Are We Going Back to Square One in Colombia?

“We will see each other after the next 10,000 deaths.”

— Alfonso Cano, head of a FARC delegation for peace talks in 1992, to members of the Colombian government’s delegation when peace conversations were broken in Tlaxcala, Mexico.

Last Sunday October 2nd there was a plebiscite in Colombia in order to obtain the people’s approval of the Agreements for ending the war between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government, with the hope of closing the last war in existence in the Western Hemisphere and starting a new form of making politics in Colombia without recourse to guns. The plebiscite was not necessary, as the Colombian Constitutional Court indicated. Advisers told the President not to do it, given the fact that the Constitution considers peace as a right of the citizens and seeking it a duty for whoever becomes President.

After 52 years of war, the results are 1906 villages destroyed by massacres; 7 million campesinos displaced; 280,000 civilian deaths by the three armed actors (paramilitaries, guerrillas and the Colombian Army); 45,000 disappeared; thousands of victims of kidnappings; thousands of false positives, that is, assassinated civilians by the Colombian Army with the goal of increasing their body count; and thousands of women raped and humiliated. Then, we ask ourselves, why did the voters in a country destroyed by war and pain, with millions of victims, reject this peace offer?

The Agreement was signed after 4 long years of intense negotiations in Havana. Cuba and Norway played a very important role as guarantors of this process. The Agreement had the support of the international community and shows a complex system of multinational verification. Besides, it has been considered as an example for conflict resolution. It was born from the valiant and risky challenge by President Juan Manuel Santos, who certainly played all his political capital with this initiative to achieve a durable peace in Colombia.

The Agreement has six points:

1) Policies of agricultural development;

2) Participation in politics by the guerrillas;

3) Guarantees for security;

4) Solution to the problem of drug-trafficking and the production of illegal drugs;

5) Implementation and Verification of the Agreement; and

6) A system of Transitional Justice with truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of no repetition.

Two other aspects make this Agreement a model: the focus and inclusion of the victims of all the armed actors (guerrilla, paramilitaries and the Armed Forces) and the inclusion of gender in all of the 6 points. In other words it means that all the components of the Agreement were considered from the point of view of the rights of women and of persons from different sexual orientation.

It is worth remembering that in Colombia to be a leader of the left implies to give your own life. In 1946, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, leader of the Liberal party, generated a big socialist movement, popular and democratic, that possibly would have taken him to the presidency, if it were not for the fact that he was assassinated on April 9, 1948. His assassination was the cause of a popular revolt that was the origin of the so called “Violencia” period that was the cause of the killing of 250,000 Colombians. As a consequence of this situation, peasant guerrillas were born which then in 1964 became the FARC. In other words the FARC were not a life accident: they were born from the abuses and injustices in the rural areas as a consequence of policies of arrogance and exploitation, which made it impossible to make opposition by another way which was not violence. In the 1980’s, the Conservative government of Belisario Betancur negotiated a peace agreement with the FARC so they would become a political party. The FARC accepted and created a party called Union Patriotica (U.P.) In the following elections their elected mayors, city council members, deputies and senators, many of whom were then systematically assassinated, as were two Presidential candidates of the U.P. This was a unique case of political genocide that cost the lives of more than 3,000 people.

In Colombia, 53% of the land lies in the hands of 2,300 persons. Given this situation it is understandable that these landowners deeply dislike to hear that according to the Peace Agreement, 10 million hectares are going to be provided with title to poor landless peasants. During the conflict 7 million hectares were taken from their owners and have never been returned. The Agreement also supposes the elimination of the daily expense released for war needs of about 7 to 8 million dollars, to be re-directed to social investment, infra-structure, health and education.

Another argument against the Agreement is the supposed impunity it may bring. On the contrary, it is the first time that an integrated system of justice and truth is agreed to in a Peace Process where all those who took part in the conflict – members of political organizations, combatants and non-combatants, people from economic groups, agents of foreign governments and others – should give account of their responsibilities. Those who from their comfortable offices in Bogota and Medellin who used the war for their political and economic benefit, are the ones who now rave against “guerrilla impunity”. Those are the same persons who financed and instigated the creation of paramilitary groups, who in their massacres dismembered their victims alive with chain saws. Those paramilitaries are responsible for 50% of the victims of the conflict.

In spite of the insistence of the polls that the YES would win, the result could not have been more discouraging. The NO won with 6,431,376 votes, that is by 50.21% of the votes. The YES had a total of 6,377,482 votes. The difference was only some 53,894 votes. The country is essentially divided in half. In the rural areas where the war was more intense, such as Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo provinces, the YES vote won and in the urban areas where most of the population is concentrated the NO vote won, with the exception of Bogota, Cali and Barranquilla. The urban world for whom the war is something as remote as the one in Syria, decided to continue the war that exists in the rural world. So the question is, are we going back to square one? Are we postponing the problem for another 10 years? All of this is to maintain the economic and political interests of a minority?

Going back to the elections, one feels moved first of all by the incredible abstention. For 62% of the nearly 34 million citizens with the right to vote out of a population of 48 million people, their immediate and more worrisome problems are the ones related to their daily life, their poverty and their defenselessness. They do not feel represented by or integrated into public institutions. Justice does not arrive, the police repress them instead of protecting them, they have ill paid jobs and barely survive. Or they voted NO out of fear, clientelism or resentment. These are people without hope, and without hope resistance does not exist. Without rights how can you demand participation? What kind of democracy is this one? For them it is the same if the war continues as if peace is achieved, particularly in the big urban centers. The weather also contributed to the abstention, especially on the Caribbean cost where hurricane Matthew prevented even the setting up of voting places in some towns. Without infrastructure or adequate transportation, many people in the rural areas could not vote.

There is an imminent danger that the war will continue. Just since this year began 51 defenders of the peace process and of human rights have been assassinated. According to the United Nations office for Human Rights, at least 17 of them were defenders of the peace dialogs between the government and the FARC. They were killed because they were considered “guerrillas dressed as civilians”. Both Minister of Interior Juan Fernando Cristo and the Ombudsman’s office condemned these killings, and for the FARC commanders these killings were not isolated, but part of a strategy against social leaders. What this shows is the urgency of implementing in the territories the agreed measures on the special point of security in the final Agreement.

The more the days pass the more details we are learning of the NO campaign led by former president Alvaro Uribe-Velez. On October 5 the director of this campaign gave an interview to the newspaper La Republica, in which he declared that their central message was to cause the indignation of the voters, especially using the social networks, and that following on the advice of some strategists from Brazil and Panama they decided not to explain the Agreement, but adapted their messages according to social classes. On radio stations listened to by high and middle class strata they spoke of the impunity, the eligibility of guerrillas to run for Congress, and of the tax reform that will make them pay more taxes. On the radios stations listened to by the lower classes the message was that their subsidies were going to be taken away in order to give them to the guerrillas. These leaders of the NO campaign lied deliberately in order to cause the sensation of fear among the electorate through fictitious scenarios. The campaign director declared that these distortions of the truth were done “because it was the same that the proponents of the YES did”. On the contrary, the proponents of the YES vote carried out workshops, seminars, congresses, conferences, etc., explaining the Agreement.

Some of the messages would be humorous if it were not because behind all of this there is a tragedy. Suggestions that “Castro- Chavismo” will come; that we will become like Venezuela; that Timochenko, the FARC leader, would be our next President; that people would lose their properties. Political illiteracy is fed by manipulation on the part of the mass media in the hands of the private sector. Programs full of vacuity, superficial and lacking in depth, such as soap-operas and contest programs like Survivors, are the daily bread of TV. Besides, for 52 years on a daily basis the FARC were demonized, to the point that this attitude had a perverse influence for the implementation of reconciliation. Not that the FARC are saints. There are no saints in a war. But many of the horrible massacres and crimes committed by the paramilitaries were kept silent and almost only what you heard on the news, were crimes committed by the FARC.

The Christian extreme right, along with the Catholic Church, played a diabolical card, using gender ideology in the Peace Agreement in order to associate it with the establishment of a society governed by gender interests. In other words, they suggested that the Peace Agreement would generate affective homosexual relations and would facilitate the creation of a sort of “feminist social dictatorship”. I feel a lot of respect for representatives of the Catholic Church who in remote regions are almost the only consolation for the victims. Many priests and nuns have given their lives defending the weak in this war. But, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, with some exceptions, decided not to support the YES because they were “neutral”…..this in Colombia, where since the time of The Violence period we still remember the words of bishops preaching that it was not a sin to kill Liberals !

After the Violence that started in 1948, leaders from the two parties, Liberal and Conservative, made a political pact called Frente Nacional in order to stop the violence in 1957. According to this agreement, government bureaucracy was divided into two equal parts, with equal representatives of the two parties and the Presidency was alternated for 4 4-year electoral periods. Nobody mentioned badly needed structural reforms that would change inequality and the use of land. Don’t get me wrong: Santos, a son of the country’s classical elite, does not represent change. Santos represents a civilized and modern right, while Uribe represents a barbarian right with no scruples. Uribe tried his best to weaken the FARC in order to take them to the border of extinction because he was seeking their destruction. An element that is almost not mentioned is modern war technology provided both by the United States and Israel. After the assassination of several guerrilla leaders it became obvious to the FARC that not even the deepest jungle would protect them. Santos decided on peace negotiations because he knew that this was the only reasonable way, when neither of the two sides was able to exterminate the other, even more in a civil war which makes reconciliation more complicated.

After the plebiscite with its minimal majority of 53,894 votes, President Santos agreed to meet with Uribe’s party, called Centro Democratico, in order to reconcile what was agreed to in Havana with the requests of Uribe. This is an almost impossible mission, given the antagonism of the two positions. This dialogue with the opposition should be made as soon as possible, given the fact that for reasons of the agreed verification, it cannot wait. The UN observers were already located in the different regions and the guerrillas were preparing to give them their arms. The ceasefire was supposed to be maintained, but how will it be done if the Agreement was not approved? To give credit to both parties, the President declared that he will maintain the cease – fire and the FARC declared that their struggle was now with words and not with arms.

For Uribe, the Havana Agreement opened the door to the terrorists to participate in politics. That was exactly the reason for the negotiation, that politics be made without the need to have recourse to arms!

That is, to change bullets for votes. Another point made by Uribe is the justice aspect in the Agreement. It includes a chapter for state agents and third parties that have links with the conflict. Uribe sees this as equating the armed forces and civil society with terrorism. For Uribe, drug trafficking used to finance terrorism is not a political crime and should not be pardoned. But the Supreme Court indicated that drug trafficking by the guerrillas was connected to rebellion, since it was used to finance insurgent organizations. For Uribe it is not enough for the guerrillas to “leave” (dejar) their arms; the term to be used should be “deliver over” (entregar), because in his view the word to “leave” means to leave the terrorists with their arms. It was agreed in Havana that UN will monitor the leaving of the arms. The Transitional Justice Agreement, according to Uribe, accepts that delinquents responsible for atrocities do not go to jail and this is unacceptable to him. He suggests that this system equates the treatment of the military and business people with that of the “bandits”. For the FARC it would be difficult to accept these changes, because they did not negotiate with the idea of going to jail or being extradited to the United States. There are many other options, as shown in the peace agreements in Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Another closed and elitist pact that excludes the common people, cannot not be accepted, because it will be a secure road for another cycle of violence. What is needed is a generous national dialogue for peace that brings closer all the forces to build a durable peace. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Santos is a recognition of his efforts during all these years. The President said he shared it with the victims and to them he will donate the money he is going to receive. Colombia does not loses hope. The courage, dignity and greatness of the victims who all said YES, both in the countryside and in the cities, to the Agreement demonstrated their willingness for pardon and reconciliation, showing that armed confrontation is not the way out of the conflict, but civilized and respectful dialogue is. Basic measures to re-incorporate guerrillas into civil society, according to the international rules of Transitional Justice, are the minimal requirement to end the war and should be implemented as soon as possible.

A front where all peace organizations converge must call for the participation of all segments of Colombian society in order to end this war of pain and suffering. The victim’s movement, youth, academics, women, sectors of the NO who thought they were defending the family without measuring the consequences that this decision will bring for Colombia. And this is happening: the huge demonstrations from civil society in Bogota and other cities asking for reconciliation and the reconstruction of Colombian society, in a kind of Colombian spring, is showing it. Fully 40,000 persons filled Bolivar Square in Bogota in absolute silence, which was only interrupted when everybody tearfully sang the national anthem.

A pact among elites linked to defend their interests should not be accepted. Peace is a right. Now more than ever Colombia needs the vigilance and accompaniment of the international community to monitor this process and give its support. Going back to war is not possible.