Colombia in the United Kingdom

When I first met Juan Manuel Santos, the two of us were about 5 (or 4?) years old and the two of us were attending the Instituto Zamora, some kind of nursery (a story to tell latter) near Chapinero. It was 1955 and we were not aware that the whole country was starting its national conflict, resulting in more than 220 thousand people killed and that it would take more than fifty years to start its ending and to go into a Peace Process that will take around 10 years from now. At that time he was not aware that he would become president of Colombia in 2010. We were not aware that our family would live in the United Kingdom for 15 years, that we would become British citizens and that I would meet Juan Manuel Santos again in 2012.

When we met for the second time, obviously I knew who he was. He knew also who I was and when we met, we had a big smile and a friendly shake of hands. At that moment I was part of an NGO coalition, trying to evaluate how the Colombian government was dealing with human rights defence. Our meeting happened at the Foreign Commonwealth Office, just after he had met the PM David Cameron. It became evident to us that the Colombian government was doing its best to defend human rights and that it was following a plan negotiated with the British government, the Private Sector and the UN. At this moment in 2012 he would not be aware that the agreement with the FARC would happen in 2016 and that he would get the Nobel Peace Prize because of agreeing peace with the FARC.

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I am not watching TV anymore. This morning it was very special to watch the live programme broadcasted by Colombian TV, showing Queen Elizabeth II welcoming president Santos. It was great to see that the London Eye and one of the most important avenues leading to Buckingham Palace were covered with the Colombian and the British flags. Later today, he spoke to the Parliament and he met the PM Theresa May.

It has been astonishing to listen to the Colombian radio and to read newspapers in which some of the journalists consider this visit to be an ordinary one, with no relevance for Colombia. Lot of comments and jokes made by the journalists reflect that people don’t understand the relevance of meeting the British leaders and the companies and investors. Though the president is visiting the Queen, my impression is that the real visitor is the Colombian Peace Process in which negotiators from the Government and from FARC demonstrated that they learned from the Northern Ireland peace process, which took a bit longer than ten years to negotiate.

While we lived in the UK for close to 15 years, I was trying to see what was the meaning of being Colombian in a multi-racial and multi-cultured country as it has been the UK since its beginning. What was the meaning of speaking Colombian Spanish in a city in which more than 210 languages are spoken regularly?

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A significant Colombian presence in London starts with ex-president Alfonso López Pumarejo passing away in London in 1959. Later, during the following 4 decades, while the violence in Colombia escalated, more than 90 thousand Colombians arrived as political refugees. They are Londoners and many of them live around Elephant and Castle. Though many of them don’t speak English yet, they keep cooking almojábanas, arepaehuevo, pan de bono and good chocolate. They make tamales and black pudding and they serve the dishes with plantain leave.

Colombians became relevant in the leadership of the International Coffee Organisation, where Juan Manuel Santos was an important leader during 1970-1980. During the next years, when the global coffee price had to be negotiated, the ICO leader was Néstor Osorio, who is the present Colombian ambassador.

Art gave us other ways to be present.

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It was quite interesting for me to attend policy meetings on the trade agreements held near the Exchange Square and regularly see details of Fernando Botero’s fat muse observing (and smiling) what was happening with the Sterling Pound and the indexes reflecting negotiations with all currencies. It was surprising for us to see that his exhibitions on Abu-Ghraib didn’t achieve any type of relevant comment from art experts. It was quite different for us to appreciate Shibboleth, built by Doris Salcedo in the Tate Gallery. It was in 2009 when we watched Shibboleth (a growing and scaring flaw network representing racism and the fear on migrants) intervening in the floor of the Tate Gallery. Though it deals with racism, for me it was a reflection of the Colombian conflict, with Colombian reality (fracturing the ground in so many different directions) running in parallel (without meeting it!) with the history of modernity and of human rights.

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My hope is that Juan Manuel Santos visit to the UK will represent the moment when Colombians met modernity, the value of human rights for all, the fight against inequality and the respect of women’s rights. I hope that the president’s visit to London means that the names of people killed or disappeared during the conflict that were presented by Doris Salcedo in Bogota’s central plaza few weeks ago, will be respected and will take Colombia away from any internal armed conflict forever.

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