By Patricia A. Wand, Peace Corps Colombia 1963-1965

Political scientist Oliver Kaplan studies rural communities in Colombia and analyzes how they fared through the prolonged period of civil unrest. Kaplan introduced his findings to Friends of Colombia by playing the folksong “El Campesino Embejucao” by Oscar Humberto Gómez. In the song, the campesino is caught between a rock and a hard place, ensnared in the middle of opposing forces. The folksong articulates the difficulties faced by villagers whose lives are disrupted by years of political turmoil and militant aggression.

Through his observation of various municipalities in the departmentos of Caldas, Santander, Cundinamarca and Meta, Kaplan discovered that some villages suffered more disruptions than others when armed actors surrounded them and attempted to take control.  What accounts for the differences in the way various communities responded to these disruptions in their daily lives?

It turns out those villages where armed actors caused less harm had certain characteristics in common. Kaplan cites examples showing municipalities with active juntas comunales more effectively resisted the violence and maintained more stability and solidarity than those municipalities with no pre-existing community-based leadership. That is, where Acción Comunal had been active through previous decades, municipalities were able to cope more effectively.

As leaders with no political party sponsorship, juntas were likely to be seen as inclusive, representing local issues and speaking with authority on behalf of the entire community. They advocated and implemented collective strategies that mitigated the divisive approach of the external terrorist groups. Furthermore, juntas continued their record-keeping practices, managing information and preserving local history.

For Friends of Colombia, as well as for Kaplan, the next question is what have been the long-run effects of the hundreds of Peace Corps Volunteers assigned as rural community developers to work with Acción Comunal in the 1960s and 1970s? As Kaplan pursues this research our experiences as RCPVs will undoubtedly offer valuable contributions.

Kaplan spoke to Friends of Colombia during Peace Corps Connect – Colorado, August 4, 2017 in Denver, as part of the annual Colombia Country Update sponsored by FOC. Oliver Kaplan is Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and the author of a new book on this topic, Resisting War: How Communities Protect Themselves (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Following the intriguing presentation and discussion, Dr. Kaplan joined Friends of Colombia at Los Parcero’s, a new Colombian restaurant.  For old-times’ sake we topped the evening with a traditional shot (or two) of aguardiente.

Special thanks to Michael Haviland (RPCV Colombia 1963-1965) and Nathan Mullen (RPCV Colombia 2012-2014) for helping secure locations for our Denver activities, where we were joined by Kevin and Kay Dixon (RPCV Colombia 1962-1964), Henry Jibaja (RPCV Colombia 1961-1963, staff 1967-1972) and Ruby Jibaja, Bob Kueppers (RPCV Colombia 1966-1968), Ed Ladon (RPCV Colombia 1967-1969), Olivia Mullen and Patricia Wand (RPCV Colombia 1963-1965).