Monday, January 30, 2012

Hay Festival 2012: "Revolutions in the Arab World" and nun turned ELN guerrilla Leonor Esguerra

"This is still the Arab winter."
Revolutions in the Arab World

On Thursday 26 January at 3:30 in the Salón Rey of the Santo Domingo convent in Cartagena, panellists Lebanese poet and journalist Joumana Haddad; Venezuelan Alejandro Padrón, ambassador to Libya from 2000 to 2002, and author of the book Yo fui ambajador de Chávez (I Was Chávez's Amabssador); and Egyptian Khalid al-Berry, BBC journalist and medical doctor, participated in a discussion moderated by Sergio Dahber on the subject of "Revolutions in the Arab World."

Former Venezuela Ambassador Alejandro Padrón considers that the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi was a gradual process, the result of repression, corruption, terror. He said that the revolution in Libya was the consequence of the emerging middle class demanding employment and political participation, more than being an uprising of the lower classes. Padrón considers that the West is hypocritical to maintain trade relations with dictators, but when questioned by a member of the audience he did not see any contradiction in the fact that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez maintained relations with Gaddafi's regime, explaining that these were for military and financial cooperation. Other than that, Padrón wanted to talk about himself, how he became ambassador, how other international diplomatic corps representatives were jealous of him because he was actually granted audiences with Gaddafi.

Khalid Al-Berry said that the uprisings in the Arab world took him by surprise. Previously he had felt that Islamism was the only viable option for Egypt and in his youth he had been involved in an Islamic movement, from which he has since distanced himself. He expressed concern that although a revolution has happened, no preparations are in place for what will come next.

Joumana Haddad was the most insightful of the three speakers. She commented on the uprisings in terms of their significance for women, and her view was pessimistic. In Haddad's words, "This is still the Arab winter." She does not consider that the Arab Spring has arrived because dictatorships are being traded for religious extremism. She noted that women do not appear to have a role or representation in this new order, and suggested that another 20 to 25 years might be needed before change evolves in the Arab world so that women are viewed as equal citizens. "When will the bomb of Arab women explode?" she asked. "Women need to be selfish," she added, they need to say, "I have rights too. My dignity needs to be respected. I have a role in the new order, because otherwise, no one is going to give them this respect and uphold their rights." Both she and al-Berry consider that the roots of revolution must come from within, as opposed to being modeled on the West.

Overall this conference did not go far toward shedding much light on the forces that drove the Arab uprisings that began a year ago, nor did it make any suggestions about what sort of political systems, social order, and living conditions that might result from these revolutions, nor their durability. Religion, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, is playing a significant role in this new world order. What sort of relations will be brokered with the Western world remains to be seen.

The Seduction of Danger
On Thursday 26 January at 7:30 at the Hotel Santa Clara in Cartagena, former nun turned ELN guerrilla Leonor Esguerra spoke to journalist Marta Ruiz.

I was excited at the prospect of hearing Leonor Esguerra speak. A former nun, Esguerra was the director of the trio of Marymount schools in Colombia (in Bogotá, Medellín, and Barranquilla) until she caught revolutionary fever, espoused the cause of the armed struggle in Colombia, and joined the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrilla movement. That was a while ago. To look at her, you wouldn't think that this grandmotherly woman was once a revolutionary firebrand.

Even after hearing Esguerra speak, it is hard to conceive of her story. Partly this is because she apparently presumes that the audience is already familiar with the story of the political and social circumstances that gave rise to the armed struggle in Colombia, and partly because as she speaks she meanders and gets off-topic because, frankly, she's old. The result is somewhat unsatisfying.

As with many of Colombia's guerrilla leaders, Esguerra came from a family in gentile poverty: growing up with the trappings of wealth and culture, even though money was tight. She and her sisters were sent to Catholic schools, because that is how old money Bogota families educated their children. Her induction into the world of social consciousness was gradual. As a child she hated being sent to take alms to the poor at the church dispensary. The poor were an omnipresent part of the landscape, but she found this forced contact with the "dirty gamines" of the social underclasses terrifying.

As a high school principal she was expected to replicate the existing class differences. As head of the Marymount schools, she was in charge of educating the daughters of Colombia's ruling class. The nuns also ran a school in a low-income neighbourhood of Bogotá. There the nuns supervised while older students who barely had any education themselves were put in charge of educating the younger students. The unfairness of this system, and the hypocrisy of providing good quality education to the well-to-do and next to no education to the underclass, all the while upholding the value of charity, became apparent to Esguerra. She began to take issue with the double standard, and she realized that her well-heeled students were out of touch with Colombia's social, economic, and political reality.

She visited the Marymount Mother House in the United States in the sixties. While she was there she was impressed by the student activism and political involvement. At the same time in Colombia rebel priest Camilo Torres was gaining notoriety as a proponent of liberation theology. Upon returning to Colombia Esguerra was approached by a Marxist-Communist who was interested in the work that she was doing, in trying to bring good quality education to the poor. This brought her into contact with others who were exploring new channels to right Colombia's deeply entrenched economic and social inequality.

Her explanation for why she chose to join an armed guerrilla movement was because she felt that all the legal channels for social change had been exhausted. She joined the ranks of the ELN. She was impressed by the fact that everyone in the guerrilla movement in Colombia had been personally affected by violence. This was no longer theoretical discourse; revolution and struggle were the result of lived experience. She also fell in love with ELN leader Fabio Vásquez.

The ELN sent her as liaison to develop revolutionary education programs abroad. She spent seven years working with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, an experience that taught her that revolution does not come about quickly or easily.

In Mexico she was present at the talks between the Colombian Government and the ELN, FARC, and EPL guerrilla groups. This was the dawning of a new period of disillusionment. The men representing these armed groups were not clear that they wanted peace, and she, having now lived outside the country for many years, felt like a fraud in claiming to represent the interests of the Colombian people. This was the point when she began the process of distancing herself from the armed struggle.

Esguerra has disavowed armed struggle as a means of taking power but many of the issues and the social inequality that gave rise to this attempt at revolution are still in place. Nowadays war had been "degraded." Once idealist armed groups have lost sight of their ideals and have slipped into criminal activity. The military is also degraded, as seen by the cases of the "false positives," in which young men from low income neighborhoods in Bogota were promised jobs working on farms, and then were executed, dressed in makeshift guerrilla togs and presented a "guerrillas killed in combat." Recent scandals such as the contracting carrousel in Bogota, in which former Mayor Samuel Moreno and his brother Ivan were demanding kickbacks for city contracts, is another example of how corruption remains the order of the day. The guerrilla movements may be discredited, but poverty, corruption, and the debasement of the value of human life have not been rectified.

In response to questions from the public, Esguerra said that she does not see the church in Colombia as being committed to peace and social change, mainly because of the stance adopted by recent popes. Answering another question, Esguerra said that talks, per se, are not enough to solve Colombia's problems because people have been talking for years; the key, according to her, lies not in talking, but in listening.

I found this conference largely unsatisfying because I wanted to understand the process of how an educated woman could be seduced by the concept that armed struggle could somehow lead to a better life for Colombians. I guess I'll have to read her book to find out: La búsqueda, testimonio de Leonor Esguerra. I'm ready to listen.

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