Bogotá, Colombia, 2017. CREDIT: <a href="">Pedro Szekely</a> <a href="">(CC)</a>
Bogotá, Colombia, 2017. CREDIT: Pedro Szekely (CC)

Identity in Colombia, with José Alejandro Cepeda

Sep 10, 2018

Colombia's civil war lasted from the 1960s to 2016. How has this terrible experience shaped the Colombian identity and how long will it take before the nation truly recovers? In terms of the region as a whole, what role does European heritage in forming Latin American identities? In this fascinating conversation, Colombian journalist and political scientist José Alejandro Cepeda tackles all these issues and more.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I am happy to be with José Alejandro Cepeda, a journalist and political scientist from Colombia, for our series on Latin America and the West.

José, it is a pleasure to be with you.

JOSÉ CEPEDA: It is a pleasure to be here and to share my opinions and visions with you and your audience.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Thank you very much. Let's just dive into that.

Colombia has been put back on the map in recent years. More and more people travel to the country. I hear about Cartagena and Bogotá, and actually a few years earlier that would not have been the case, maybe out of fear because of the drug cartels and whatnot.

What happened in the meantime? Has there been really a substantial change?

JOSÉ CEPEDA: I think Colombia has been stabilizing in terms of security in recent years. As a result of the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and certain sustained economic growth, I think the country is undoubtedly much safer than 20 years ago when there was a lot of violence happening.

For example, in 2016 the government and the FARC agreement was signed. There is a lot of change in the mentality, but also in the way the country itself is developing now.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Could you elaborate a bit on that? How has the peace process changed the country? If you read about it, it is like there are mixed voices after signing that treaty.

JOSÉ CEPEDA: First of all, it is a long process. But what is happening now is that the process is in the way of being concretized and requires a lot of patience. I think the country is just beginning in coming on a concrete phase and it will take at least as much time as the development of the conflict itself.

My opinion is that Colombia needs about three decades to get to the point of stabilization and that is what we are hoping. Right now there is a lot of political polarization that will affect the implementation of the agreement in the coming years.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You mentioned the civil war and the period of time you will be needing for reconciliation and recovery. When you look into the identity of Colombians these days, clearly a civil war of that duration does shape a country's identity. How does the country and its people see themselves nowadays?

JOSÉ CEPEDA: That is a good question. Identity is a strong issue in Colombia in a positive or a negative way. I think when a war has been happening for so long, not necessarily of high intensity but going on for many years, that has affected not only the nature of the country but the credibility of the Colombians themselves in their nation. That means the confidence, optimism, and hope for the future have been affected in the last generations for a half-century.

However, it is remarkable how the Colombian people never surrendered and, just like other peoples in a lot of other countries who have suffered violence, they have tried to overcome—the beautiful word is resilience, risilencia in Spanish.

But on another side, Colombians are tired of violence. While there are corrupt people outside the law who are still affecting our society, many more people I think are honest and want to make a respectable life within the institutional order, economic development, and just enjoying their lives. I think for that reason Colombia is just not black or white. There is a lot of complexity. I think the minority is more the people who want to be in that, to stay in the war zone.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Interesting. There is Colombia and there is the rest of Latin America, and they all have their own particular histories. Also, other countries have a violent sort of history, and others, like Venezuela, are struggling these days. There is Argentina or Brazil, which used to be economic powerhouses and all this kind of—if you had to describe the state of mind of the whole continent, could you do that?

JOSÉ CEPEDA: Yes, I think it is quite possible. A few years ago when I was studying in Germany, I heard from my professor, Dr. Dieter Nolan [phonetic], who has actually seen Latin America, who said or wrote, "Latin America is like a political laugh—living love laugh." I think there is a lot of experimentation in the last few years, but Latin America, like a teenager, is just reaching a period of historical awareness of who he as a person or as a social base he is ruling the world. Let us remember that the independence processes are only about 200 years old, two centuries. We still need to learn to cooperate between the countries in this part of the world and to maintain a more mature dialogue with the international community.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You mentioned the liberation movement and the independence and the interconnectedness of these ideas with European ideas of liberation 200 years ago. It is very obvious.

If you look into Latin America's identity and the European heritage that you may have—first of all, do you have this kind of European heritage, and to what extent do you think it is vital on the continent?

JOSÉ CEPEDA: Oh, yes. I am glad to hear that question because we have already spoken about identity.

Identity is a strong problem in Latin America. For one side, we want to recognize ourselves as true Americans. For the other side, we know we have a strong heritage from the European culture. I think European heritage is undeniable. For example, we speak predominantly romance languages, I mean Spanish, or Portuguese in Brazil. We have adapted rule of law, a top-drawer Rechtsstaat vision, constitutionalism, and human rights. We have moved toward liberal democracy and market capitalism.

On the other side, even the critics, the leftist revolutionary movements in Cuba, in Nicaragua, here in Colombia the guerrillas, also copied the critical left modernity in Marxism. They have adopted the revolution oratory from Europe.

But at the same time we continue to be Western in our own way, of course with a wide range of cross-breeding that addresses our native indigenous and African heritage of arrival. I think in this sense we have a love of mestizaje, of mixture, that is a strong positive characteristic and not a negative to the love of our nations.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You also mentioned the United States of America, which clearly is a part of the West and also has been shaping today's Latin American landscape. How is the relationship of Latin America toward the United States, especially if you compare it with the very positive and warm words you just found for Europe?

JOSÉ CEPEDA: There is a kind of political idea that survives in relation with the United States in Colombia. We always look to the North. Colombia is one of the United States' best partners in Latin America. We are partners because we are [inaudible] the democracy or because we have just taken part of our vision of liberal democracy and governments in the last decades.

As in any place in the world, the United States is a point of reference. It is assimilated as a country that is historically decisive for having early on developed the rule of law, pluralism, and the market. The way you have dissent is an example, and not just for Hollywood or the culture and the capital in the States, just in a political way for two centuries.

But at the same time the United States is seen as a hegemon, an international actor with a lot of power, high-powered, who has not always used it correctly. However, the United States has corrected much of its dealings relating to Latin America, including Colombia.

We are not suffering right now a direct intervention, like in the covert periods, but with the current president there is a back door, I think at all levels, although we do not know where it will go, the relation with President Trump. But this is a problem faced not only by Latin America, but by America itself, and of course the whole world.

I think in relation to the United States issues will be continued, like narcotic drugs, security, and of course cooperation, because, as I said, overall at this point we are still partners. We have a good relationship with the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Colombia and the United States.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You mentioned Donald Trump and the quest for American identity, and you find this also in European countries very much, like the search for "who are we?" like some reinvigorating identity clearly by distinguishing themselves from others by saying "This is us versus them." In Europe you have a strong feeling against Islam or migration from majority-Muslim countries.

How do you perceive this kind of global phenomenon that in the Western world clearly has something to do with the Brexit vote in England and the Trump election in the United States? There is a lot of saying that it may be a backlash to globalization and digitalization. What sense do you make out of the events of the last two or three years?

JOSÉ CEPEDA: I think there is a lot happening in relation with globalization, digitalization, and other interesting questions in a good or a negative way. But Latin America is also part of globalization and digitalization, and of course this kind of transition produces winners and losers. Here, of course, we have winners and losers.

To that, saying the region is not immune to the sentiment of disregard for the truth, misinformation, to the banalization of the search for justice, the banalization of politics, on communicative process.

Here in Colombia, for example, we students [inaudible] reference to be against or for the peace process, which was largely pursued and manipulated by the followers of the former president Álvaro Uribe, who wanted to exploit the peace process. One of the advisors of the Uribe campaign against the peace process admitted the peace was based on lies and emotional and non-argumentative aspects. I think this plebiscite pro or contra the peace process is our own Brexit or Trump election experience.

After all these aspects, we are up-to-date with the rest of the world or we are globalized, if you like, in this way.

But one last thing in relation with this question is that of course we are experiencing globalization and digitalization, but we must not forget that not every person in Latin America is already connected to the Net, to the world in digital terms. That means that there is still a lack of democracy in technical legal terms. There is a lot of exclusion in legal terms. We have not received democracy for all our citizens in Latin America. There is a lot of challenge in connections, possibility to make participation in political terms through new technologies, and also not to follow or copy the mistakes and the banalization of the communicative processes like our experience in the rest of the war.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: As Latin America has kept up, as you say, with the rest of the world and is part of the globalized and digitized world, you also clearly seem to be of the opinion that Latin America, however, is part of the West.

What would you say is the contribution Latin America can give to the Western world, which is undergoing and enduring some form of crisis? We have been speaking about that. So, Latin America as part of the West and the outlook for the future?

JOSÉ CEPEDA: I think, as I have already said, that Latin America is part of the West, but not on equal terms. We are partly its heirs. It is inherited. But we are in general terms obsessed with copying the lifestyle, political institutions, culture, and the ways affecting the world.

But, on another side, I think we can do something good in political terms because we are just still a young country, as I said, and that means we are kind of a promise of a new-developing land. We have still the natural resources, we have still a lot of virgin landscape, a lot of [inaudible] in rational terms, in culture terms, but we are a young part of the world.

So I think in the future we can, we can reaffirm our heritage, our European/Western heritage, but at the same time try to develop a real dialogue with our roots and with our national resources and our heart to develop a real democracy and economic development.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: José Cepeda, muchas gracias. Many thanks to Colombia for this interview and this conversation in contributing to my series on Latin America and the West. Thank you very much.

JOSÉ CEPEDA: Dr. Görlach, it is a pleasure to be in your podcast and to share with your audience.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

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