Occasionally, and I believe this is such a time, one is privileged to stand before a moment of potential change. It is the moment when the repeated striking of the flint produces a spark. Eventually, the spark flickers, catches hold, and bursts into flame.
I remember such a moment in Chile, when Gandhi was shown in theaters in Santiago, igniting national days of protest that marked the beginning of the end for the Pinochet dictatorship. I remember too how people power brought down the Marcos dictatorship, and how, a decade later, the face of another Marcos, half-hidden by a bandana, announced that the Zapatista army would fight for the dignity of the oppressed indigenous populations in Mexico, and would do so within a democratic framework by mobilizing world opinion to their cause.
Such events don’t just happen. For the flame to ignite, the tinder and kindling must be prepared and at the ready to receive the spark. Thought must be given to preparing fuel wood that will be able to sustain the fire once it is lit.
Here in Colombia, where I arrived last night, I am seeing the spark. Colombians across the country, who have been demanding peace for years, are now seeking to exercise this constitutionally-sanctioned right to live in peace. Indigenous leaders in the southwestern province of Cauca dismantle police stations and military barricades, chase down FARC rebels and put them on trial, and reject the presence of any armed actors on their lands. Indigenous women of the northeastern province of La Guajira—far across the mountains, jungles, and plains of Colombia—stand in support of the Cauca struggle hundreds of miles away. Fourteen indigenous towns in Putumayo, near the Ecuadorean border, shut down the Mocoa-Bogota highway to protest the national government’s failure to respond to their peace proposal. In the eastern department of Arauca, on the Venezuelan border, people of faith create new organizational structures and announce their commitment to persuade armed actors to lay down their weapons. These are new events that build on years of efforts to survive in the midst of war.
The clamor for peace in Colombia is still relatively invisible to the media and to the Bogota elites. The calls are sporadic and not well articulated across the country. They await an echo that will enable them to become a force for real progress towards peace. They remind us that while peace may be brokered at the national level, it will need to be implemented in the regions.
When he assumed office in 2010, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that he holds the key to peace, which he will use at the propitious moment. Colombians who are living the war in the regions outside of the Bogota bubble are beginning to lose patience, however. They have discerned that there are many keys to peace held by many people.
Sadly, the world has chosen for too long to listen only when people resort to violence. Voices throughout Colombia are rejecting violence as the path to change. If the world does not pay attention soon, those with the guns will continue to gain ground. And if non-violent change is blocked, sooner or later, desperation may be the new tinder that sparks more violence. Better to listen now and respond.