A Review of Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence and the Making of Contemporary Colombia

Learning through History: A Path Toward Peace

by | Nov 3, 2017

Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence and the Making of Contemporary Colombia by Robert A. Karl (Oakland:  University of California Press, 2017,  321 pp.)

On June 30, 2017, a liaison officer with the United Nations peace keeping mission in Colombia wrote, from Arauca, about the prospects for long-term peace in that South American nation: “Sometimes I’m hopeful,” she reported to this reviewer via email, “sometimes, rather skeptical… this conflict is so complex and the absence of the state is so strong in these areas that it’s going to be hard to make any real changes unless there is full commitment.”

Robert A. Karl’s remarkable monograph offers an insightful and compelling perspective on this contemporary comment as Colombians work to implement peace after decades of conflict.  The book, published six months after final peace accords were approved by the Colombian Congress (ending a 52-year conflict between the armed insurgents, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC], and the Colombian government), reveals much about the origins of the revolutionary movement, Colombians’ search for peace, intellectuals’ understanding of the internecine quarrel’s causes and the infinite intricacy of its effects.

While many in the academic community—myself included—have glibly assumed no more books could, or should, be written about the “violence” in Colombia, Karl’s work demolishes any such scholarly certitude. The extraordinary scope, breadth and creativity of the author’s research challenges other scholars to leave the comforts of the city and return to the regional archives.  In sum, the text is a regional, micro-study focusing on Tolima with wide reaching implications and interpretations, akin to classic regional interpretations of Colombia’s violence by historians James D. Henderson and Mary Roldán, among others.

A theme that runs throughout this book is the distance between the país político and the país nacional, or the distance that separates politicians and the people.  An enduring issue in Colombian history involves the divisions between the national government, local (regional) governments, and the degree to which local concerns figure more prominently than the (oftentimes quite abstract) rules radiating out from the Plaza Bolívar in Bogotá. Colombia’s near-impassable geography meant that the federal government’s control over the national territory was never close to absolute.  Men in the rougher regions instead held de facto power with any and all available weapons. This was especially true in Tolima, and it remains true today.

The book begins with a chapter dedicated to the first president of the “Frente Nacional,” Alberto Lleras Camargo, journalist, diplomat and intellectual. His presidential term was precedent-setting. His leadership set the tone for the creative political solution, made within the país politico, designed to move the nation beyond the Rojas military dictatorship (1953-57), while pacifying a nation engaging in an undeclared civil war that began in 1946.  In this semi-biographical chapter, which deftly integrates published secondary source material with new documents from the archives, Karl demonstrates his skill as a historian. He makes it clear that leadership matters. 

The research in this book is deep and comprehensive.  Karl spent a decade mining archives in Colombia, the United States and the United Kingdom. In Colombia, he’s visited important regional collections in Ibague (Tolima), as well as the historical archives in Medellín and Bogotá.  The author traveled to the John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester (Boston), the National Archives in Washington, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. Karl’s copious research is a model for all historians; he patiently searched the archives and allowed the documents to guide the story, but did not discount the important “secondary” work of scholars who have come before him. For example, in the introductory and first chapter, Karl is careful to recognize, in his extensive and carefully written endnotes, the critical contributions of historians Herbert “Tico” Braun and Gonzalo Sánchez G.

Robert Karl is a gifted writer and narrator.  He writes with the conviction, care, and grace of a (good) novelist, creatively and strategically unveiling his material for maximum effectFocused on one ten-year period (1957-1966), this is no Le Roy Ladurie longue duree approach, where the “grand sweep” reigns. Rather, Karl’s narrative is nuanced and his analysis is crisp and clear. It’s also inclusive, compelling and democratic.  There’s not a hint of arrogance, post-modern musings, or off-putting jargon anywhere in the text. There’s no need for such academic preening or pretense in Karl’s writing because he’s done the difficult, due diligence of archival research.  The finished product is an exemplary piece of historical writing.

Other notable chapters in the book are five and six.  Chapter five, titled “Reformist Paths, 1960-1964,” carefully lays out the reformist projects in vogue, not just in Colombia but in the Americas, especially in the wake of the 1959 Castro revolution in Cuba.  Here, John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII make appearances. (Kennedy literally appeared in Bogotá in December, 1961, to push forward the Alliance for Progress and Peace Corps, two pieces of his Development Doctrine with wide implications in Colombia.)   Seven months before Kennedy’s visit to Colombia, Pope John XXIII issued Mater et Magistra, an encyclical calling for the church to promote social peace through state intervention in health care, education and housing.  In Catholic Colombia, the Pope’s words mattered, not just to the letrados but to the people, who received these proclamations during Sunday mass.

But Kennedy’s soft diplomacy came with a dose of realpolitik militarism in the form of Plan Lazo, a military strategy financed by the United States designed to eradicate the “independent republics” in Colombia that existed outside Bogotá’s orbit.  After 1959, these republics were viewed as intolerable to Washington.  The Plan culminated with the May 1964 military operation against Marquetalia, and that operation forced people to defend themselves, leading, inexorably, to the formation of the FARC.

Karl’s chapter six is a masterful study of one book, La violencia en Colombia, which appeared in 1962. Written by the American-trained sociologist Orlando Fals Borda, the prelate Mons. Germán Guzmán Campos (whose Monsignor designation was honorific, I learned) and the jurist Eduardo Umaña Luna, this book shocked the letrado class in Bogotá, and beyond, for its unsentimental study of the nation’s violence.  Dispassionate, and based on rigorous field research, the book forced together rural Colombians—the victims and perpetrators of most of the la violencia crimes–and city dwellers in an uneasy face-to-face tango.  The work shaped a school of thought called violontología, or the (academic) study of the violence and extra-legal behavior in Colombia. Karl explains how the focus on violence, and the campaign against the independent republics in the south of Tolima, has “privileged narratives of violence in retellings of Colombia’s past” (p. 210).  This sentence, taken beyond Tolima’s boundaries, helps explain how the nation’s past has become so thoroughly identified, at least in the academic community, with “the violence.”

The material chosen to illustrate the book is laudable, but more attention should have been paid to the photographs—some of which are unclear and unconvincing.   The one photo featuring Fr. Camilo Torres Restrepo, on page 131, shows a passive, disinterested priest (arms folded) listening to a speech by Orlando Fals Borda.  Torres was anything but disinterested, and there certainly exist more representative images of the “revolutionary priest.”  The press should have invested resources in a professional photo editor to help the author make the illustrative case more compelling, particularly in this age of visual representation.  Karl’s figures that chart “monthly homicides” resemble three frozen hospital EKG monitors; while they show some short-term trends, they don’t integrate well with the author’s compelling prose and careful research.   These are minor offenses; but, too often in serious, primary source-driven monographs, visual material is—if present at all—pushed aside, rather than forcefully integrated into the text’s substance and soul.

These foibles aside, the text arrived at an impeccable time. Right now, Colombians are thinking about and striving towards a more peaceful society; they’re wondering how to tell their national narrative in a way that’s honest and inclusive. Karl’s book offers clues, from the U.S. academy, about how they might push that project forward.  The book is gentle but authoritative, strenuously documented but lucid; it’s designed to bring politicians, scholars, and ordinary people together—people whose paths infrequently cross.  Robert Karl insists that peace can work. It has worked, and he implies that it can work again, today.  The book is refreshingly optimistic. While ostensibly it deals with Colombia’s violent past, it implores all of us to consider other stories, realities and paths to prosperity that are collaborative and collective, and that accurately reflect Colombia’s complicated historical record.

Fall 2017Volume XVII, Number 1


Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College. A Fulbright scholar to Colombia, he is author (with Colombian historian Germán R. Mejía) of Colombia: A Concise Contemporary History, which was released in a second edition in June, 2017.

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