We burst into his apartment in the heart of Vedado, on a morning when the heat almost melts the streets. “Welcome, come in,” says Jorge Enrique Botero, one of the Colombian journalists who knows best the armed conflict in his country and had agreed to an interview with Granma.
“I was working on my book,” he says, pointing to a small laptop. It’s called Diario del fin de una guerra and discusses the talks being held in Havana between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the government of Juan Manuel Santos.
He breaks the ice clarifying that his “condition” is that we dialogue, as he knows how unsettling it can be to interview a journalist. Before starting the conversation, he changes his shirt, to “make myself handsome for the photos.”
Settling on the couch he notes: “I’m essentially and basically a reporter.”
He goes on to detail the vicissitudes of journalism in his homeland. “The reporter in Colombia is exposed to a tremendous amount of danger. We held the very disgraceful first place among the most dangerous countries to practice this profession. We also experienced a massive exodus to Bogotá of journalists covering war zones and others were threatened,” he explains.
However, when reminded that one of his fellow countryman said that journalism was “the best job in the world,” he notes: I can tell you that, after 40 years in this game: “A lifetime.”
This is the cue, not at all forced, with which Botero begins his story. “As a reporter I’ve made mistakes but I do not regret what I’ve done. I have received numerous criticisms for having joined, shall we say, the other side of the war; for telling what happened in the jungle. I was accused, among other things, of invading the privacy of individuals in captivity, of making apologies for the guerrillas.”
The smell of Colombian coffee pauses the dialogue. The aroma fills the entire room, decorated with Colombian paintings and traditional crafts, mixed with books and notes scattered in all corners. Among the titles, La vida no es fácil, papi, stands out, which tells the story of Tanja Nijmeijer, the Dutch FARC guerrilla.
“I don’t drink coffee,” he says jokingly. “That’s the best. A journalist who does not drink coffee. I am also the only skinny Botero,” he says referring to the famous Colombian painter Fernando Botero, whose work is distinguished for reflecting voluptuousness.
He takes up the conversation again, which flows better thanks to the exquisite drink, which doesn’t diminish the heat, but is appreciated. “What I did was, above all, document a reality that was barely known and no one had shown.”
IN THE GREEN SEA OF OBLIVION
Botero is among the journalists who have most frequently delved into the heart of the Colombian jungle, the epicenter of the conflict plaguing the nation for more than five decades.
“To get to the guerrilla camps, is a real journey, in very extreme physical conditions,” he says, insisting on the word “effort.” “You can spend days walking or on a mule in difficult terrain.”
“Beforehand, you must have permission from the source, in this case the FARC,” he notes, leaning back, reading to detail the beginning of what could have been a torment for any other colleague purporting to show real images of the war for the first time on Colombian television.
“I got permission because I wanted to do a story for the network where I worked (Caracol). My intention was to communicate the life of the military and police that the guerrillas had in captivity. There were 500 in total. The report was called En el verde mar del olvido (In the green sea of oblivion). I was censored and I protested. As a result, I was fired.”
“A decade passed before I could work in any Colombian media. The notion of “independent” journalism began. I was given some money for having been fired and with that I bought my own equipment and started my little company called Tv Mula, television of the Latin world. With that I survived for several years.”
Despite being censored, Botero continued to work “because what was happening had to be documented.” He proudly states that one of the reports made through the project received the award from the Ibero-American Foundation for New Journalism. The prize was awarded to him by García Márquez in Mexico, for a report called Cómo voy a olvidarte, with which he returned to key figures of the conflict. This time, he told the story of a police colonel and his family held captive. He tracked the family for a long time and managed to bring them together through the video in a moment he described as “intense and emotional for everyone.”
He managed to survive thanks to the pieces he put together, which became his livelihood. That was until he went to work at teleSUR.
TELESUR: THE PRODIGAL SON ALWAYS COMES HOME
When Botelo begins to talk about his time at the multinational Latin American broadcaster teleSUR, he first describes his experience as “the most beautiful journalistic experience” of his life, but adds, “Well, no. The truth is that it competes with Prensa Latina,” opening a parenthesis in the conversation to talk about the years (1986-1991) he worked for the news agency headquartered in Havana.
“I arrived at teleSURin an unexpected way,” he says, returning to the initial topic, “I went to a conference of Latin American journalists here in Cuba. On the third day, Fidel appeared and kept us practically hypnotized until midnight. He said something like: Guys, I don’t understand why there isn’t a sort of Latin American CNN, and left us all thinking. That was when a group of journalists led by Aram Aharonian, a Uruguayan of Armenian descent who lived in Venezuela, and was very close to Chávez, said to him: Look at what your papa Fidel said! And Chávez right then said: OK, tell me what you need, and let’s talk. That’s how teleSURwas born.”
Botero tells how he was in Colombia when they called him for the project. With five people, working day and night, the channel was designed. Later came the production phase, and for that period he traveled across the continent looking for journalists or those who could be correspondents in their countries.
He recalls that Chávez came by one day, and told the group he wanted the first broadcast to go out on the anniversary of Simón Bolívar’s birth, July 24. “Just imagine, we had to get moving!” Botero exclaimed.
He worked just two years on the project, a time he calls “formidable,” and then returned to Colombia to do what he most likes: reports and documentaries.
teleSURlater called on Botero again, to serve as the channel’s head of information, he adds laughing, “They say the murderer always returns to the scene of the crime, or better, the prodigal son always comes home.”
“In this new stage, I felt very comfortable. I had the chance to cover Chávez’s electoral campaign.”
He interrupts the conversation again, and becomes very serious, to speak of the Bolivarian leader for the first time in the interview, saying, “To see him making that super-human effort to keep the flame alive and see the people open-hearted expressing their feelings for him was something very moving, but at the same time painful. One could see that the illness (the cancer) wasn’t going away, and he kept right on.”
When asked how he remembered Chávez, Botelo responded, “He had a warmth you just can’t imagine. An embrace from him had a powerful force. I thank life for the privilege.”
THE CONFLICT’S KEY ELEMENTS
Botero’s professional experience is above all linked to his knowledge of the Colombian conflict. When the most recent peace talks were announced, he says he came to Havana because he believed “peace was very close.”
“First I covered the talks for a website called Las 2 Orillas, and now for a television news show called Red + Noticias,” he reports.
Before responding to a question about why resolving the conflict has taken so long, Botero takes the time to explain something about the war which has been part of his life, “The Colombian conflict could have been ended a long time ago, but we have a ruling class that excludes and resorts to violence with enormous facility.”
He takes a minute to order his thoughts, intent on the details, and says, “Every time a solution to the conflict was sought, tremendously dark forces emerged to prevent things from happening. For example, between 1982 and 1986, the FARC tried to found a political party as a product of talks with the government,” initiated during the Presidency of Belisario Betancour.
“This party called Unión Patriótica was exterminated, wiped off the face of the earth. How can an entire party be murdered?” he rhetorically asks while describing the wave of violence and aggression which swept the nation.
Botero compares the war and its effects to a giant snowball that grows as it rolls along, “With time, the FARC in practice became a great military power, with significant ability to deal the adversary blows. Obviously, to stop them, the Colombian army began to protect itself with the best military techniques.”
Botero says that this is when you can tell that an armed conflict has no way to stop itself, noting that the issue of drug trafficking must be added to this spiraling situation, used in his opinion by the United States to justify its military presence in Colombia.
Botero is, nevertheless, optimistic, and speaks of the war in the past tense, “This is the only confrontation in which no one lost and the great winner is Colombia.”
A LONG-AWAITED PEACE
At 60 years of age, this Colombian continues to dream of seeing peace in his land. Peace will be agreed upon in Havana, he says, with a confidence that belies any doubt in his argument.
“I have two grandchildren – two year old Martina who will not see the war, and Enmanuel, 12, who has been obliged to feel it quite a bit. We are going to spend two generations healing the wounds and constructing a new spirit of coexistent,” he comments, noting that the process will be a difficult one.
“A culture of violence reigns in Colombia, and this is not going to be replaced overnight with the signing of a paper. Society will not return to order by decree,” he says, while at the same time emphasizing that the signing of a peace agreement will bring great benefits to the war-torn society, above all to rural farmers, who have been the most marginalized. More political forces will emerge, he affirms, along with a solution to the problem of drug trafficking and other issues.
Botero’s optimism is tinged by only one worry, confessing he is very afraid that “dark forces opposed to the process will rub their hands and try to seek revenge, knowing that some guerrilleros will be walking the streets.”
His fundamental confidence in peace returns quickly, and with seriousness he states, “When this peace is signed, Colombia must construct a monument to Cuba, in eternal gratitude for the role it played as host and guarantor of the peace process.”
“I have witnessed the Cuban government’s commitment to the process: the logistics, so everything functioned smoothly, the effort of the guarantors to resolve problems at the negotiating table, even the affection and generosity shown the peace delegations.”
“There couldn’t have been a better place in the world than Havana for these talks. This is the year of peace for Colombia,” he insists, to end an almost two hour conversation that even the suffocating heat could not detain.