Editor’s Letter: Beyond Armed Actors, A Look at Civil Society

by | Apr 3, 2003

When I first started working on this ReVista issue on Colombia, I thought of dedicating it to the memory of someone who had died. Murdered newspaper editor Guillermo Cano had been my entrée into Colombia when I won an Inter American Press Association fellowship in 1977. Others—journalist Penny Lernoux and photographer Richard Cross—had also committed much of their lives to Colombia, although their untimely deaths were not a product of the country’s violence.

My mind kept flipping through the sad archive of those I had known, and then the losses of friends of friends. The toll increased with the recent bombing at the El Nogal social club. E-mails started pouring in, telling of the deaths of friends of friends and of the parents of schoolmates of friends’ children, the startled neighbors, the end of the feeling that Bogotá is one safe island in a sea of violence.

Then I caught myself. The sad news in the e-mails was a reality, but I had experienced Colombia in another way—as a vital country with a rich cultural life and a strong collective sense of collaboration. I lived in Bogotá for nine years in the 1970s and 1980s as a foreign correspondent. On arrival to Harvard in 1997, I found myself involved in a dynamic conference called “Law and Democracy in Colombia” organized by then-Nieman Fellow María Cristina Caballero and a group of committed Colombian students. That conference was the springboard for the Colombian Colloquium—an active network of students mainly from Harvard and MIT. Many of them have returned to Colombia to teach and work, but new ones take their place, inviting speakers, organizing events and thinking of how to find solutions for the problems in Colombia.

Call it civil society. I never really had a name for it until Theodore Macdonald, Rodrigo Villar, and Luis Fernando De Angulo decided to organize another conference “Beyond Armed Actors: Carving a Stronger Role for Civil Society in Colombia.” For three days in November 2002, I heard the stories of projects in the midst of war; I experienced the intense exchange of ideas and information between committed Colombians and Harvard faculty.

This issue of ReVista grew out of two civil society networks: the Colombian Colloquium and the group from the November conference. And a wonderful thing happened along the way. Looking for photographs, I stumbled across a website: www.fotografoscolombianos and made a plea for contributions. Soon, photographers—working for free and in arduous conditions—were sending me images to represent their country. José Roca, Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow at Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, deserves special thanks for widening the network even further. As the word spread, this creative activity—accompanied by an urgent sense of solidarity—transformed these pages by presenting the visual as well as the verbal reality of Colombia. Colombian civil society—photographers, newspaper editors, archivists—responded to my quest for photos with an intensity I’d never experienced with any previous issue. As DRCLAS Director John Coatsworth points out in his provocative introduction to this issue, Colombia is not lacking in civil society.

The challenge is to harness it and carve out a stronger role for peace and social equity. Still, all that being said, I can’t resist dedicating this issue to someone: Ana Micaela Ortega Obregón, born September 16, 2002. I hope that she may grow up in a peaceful and socially equitable Colombian society; the society that the authors and photographers in this issue are struggling to create.

Spring 2003Volume II, Number 3

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