Gonzalo Sánchez is a Colombian sociologist and philosopher who, during the entire Santos government, directed the country’s National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH). This Center was first created by the 2005 “Justice and Peace” law that governed the AUC paramilitaries’ demobilization, then strengthened by the 2011 Victims’ Law that President Juan Manuel Santos promoted after taking office. It had academic autonomy from the government, and its team of scholars published dozens of studies of what happened in the conflict, basing them heavily on victims’ accounts. The CNMH’s crowning achievement was a 2013 report, Basta Ya! Memorias de guerra y dignidad, which as its title indicates, sought to recount Colombia’s conflict from a perspective of victims’ memories while upholding their dignity. (Disclosure: I was on the CNMH International Consultative Committee during the “Basta Ya” period.)
Gonzalo Sánchez left the CNMH directorship when Colombia changed presidential administrations. The government of Iván Duque eventually replaced him in February 2019 with Darío Acevedo, a hard-right historian who, in at least one prior media interview, had questioned whether what happened in Colombia should even be considered an armed conflict. Acevedo has been busy attacking his predecessors at the Center and signing an agreement with Colombia’s cattlemen’s federation—many of whose members are victims of the FARC, but many of whom were also some of the principal sponsors of paramilitary groups. Victims’ and human rights groups have begun withdrawing the documents they had entrusted to the Center’s archives, and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a global network of historic sites, museums and memory initiatives, expelled the CNMH on February 3.
As he has a new book out, Gonzalo Sánchez is doing rounds of media interviews. He has mostly avoided commenting on the downfall of the National Center for Historical Memory, other than to express sadness, not to respond to his successor’s personal attacks.
He gave a March 10 interview with Armando Neira of El Tiempo, though, that was so good I’ve read through it twice. In this translated excerpt, Neira asks Sánchez about the government’s attitude toward the killings of Colombian social leaders. The recently named interior minister, Alicia Arango, had just questioned why advocates purportedly care more about social leaders’ murders than about people who are murdered during thefts of their mobile phones.
[Armando Neira, El Tiempo:] Everyone has their own reading of reality; for example, that of the Interior Minister, Alicia Arango, who compares victims of political violence with those of cellphone thefts. How does this seem to you?
[Gonzalo Sánchez:] As that expression was used in the context of the controversy over the United Nations’ report on the human rights situation in the country, I felt insulted as a citizen, I could not contain myself and I posted a very visceral tweet: “Maybe the UN should protest stolen cell phones and not murders of social leaders!”
[Neira:] Do you think she was being intentional or was it a misstatement?
[Sánchez:] One doesn’t know whether it is clumsiness, lack of sensitivity, cynicism, or provocation. It would seem that these false starts are more than that, rather they are part of a structure of thought of the “No” [the side that opposed Colombia’s peace process and narrowly defeated an October 2, 2016 plebiscite to approve the final peace accord]. This has been taking shape and tends visibly to trivialize great issues and great tragedies.
[Neira:] Like what?
[Sánchez:] Between peace and glyphosate, they choose glyphosate; between the murder of social leaders and the theft of cell phones, they prefer to inflate the dimensions of the latter to trivialize the others; between the feeling of regret or grievance toward the protector of the murdered leader, they choose insults: “the bodyguard was not a social leader“; between improving things and destroying them they prefer to “rip them to shreds”.
[Neira:] Why did this statement appear calculated to you?
[Sánchez:] What I want to tell you is that this is not about verbal accidents, but about a way of thinking and a very calculatedly challenging use of language. There is an aggressive discourse at high levels of government that is generating an individual and collective tension whose effects they themselves aren’t calculating.
[Sánchez:] The fundamental problem in my opinion is this: in the plebiscite, one sector of society did not lose to another. The country lost.
[Neira:] Why do you claim that?
[Sánchez:] The “No” will weigh on us in the future, not as the victory of one sector over others, but as the defeat of the nation. And this government has charged itself with deepening the defeat. Colombia is being ruled like a defeated country. They impose humiliating roles on it, inside and outside the country. The “No” was the denial of the conflict, the denial of the peace accord, the denial of a future different from that of everyday death.
[Neira:] The present violence is marked by the murder of social leaders. What is your assessment of this situation?
[Sánchez:] All human life must be protected, all life has immeasurable value. But when a social leader, a human rights defender, a spiritual leader from an indigenous community, a land claimant is killed, years of accumulated organization, culture, and democracy are undone, which take many more years to rebuild.
[Neira:] And what do you think of the series of murders of women and men from the FARC who signed the peace agreement?
[Sánchez:] When they kill a demobilized person, a message of high symbolic content is also sent: agreements were signed, but “the war is not over.” Intimidating, isn’t it?
[Neira:] But, from the other side, there’s enormous anger among the victims of the FARC because it has not told the whole truth before the JEP …
[Sánchez:] Commitment to truth, rather than alternative penalties, is at the core of the agreements. To avoid the complete truth, the assumption of responsibilities, is to break the agreements. And this is also valid for third parties [appearing before the JEP], as well as for agents of the State.
[Neira:] What effects does this attitude have?
[Sánchez] Transitional institutions will have no legitimacy if society cannot feel certain that the contributions to the truth are real. The insurgents committed to that not only with the Colombian government and state, but with all of society. And today’s informed society does not compromise with lies, with euphemisms, or with half-truths.
[Neira:] Does it impact peace?
[Sánchez:] We must recognize something else that weighs heavily at the moment: a fragile peace does not produce strong truths. In other words, the retreat of peace is the retreat of truth and memory.