The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Charlie Wheelan

18F PBPL 85: Global Policy Leadership Practicum Releases Its Final Report

The fall term course began in the classroom with Professor Charles Wheelan ’88 and a select group of students. This year students examined the genesis and implementation of the peace accords signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The final report synthesizes the lesson learned from 10 weeks of study on campus and two weeks of travel in Colombia. It provides relevant background, analysis, and actionable recommendations for the U.S. around the primary research question: What role, if any, does the U.S. have in the implementation of the Colombian peace process?

The two weeks in Colombia were spent speaking with relevant stakeholders in the U.S. and Colombian governments, nongovernmental organizations, social activists and humanitarians, conflict victims, art collectives, and former guerillas at FARC reintegration camps. 

“The importance of travel is twofold,” explains Wheelan, “One is this marriage of learning in the classroom and talking to people on the ground; and two, testing your hypotheses and listening to people who have very conflicting points of view.”

PBPL 85 Talks to Former Colombian President Uribe

After a relaxing weekend in coffee country, the traveled back to Bogota for a final round of meetings. After a bagged breakfast and a few last sips of coffee, we were off. Little did we know the surprise guest we had in store.

Our first stop in Bogota was our long awaited debrief with the U.S embassy. After two weeks of traveling throughout the country and engaging with stakeholders from all sides of the conflict, from FARC ex-combatants to hardline former government officials, we had compiled a long list of questions to gain some firsthand insight on just how the US intends to weigh in on this incredibly complex peace process. Officers from all corners of the foreign service, from public affairs representatives to economic and USAID analysts, shared their professional backgrounds and offered their expert opinions on the peace process. We discussed the issues of justice and human rights, extradition policy, the state of Colombia’s ongoing infrastructure projects, as well as the embassy’s relationship with the Colombian media. We left the embassy with both some deeper insights into US policy in Colombia, and perhaps our best group photo.

PBPL 85 Students Get to Work and See the Sights in Salento

We spent our final weekend of the trip at a finca near Salento, a town in the mountains known for coffee estates, dramatic palm trees, and rare parrots. The finca is beautiful, with a dramatic infinity pool, hammocks overlooking fields of banana trees, and lots of fresh fruit. The idyllic surroundings helped us from feeling to overworked during the first half of the weekend – while we did spend all of Saturday and much of Sunday working we were able to write poolside or looking over the valley.

On Sunday afternoon, we left the finca for Salento proper, about an hour away. We started with lunch, most of us getting plantain chips the size of our heads covered in meat and cheese, or yet another meal of grilled trout. A rainstorm hit during lunch, but just as we were beginning to give up on our hopes of a hike, the storm cleared and we were able to make our way to Valle de Cocora, a famous hike nearby.

PBPL 85 Meets with Former Mayor of Medellín and Journeys to Coffee Country

We began our last day in Medellín with a fascinating meeting with Juan Gómez Martínez, the former mayor of Medellín (1988-1990 and 1998-2000) and former Governor of Antioquia (1992-1994).

During Mr. Martínez’ first tenure as mayor, the infamous Medellín cartel leader Pablo Escobar was still at large and directed many murders, kidnappings, and bombings throughout the city. Mr. Martínez shared with the group his account of a kidnapping attempt by Escobar’s men while he was running for election in 1997. Fifteen armed men came to his home one evening, and he and his son had to defend their family in a shootout through their doorway. Mr. Martínez said that had he known at the time that there were so many attackers, he would have surrendered. The kidnappers fled the scene because the job was taking far longer than they had planned. Mr. Martínez and his family went to stay at a hotel because their home had been destroyed.

PBPL 85 Meets with Grupo-EPM

After meeting with many representatives from government agencies and non-governmental organizations, the PBPL 85 group was incredibly excited to meet with one of Colombia’s most successful companies for a perspective of the private sector: Grupo-EPM.  Grupo-EPM operates at the intersection of the private sector and the conflict facing Colombia. 

As the central utility company of Colombia, Grupo-EMP is both a private entity and an extension of the state due to its crucial role in providing access to public services for Colombians.  However, Grupo-EPM has recently expanded its operations beyond Colombia by acquiring over 47 subsidiary companies that span Latin America and Central America, where it delivers natural gas, electricity, power, and potable water to millions people.  Furthermore, Grupo-EPM is at the forefront of development and sustainability with an impressive approach to business that is directly linked to their corporate social responsibility policies that require Grupo-EPM to both maximize providing the most coverage across Colombia for public utilities and ensuring protection of the environment in all its operations.

PBPL 85 Tours Medellín Colombia

Our second day in Medellin began at a local university, EAFIT, for a meeting on criminality and the state with Professor Gustavo Duncan. Professor Duncan gave us a brief lecture on the the peace deal and delved into the complicated history of governance in Medellin and the rural parts of the country. An expert in the relationship between criminality and the state, he detailed the complicated ties between neighborhoods, citizens, businesses, and gangs. Professor Duncan shed light on Colombians different relationship to justice—one where citizens often rely criminal actors to distribute justice in place of the government.


PBPL 85 Explores the Connection of Art and Peace

After a night of sleeping not in tents, but in hotel beds, the PBPL 85 group woke up rested and ready to start the first day in Medellin, the capital of Colombia's mountainous Antioquia province. On the bus ride in from the airport, we had sensed that Medellin had a different feel from Bogotá. In Bogotá, we had spent most of our time meeting with government officials, scholars, and NGOs thinking specifically about the peace process. Our time in Medellin on the other hand was dedicated to examining the city as a whole, and looking at the social, political, and cultural transformations of the city over time—and seeing how all of this relates to the peace process.


PBPL 85 Observes Ecotourism Projects

We arrived at the San Jose del Oriente Espacios Territoriales de Capacitacion Reincorporation, or ECTR, as the sun set in the horizon. To the east we could see the mountains that lined the Colombian-Venezuelan border while to the west were the famous white caps of the Sierra Nevada range. We were greeted by several ex-combatants living at the ECTR, or reintegration camp, who formed the Terra Grata ecotourism project, as well as members of the Colombian military.

Throughout the weekend, it was clear that the two former enemies had formed a closer bond than many might have expected. The ex-FARC combatants led us through the entrance to the camp and down to the opening where we would spend the night. After placing our bags by our beds, we were treated to a concert by a well-known FARC musician, Julian Conrado. He sung mainly of his desire for peace, but also performed a few amusing songs as well. We concluded the night with a nice meal of grilled beef, sausage, yucca, and peppers.


PBPL 85 Visits a FARC Reintegration Camp

PBPL 85 began the weekend with an early morning trip to the airport, on our way to sunny Valledupar. From there, the class traveled to Pondores, which is one of the largest ECTRs, or reintegration camps, in Colombia. A United Nations escort truck led the bus into the FARC camp and the two UN workers in the Caribbean district introduced the class to the eco-tourism team — PBPL 85’s host for the next two days. The 26 ECTRs serve as "Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation;” their reincorporation activities and productive projects include farming, sewing courses, eco-tourism and bare healthcare services. The ex-combatants have all stayed in Pondores following the leadership of the FARC secretariat. Joaquin Gomez is even planning to run for local office in La Guajira, the mountainous district in northern Colombia which borders Venezuela. The class was there to see the realities of the FARC during the 53-year long conflict and their daily lives. We were greeted with big smiles and open arms. 


PBPL 85 Confronts the Complexity of Peace Negotiations

The PBPL class started the day talking with Doug Mercado of the UN World Food Program (WFP). Mercado is currently based in Bogota, Colombia, and he works as the WFP’s Emergency Response Coordinator and coordinates the organizations food programs for Venezuelan migrants on the western border, but has worked on humanitarian aid before in Angola, Eritrea, and Bosnia among many others. The class had a lively discussion with Mercado on topics like how the new Duque administration is addressing the influx of migrants across the border, how the migrant crisis could affect the implementation of the peace agreement, and the possibilities for using food grown by ex-combatants to feed migrants. Mercado, who knows Spanish, Portuguese and some Serbo-Croatian along with English, emphasized to the class the amazing opportunities learning foreign languages has for opening up new environments and cultures and the many opportunities to work in humanitarian aid around the globe.



The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences