Colombian Conflict and Lessons the US can Learn

(Note: due to my phone being stolen, I don’t have some of my pictures from some memorials and exhibits from the National Museum.  So I am just copying pictures from the Internet).

Given that my Spanish level was at an extremely basic level when I arrived in Colombia, I decided to take lessons from a tutor.  It definitely helped, although I did not put in as much practice in my free time as I should have.  Aside from the Spanish practice, as part of my lessons, my tutor went over some of the past 70 years of history in Bogotá and Colombia.  We also went to the National Museum in Bogotá for one of my tutoring sessions.  These activities, along with my own reading and what I learned from other museums and tour guides during my travels, helped give so much context into the turmoil of Colombia over more than half a century.

Image from the Bogotazo (from

Here is a very brief (and probably insufficient) summary for those completely unaware and only know that Colombia was involved in a long-running civil war, and that it allowed and was to an extent fueled by the drug trade.  I am including links to the relevant Wikipedia pages for more info.

Unsurprisingly, the roots of the conflict go back decades and the differences were rooted in economic inequality and struggles between peasants and land-owners.  These struggles were then exploited by the liberal and conservative parties for their own political gain (sound familiar?).  This came to a head on April 9, 1948, a date which changed the trajectory of Colombian history.  The liberal candidate for president, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was assassinated.  There are a variety of theories as to the killer’s motivation, ranging from personal issues with Gaitán to involvement by the conservative government.  At the time, the media was sharply divided and supporters of one party or the other generally only listened to their “friendly” news sources (again, sound familiar?).  As news broke of the assassination, the radio station managed by supporters of Gaitán blamed the conservative government for the killing and called upon their listeners to take up arms in the streets.  Thus began what is known as the Bogotazo, a city-wide riot that destroyed much of Bogotá and resulted in thousands of deaths. This helped intensify other conflicts in other regions of Colombia, beginning the 10-year period known as La Violencia.  The La Violencia set the stage for the rise of the various guerilla and paramilitary groups throughout the country.  And as people tried to escape the violence in the cities, they moved to the countryside in hopes of living as peaceful farmers.  This influx of farmers eventually caused a surplus and then crop prices dropped, which allowed for more economic incentives for drug cultivation, which added yet another dimension to the ongoing conflict which still has effects to this day. All because of division and distrust that exploded due to a tragic event almost 70 years ago.

Image from the Bogotazo (from

It has been interesting learning about the turbulent history of Colombia (and other parts of South America), while watching from afar the political upheaval in the United States right now.  Yes, it is very much an apples and oranges comparison, and I do not believe the United States is realistically close to an outbreak of political violence.  But nonetheless, consider this hypothetical situation:

Donald Trump is assassinated by some mentally disturbed person with a loose connection to Black Lives Matter or the Antifa movement.  The FBI urges calm as they investigate, but has no reason to suspect anything more than a lone individual.  However, Alex Jones and similar personalities that are enamored with Donald Trump put forward conspiracy theories that this was actually a coup by the establishment, and urges their well-armed and like-thinking listeners to prepare for the worst.  A few unhinged listeners, maybe ones that belong to citizens’ militias, decide to strike first, and begin violently targeting BLM and Antifa gatherings and possibly even federal agents.  Then, Antifa and maybe the New Black Panthers start to promote their own armed resistance against these militias and right-wing groups, and maybe even local law enforcement that they feel are complicit in the violent actions of the right-wing groups. And soon violent clashes are occurring around the country, each side adamantly convinced that they are fighting against evil forces. How far-fetched does that really sound when laid out in such a manner?

The reason this doesn’t sound all that far-fetched is that we no longer view people with opposing political viewpoints as fellow citizens who happen to have a different opinion, or perhaps who are misguided at worse.  Now we view them as sworn enemies bent on destroying the country.  They are others that should be hated and feared.

Hatred and fear are base emotions.  They fuel our fight-or-flight instinct and are, therefore, extremely powerful.  They were very useful to us when we lived in small hunger-gather tribes.  But they can be counter-productive to advanced civilization, especially in a representative democracy when compromise is necessary in order to get things done.

What is worse is that over the past 25 years or so, we have retreated into echo chambers so that instead of learning new information and perspectives, we simply reinforce what we already believe to be true.  In addition, it also fools us into thinking that our particular way of thinking is more popular than it really is, because everyone we talk to shares our beliefs.  And, there must be something wrong with those who disagree with us.

Here is the reality though, no matter what your political leanings are, most of the country disagrees with you on most issues.  That is simply what happens when you live in a large and diverse country.

If we are to move forward as a country, we must learn to accept those who disagree with us and find common ground and ways to move forward.  And it starts by looking at ourselves and how we perceive those of differing viewpoints.  It is so frustrating and disheartening to see what often gets posted on social media.  I want to point out two “headlines” that I made-up and am paraphrasing from stories I’ve seen shared.  And I want you to REALLY think about why these types of stories get shared:

‘Local Man Outrages Liberal with Patriotic Display”

“Majority of Trump Voters Believe Demonstrably False Information”

Are you sharing the first one because of your love for the country and you are heartened by patriotic displays?  Are you sharing the second one because you are worried about the abundance of in misinformation in our public discourse?  You may tell yourself yes; but, in general, I don’t believe you.

I believe those of you sharing the first stories are doing so because they “outrage liberals” and you enjoy anything that makes them angry.  It isn’t love of country that is motivating you, it is hatred of the other.

If you are sharing the second story, I think it is really because it reinforces your belief that Trump voters are stupid and/or gullible.  This type of story allows you to continue your intellectual superiority and dismiss valid concerns and values of the other.

Obviously, these are over-simplifications, and you very well may have pure and noble intentions, but all I ask is that you truly question and be honest with yourself.  When you listen to or share a story, look in your heart and ask yourself “Why?”  And yes, look in your heart, your gut, your soul, your emotions.  One of the interesting things that I’ve learned during a variety of coursework and trainings on management and leadership is that the vast majority of our decisions are actually made emotionally rather than rationally, as much as we tell ourselves differently.  While we believe we make a decision using our rational minds; in reality, usually, we are only using our rational minds to justify the decision that our emotional hearts have already made.  So look at what is really triggering your emotional reactions when you read and share political information.  The more aware we are of those feelings and how they control us, the better we are at adjusting our behavior.

There are so many that would rather divide us with heated rhetoric.  They do this not for love of country, but because it helps them win votes or gather viewers/listeners/readers.  They claim some other (whoever they may be) are enemies of the USA.  But the people peddling this rhetoric are the ones that are damaging the country.

To be clear, protesting injustice and inequality or standing up for beliefs and rights are not the same as “dividing us”.  Pointing out the problems of institutional racism is not “dividing” the country any more than telling your sibling that they have a drug and alcohol problem is “dividing” your family.  Expressing your beliefs, even if they are unpopular or old-fashioned, should be no more controversial than the clothing you choose to wear, even if they are out of style.

However, you must realize that there are those that disagree with you and as long as you acknowledge and accept that, and try to find common purpose, there is so much we can accomplish.  But if you dismiss others and their beliefs and opinions, you do nothing more than hold us all back.

Yesterday was the anniversary of 9/11.  All over social media, I saw the common refrain to “Never Forget.” But I am going to push on that.  What do you mean?  How are you “remembering” that horrible day?  Are you remembering how originally well-meaning beliefs were allowed to be warped and twisted by close-mindedness and hate, which led to such horrible devastation?  Or are you remembering it as a reason to hate and fear an entire group of people that have different religious beliefs than you?  Are you “not forgetting” how Americans came together to mourn and support one another?  Or are you “not forgetting” how offensive it is to you when someone expresses an opinion that you think is insufficiently patriotic or overly nationalistic?  Please think about how best to remember those who lost their lives.  Instead of just red, white, and blue posts, or criticizing American foreign policy, or whatever, wouldn’t it be a better honor to their memory to come together as a country, respect each other as compatriots, and work together to a better future?

Therefore, when you are about to post something on Facebook; or read/watch/share a news story; or express your opinion in some other way; or agree or disagree with an policy, party, or person; please ask yourself:  Are you helping us to come together and improve as a country and as human beings (even if it makes us slightly uncomfortable) or are you only making yourself feel better and superior about your opinion and dividing us even further?