Colombian writer William Ospina is perhaps one of the most optimistic people regarding the results of last Sunday’s presidential elections. When the two anti-establishment candidates, Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández, won the first presidential round, this poet and novelist – who has also published several historical essays in which he criticizes the corruption and indifference of the elites – saw the political transformation he expected coming. “What citizens have in front of them are two possibilities for change,” he says.
“One cannot affirm that only one way of understanding change is possible. I believe that there are different ways of understanding what is happening, the historical crossroads we are facing, and that these two ways of understanding change compete seems healthy to me and seems healthy to me”. Winner of the Rómulo Gallegos award in 2009 for his novel The Country of Cinnamon, Ospina (Padua, 68 years old) surprised his readers when he announced his support for the campaign of Rodolfo Hernández, a candidate offered by the Ministry of Culture if he wins the elections. The writer – who in the past has defended Petro and has been criticized for supporting Chavismo – spoke to El PAÍS about his decision.
Ask. Did Sunday’s results surprise you?
Response. Although I expected what happened to happen, it never ceased to surprise me, because it is something new in Colombia, that the majority of the old corrupt establishment has been rejected by the two winning forces. I believe that this is a very big advance for Colombia. The country has long been gripped by forces that are too insensitive, and too inept, that have the country truly on the brink of catastrophe. I think that what we are experiencing is a reaction of the citizens. Both successful campaigns, that of Gustavo Petro and that of the engineer Rodolfo Hernández, rise up against corruption, against that past of machinery, and manipulation, and exclusion from citizenship.
P. And why did you decide to support Rodolfo Hernández and not Gustavo Petro?
R. Because the country has been facing almost irreconcilable factions for a long time, and that has been disastrous. I grew up in Colombia during the violence of the 1950s, when the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party preached that half the country had to hate the other half forever. It seemed to me that at this moment – although many of the things that Petro’s campaign says seem valid to me, and although I don’t doubt for a moment that there is a sincere desire for change – Petro’s proposal unleashes a lot of resistance, provokes a lot of opposition in a sector of society. I think it would be very difficult for him to pave the way for his project, because of the resistance that it arouses. And it seems to me that engineer Hernández has a position that does not arouse so much resistance and that he also wants to make transformations. He doesn’t think he can change everything but he has a sense of priorities. I have decided to support him without this meaning at all to demonize a proposal as respectable as Petro’s.
P. How did you meet Rodolfo Hernández?
R. The truth is that I have basically listened to the proposals he has made, and the way he makes them, and both have interested me a lot. At the end of last year I listened to some interviews they did with him, and I felt that he coincided a lot with what I thought of the country, with what I have thought of the country for years, since when I wrote an essay called Where is the yellow fringe about 25 years ago, and then a book called So that the pod ends, which I published in 2013. That led me to take an interest in his speech, in his proposals. It seems to me that he is a person with whom ordinary citizens can identify.
P. But have they met?
R. Yes, we have talked a few times, not too many times, not much. I know his project from the things I have heard him say, and the truth is that I have heard almost everything he has said.
P. Hernández has said that, if he wins, he would offer you the Ministry of Culture. Are you interested in being a minister?
R. The truth is that I have always felt a lot of rejection for the paraphernalia of power. If I accepted a function like that, that would take me away from my concerns, which are those that have to do with literature. But I have been committed for a long time to the need for a profound change in the country and I could not refuse to carry out a task if I feel that this task could be useful.
P. So yes, the proposal seems interesting to you.
R. I am married to her in intellectual terms. It causes me a little more resistance in formal terms, because I am not a person in the office or in the bureaucracy. I think that in case of accepting, I would understand that function more as a way to go through the territory and to accompany processes in the territory, rather than being there as simply handling papers and decrees.
P. What do you think of Hernández’s proposal to merge the Ministry of Culture with the Ministry of the Environment?
R. That generates a lot of debate and I think it’s a healthy debate. Some people think that these two things have nothing to do with culture and the fight against climate change. I, on the other hand, see that they are intimately related. Perhaps one of the evils that the struggle for the environment suffers today is that it is not fundamentally assumed as a cultural task. What is producing climate change is the consumption of fossil fuels, our way of consuming, a type of relationship between industry and nature, the plundering of planetary resources for the satisfaction of the human species, turning everything into a merchandise, in a business. I believe that what is going to be needed is a profound change in customs, a change that has to be cultural. This does not have to mean an abandonment of all the tasks that the Ministry of Culture carries out in so many different fields – in the field of art, dance, music, museums, theater. Those things are fundamental and cannot be abandoned.
P. Hernández is a person who can insult or even slap those who have criticized him. What do you think of that style?
R. You could hardly turn one or two facts into a style, could you? Of course, I understand that the time is like that, the virality that characterizes our time means that a single thing you say will be repeated a million times. So one slap becomes a million slaps. If someone proposes it, it will make people only see that moment of your life from you and erase all the rest of what your existence has been. It is one of the great dangers of the age and one of the great phenomena of the age. I believe that in every person’s life there is that moment when people get exasperated, and even more so when someone is provoking them. Rodolfo Hernández has said that it was a mistake and that he should not have allowed himself to be provoked in that way. But whoever takes a good look at it will understand that someone prepared the shed, the stage, and worked judiciously in psychological terms until the explosion was achieved.
P. Hernández is an anti-corruption candidate who is being investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office for corruption.
R. I do not feel in a position to acquit him because I am not part of the process nor do I know him in specific terms. I’m just saying it’s not the first case of a person being charged. And in our time there also tends to be confused accused as convicted. I believe that justice is the one that has to decide that. What he says is that his fight against corruption aroused, as was perfectly predictable, the furious reaction of a lot of people who felt excluded from power and who filed 200 lawsuits against him. There are some pending, and of course he has to appear in court and answer all that. Other candidates have also been accused at some time and that does not mean that they are guilty and that they have been convicted. When the candidate Petro was mayor of Bogotá, all kinds of complaints rained down on him and I myself remember having been part of a defense committee for the mayor at that time. It seemed to me that it was an injustice and that many of the control bodies, the Attorney General’s Office itself, were using their power to invalidate the popular decision.
P. How do you disagree with Rodolfo Hernández?
R. I’m not as impulsive as he is. Perhaps because I am a writer, I am very vigilant about words and the way they are used. Sometimes I regret it. Sometimes I wish I could be a little more spontaneous. My shyness does not allow me sometimes all the expressiveness that I would like. If someone has slapped someone, it seems to me that this is not right, it should not be done. But I understand that the great crimes that occur in Colombia are not committed by people with that spontaneous impulsiveness, they are much more calculated, colder, more thought out. They are not made by hand. Colombia is a country where terrible massacres of people who have everything under control, but who sponsor terrible acts of violence, are committed. And so it is still paradoxical that in a country where massacres are forgiven, and where special courts are created to prosecute terrible crimes, a slap in the face ends up being something unforgivable.
P. What do you think of Peter? Many people imagined that, with his political position in the past, he would be with the candidate of the left.
R. Petro seems to me to be a very intelligent person, very studious, very persistent and it seems to me that he has a very respectable project in terms of transforming the country. Some things I don’t share, but I do have a very deep respect for him. What I respect the most about the project petrist it is that it embodies the hope of eight million people today, which may be many more in the days to come, and that it is part of a serious and sincere will to transform Colombia. If I am not part of your hosts and I am not part of your electorate, that does not mean that I am going to participate in any way in the calumnies or the disqualifications.
P. It sounds like you’d like it if either one of you wins.
R. I say it with all sincerity: I prefer the victory of Rodolfo Hernández, because it seems to me that it will be easier for him to make the fundamental changes that Colombia requires.
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