Interview: Hans Blumental on Colombia’s land distribution

Hans Blumenthal
Hans Blumenthal

Hans Blumenthal belittles the role he has played during the last two decades in understanding Colombia: the difficult realities of land distribution, the social inequalities between land owners and tenants, and the roots of a conflict that began with Independence.

When the sociologist first arrived in Colombia in 1972, his native Germany was struggling to come to terms with its own turbulent past: the collapse of National Socialism, the ‘mea culpa’ felt by many with the Holocaust, and the rise of a terror organization – the Baader Meinhof or Red Army Faction (R.A.F), which targeted judges and politicians. Violence was not endemic to the many ‘banana republics’ of South America and Africa.

Humble beginnings: 25 years of solitude

While the post-war nation prepared to host the Munich Olympic Games and showcase the best of German design, sports and engineering to the world, Hans Blumenthal found himself among the banana growers of the Caribbean coast, surrounded by the folklore and mythology made famous by a writer he admires, Gabriel García Márquez.

“It was the beginning of my own 50 years of solitude,” laughs Hans, as he recalls the first months doing field research after graduating from University St.Gallen. “Maybe, I shouldn’t exaggerate. It’s 25 years of solitude.”

Hans Blumenthal

From working in banana fields to playing a key role in the politics of the nation, sociologist Hans Blumenthal has made quite an impact in his adopted home country.

Far from Bad Kreuznach, the medieval village near Mainz where his family lives and run a vineyard, Hans was beginning to get a feel for a country which would bestow on him Colombian citizenship and lead to the creation of the country’s only peace prize: Premio Nacional de Paz.

Nine months became years and Hans after marrying his wife in Bogotá, returned with her to Berlin to finish his doctorate in Political Economy at the Freie Universität Berlin. The academic soon joined the German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) that operates in more than 100 countries to promote democracy and political awareness. Based in Bonn and Berlin, the FES, is the oldest German-party led foundation, which also raises money for programs, which benefit conflict communities and through individual or group initiatives form peacemakers. This was something Colombia was in need of, as the country’s internal conflict began to deteriorate in the early 1990s.

As the violence of the cocaine cartels and narco “land grab” extended north from Medellín towards the banana growing area of the Urabá and east to the Magdalena River, the massacres intensified. Giving up his post in Venezuela with FES, Blumenthal was motivated to return to Colombia. This time, in 1998, he was returning to become part of the political “inner circle” as director of the Colombian chapter of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, FESCOL. It was an important time for the country and the German organization was busy documenting the growing numbers of kidnappings and internal refugees. Colombia was on the verge of a humanitarian crisis and FESCOL was called to the table.

The perils of peace

Caguan peace process with the FARC

Blumenthal spent two years at the FARC safe haven of San Vicente del Caguán, where he learned the subtleties of the guerrilla group.

From the moment the talks began on January 7th 1999, with President Andrés Pastrana left sitting alone on a stage at the inauguration and in front of 5000 dignitaries, the mood was glum. While a seat was reserved for the 68 year-old commander of the FARC – Manuel Marulanda – the outlaw snubbed the ceremony and had his speech read by a low ranking guerilla. Carrying the heavy burden to respond to his country’s desire for a truce with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Pastrana created a team of advisors who during the next two years had to sit down and work through an agenda which was part pantomime, exhaustive to watch (as it was broadcast on national television) and doomed from the start.

For two years, San Vicente del Caguán became second base for Blumenthal, where he got to interact with the commanders of the oldest guerilla organization on the continent. For Blumenthal, the FARC had no intention to sign a lasting accord. Instead, the process was aimed to strengthen their presence across Colombia. Peace became a pretext to recruit more militants to the rank and file. “The FARC got stronger during the negotiations with President Belisario. They did the same when the state was waiting to see what would happen under President Barco. And they did it excessively well in the Caguán,” claims the sociologist.


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