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May 2011

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In That Time of our Life

One night into my assignment to La Plata, Huila I was reading by the dim light of a 40-watt light bulb a banned copy of La Violencia en Colombia. I was riveted by its 1948 description of the lunchtime assassination of Jorge Gaitan, the liberal leader, at a sidewalk restaurant next to the country’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo. As its principal author, Orlando Fals Borda wrote: “it was a lone act which stripped with a single bullet the thin veneer of civility from an entire society”.

La Violencia then goes on to detail a country’s descent into anarchy. By nightfall, Bogota was in flames. The country’s elite troops were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, rank upon rank, on the steps of the Ministry of Justice, firing volley after volley into the madding crowd. They had long given up on leg shots and were now firing into upper torsos and heads, to no avail. Cali went up the next night, and city after city, town after town, followed in a wild melee of collective murder and unsheathed angst.

Before it abated, some 13 years later, the lowest official mortality count stood at 365,000 from a country of less than 13 million. That’s nearly equal to the rate suffered by the U. S. in WW II, but from a population base of 145 million. In the latter war, death came within the insatiable maw of technological warfare. In Colombia, it was as often the machete and knife as it was the rifle and handgun.

Was there a home in Colombia without a red swath running through it, a family untouched from this political infanticide? All this violent death with no honor to it, no trumpet to call forth a defense of national interests, however vague this might have been—and no subsequent footnote in any Western history book to mark its passing.

La Violencia didn’t find its way into our training program, as the official response was to ban it and exile Fals Borda. The government preferred to have silence fill this void.

When we arrived in Colombia, its vestiges lingered on in a cauldron at low simmer. The emotions of an entire people were spent. We were atop a blown horse of history and didn’t know it. We could move at will throughout the entire country without fear for our personal safety, until 1983 when Volunteers had to leave as Colombia was poised on the abyss of declining into a narco state. Most of us were unaware of the country’s dark soul before arriving. We remained virginal in our belief that we were there to help the ever-enigmatic campesinos, who could hardly comprehend why Volunteers had come to a country they were so desperate to leave if ever the opportunity presented itself.

We emerged into their lives without recognizing that they had been traumatized into a near-stupor of complacency. Their benign acceptance of us was interpreted as validation for our legitimacy in their presence. One of my site partners was asked by a young campesino to explain his birthplace. He responded: the United States of America. The man thought about this for a moment, then inquired: is that as far as Bogota?

Many of us came from a generation deeply conflicted by the moral dilemma of our country’s engagement in Viet Nam. We could be volunteers and enrolled into an “army of Peace”, as Theodore Sorensen described the Peace Corps concept to newly elected JFK in 1961. Still others of our generation, who were less advantaged and with limited choices, had to serve in distant armies on far shores and jungles, in places they never could have found or pronounced correctly in their 6th grade geography books. We, though, were privileged to find in Colombia a spiritual home for our aspirations, even if unable to fully fathom the currency that value was to represent in our future lives.

La Violencia had made everyone fatalistic. It had left behind a numbing quality to people’s sensitivities. Once, on a bus going to Popayan, we had to cross a provincial border and pass through a police checkpoint. On the way, two campesinos up front had been involved in a heated argument. Time didn’t dampen their tempers. When the bus stopped, they were the first to leave. I was in the back, heard no gunfire, but did hear a simple “pop”, which didn’t seem out of the ordinary. When I got off, they both lay spread eagle-like outside the front door, dead as Julius Caesar. The other passengers were comparing notes with a clinical detachment in the calmest language, all in the absence of anyone screaming or calling for the police. Look, one said, that machete thrust—right to the heart, no pain, eh; but see there, another commented, that bullet went straight between his eyes—an excellent shot, muy bien hecho, no! Obviously, they had seen so much violence that they had become completely inured to it.

Every one of any means carried a gun. I was in one verada for a religious holiday when a priest from Popayan made his annual visit. He rode in on a fine horse. The weather was misty, a soft rain falling. The padre got off his horse, and reaching down pulled a rain slicker over his head. As his arms went up, two .45 caliber pistols cross-strapped across his chest came into view. No one thought this odd as he invited them to attend Mass.

We are in the midst of the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary and the inevitable celebratory coronation of an ideal that sent our hearts into the highlands. Our thoughts of that then anguished country are steeped in the romanticism of our youthful exuberances: of those nights we danced into the dawn to the sensuous and teasingly expressive beat of the bambuco; of viewing the full majesty in the snow-capped Sierra Nevada del Huila on those few occasions when its 18,000+ foot dome was higher than the clouds; of those euphoric Hemingwayesque moments at the Cali bullfights during Christmas, and the more somber Semana Santas in Popayan; of those terrifying rides on los buses de muerte amarilla with more chickens and pigs than passengers; of troubled nights when we wondered just what it was we were doing there—and being released from doubt at first light by that quick grasp of youth; of being received by children as long-lost relatives; of those accion communal meetings that never started on time or on the day they were scheduled; of unknowingly writing that first rough draft of the Peace Corps history; of the wonderment and invigorating sense of possibility that filled our every day with a meaning and purpose which often wasn’t commensurate to our ability for comprehending how rare this would be in our lives afterward. We can be forgiven if we remember these occasions now more with nostalgia than accuracy.


Jerry Norrisis the Director of the Center for Science in Public Policy at the Hudson Institute. A member of Group IV, he is a member of the Board of Directors for the Friends of Colombia, which has some 1500 former Peace Corps Volunteers in its registry.

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