A window: Studying in Colombia

I have been looking forward to this study trip since April this year.  When I arrived in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, I was not disappointed as we have been well received by the Los Andes University staff who helped us with the luggages onto two rather small buses.  It was almost sunset and on the way to the students’ flats, I saw Bogota is just another city.

In front of entrance to Los Andes University, Cartagena

The students’ flats are modern, quiet enough for me, but the kitchen was only equipped with a frying pan and a microwave oven, without cutlery or kettle. I was thinking how I was going to survive, being used to convenience in New Zealand.  Somehow, I figured out I have breakfast coupons in the restaurant nearby, so I would not eat too much for lunch, and would go out for dinners or have takeaway foods.  I would make the most of what we have!

Lectures were compact; most lecturers in Los Andes University could speak fluent English and were all engaging in their individual styles of teaching.  I have enjoyed all lectures, especially the ones on political economy of the armed conflict, historic memory, women in transitional justice, and in particular, the international dimension of the conflict and peace process.  The conversations with a former male member and a deserted female member of FARC were especially impressive since they had spoken freely and openly on their experiences with FARC, and the female member’s past traumatic and rather sad encounters had touched the hearts of us all.

I like the Los Andes satellite University in Cartagena, the campus is pleasant and there were not many students around when we had lectures there.  It has a holiday feel definitely!

On the Academic Course: My interest is focussed on the international aspects of Colombian Peacebuilding with some ‘technicalities’.   My research is summarised as below:

1) The Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR ) was created on November 3, 2011. The ACR is a Special Administrative Unit, attached to the Administrative Department of the Presidency of the Republic;

2) The institutional transformation of the ACR strengthens and develops the Reintegration Policy in Colombia;

3) The Agency addresses the need to collaborate globally by sharing the knowledge and experiences with other countries on the similar challenges as Colombia are now facing, i.e. the social reintegration of ex-combatants;

4) The ACR hosted the First Global Summit on Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (GDDRS);

5) As a result of the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, there is the new program called “Peace Colombia” that would provide aid after the implementation of the Peace Agreement in 2017 with the FARC;

6) In the UN on 15 October 2019, members of the Security Council stated their full and unanimous support for the peace process in Colombia;

7) The signing of the National Pact for Political Culture and Non-Violence during the Electoral Campaign aim at stopping electoral violence that include threats and intimidation that target voters and candidates;

8) The Security Council is seriously concerned with the continued killings of community and social leaders that include women leaders and former FARC-EP members, and those perpetrators should be brought to justice;

9) The Security Council has a “Peace with Legality” plan that focuses on territories and which contributes to the implementation of the Peace Agreement. The Plan enables a smooth transition of the former Territorial Areas for Training and Reintegration after 15 August, with a focus on former women combatants’ needs, those living outside former Territorial Areas for Training and Reintegration, and efforts on rural and political reforms;

10) The Security Council works closely with the UN Verification Mission and Colombia’s local communities to advance the peacebuilding efforts and has stressed the importance of the international community to support and encourage implementation.

The DDR program:- a 6-step process: 1) disarmament before an authority; 2) receipt of aid package for reinsertion; 3) accommodation in Ministry of Defence households and demobilisation certificate; 4) transfer to ACR; 5) defining the reintegration route; 6) start of the reintegration plan.

The program has sought to rehabilitate and prepare the demobilised for civilian life by giving psychosocial attention, academic training, access to the National Health Service, and a sum for expenses; Collective demobilisations are not common in Colombia.

The Colombian Government has constantly run a DDR program that could be applied on an individual basis.

Between 2003 and 2012, 22,990 cases were individual demobilisations; around 14,131 have been successfully reintegrated to society.

Most unsuccessful cases of demobilisations are associated with the BACRIM (Bandas Criminales – criminal groups) that operate today within Colombia.

International support for Colombia Peacebuilding: Venezuela: once the current Duque government believed a terrorist attack was imminent and sought to preempt it with a strike on guerrillas hiding out in Venezuela, it would likely be justified.

Norway: will continue its efforts to support Colombia in the demanding phases in the future.

Cuba: with many FARC leaders operating out of neighboring Venezuela, travel to and from Colombia would have been difficult, making Cuba an easy meeting point.  Cuba has served as facilitators of the peace process since 2012.

Cultural Activitieshave been wonderful and are good learning opportunities:-

My favourites in Bogota:

At Fort San Felipe, Cartagena

1) The ‘Graffiti tour’ had taught me about arts of the common local people; the two guides were so clear on all the historical details of the graffiti streets that I was inspired artistically, and hoping my sister who is an accomplished artist living in the US were in Bogota with me;

2) The film on ‘The Negotiation’ was informative; the director of the film was pleasant but had some sarcastic tones in her replies to questions;

3) The guided visit at the Centre for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation was one good learning process; the guide had spoken with admirable enthusiasm;

My favourites in Cartagena:

1) Visit to Fort San Felipe was awesome, the guide has a professional approach and can speak good English; he has helped to take photos of us too;

2) Visit to the community Loma Fresca was interesting, the community leaders’ briefing was slightly tedious but informative, because there was a strike on the day before, security was tight and the atmosphere was a bit tense.

A note on 21 November, 2019

On the protests – 21 November in Colombia reminds me of ongoing protests in Hong Kong with similar purposes of protesting against the inability of the governments to address issues of inequality, structural malfunctions, prejudices, and rising prices, especially the high costs of accommodation in Hong Kong.  One of our classmates was injured at one knee when he fell while being hit by the police during his brave presence as a spectator along the protest route.  He perhaps had been mistaken as one of the protesters by the police.

All in all, I have enjoyed Cartagena as a holiday resort, an experience which is quite similar to my Philippine islands’ holiday in Asia many years ago, except that I was not in a mood for an island excursion in Cartagena this time.  Both the Philippines and Colombia were formerly colonised by the Spaniards and then under American hegemonic influence, both receiving American assistance and financial aid.  The back streets and restaurants behind the hotel where we were staying reminded me of street scenes in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and even some parts of Hong Kong in the 1960s (from my parents’ photo collections).

Bogota is a medium-low to middle level city in my opinion, due to the intensity of the lectures everyday and preparation of assignments, readings, plus the personal safety issues, I did not have too much spare time, or courage to explore further besides the vicinity of the university and the city central.  The one experience I enjoyed most in Bogota is the Monserrat cable car experience; the city views and the church at the top are beautiful, also the rather cosy, classic looking coffee shop up there has provided a pleasant interlude.  I shall contemplate a return to Colombia and Cartagena!

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