Utopias and political violence: memories of my UP friend

In 1984, Colombian president Belisario Betancur and the guerrilla Farc (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) signed a peace agreement, which led to the creation of a political party – the Patriotic Union – that received the members of the Farc in the peace process and other leftist forces without representation. The UP did surprisingly well in local and national elections. Due to this success, beginning in 1988, reactionary forces sought to exterminate the movement; paramilitary forces, with the aid of the military, killed more than 2,500 militants. In 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos apologised for the responsibility of the state. The case is now before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The history of the UP, one of the first attempts to make peace with the Farc, is usually told through the lives of the men who were assassinated. 

This piece tells the story of two women, two friends, two members of the UP. It is a tale of the too often invisible experience of political women.

Elizabeth Hurtado and Gloria Vidal always believed that revolution would be possible. Their dream grew with the appearance of the Patriotic Union and its first electoral successes, but political violence killed or disappeared one by one a large part of its militants, and even one of them.

By Andrés Alejandro Córdoba Calvo

A common scene between 1978 and 1987 was something like this: Elizabeth Hurtado and Gloria Vidal at a friend’s house tuning into Radio Habana Cuba (RHC), a station considered to be the voice of a people in revolution. Just them. At times, lying on the bed looking at some point on the roof or facing down, balanced on the elbows, the fists supporting the face, throwing ideas one morning, one afternoon, one night. Or, maybe on the side, like sirens, or sitting somewhere in the room, where they talked about whatever occurrence went through their heads while playing dominoes, entrapped by Pablo Milanés [Pablo Milanés is a Cuban composer and singer of the protest movement] who took over the dial of the RHC and said in a voice low: “I will step on the streets again, of what was Santiago covered in blood, and in a beautiful liberated square, I will stop to cry for those who are absent.” And they would hum while one tried to follow the sequence of the game with a double three or a double six, while the other said that she would like to play guitar, that on the weekend there was an artistic club, that they could go.

Milanés gave way to Mercedes Sosa who sang: “So many times they killed me. So many times, I died. Yet I am here resurrecting. I thank misfortune and the hand with the dagger, because it killed me so badly. And I kept singing.” And dreams appeared: perhaps Elizabeth or Gloria could be deputies or mayors or councillors. Although, perhaps, before assuming that responsibility, they would first prefer to hitchhike around the country, maybe to the Caribbean or Pacific Coast. But they felt that the revolution was about to be achieved and you had to take to the streets, support the political party, fight. And the verse of Neruda came to mind: “That’s why from afar I have brought you a glass of the wine of my country: it is the blood of an underground people, which comes from the shadow to your throat.”

Gloria Vidal holding a photo of her friend Elizabeth Hurtado. (Photo by Andrés Alejandro Córdoba Calvo)

White doves began to appear in schools, on the streets, on murals. It was the symbol of peace that fluttered through the country after the President of Colombia, Belisario Betancur Cuartas, signed on 28 March 1984, the Uribe Agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), for those who longed to begin the pacification of the country. Fourteen months later, on 28 May 1985, the Patriotic Union (UP) was created as a mechanism for political participation of guerrillas who joined the peace process and leftist forces, trade unions, and other political parties would find a place.

Since she was studying at school, Gloria already had the idea that social justice was needed in the country and the stories of the Cuban revolution achieved by the legendary “Bearded ones of Sierra Maestra” [Fidel Castro, Juan Manuel Márquez, Raúl Castro, Juan Almeida Bosque and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the leaders of the Cuban revolution, who drafted the revolutionary manifesto at Sierra Maestra] were fresh in her head. So, she did not hesitate to join the UP with her friend. It was one more idea that they agreed on, because Gloria and Elizabeth would agree many times.

Theirs seemed like a fated friendship. They met for the first time one afternoon in 1978 when they arrived at the home of a schoolmate, when they were 16 or 17 years old. There, only a greeting, a cold and shy protocolary introduction. Another day they met again, a distant greeting. Later, it was the same, again at the house of schoolmate to do homework. The following year, Gloria entered the SENA, the public technical institute, to take a course in administration, and she began to travel from the city centre to the north where the headquarters were located. In that sway of people in the corridors, in the living rooms, a woman with soft cinnamon complexion, bright but sleepy eyes, with a constant smile and a height that was just over five feet: Elizabeth. They did not consider it a coincidence because they already knew that, at that point, that word could not longer exist between them. That day they talked with more confidence, shared the experience of the courses and made each other recommendations. As the days passed, they became daily companions during the 25-minute journey that the bus took to make the journey to the SENA. They also enjoyed with their friends those afternoons or nights where the RHC played songs and the speeches of Commander Fidel. The meetings became more frequent: they went out dancing, played basketball, listened to Serrat and Milanés, read Neruda and Benedetti, and then they realised that the same sign presided over them, Capricorn.

In 1980 they entered the University of Cauca together to study literature, but they switched to philosophy because they did not like the books they were assigned to read. They walked together up and down the streets of Popayán, the capital city of their department, Cauca.

“Let’s join the Communist Youth,” Elizabeth proposed to Gloria, who had no reason to refuse.

The meetings and study groups began, the discussions about Marx and Lenin, the work in the streets, the canelazos. One day, after the earthquake of 31 March 1983, Elizabeth told Gloria to go visit a PCC militant who had come from Bogotá, Ana Elsa Rojas Rey, a young woman whose leadership was already prominent within the Communist Party and with which they would build a friendship of resistance for the next 37 years in Cauca.

“How good that you are interested in fighting for the homeland,” she told them. She spoke of women such as the literary, social and political leader, María de los Ángeles Cano Márquez, who between 1920 and 1940 waged struggles in favour of th most disadvantaged, as told by Magdala Velásquez Toro in the book “María Cano: Pioneer and social agitator of the 20s”. Ana Elsa also mentioned Yira Castro, who was a collaborator of the Semanario Voz, an educator and leader of the Colombian Communist Party, among other activities and positions, until her death on 9 July 1981, as reported by Manuel Cepeda Vargas in the book “Yira Castro: My flag is joy.”

"Theirs seemed like a fated friendship."

After the announcement of the creation of the Patriotic Union, Gloria thought that the social and political transformation of the country would be possible. So, together with Elizabeth, they supported UP activities in Cauca. As the intention of the new political party was to participate in the regional elections in March and in the presidential elections in May 1986, they began their work in the campaign. “We believed that the seizure of power would be possible,” recalls Gloria.

The campaigning began in city neighbourhoods with the settlements that emerged after the 1983 earthquake [a 5.5 earthquake that killed over 250 people in March 1983). They also travelled to villages, townships and municipalities of Cauca to spread the word that Colombia would have a better destiny if all those who listened to them joined the process of integral, political, social and economic democratisation that the UP was proposing. If they had to go to Naya, in the northwest of the department of Cauca, there they were. If they had to travel to the village of Huisitó, to the west in the municipality of El Tambo, they had no qualms about doing so and carrying out activities to summon people. They travelled to San Sebastián, Balboa, Santander de Quilichao, Bolívar, Algeria, Corinto and, in each place, they were infected with enthusiasm.

They and many other UP women were looking for spaces for meetings, convoking sympathisers, militants or people curious about joining the cause. They distributed flyers, walked with banners, carried posters of the presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal and papered the city to position him as the option that the country needed. On some occasions, they also went to the market squares, to the parks to sell the Semanario Voz to propagate their ideals; they did health brigades [health missions to the poor neighborhoods to treat minor ailments] in the neighbourhoods, soccer championships.

“We are going to the meeting because there will be change, friends, neighbours.” Elizabeth and Gloria tried to convince people to vote for their candidates. “Peace talks; bring us peace.” By highlighting the obvious, they tried to raise awareness among as many people as possible.

One day in April 1986, in the market square of the Piendamó municipality, Gloria held the microphone in front of dozens of attendees and gave a speech to gather support for her party. When she came down from the stage, there were already people asking how to join, words of congratulations, handshakes. All a dream. Even days later, thank you letters, flowers and messages about the speech she delivered continued to arrive at her house.

When there was a pause in the midst of the campaign turmoil, they tuned in to the RHC to be inspired by the new Cuban trova music and dreamt that they would be prominent political leaders in the region.

“My mom looks like Mercedes Sosa,” Elizabeth confessed to Gloria.

“Listen to her,” she recommended.

One year of campaigning was more than enough to perceive the UP as a political alternative, a belief that took greater flight over the months. According to the records of the National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH), the UP had an outstanding participation in the elections to the Congress in March 1986. Nine representatives to the lower house and six senators were elected from among their own candidates and in alliance with others, and 325 councillors in 167 municipalities of the 1,003 that Colombia had at that time. To add to this, in the presidential elections in May the same year, its candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal, obtained 328,752 votes and was ranked in third place in the vote.

Yet, the murders and disappearances of militants and sympathisers of the Patriotic Union began in parallel as signs of the strong political violence of which they would be victims during the next two decades. In just one year, at least 422 people were murdered, massacred or disappeared in the country and, in Cauca, the figure reached 27, as reported by journalist Roberto Romero Ospina in his book “Unión Patriótica: dossiers against oblivion”.

The threats, persecutions and murders were daily news and a recurring topic of conversation between the militants and their families. At times the spirit of resistance passed from the streets and squares to wakes and funerals where the call was to continue fighting.

“We are going to persist, to persevere, we will continue,” Gloria recalls them saying with absolute conviction.

"When she came down from the stage, there were already people asking how to join, words of congratulations, handshakes. All a dream."

On the morning of Sunday, 12 April 1987, one of Elizabeth’s sisters arrived with a friend at Gloria’s house.

“Is Elizabeth here?”

“No, what happened?” Gloria asked.

“She disappeared without saying anything and left the girl,” they said annoyed.

“She hasn’t left the girl,” Gloria defended her.

“She went with that man,” they replied.

“Elizabeth didn’t go with anyone,” Gloria continued to defend her.

“Then she’s here,” they insisted.

But Elizabeth was not there. They were filled with fear. They began to look for her among friends and acquaintances. No one knew about her whereabouts. They went to the party’s headquarters to report that Elizabeth had disappeared. They reported her strange absence on radio and television. Fearing the worst, they asked that her life be respected, because she was the mother of a one-month-old girl. That Sunday passed with no clues.

The search continued on Monday. They again questioned people close to them, not a single bit of information. They continued on Tuesday, but only got a few theories that Elizabeth was with her boyfriend and that would be coming home soon. But they did not appear. On the afternoon of Wednesday 15 April, Gloria received a call from a relative who told her that a few minutes from the city, on a bridge over the Popayán-Totoró road, someone had witnessed the murder of two people the previous Saturday. Gloria and two other friends jumped into a vehicle and headed there. They found the bodies down the mountain along the banks of the Palacé River.

On Thursday, 16 April, the bodies were transferred to the Popayán amphitheatre. Gloria had to go to identify that it was her friend. She saw the body of a woman lying on a cold counter. She pounced on her to hug her, to touch her. “I could not believe it.” She gently poked in her mouth to search for her friend’s only imperfect tooth. Yes, it was her. She looked at her again and took her in her arms. She recalled a conversation with her:

“What would you do if they killed you?” Gloria wanted to know.

“I would close my eyes tight to see nothing,” Elizabeth said.

The day before her disappearance was the last time Gloria spoke to her. They met by chance in the historic centre, near the phone company Telecom’s headquarters. Elizabeth was happy because her boyfriend, Fernando Valencia, had arrived to meet her daughter. The two had fallen in love a year earlier amid the effusiveness of local and presidential campaigns that hailed the Patriotic Union as an option for change.

“Go home and I’ll tell you a secret,” her friend told her.

But Gloria did not commit as she had to work on some pending tasks, so they parted. Gloria continued on her way, thrilled by her friend’s happiness.

Gloria remembers her mother walking slowly to the back of the first floor of the house where they lived with the rosary in hand. Her mother closed her eyes to concentrate on her prayers, she opened them to see where she stepped. An Our Father, a Glory Be to the Father, a Hail Mary so that the demon that was inside her daughter would leave her alone. An Our Father, a Glory Be to the Father, a Hail Mary to heal. Our Father, a Glory Be to the Father, a Hail Mary to forgive her and so on since her daughter decided to be a member of the Communist Party and then of the Patriotic Union more than 20 years ago. “Elizabeth was like an escape from the difficulties at home,” Gloria recalls.

At home they never accepted Gloria’s membership in two leftist parties; they were convinced that this would only lead to misfortune. So, there was a fractured family relationship. Her mother always reluctantly rejected that political inclination and her older brother verbally reprimanded her. Over the years, her two sisters would join in these voices of rejection.

But Gloria didn’t see the bad. She considered that at 16 she helped at home as she could: cooking for her sisters, helping with homework, cleaning. Why was it not possible to go out with her companions? Despite the fact that her brother sometimes locked the door, she managed to leave her house and continue her militancy. When Elizabeth died, she felt alone, incomplete, without freedom. A few weeks later she went to live at the party’s headquarters. “Perhaps because of that, I ended up with the man who is my husband today,” she tries to answer herself.

One day, when she was living at the headquarters, the phone rang incessantly and when she answered she heard: “If you continue to report the death of your friends, we will send you a hand or a head on a tray.” There was laughter and they hung up. The threats came after Gloria gave her version of Elizabeth’s murder to judicial investigation bodies. They were days of little tranquillity.

One afternoon, while walking down a lonely street in Popayán, Gloria watched a man on a motorcycle approach her in slow motion. Once he was in front of her, she saw that the man put a hand inside his jacket while he looked at her.

“No sir, please!” Gloria begged him.

“Calm down, lady, I just want you to tell me where this address is,” said the perplexed man when he saw her reaction.

"When Elizabeth died, she felt alone, incomplete, without freedom."

In 1993, Gloria had her second daughter, so her mother hoped for her to return home so she could help her in her recovery and with the care of her granddaughters. By then, Gloria had been working for five years in the Cauca Comptroller’s Office as an account examiner after several militants supported her to obtain the position as a way to help her recover from the death of her friend.

During her second season at her mother’s house, she remembers their coexistence was a little calmer. Her job and financial stability served as a buffer for the reproaches that might arise, because, despite the pain over the murder of her friend, Gloria continued to be a member of the Patriotic Union and witness to the extermination of her party.

 “We had to go to a funeral every week, two of us,” she recalls.

Despite her work at the comptroller’s office, her fight for social causes continued, not only outside, but inside the entity. She was one of the founders of the public employees’ union and then it became easier to accompany the demonstrations in the streets, support the workstrikes in favor of the UP, as well as different political campaigns. She could also work internally for the well-being of her colleagues. In 2001, she was fired without further justification.

By that time, the problems with her family had returned. Her mother and siblings asked her to leave the house even if she did not have a job. A long and exhausting decade of allegations and humiliations came for Gloria, to the point that her mother constantly prayed so that the demon that invaded her daughter would leave her.

“All that I earned for being a member of the Communist Party and the UP,” she says.

"In her absence, Gloria continued the resistance they started together. Remembering at times the airs of revolution, the naivety, the hopes they had."

Since 2013, Gloria has spent long periods in Orito, Putumayo, where her daughter and grandchildren reside. There she strengthened the political spirit that never left her despite the adversities she experienced. Without knowing anyone, little by little, she became part of the dynamics of the municipality. As the months passed, she was talking about alliances and candidates, participating in debates, trying to motivate young people to became involved in politics and fight for the region. Her ideas attracted so much attention that she was proposed to run for mayor and then for councilor, but she refused because she still did not know the territory well enough to assume that responsibility.

“There I realised that I had built something important: I managed to be believed,” she says proudly.

One of the first successes that Gloria celebrated in this region took place in the local elections of October 2019, when the candidate for the Governor of Putumayo, Jorge Andrés Cancimance López, came in second with 29,861 votes, according to data from electoral authorities. For her, it was a great victory, because although the candidacy arose suddenly, with her experience and that of another group that accompanied the campaign, they achieved a good result.

In June 2020, Gloria returned to Popayán due to some health problems, but that has not been an impediment to planning her return to Orito or thinking about the strategy for the next elections.

Would she accept the proposal as a candidate for councilor or mayor this time?

“No. I am still determined that young people assume this responsibility, I will be there to support them,” she responds.

But Gloria later confesses that maybe if Elizabeth were alive, she would be a councilor, mayor or deputy. Because she does not forget the love, support and company that her friend always gave her. In her absence, Gloria continued the resistance they started together. Remembering at times the airs of revolution, the naivety, the hopes they had. Recalling one afternoon, one night, in which they talked about whatever idea came to their head, while Mercedes Sosa sounded on the RHC to delight them: “You always go back to the old places where you loved life, and then you understand how absent the dear things are.”

The article was originally published 22 December 2020 by Consejo de Redacción. Read the original here.

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality