rights to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence: the Commission for the Clarification of Truth; the Search Unit for Missing Persons; and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. All three bodies have an internationally unprecedented mandate to work with victims living abroad, which involves developing innovative and complex methodologies of participation and coordination.
These efforts to promote participation of the diaspora have not always been welcomed by civil society in Colombia, as a result of widely held perceptions that those ‘living abroad’ (especially in North America and Europe) were ‘living in comfort’.
At times also, sectors of the political opposition have tended to reproach those who ‘abandoned’ the country in difficult times and later wanted to participate from the alleged ease provided by exile.
Bureaucracy and the lack of precedent have further impeded the implementation of participation initiatives. For example, three years after having set aside two seats for representation of the diaspora, the National Peace Council has not been able to agree on the mechanism to select two people to occupy them.
At the same time, a serious distrust of institutions prevails, especially among the numerous victims of state violence. We cannot forget that at the beginning of the century, the state intelligence agency launched a plan to spy on the activities of the exiled political activists.
Other structural difficulties, such as ‘machismo’ in civil society organisations, remain a significant hurdle for the participation of women both in Colombia and abroad. Numerous men only value the participation of women from the perspective of stereotyped parameters, thus generating dynamics of power that debilitate, exhaust and cause pain.
The Colombian population that was forced to leave the country faces a dual challenge: they must seek inclusion in the society of their host country as well as in that of their country of origin. The active participation of the diaspora serves as a tool to combat these exclusions by contributing to their recognition as legitimate actors in both contexts.
Historical characteristics of Colombian politics have involved social exclusion by elites, the physical elimination of opponents, the questioning of progressive ideas and the negation of diversity. The participation of the population that was expelled from the country due to their political ideas is not only a right, but also an act of reparation.
Finally, participation also offers the possibility of a ‘symbolic return’ to those who will not be physically returning to their country of origin, but who need closure in terms of a migration process that has often been traumatic.
Social organisations have had an enormous impact on the peace process. Today there is consensus in Colombia regarding the need to place the victims at the centre of the peace process, as well as an increasing awareness of the need to understand the relation between the armed conflict and the exodus of millions of citizens.
The implementation phase of the peace agreement is fraught with challenges and difficulties, but it also provides opportunities to build a more inclusive country. In the transition to peace, the country needs new ideas, actors and dynamics that make it possible to consolidate a culture of peace. The diaspora has certainly earned enough recognition to be able contribute to this process.