Those of you glued to the television or the internet two weeks ago to see if Miss Colombia would be crowned Miss Universe for the second time in the country’s history were probably greatly disappointed. Sadly, she did not even make it to the top ten, but Colombians are proud, nonetheless. Who caught my eye, however, was not the lovely Natalia Navarro, but Miss Philippines. Actually, it wasn’t Miss Philippines herself so much as the politics behind why she went from being the shoo-in for the crown to finishing fourth.
Miss Philippines made a mistake—quite possibly the only mistake this woman has ever made. During the question and answer portion of the pageant—the last hurdle to jump before the judges would have placed the tiara on her head—judge William Baldwin asked a question that put everything up to this point into perspective, which suggested that political laws may also rule the realm of aesthetics. Baldwin asked, “What is one big mistake you have made in your life, and what did you do to make it right?” She responded with almost blind confidence, “You know what, sir, in my 22 years of existence, I can say there is nothing major, major, I mean problem, that I have done in my life.”
One thing was clear: the judges were not happy with her answer. It was not that there was a right answer, but hers was just not the breed of answer they sought. I wasn’t a judge, so I can’t be certain, but I am willing to guess her response did not sit well with the judges—and, I imagine, with many viewers, as well – because she probably lied. If she didn’t lie, then she was most likely delusional about her life since it is difficult to believe a human being, regardless of how beautiful, can go through “22 years of existence” without ever making a big mistake. She would have been better off answering the question honestly, which does not mean she would have had to bare her soul to, well, the universe.
Baldwin’s question was built around the sophisticated assumption that humans are not perfect. I will give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that maybe, just maybe, she believed she had made little mistakes along the way, but nothing major. The excuse I offer her with this proposition, however, does not change the fact she made a mistake in the judges’ eyes with her answer. In short, she lost the hearts and minds of her royal subjects. And that, my friends, cannot be regained with a sparkling smile.
It is not just beauty queens who have this to fear, and a crown and public to lose. Miss Philippines is not alone in failing to be truthful about her imperfections. No one wants to admit to mistakes, even though we all know we have made them. The beauty pageant is not too dissimilar from the political stage in this regard. You’d be hard-pressed to find many Colombian politicians willing to tell you the errors of their ways with any sincerity, if at all. That is, unless it served some instrumental purpose to a selfish end. In a country where blame and responsibility are passed around more often than the pepper shaker during a family reunion dinner, admitting one’s flaws can go a long way. Doing so is an opportunity for reconciliation.
For instance, George W. Bush, during his final moments as president, had the opportunity to quell many fires of resentment, if only he had honestly answered the same question Miss Philippines was asked. Instead, his response was, “Hmmm, I wish you would have given me this as a written question ahead of time.” Bush blew his chance. Not only did he imply he could not think of anything at that moment, but that if he had more time to think about it he may had come up with a reply more suitable for public consumption, more politically correct. Regardless of his intentions or the truth, his answer was interpreted by the world to mean he made no mistakes during his two terms in office as president of the United States. On top of the political and economic blunders and botched attempts of the U.S. military as it tried to, allegedly, safeguard the world from terrorism and spread the U.S. brand of democracy and freedom, this seemingly meaningless response had more weight than he, or anybody, may have imagined. It was not a good way to leave office.
Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe had the same opportunity as Miss Philippines and Mr. Bush. In fact, he did not even need a judge or a reporter to ask him about his mistakes, but addressed the issue when he went on public television during his final days to say goodbye to the nation and reminisce about his eight years in office. For this, I congratulate Señor Uribe. Nevertheless, Uribe too blew his opportunity for reconciliation, and alienated listeners, like myself, even more.
Uribe gave the nation an apology, asked Colombians to forgive him for, as he put it, “Those errors that were committed, and also for those things that could not be done.” And that was all. Newspaper headlines were littered with “Uribe’s apology,” and so forth. However, asking for forgiveness and apologizing for errors seem almost meaningless without any context or further information.
I am surprised that to this date, a good month since the apology was provided, there has not been much advanced for further clarification from pundits, reporters, and the public at large. As it stands, the apology remains anemic—“Gravy without the meat,” as philosopher Nick Smith would say. It has sunk to the bottom of Laguna de Guatavita to be lost among the priceless artifacts of El Dorado. With this essay—or letter to Señor Uribe, if you will—I hope to begin, metaphorically speaking, to drain the cloudy water of the lake that keeps the golden meaning of Uribe’s apology hidden from the public.
It is difficult to argue against the claim that Colombia became highly polarized during the reign of Señor Uribe. Everyone was either an Uribista or a terrorist sympathizer. Others, like Sergio Fajardo, tried to remove themselves from such rhetoric, being neither for or against the leader. The indigenous Minga had a similar neutrality stance. Or, as the residents of Algeciras recently demonstrated with their protest signs during an armed transport blockage by the FARC, when the residents claimed, “We want to work, this is not a demonstration against or in favor of anyone.” Sadly, people were afraid to voice their political opinions for fear they may become another false positive, another victim kidnapped by the guerrilla, or a target of human cleansing by neo-paramilitary groups. Nonetheless, the polarization and hatred were the elephant in the room, and most wanted the elephant to stomp on the opposition.
Colombia has become—possibly more so than before, which is saying a lot—a country of people who harbor a lot of anger and resentment. To calm those kinds of fires will take more than just military force, which is what Uribe’s Democratic Security and Defense Policy mostly offered. There are certain areas of the armed conflict—or struggle, “lucha,” as Señor Uribe likes to label it—that violence or the threat of violence cannot help. I believe Uribe understood this when he so generously offered his apology.
A lot of anger could be reduced by a simple recognition of wrongdoing by not only the government, but also the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. Colombia has many victims who look for more than just monetary reparation. Many want their injuries to be documented and blame to be distributed among the parties responsible for their suffering and losses.
This is an integral part of justice, of reconciliation, of conflict resolution. One does not have to wait to first establish security—understood by Uribe as a monopoly of violence—and gain capital investment as pre-requisites for taking social welfare concerns seriously, as Uribe’s Democratic Security and Defense Policy assumed; the so-called “Virtuous Circle.”
An apology is an essential means to begin the process of justice, reparation, and the corroboration of truth. Other heads of state were aware of the importance of apologies in soothing the aching hearts of the public. The Canadian prime minister did it in 2008 when he apologized for his country forcing First Nations children into residential schools; British Prime Minister David Cameron recently apologized for Bloody Sunday; and Japan’s prime minister last month apologized for his country’s colonial rule of Korea for 35 years. Though there are limitations to collective apologies, these acts had social meaning that opened the door for peace. The First Nations, for example, accepted Harper’s apology, and family members of the victims of Bloody Sunday rejoiced knowing the names of their lost relatives were cleared of wrongdoing.
As philosopher Nick Smith—the world’s leading expert on the matter and a dear friend and mentor of mine—wrote, apologies have a social function. They present an opportunity to honor the meaning and values of a people. Apologies provide a tool for moral reconciliation because, as he claimed, they have both inherent and instrumental value. They act as “loose constellations of interrelated meanings,” and by understanding what meanings are violated we can more effectively progress in resolving conflicts. Military force alone cannot repair such moral injuries. This was why Uribe’s apology was so important, but, simultaneously, so anemic.
In my interview with Smith, his initial reaction to Uribe’s apology was one of curiosity. Uribe’s statement, Smith said, “leaves us guessing about the central meanings of the gesture. What were the errors? Who deserves blame for them? Will the errors be remedied? Will the future be different from the past?”
For Uribe’s apology to sit well with me—one of the 50 million Colombians Uribe addressed, and others like me—at least some basic criteria need to be met. For starters, Señor Uribe would have to fully answer the questions posited by Smith. And, as judge Baldwin asked Miss Philippines, what would he do to make things right?
Answers to all these inquiries could provide different forms of social meaning, which Uribe has failed to offer. Uribe apologized. Uribed asked for forgiveness. It is difficult to forgive an individual when he has not delivered a real apology. It is almost equally difficult to forgive someone who cannot explicitly explain the mistakes, the regret, the guilt, and the factors that led to the apology. Was Uribe really apologizing, or just expressing sympathy? Or was he just upset that some of his mistakes were found out? If Uribe sincerely wants to be forgiven, he must unpack his apology. Let’s start there.
Señor Uribe, for the good of the nation, I beg of you to answer the questions. Unlike Bush, you are getting them written, ahead of time. I hope you answer them sincerely, truthfully, and publicly in a robust manner. Señor Uribe, what exactly were “those errors that were committed”? And who, specifically, committed the errors? Señor Uribe, what exactly where “those things that could not be done”? As Smith puts it, “Rather than leaving [the apologizer and the recipients] reconciled because of the words spoken, I prefer to understand them as beginning a process of reconciliation.” Señor Uribe, the opportunity is not lost.
As one citizen among many, I call upon you all to demand an answer from the former president. If you truly care about the unification and pacification of Colombia and wish to calm the fires of resentment, hatred, vengeance, and anger of this great country, you, the public will demand this, and you, Señor Uribe, will respond.
As of now, Uribe’s apology is still dying on the vine.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.