Sunday, January 31, 2010

Filling Vacuums

When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her. -Adrienne Rich

My latest idol in Colombia is Juanita Leon, the founder of La Silla Vacia. What translates into “The Empty Chair” is an online portal of Colombian political news and commentary, often nicknamed the Colombian Huffington Post. Educated at University of the Andes Law School and the Columbia School of Journalism, Ms. Leon reported for the Wall Street Journal Americas before returning to Colombia. Her account of conflict in Colombia in the 21st century, Country of Bullets, is one of the few English-language books on this complex topic.  I first met her at a dinner to discuss political developments in Colombia, as well as how her website came to be, and was immediately impressed both by her commitment to understanding the conflict and relationships of power and by her resourcefulness, quick-wittedness and determination.

On discovering and following a passion for journalism
She had always enjoyed writing and initially reported on paramilitary groups and the outbreaks of violence for various Colombian print newspapers. She discovered that the stories and statements she could not or should not write about intrigued her and further realized that she was keenly interested in the dynamics of power and the making of decisions. Years later, these thoughts fermented into La Silla Vacia – a metaphor connoting vacuums of power and the processes by which they are filled.

As her early interest in the conflict manifested itself further, she acknowledged the need to move beyond reporting and into a more involved role in the media. Her father once asked her what the price for buying the Espectador was, which is one of the largest Colombian newspapers. Juanita found out it was laughably and prohibitively expensive, but she also realized with amusement that it was her father’s way of encouraging her to ‘think bigger’ than she had been, to imagine herself and her work in a different realm.

On media in the age of the internet
After a few years working at La Semana, another major publication, she became head of the online version. She recalls that her colleagues at the time thought this was a demotion; in Colombia, the power of the internet still remained partly unharnessed and, even though she had asked that she receive the same rights and treatment as an editor-in-chief of a print version, she stated that nobody paid particular attention to the online version until it created a problem for the newspaper.

When one of her stories stirred controversy, she remembers her boss calling the Managing Editor in fury and yelling to “take the article out of the computer!” and being extraordinarily baffled by the concept that the article was already “down the tubes” and could not completely disappear. Ms. Leon thus arrived at two conclusions: First, media personalities still understood very little about how the internet worked and, at the same time, they were just beginning to acknowledge its capacity to become a forum of political discussion and dissemination of information.

On Harvard and the importance of expertise
The recipient of a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University, Ms. Leon was ecstatic to be able to attend and deliver lectures and draw on the wealth of information available at the university. She spent most of her time reading and absorbing all the sources that had previously not been as readily available. She read up on Colombian history and politics, relationships of power, and the intersection of media and the internet. While this part of the narration of her life story was not as some of her other witty anecdotes, it was one of the most subtly powerful points she made all evening: It is important to become an expert in something; once one knows what she is passionate about, it is time to go out there and couple all the hands-on experience of practicing her passion with learning just about everything there is about it.

On starting La Silla Vacia: ideas, money, legitimacy
During her time in the United States, Ms. Leon noticed and followed with keen interest the emerging popularity of online blog-news portals, such as the Huffington Post and later The Talking Points Memo and Politico. The example of the latter two was particularly useful, as she was aware that she “neither knew or cared to write about sports, horoscopes or fashion, so there was no point in starting an all-encompassing newspaper;” her own interest lay in politics and if she were to have her own an online newspaper, she would devote it entirely to discussions of the power engagements behind that.

There was still the question of money. In this sense, she reminded me of Greg Mortenson and Paul Farmer in saying “if you have a good idea, the money will come.” And sure enough, it did – from Soros’ Open Society Institute. It is the good idea that is hard to generate and it seems like Ms. Leon had been fine-tuning channeling her passions and carving out a new niche in political discourse for years.

Even though she had had diverse experiences and had by this point written for multiple publications, Ms. Leon still thought she was a ‘relative nobody’ in Colombia at the time and, therefore, believed that if La Silla Vacia were to be successful, she would need to establish her and her nascent project’s legitimacy by association with prominent political figures. She thus started a debate section at her online space and invited Colombia’s major political figures to publicly opine on issues on the internet. She approached one such figure with trepidation and was told that he would probably not blog, but she was welcome to use his name there. That was all she needed – one participant brought on the other and her idea was off the ground. Soon enough, she has certainly become a strong voice in political commentary in her own right.

On Uribe and atonement
According to Ms. Leon, one of the common themes of Colombian politics has been that leaders often focus their concern not on what happens inside the country, but on the perception of these developments abroad. She joked “we seem to be concerned not about the scandal of the falsos positivos, but that Obama will find out about it!” (Accusations have emerged that the army was killing civilians and presented them as rebels in order to show the soldiers’ commitment to securing the peace. Much like similar claims, it is nearly impossible to verify the veracity and a public embrace of one side or another can be quite dangerous.)

In writing a profile of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, she discovered he was a unique case. Profiles, she said, tend to attract glowing comments from friend of the individual she writes about and derogatory remarks from his opponents and enemies. Uribe is remarkable in that his friends and enemies talked about the exact same traits – “at least he is consistent!” she said with some surprise.

With regard to the conflict, Ms. Leon highlighted a theme that is making transitional justice, including my own work here, very challenging. Legislative developments in the late 1990s and early 2000s essentially led to a declaration one day that “the paramilitary was no more.” There was no clear sense that there was a war, that it was over, that there was a peace process – and hence, there is no sense of atonement, of completion, of justice and memory reconciliation. As the cases of South Africa, Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda have instructed international justice officials and development workers, it is very hard for a country to heal the wounds of the conflict and move forward peacefully without the atonement that Ms. Leon believes Colombia has not yet gotten.

On the difficulty of understanding this conflict
“There is something that comes up and you think you should cover it, but then you realize it is like a telenovela: There are really three main stories and the rest is just episodes that will be the same six months from now. The trick is getting your head around those three main stories.” And how is that to happen? Ms. Leon quoted a saying: “You have been in Colombia for a week and you think you have figured it out.” You are in Colombia for a month and you are totally lost once again.”

I heard her say this when I had lived in the country for just one week myself. Although I was far from understanding the conflict and the path to its resolution, I once again realized the power of a compelling, inspirational life story--indeed, of a role model or a mentor--to make one introspect and feel motivated to ask questions of herself and the world around her.

1 comment:

  1. tan bonitas son tus palabras, y son la verdad.