Colombia’s Roadblock to Peace: Between Hope and Despair

From the November/December 2016 PNL #853

by Carolina Arango-Vargas

In October, the hope of millions of my fellow Colombians and I came to an abrupt halt. President Santos had called a plebiscite asking the Colombian people an apparently straightforward Yes or No question: “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?” The agreement in question aimed to reach a political resolution to the 52-year long armed confrontation, the longest in the Western Hemisphere, with the insurgent guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). However, by a razor thin margin (less than 60,000), the NO vote won.

For the past four years, and with the support of the governments of Norway and Cuba, a team of negotiators from the government and the FARC met in Havana. They established an agenda consisting of six key themes: comprehensive rural development; political participation; end of the conflict; solution to the problem of illicit drugs; agreement regarding the victims of the conflict; and implementation, verification, and public vote. Even though the team negotiated abroad, there were a number of mechanisms, such as regional and national forums, that allowed participation of civil society. Several Commissions provided input to the negotiators on key points, most notably, regarding the inclusion of a gender perspective to recognize the differential impact of war on women, girls, LGBT populations and ethnic minorities.



Colombians gather in Plaza Bolivar in the heart of Bogota before the October 2 p
Colombians gather in Plaza Bolivar in the heart of Bogota before the October 2 plebescite. Photo: Juan Pablo Gonzalez / C.C.



A Restorative Justice
The agreement outlined the creation of a transitional justice system known as the “Special Jurisdiction for Peace” (SJP), a parallel system to the ordinary—and highly inefficient—criminal justice system, that would investigate, attribute responsibility and bring to an alternative justice circuit, all those who committed crimes against humanity in the context of the armed confrontation, not only guerrillas, but military officers and civilian collaborators as well. The agreement included complete amnesty only for rank-and-file members who were formerly accused of the crime of rebellion. A special Peace Tribunal would determine the sentences and conditions, ranging from two to eight years. Rather than prison, the sentence would entail mobility restrictions and require former fighters to perform restorative tasks for victims. The goal of the agreement was not only to punish, but also to help our nation to uncover truth and the extent of the war, its causes, actors and consequences, based on a full account of truth.

Besides providing alternatives to jail time, any peace negotiation with a political armed group must provide options that incentivize demobilization and allow reconciliation under the principles of truth, justice and reparation—the key elements of a restorative justice system. Because the history and causes of the Colombian conflict are so complex, the agreement was more than a simple treaty to allow “criminals” to escape punishment, as many claimed. The agreement was ambitious in aiming to achieve structural changes such as a land and agrarian reform, based on the principles of land restitution and redistribution. It would have required those who acquired land to prove they did so in good faith rather than as a product of displacing populations. It also included a number of initiatives to give farmers access to technologies and subsidies, and secure the participation of rural women.

The agreement promoted a solution to illicit drug production and distribution, by providing mechanisms for manual eradication and viable alternatives for growers. It also included guarantees for the rights to political participation in conditions of dignity and safety, in theory allowing people to defeat political enemies in the polls rather than on the battlefield. To facilitate the transition to civil life and the destruction of arms and ammunition, it designated a number of rural areas in the country to start the demobilization process, under the monitoring of UN observers. To further incentivize demobilization, the government would give guerrillas the equivalent of a monthly minimum wage for a period of time—as it has done for years with other surrendered fighters—pending the verification of their demobilization. More importantly, the talks allowed parties to reach a bilateral ceasefire, effectively stopping all armed confrontation and saving lives.


The Vote
Before the vote, significant campaigns for YES and NO were launched. The YES campaigns focused on the benefits of the agreement, in particular, the need for national reconciliation, a shift towards a less violent culture and the economic benefits of no longer investing money in war. The NO campaign, spearheaded by ex-president Uribe Velez, manipulated the information regarding the agreement, preying on the fears and emotions of the Colombian population. NO promoters assured conservative sectors that Colombia would become a new Venezuela and that the head of the FARC would become the next president. Another sector of the NO, comprised of landowners, feared that the agrarian reform would threaten their right to private property by requiring them to prove their legal tenure, and that it would thwart foreign investment because it emphasized consultation with local populations.

Even though Mr. Uribe himself signed a peace agreement in 2003 with right-wing paramilitary groups under a different transitional justice system, he opposed the SJP on the grounds that it would bring impunity; that it was unacceptable that FARC leaders could participate in electoral politics, and that illicit drug dealing was a not crime connected to the armed political struggle. Another sector of the NO turned to the poorest populations and distorted information regarding the aid that would be given to demobilized guerrilleros, and bombarded viewers with images of crimes committed by the FARC, ignoring their efforts—albeit late—to ask for forgiveness. Perhaps most surprisingly, the head of the NO campaign confessed, post-facto, that among the Christian Right and Evangelical churches, they promoted the idea that the Peace Agreement threatened the “traditional family”. Led by former ombudsman Ordoñez, this now-powerful sector rejected the agreement on the false grounds that it was an attempt to spread a so-called “gender ideology” (a misnomer for the gender perspective, this term was coined by ultra-conservative Catholics in the 90s to oppose women’s and LGBT rights) due to its recognition of these specific victimized populations. Some pastors even called the agreement a “satanic” pact. Ultimately, it was dirty politics, exploiting the fears, misinformation, rancor and mistrust that are in itself the product of five decades of war.

Victims of the conflict were divided as well although a majority seemed to approve the agreement. While many regions and municipalities where the conflict has been prevalent voted YES, there were other regions where, under the same circumstances, the NO won. Abstention, say many, was the biggest winner. Only 37% of the electorate voted. It is not surprising in a country with a poor democratic culture, built upon the systemic exclusion of many, particularly in remote regions, and compounded by an outdated voting system and challenges to reach poll sites. Yet it is hard to understand how so many citizens said NO to ending a bloody war that has brought so much suffering, and to the possibility of breaking the endless cycle of violence, even more so when the agreement was in line with international laws.


The Next Steps
Although President Santos has extended the ceasefire and has also won the Nobel Peace Prize—a nice symbolic gesture, but with little legal or political maneuverability—what the future brings is uncertain. A powerful opposition sector fundamentally opposes the agrarian reform, the political participation of FARC leaders and the SJP.  Moreover, they appear to be delaying the situation with an agenda that goes beyond the approval of the Peace Agreement. The alliance Uribe and his followers have forged with evangelical Christians, traditional conservatives, regional leaders and people with questionable land holdings in rural areas, not only seriously threatens the agreement, but has halted what could have been a new era for our nation. In the meantime, the FARC and the negotiating team have met again in Havana to analyze the situation and try to amend the agreement without altering its fundamental content. They have also met with YES and NO representatives, yet it is unclear what aspects of the agreement will be modified and how it will be implemented.

Perhaps one of the most influential forces is that of the civil society and the pressure it can exert. Over the past month, thousands of citizens in Bogotá and several other main cities have massively gone out to the streets to demand the implementation of the Agreement. Students have led a massive movement calling for demonstrations that have united in some cases YES and NO voters who feel manipulated and frustrated. In particular, the Women’s Movement has demanded to keep the gender perspective in the agreement in spite of the attacks of the Christian Right, a sector whose political role seems to be growing.

The agreement, like a Jenga tower, was not perfect but it was a rarely achieved point of equilibrium between two key political forces that determine the conflict: the guerrilla and the state institutions, represented in Santos and his negotiating team, who accomplished a titanic task no other government was capable of doing. As part of the civil society we’ll continue mobilizing with a clear agenda, demanding a complete and indefinite ceasefire; the prompt implementation of the agreements; the permanence of the gender perspective and of the rights already granted by the Constitution; keeping the victims at the center of the process, and supporting the beginning of the peace talks with another insurgent group the National Liberation Army (ELN). Only then will Colombia be able to start building the peace we all so desire.