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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Durante la Tregua’ examines Colombia’s complex political history and present

(Oonagh Doherty/Durante la Tregua)
(Oonagh Doherty/Courtesy of the author)

“Durante la Tregua” (During the Truce), published in 2015, recounts the six and a half months Oonagh Doherty spent abroad in Colombia, from January until mid-August, in 1985. A national truce was signed in 1984 between the Colombian government and guerilla forces.

The truce was an attempt to repair the lasting repercussions of colonization from Spain, the subsequent effects of globalization, influence by the United States, a corrupt government, and an unequal distribution of wealth, land, and power across a majority of the Colombian public.

The girth of the book is explained in 73 pages of entries based on Doherty’s experiences spent with guerilla groups, government officials and common citizens in Colombia. With as much information as a historical text and the literary elegance of a memoir, Doherty (then a junior in college) describes the everyday culture, discloses objective truths from both political perspectives, and urges a heightened awareness to the well-being and fate of Colombian youth.

Doherty highlights the influence of the United States in Colombia’s past and present. The presence of corporations like United Fruit Company, played a significant role in shaping Colombia’s historical narrative, as did America’s support for the Nicaraguan dictatorship of Somoza and its spread of Cold War propaganda encouraging right-wing enforcement in Latin America.

“It is important to understand that the U.S. foreign policy towards Colombia since the 19th century has been directed primarily at protecting the investment of the U.S. and transnational companies in the low cost extraction of Colombian agricultural products, minerals, and petroleum,” Doherty writes in the prologue.

In doing so, Doherty challenges the American paradigm that portrays Colombia as a drug-ridden sphere, rampant with violent guerilla forces. She admits the drug trade is largely present and the guerilla forces are guilty of violence, but doesn’t absolve the government of its many injustices and coercive practices.

As of 2013, the United States aided Colombia’s armed forces with nine billion dollars and  imported roughly as much oil from the country as it did from Iraq. This information remains largely unpenetrated by the American public and is overlooked because of the media’s use of drugs and crime as a scapegoat, conveniently leaving out the Colombian government’s involvement with them.

“I wanted people to have a broader view of the issue. There should be more awareness about this subject in America,” Doherty explains in an interview.

Doherty researched the prologue, epilogue, and afterward last year in preparation for publication. They give the reader historical context into Colombia’s sociopolitical timeline and are paired with Doherty’s entries from years before when she was abroad.

As for the roughly 20-year gap in between her diary entries and the copyright of her book, Doherty attributes it to a lack of confidence as a female writer from not being taken seriously. This patriarchal paradox initially discouraged her as female writer yet aided her in gathering information from sources while abroad in Colombia. Doherty remembers people being very open despite the current political distress of the country. She attributes this to her gender, young age and being an outsider.

“I think that sometimes when you are talking to someone who is outside of your social setting in your daily life, you feel more uninhibited, more free to reveal yourself,” Doherty says.

Many of her sources were gained through serendipitous encounters on the streets and just by being social and talking to people. Doherty had a friend named Jamie Eduardo who was a lawyer for the federal prosecutor. Eduardo was attuned to the democratic shortcomings of the country but expressed almost an authoritative immunity to the repercussions of them because of his high-level government job.

Through Eduardo, Doherty was invited into the home of Cesar Rioja, a leader of one of the special anti-guerilla National Police teams. While on the police compound, Doherty was given a tour of the luxurious horse stables and many features of the grounds.

She found herself in a meeting of Colombian officers discussing relations with Nicaraguan contra leader, Eden Pastora. While Doherty looked over baby albums with Cesar’s wife Claudia, he emerged from the closet holding a machine gun that he had for protection against the guerillas. He let Doherty hold it.

One day, Doherty met Esteban and Marina, demobilized M19 guerilla fighters, on her way to the newspaper office. Esteban ended up bringing her back to his camp. There Doherty met Lupe, a charismatic woman, and Pacho. Doherty apprehensively declined Pacho’s offer to accompany him and his combat squad of guerillas in the mountains out of fear, to which Pacho responded, “That is a risk we all must take.”

At the guerilla camp, she also encountered young boys of 15 and 16, who sought refuge in the guerillas as a “civilian organization” due to the ongoing truce with the government. However, they were prepared to fight with arms if necessary.

Doherty recalls the national police of Colombia looking and behaving like a military and the ubiquity of armed security guards in the country. Shortly into her stay, she was desensitized to the large presence of guns.

“The kids are victims of the current neoliberal and neocolonial economic system. Their well-being is really what is at stake,” Doherty says.

In the final scene of her entries, Doherty encounters a little Colombian boy on the streets of Bogota. Julio, then 13 years old, was sitting on a curb outside of Burger King, selling candies to passerby. He had two additional jobs, watching cars at hotels for the rich and weighing potatoes at a local supermarket. He admitted to struggling with literacy skills because his teachers were frequently on strike and rarely taught. The oldest of five fatherless children, Julio’s main priority was to help his mother and support his family.

“When will be become angry about his life?” Doherty wonders at the end of her diary. She goes back to that thought on last page of the afterward saying, “Only then will the children of the poor be liberated from the need to work the city streets to survive.”

Julio, along with many other children, faced the risk of turning into ‘gamines’ (“street children”) because the corrupt political system in Colombia left them and their family’s with slim options.

A memorable moment for Doherty was when her mother visited and the two took a bus to Ecuador. The gamines would climb into the cargo containers of the buses and travel between towns. Articles had recently come out in the paper about some of them suffocating from doing so. Doherty got a chance to speak with one of the gamines that day. The conversation was brief and she bought him a lunch but the impact stayed with her.

“The sorest problem here is one of conscience, as I don’t like to see small children working and smaller children begging,” Doherty writes in the book.

Initially, she was considering a thesis on street kids but turned out writing on the subject of liberation theology in Colombia.

“In many cases I wandered into situations without knowing what the results would be. It was nothing like I planned. In retrospect, it seems a little bit scary. I kept thinking ‘just act normal,’” Doherty says.

Doherty conducted all of the interviews in Spanish and sometimes without a journal. She would take photographs, and afterwards record her notes in her journal at home.

“In most instances I wasn’t a journalist interviewing people on the record, I was a habitual diarist moving through life and using my diary to make sense of what was happening around me,” she says.

When Doherty was in Colombia, she was a British citizen. She was a junior at Wesleyan University majoring in Latin American studies. Doherty remembers feeling ashamed from being a resident of the United States that benefited off of the exploitation of Latin America, based on what she learned in her studies.

Doherty immigrated to America with her family when she was nine years old. A year later, her step-father brought her, her mother and younger brother to a village in Guatemala where he had a medical rotation. The trip was for two months between the years of 1972 and 1973. Five years later, Doherty traveled to Bolivia via The Experiment in International Living and was able to meet the current president during her stay.

Doherty says her parents were somewhat left-wing during the 1960s but attributes her childhood family trips as shaping her predisposition to Latin American culture. These trips, along with her experiences of straddling the cultures and citizenships of the United Kingdom and America, give her a more rounded global perspective and sensitivity to international issues.

Doherty found Latin America to have more of a cultural continuity than the Anglo cultures of America and the United Kingdom. There were less cars and televisions and the people were very warm and friendly, in Colombia. Shops were clustered according to industry in Bogota’s main business district. Beauty shops, drug stores and cafes were sprinkled throughout.

Doherty remembers a party she attended in Colombia were people pushed all of the furniture against the walls of the room, creating an informal dance floor. A hot meal, usually some variation of meat and rice, was served to family, relatives, and neighbors, who enjoyed one another’s company.

“Everybody from the grandmother to the ten-year-old kid will stay up half the night dancing.  Together, as a family, rather than isolated and separate.  We could learn something from that,” Doherty says.

This is Doherty’s first published book. She currently resides in Northampton.

Erica Garnett can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @GarnettErica.


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