Bajak speaks on Colombia
On Jan. 7, 1999, Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who had recently inherited a shaky government, stood before thousands of people with several leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC. FARC was there to initiate peace talks with the government. While FARC’s leader, Manuel Marulanda, did not show up, the crowd still turned out as if it was a holiday.
In his lecture, “Why Can’t Colombia Stop Bleeding? A Journalist’s View,” Frank Bajak described this event as “just one of the surreal situations that Colombia presents you with all the time.”
An Oberlin alumnus, Bajak has worked as a journalist for the Associated Press in Poland, Germany and Colombia for 20 years. In his intermittently humorous, analytical and poignant lecture Bajak spoke about his experience during that turbulent part of Colombia’s history, and the major factors behind the country’s current turmoil, including the United States’ involvement.
Bajak spoke about the role of land in the country’s political-economic condition.
“Geography is destiny,” he said. “The terrain is often rugged, remote and hostile, and it inhibits transportation, trade and development. This leads to constant feuding.”
Bajak then spoke about the history of the Colombian Republic and the rivalries that sprung up between the different geographic regions of the country. The rivalries, he said, led to a decentralized government and weak military. The 30s and 40s following several decades of social strife, were the “golden age of social and economic reform. Jorge Eliecer Gaitan became president at the end of this period.
“Gaitan was the first president of Mestizo descent,” Bajak said. “He was like nothing the Colombians had ever had for president.” Despite his popularity, Gaitan was assassinated and Bajak called what followed “the ugliest period in Colombian history.” It was known as La Violencia.
“The early equivalent of death squads formed,” Bajak said. “They turned terror and murder into an artform. I am telling you about this violence because otherwise you won’t understand the factors behind the creation of the FARC.”
Bajak said Manuel Marulanda put the forces of the FARC in motion because of violence committed against his own small liberal town. Marulanda’s group remained a small, liberal guerrilla force until 1964, when the United States encouraged Colombia’s conservative government to “eradicate” FARC, which the US perceived as communist. The group was driven into the mountains, where they eventually took the form of the FARC.
Bajak said the FARC had a leftist agenda, but did not identify as Marxist.
“You may not choose to be in the FARC as a career,” he said. “But when the FARC chooses you, you become completely indoctrinated. Its like summer camp, except with guns.”
Bajak then spoke of the drug problem that has emerged in recent decades.
“Cocaine is like currency in some towns,” he said. “In 1994, President Samper was elected with six million dollars in drug money.”
Bajak said the problem was non-partisan.
“It’s about every sector of society, not just the left-wing insurgency,” Bajak said. “Drugs are fueling both sides of the war. The problem won’t end until the demand for drugs end.”
Bajak said that Colombia was currently a “failed state,” and when asked what could be done to improve the country’s condition, he looked to the United States.
“If there is a chance for peace, we must first change the judicial system,” he said. “We must change the software of the society. The US should invest in mechanisms to protect judges and lawmakers.”