5 Questions About: The Social Origins of Human Rights: Protesting Political Violence in Colombia’s Oil Capital, 1919-2010

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Luis Van Isschot discusses The Social Origins of Human Rights: Protesting Political Violence in Colombia’s Oil Capital, 1919-2010

Wesley Hogan’s review of The Social Origins of Human Rights: Protesting Political Violence in Colombia’s Oil Capital, 1919-2010 is currently available online and in issue 46.1 of OHR

What’s it about and why does it matter?

My book is about why, how, and with what impact people living in a conflict area organize collectively for human rights. It tells the 100-year history of the oil refining center of Barrancabermeja, home to the oldest and most vibrant popular movements in Colombia, where the struggle for social justice has withstood long periods of state repression, from the rapid development of the city by Standard Oil in the 1920s to the present. In the 1920s and 1930s socialists were jailed by the police for leading strikes. In the 1940s a popular uprising called the Barrancabermeja Commune was put down by the military. In the 1950s workers’ organizations were declared illegal by the national government. ln the 1960s and 1970s, the military subjected striking trade unionists to court-martial. In the 1980s and 1990s, military and paramilitary death squads murdered community leaders. In the main period covered by the oral histories I recorded, the 1980s and 1990s, the city of Barrancabermeja and surrounding area known as the Middle Magdalena were ground zero in a national struggle against rightist paramilitary violence. Through it all, the popular movement based in this extraordinary place had to reinvent and reassert itself, shaping Colombian national history in the process.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

I conducted two dozen interviews with activists in Colombia who created a frontline human rights movement amidst terrible violence; I weave these oral histories into most chapters. I began recording interviews in 2005 at a time when residents of Barrancabermeja were reeling from the impact of a recent siege of the city conducted by military and paramilitary forces that claimed thousands of lives. The interviewees were eager to talk about what amounted to a catastrophic change in their lives. In this respect, I think this book is a reflection on the moment in time when it was written. It struck me that the people working for social justice in Colombia spend so much time responding to crises that it is a rare privilege to sit down and reflect on the past. In my previous career I had lived and worked in this war-torn region as a human rights observer, and wanted to have the chance to reflect on these experiences myself. If you are interested in the relationship between activism and memory in my work, see the chapter I contributed to Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki’s excellent edited volume Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

The Social Origins of Human Rights: Protesting Political Violence in Colombia’s Oil Capital, 1919-2010. Luis Van Isschot. University of Wisconsin Press. June 2015. PP. 328.

For anyone studying armed conflict and political violence, oral history is an indispensable tool. The keeping of written records in times of war and repression is often very dangerous. In this case, I worked with the archives of a human rights organization that kept reports on the fate of the detained, the disappeared, and the dead, under the very worst of circumstances. But in our conversations, some activists lamented not ever having enough time to catch their breath, and reflect on the work they were doing, let alone record their own stories. All of that is starting to change in Colombia, as official and unofficial memory projects have flourished with the signing of Peace Accords between the leftist FARC guerrillas and the government in 2016.  The work of a truth commission also began in 2018. But all of this memory work has been undertaken in a context of Colombians’ deep uncertainty about the future. When the guerrillas demobilized, many of their former strongholds were occupied by illegal armed groups with links to the paramilitaries that caused so much suffering in the recent past. There have been, on average, two murders of community leaders every week over the past few years. The number of people working for peace and justice in Colombia is also growing, and these efforts are linked to longer histories of organizing.

My book will appear in 2019 in Spanish, revised, including additional excerpts from the oral histories I recorded. This is an extremely exciting prospect for me personally, both so that I can participate more fully in national conversations, and also as a heritage speaker of Spanish. It is worth mentioning that I had very little oral history training prior to undertaking the research for this book. My main preparation as an oral historian would come only during the last few years that I spent writing, after I had already completed the interviews. Much of this took place during my year-long stint as Coordinator for the Montreal Life Stories Project: Histoires de Vie Montréal, based out of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University. Colleagues there challenged me to think about my own role critically, to reflect on the ethics of doing oral history in a conflict area, the pressures that interviewees are subject to, and the interplay between current politics and the stories we tell. 

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

I think that anyone interested in what oral history can contribute to studies of political violence and human rights would be interested in my book. Oral history is fundamental to human rights work, in terms of collecting testimonies. Narrating these events is inevitable and important work. But we also need to come to terms with the ways that human rights reporting, especially by international organizations, tends to flatten the contentious politics that give rise to human rights movements in the first place. I set out to try and counter this tendency, to ask people why they took up the cause of human rights, what was at stake in their community. It is a desire on my part to examine how the human rights movements that emerged in Latin America during the period we think of as the Cold War relate to longer trajectories of popular protest. I hope that my research helps point to all of the work that could still be done. Hopefully it can be something to build on.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Human rights movements emerged in Latin America at a time of remarkable popular movement vibrancy.  People in Barrancabermeja took up the cause of human rights as a way of defending the achievements of broader movements for social justice. One of the interviewees, a life-long activist named Francisco Campo, told me that he “learned to love life” during the first mass protests against violence that were organized in Barrancabermeja during the 1980s. This kind of statement opens us up to the emotional world of social movements. It is really an honor to join wider conversations about political violence in Latin America. For some scholars, the advent of human rights activism in the last frame of the twentieth century is a historical rupture.  In this view, rights were taken up as a defensive strategy on the part of much-beleaguered leftist movements.  Based on my interviews with leaders from the 1970s and 1980s, I argue that human rights movements draw upon decades-long traditions of organizing, and were also expressions of solidarity. I think that I began to understand how local activists appropriated human rights discourses and practices, incorporated them into their work, and carried on.