The Magical Realism of Colombia

panoramic view of a large city set beneath a forested hill on a cloudy day

For many days upon my return from my first trip to Colombia, I tried to compose my reflections. Colombia felt contradictory, elusive, ambiguous. Not until I checked where the Noble Prize winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, came from, that I grasped even a fleeting intuition for Colombia. For Garcia Marquez is the master of magical realism. Through One Hundred Years of Solitude and Cronica de una Muerte Annunciada, Garcia Marquez tells stories backwards and upside down: “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”  His fellow Colombians are masters of basing reality on their own perceptions. Indeed, at times it feels that no two Colombians see their country the same way. Even though they reside in the same cities, mountains, jungles, and beaches, each lives in a Colombia of their own creation.

My sense of the surreal in Colombia was best captured by two conversations: one with the national business association and the other with the major labor union. In Bogota, the national business association commands the heights of both the economy and its own building. Its firms produce 55% of Colombia’s GNP. Its offices in the penthouse offer clear views of the mountains and city down below. Its well-dressed director described efforts to develop relationships between its member companies and small producers and suppliers. To illustrate, her team would provide consulting, coaching, and connections for small onion farms to enable them to sell to Nestle for their onion soup. With its 50+ projects, the national business association targeted “vulnerable” populations, which they defined as the poor, women, handicapped and youth.

Several days later, we visited the senior executives of the major labor union in Cali. Through their social services around health, education, culture, housing, supermarkets, these labor unions touch the lives of perhaps half of all Colombians. Once again, I took in the view of the mountains and city at my feet from the windows of the penthouse offices. This director was also impeccably dressed and presented their support for small businesses. Their programs focused on assisting entrepreneurs to access big customers such as their own network of supermarkets and targeted vulnerable communities including women, the poor, and youth.

What was striking, however, was that neither the national business association nor the major labor union of Colombia designed its programs to extend to the needs of former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In over four hours of meetings, neither woman even mentioned the civil war that ravaged Colombia for over fifty years. Yet to get to the business association’s offices, I had to walk five long Bogota blocks where I passed by 15 soldiers with machine guns. Cali was at the center of conflict with both the FARC and the Cali cartel. This is by no means a criticism of these programs. Both programs should be commended for their pragmatic and well-executed focus on building the capacities of the poor and marginalized producers. Indeed, their programs consciously utilize business to reduce deep poverty. Rather, what was stunning was the complete absence of discussion on how their programs needed to be tailored to rebuild Colombia after conflict.

a bushel of dozens of green bananas hanging from a wooden post

Through many years of service in the field, what I have learned is that the approach to utilize business to reduce deep poverty must be different from the approach to utilize business to rebuild societies after war. Indeed, in the first case, the relationships between buyer and supplier, like between Nestle and the Colombian onion farmers must be fair, mutually beneficial and profit maximizing on both sides to be sustainable. No more, no less.

However, in post-conflict situations, even though the business objective remains profit maximization, business’ approach cannot be in isolation of other institutions in society. What we have learned from our BOTFL projects in other contexts such as San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is that initiatives that combine business + security + governance are critical to build stabilization.  In their own magical realism, the directors of both organizations are ignoring the long-standing armed conflict and its legacy. As a consequence, both are missing essential elements of the equation of how business can and should contribute to conflict transformation in Colombia.

Colombia’s threatening undercurrents

I fell a little in love with Colombia, but with a heavy heart and sense of foreboding. Colombia possesses incredible riches: fertile land which boasts three harvests a year, incredibly hard working and well-educated people, and a peace agreement with honor negotiated across multiple vested interests.

Yet the undercurrents feel more threatening. An overwhelming number of Colombians that I spoke with do not feel mercy in their hearts for the FARC. Despite the peace process, many Colombians demand justice for war crimes and suffering caused. And they want punitive justice. It is difficult to imagine the possibilities of the future, when many are reliving the conflicts of the past. Indeed, many demand greater sacrifices of the FARC. Beyond the legacy of the armed conflict, many communities, such as the indigenous and Afro-Colombian ones, face prejudice going back generations. The most isolated campesino communities around the country face a life of deep poverty and violence. 

Given the obstacles to progress including deep-rooted conflict, prejudice, and poverty, why might we still have hope for a better future for Colombia? It turns out that hope arises from the collective magical realism they all share.

Colombia’s hope

a smiling woman with short blonde hair

During a visit to the University of Notre Dame, two leaders of opposing political factions in Colombia engaged in a very public debate on the current national government, its policies, priorities and performance, and as a consequence, the implications to the ongoing peace process.  One emphasized more her forgiveness and support for the former guerillas. The other was equally adamant about his law and order position. Both advocated for their views passionately.  Even with my limited Spanish, I could intuitively feel that there was very little common ground between their two positions. Yet after the debate, something startling happened. Both shook hands and expressed genuine enthusiasm to return to Colombia to keep working on their own path toward peace. Both Colombian rejoiced in each small sign of progress.

From my visits to Colombia, I had initially judged their society’s magical realism as a liability – as an inability or unwillingness to see the “facts on the ground.” This magical realism would prevent them from some of the pragmatic problem solving and compromise I felt they needed to move forward. Yet, I have come to believe that the collective magical realism shared across Colombian society could actually represent a strength. Having a vision of their country from their own imagination enables Colombians to persevere and continue working towards a better future.