Harvard-MIT conference examines where Colombia will be in 2040

One month before Colombians head to the polls to elect their next president, a two- day Harvard-MIT Colombia Conference titled “Colombia 2040” explored concerns held by Colombians and the international community leading up to this critical juncture in determining the future of the country.

The implementation of the peace accords has come under fire in recent weeks as former guerilla leaders were arrested on alleged drug trafficking charges, and as European countries voiced concerns about corruption in the financing of post-conflict programs. In this moment of uncertainty and high tension, the student-organized conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gathered distinguished guests to “debate the challenges we face and envision a better country,” stated Diana Acosta, a PhD student in Philosophy at Harvard and one of the organizers of the conference. She elaborated the conference’s goal to “reflect on the capabilities to build a more inclusive, democratic, and competitive society by 2040.”

Despite the urgency shared by the audience and presenters, the overwhelming energy was one of optimism for the future. In a session on the current state of the peace process, moderated by Juan Carlos Iragorri, director of Voces RCN, the panelists agreed that Colombia is on a path to peace and that “confidence in the process is key,” yet they focused their reassurances differently. Remarks from Jennifer Schirmer, Harvard Law School fellow and peace-building adviser to the Colombian government, emphasized the “extraordinary achievement of the negotiations,” and urged Colombians to keep in mind the long-term consequences of peace, acknowledging that, “many peace processes begin with very high expectations.”

Questioning claims that the accords are failing, Nicolás Ávila, Chief of Staff of Rafael Pardo, the Senior Presidential Advisor for the post-conflict, shared a slew of statistics that demonstrate the sharp decline in violence throughout the country. Ávila also responded to anxieties surrounding the letter sent to the Colombian government by the embassies of Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland calling for increased transparency and a quickened pace of implementing programs of the peace accords. He assured that while international support has greatly aided the peace process, the Colombian government assumes responsibility for ensuring implementation that serves the victims of the conflict and the Colombian people overall.

Adding nuance to Schirmer and Ávila’s messages of faith in the process, Claudia Medina, Director of CITpax in Colombia, highlighted the group experiencing increased threats and attacks in the midst of a country with overall declining violence: activists, community organizers and leaders. “Mechanisms of violence have become more sophisticated and are now directed towards our community leaders who have been left unprotected by the accords,” she lamented. Looking to the future, Medina called for protected and “permanent spaces of participation,” a strengthened civil society, and “getting rid of the bases of illegal economies.”

The conversation covered agricultural interventions that could upend the illicit narcotics networks with examples from Carlos Enrique Cavalier, CEO of Alqueria and former senator. He shared concrete strategies of Alqueria’s The Farm Project to support the transition to peace. This ongoing initiative centers on boosting the dairy sector in La Macarena, and opens up dialogue about crop-substitution models, and other efforts to provide viable alternatives to and reduce the economic incentives of coca growing.

The upcoming elections and participation of society in the political future of Colombia was discussed most explicitly in energetic exchanges on the future of media and journalism in the country. Jonathan Bock of the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa set the tone, presenting research findings on how the war silenced local journalism, particularly in radio, which is the most accessible form of media in remote zones of the country. Highlighting how many stations are run by the army and declared to be apolitical and how few stations report news, especially local stories, Bock called for improved media systems to disseminate community news and adequately compensate their journalists.

The panelists representing three major news organizations – Maria Paulina Baena of El Espectador, Maria Cristina Castro of Semana.com, and Daniel Coronell of Univision and a columnist for Semana – supported Bock’s call to feature local voices in the national discourse and added reflections from their extensive reporting and writing experience.

Baena also believes media “is obsessed with shedding light on the marginalized,” and elaborated her collaboration with local journalists, and their aim that the informal, yet precise tone of her column, involves a broader public in politics and social issues.

Coronell was especially emphatic in his remarks, building on Bock’s defense of local journalism, and claims that “public scrutiny is needed to ensure that the military sector is not controlling the media in place of community-based reporters,” and that “the greatest threat to journalism in Colombia is the administrative corruption.”

Castro’s hope for critically focused journalism, lies in the style of Baena and Coronell, arguing that their “columns are so effective, because they are not neutral,” and they generate dialogue.

Focusing on the proliferation of fake news that sways the public and the responsibility of the media, Castro emphasized how many journalists view their careers as “before and after the plebiscite,” explaining, “we realized we had not connected with the public at large, and it was a moment of great humility, and a mistake we cannot repeat with these upcoming elections.”