“Moving forward, Colombians of the exodus find themselves at a crossroad…”
by Nicola Haubold
On October 31, 1996, Bernd Haubold received two consecutive phone calls: one announced a new life, while the other mourned a loss. Sitting at his office computer, my father simultaneously learned about the birth of my sister and the kidnapping of his business partner: two pieces of news that transformed his life, and mine, forever. In light of these events, the decision to leave Colombia was made simple. “When the opportunity to leave a life of instability and insecurity presented itself,” my father recalls, “we did in fact take it. The future in Colombia seemed bleak at best.”
The first permanent Colombian community to establish a foothold in the United States appeared in the years following World War I, as several hundred professionals came to America in search of employment and opportunity. By 1930, approximately 25,000 Colombians had immigrated to the US, flocking mainly to New York City.
Colombian emigration to the United States was considered rather insignificant prior to 1950, a year which coincides with a period of Colombian history known as “La Violencia.” As the 1948 assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan began an era of pervasive violence characterized by leftist ideals, Colombians set the precedent for mass migration, citing political turmoil as sufficient cause for relocation. While Liberal and Conservative forces began to fight brutally in rural towns, thousands of civilians were internally displaced from the countryside into cities, leading to increased urban violence and unemployment.
This demographic shift, which occurred mainly between 1945 and 1965, was only the beginning of a series of migration waves to the United States. As the FARC gradually gained a foothold within the nation, formally announcing in 1964 its intention of using armed struggle as a political strategy to seize national power, civilians became more interested in severing ties with their mother country. Their interest in security trumped their national morale.
Alejandro Villegas, a Colombian permanent resident of the United States, shared his experience: “The political instability, the drug trade, the violence, and the terrorism that occurred during the 90s and early 2000s in Colombia affected everyone from the very privileged to the poorest sections of Colombia. The country could not grow.” As Colombia became trapped within a cycle of drugs, violence, and inequality, people flocked to the United States to protect their business, their families, and themselves. Between 1995 and 2005, a period in which the country’s GDP plummeted and unemployment doubled, approximately 4.7 million Colombians became internally displaced while another 1.3 million Colombians left the country altogether.
In recent months, however, Colombia has made headlines for a different reason. Rather than being deplored as the cocaine capital of the world, this bio-diverse country has shown signs of promise and development as its peace negotiations with the FARC are coming to a close. In his September address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Juan Manuel Santos declared an end to Colombia’s 50-year armed conflict, proclaiming that “Colombia is finally on the path to peace.” Setting a March 2016 deadline for the signing of a final peace agreement, the president intends to move forward. Announcing that “a Colombia at peace will shine like a bright star in the international arena,” Santos has encouraged the nation to forgive and forget the violence incurred by the FARC.
While some people firmly believe in the peace process, others doubt the extent to which it can bring about change. “I am of the opinion that the peace process will debilitate Colombia,” Villegas said. “This deal favors the terrorists and violates Colombia’s commitments under the Geneva Convention.” In a nation that has only known violence, it seems overly idealistic to believe that people will ignore their deep-rooted hate for the FARC and abandon the past to prepare for the future.
Elvira Maria Restrepo, a professor at the University of Miami and an expert on Colombian criminal justice, believes Colombia is prepared for peace. “I think Colombia has made incredible progress in social and economic areas,” she says. “I believe in the peace process and have supported it since the beginning. It is always better to discuss with arguments than with bullets. Its benefits are huge: no more victims, growth, a country with a future.”
Moving forward, Colombians of the exodus find themselves at a crossroad: will they go back to the birthplace they reluctantly left behind? In both 2013 and 2014, Colombians were voted the happiest people in the world, with the majority of the population saying they would not intentionally change countries. While Restrepo and Villegas differ on Colombia’s future, they have nostalgically considered making the nation their home once again, possibly for retirement. “I will return,” Restrepo affirms, “I believe we have an amazing country and educated people need to return because it is the educated and young minds that can make a difference.”
Though violence and instability spurred Colombian emigration, the nation’s previously perilous circumstances have done little to diminish national morale. No matter their geographical location, Colombians, like myself, are proud to be who they are. They are people of charisma. They are people of character. And they will always swear their allegiance to the red, yellow, and blue.
Nicola Haubold is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.