A festival of books

Greetings from Flight 575, heading south from Colombia across Ecuador and Peru along the earth’s longest fold, the Andes.  I’m en route for Chile, and tomorrow across the colder part of the South Pacific Ocean to Australia. We are just passing another complex of mountains, their separate snow tops so brilliant they are almost blue. Between them are tremendous gorges, with slim rivers far in the depth; I can imagine how cold the water is, even here near the equator.
I am coming home from a Festival of Books. In fact I have been a minor Festival attraction, speaking (via Spanish translators) to several hundred people, at a couple of sessions. Two of my books are on sale.  Perhaps mercifully, I haven’t heard if anyone bought them.
At the fair: the entrance to a book pavilion
The annual Bogotá Feria del Libro really is a festival, a fête, a fair. It’s held on a fairground, complete with sideshows, one featuring early Chaplin movies in black and white flickers. There is fast food, a brass band, young lovers strolling, and hordes of kids.  The kids are mostly teenagers in groups wearing their school uniforms. For the younger ones there is a display of dazzlingly-coloured books and toys in a big space in the main pavilion. Catch them young!
But the main thrust of the festival – a really mixed metaphor there, folks! – is the books. There are displays of everything from Spanish versions of Harry Potter, to local fiction and poetry, to treatises on agricultural hydrology, regional history, and the rest. There is a fine Book Bus, showing how to take them to the people. Through the day, through several weeks in fact, runs a continuous programme of book launches, talks by authors, interviews, debates on current issues, and more.
Go, the Book Bus! NB a naval officer considering his literary choices
I’m impressed by how many university presses there are in Colombia. There are broad-spectrum lists on display from the Universidad Nacional (public) and the Universidad de los Andes (wealthy private).  There are a lot of others, offering rather more restricted fare – religious universities, secular universities, technical colleges, and so on.
What I definitely didn’t expect among the university displays was a booth for the publishing arm of the Escuela Superior de la Guerra – the armed forces’ War College.  This offers to the public a few titles giving the military’s interpretation of the recent armed conflict. (Doubtless they also print manuals on how to kill efficiently, not for sale to the public.) Full marks to them for exposing themselves to the fête. They were having a couple of book launches, attended by a platoon of officers in parade uniform. I spotted a full Colonel and possibly an Admiral, unfazed by the swirling crowds of high school kids and young lovers.
The military were of interest, because after the Feria I visited the Caribbean coast for a few days, and spoke there with organizations involved in the peace process. The long civil war in Colombia, which has roots in land struggles fifty years back, has been deadlocked.  It produced massive trauma in the countryside, not least because local power-holders and right-wing activists have recruited private armies, known as ‘paramilitares’, who can be more brutal and erratic than the regular army.
The armed political groups sometimes overlap with cocaine networks, which are also armed and violent. The scene is enmeshed with the U.S. war on drugs as well as the U.S. war on communism.
Recently a comprehensive peace deal was signed between the national government and the main guerrilla group, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). But the agreement was opposed by other forces, including right-wing politicians from the ruling class, and the conservative churches. The churches objected to the deal because it included gender equity and sexual rights. They succeeded in defeating the referendum that was called to approve the peace agreement.
(Why would the religion of peace try to sabotage peace? It’s one of the mysteries of modern life why so many churches have recently become obsessed with gender and sexuality. From Catholic circles in particular has come a weird campaign against “gender theory” or “gender ideology” – a topic which troubled none of the Four Evangelists, as far as I remember, nor Saint Thomas Aquinas. Some early stirrings of this politics were heard at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. It is now a coordinated international campaign against feminism and gay rights. We have had doses of it in Australia, in the vicious political attacks on the Safe Schools programme, and then in the failed attempt to block marriage equality.)
Back to Colombia. The peace process has gone ahead. Alongside disarmament, land rights, regional development, and political incorporation of the guerrilla forces, it does include some measures concerned with gender equity.  A complex structure of courts, agencies, councils and consultative bodies, both national and regional, has been set up to implement the peace. (Too complex, some of my colleagues think.) The difficulty is to make this structure work in practice. The elite-controlled political system, and the long insurrection, have left a great deal of injustice, loss, displacement and fear.
I had the great privilege of meeting three groups involved in social change at the local level, and holding long discussions with them. Their key current issue is to broaden participation in the peace process. This means involving groups normally outside the Colombian political system – especially, groups of women.
At a meeting with women's group
There are obstacles in plenty: lack of money, lack of know-how, husbands opposed to wives’ adventuring outside the home, and local power-brokers defending their turf. There is a continuing threat of violence. This is not a small matter: since the peace accords there have been at least a hundred murders of community activists, probably by contract killers.
But something is stirring.  In the groups I met, the discussions were engaged and lively, sometimes humorous, with a lot of sharing of direct experience.  They covered background issues, on which I was able to offer some information. But above all they were concerned with practicality – what should we be doing now? What will actually work?
Where these discussions will lead in the long run, I cannot guess. Yet I felt I was getting a glimpse of a real democratic process, growing in the most difficult of conditions.
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