In 1948, many Colombians thought they had finally found their ideal Presidential candidate. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán carried a unifying message across his country, which resonated with people from both the rural countryside, and the poor living in the urban population centers. However, the country’s urban Conservatives quickly labeled his populist ideas as communist, a serious pejorative during the 1940s. Eventually, Gaitán’s success would end with his assassination, and his outraged supporters of Bogotá were convinced that misguided and uninformed urban Conservatives were the culprits.
The people of Colombia would not let Gaitán’s assassination silence them from expressing their desire for a more equitable, more prosperous country for all. So, they rioted in the streets in what would become one of the most violent events in the country’s history: Bogotazo. This event marked the beginning of a tension between rural citizens and urban citizens that still stands today in Colombia.
Urban citizens face unique challenges, and rural citizens face unique challenges, but as more and more people move to urban regions of the world, will governments forget that there is another world out there?
I’ve visited that other world in Colombia where there are no firefighters, no police officers, no running water, or no paved roads. Instead, there are mothers waiting in government social assistant lines for many hours with babies in their arms because their rural communities do not have many economic opportunities. So, in the 1980s when iconic cocaine narcotraffickers like Pablo Escobar, sometimes called the “Robin Hood of the Poor,” promised houses, soccer fields, roads, and livable wages to the struggling farmers and laborers. The cocaine narcotraffickers were listening when Colombia’s elite in Bogota were not.
The cocaine narcotraffickers created a guerrilla war in Colombia’s most rural, remote areas to maintain their power, therein marking the longest ever civil war in modern history. Recognizing that both the government and the paramilitary cocaine narcotrafficking groups carried human rights abuses during the Civil War, and also recognizing that even the United States can’t win a guerrilla war (i.e. the Vietnam War), the government and the paramilitary groups began negotiations for peace. However, in a voting referendum, Colombians rejected the peace agreement, principally for the amount of forgiveness it gave to the paramilitary guerrilla forces and serious misunderstandings of the agreement.
But, who exactly would vote against peace? It was the region that has faced the least amount of violence: Bogota, a megacity of 11 million people.
"When you see a map of the regions that voted 'yes', you see those are the regions that are really suffering from the war…So what it tells us is that for people who haven't been affected by the war, the issue of the referendum was abstract,” said former presidential contender and FARC captive Ingrid Betancourt.
How can the majority give voice to a problem that is faced mostly by the minority? In a controversial move, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos took back his word and took the power away from the people on this matter, and instead passed the peace agreement through Congress. Some people in the United States and the United Kingdom wish their leaders could have done the same this past year as well when it came to things such as the U.S. Presidential Election and Brexit.
Similar to the urban and rural divide in Colombia, in the United States and the U.K., urban cities and rural cities also had completely different perceptions of the Election of 2016 and Brexit, respectively. Many of those on both sides of these issues have expressed to me how feeble-minded they think the other half of their country is. Both sides feel righteous about their decision, and believe they are both fighting for themselves, their families, and their values the best way they know how.
For example, when Donald J. Trump became president, all of my fellow urban, liberal friends wondered, “Where are these people? Who are these people who voted for him?” We had not realized there is another reality for Americans living in rural communities. I do not think that just the United States is becoming a divided country, but the world is becoming more divided, because globally people are migrating to cities, and forgetting the problems they left behind in rural communities. This phenomenon gives us divisive political events like the U.S. Election of 2016, Brexit, and the complexities of Colombia’s attempts to end cocaine narcotrafficking.
Essentially, we’ve lost contact with our fellow neighbor, and especially when we disagree, we have forgotten that the ideas and motives of those living in both urban and rural communities are in search of the same needs we all share. I argue that when one feels like one’s situation in life is worsening as many people in rural communities, especially, believe, they are willing to take risks that another wouldn’t. Also, they are more willing to believe something that is not even true, such as Donald Trump will bring back coal mining jobs or that the Colombian peace accord would allow a joint government-guerrilla forces committee to prosecute anyone who was against the deal.
Until we can reach out to these people who are different from us and understand them, we will continue to have divisive political events. It will be us that will have to make the effort, not governments, because governments are imperfect systems at distributing representation.
So, what do the U.S. Election of 2016, Brexit, and cocaine narcotrafficking all have in common? They are the result of many decades of a group feeling forgotten, and taking consequential risks in order to seek relief.