Latin America

Peace at last in Colombia? Much work remains

As the country struggles to end long-running armed conflicts, social injustices must be remedied

After a shocking referendum result earlier this month, Colombia's fragile peace suffered another setback last Thursday as the government delayed the start of the public phase of negotiations with the country's second-largest rebel group. President Juan Manuel Santos declared that talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) would only resume once the guerrillas released a former congressman, Odin Sanchez, who is being held hostage.

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Colombians will remember Oct. 2, 2016, for a long time. The vote on the government’s negotiated peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) held on that date marked a breaking point: 50.2 per cent of voters rejected the peace accord, while 49.8 per cent voted in favour. The unexpected result also confirmed Colombians’ apathy, with 63 per cent of eligible voters abstaining, keeping with the pattern from recent political elections.

This narrow outcome was heartbreaking.

However, the subsequent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Santos, a rising wave of popular mobilizations, and the planned start of talks with the ELN have given a new push to the peace process.

In this critical moment on the long road to peace, there remain many questions about the referendum, challenges to overcome, and mistakes to be avoided with the ELN talks. Here are some perspectives from a diverse sample of Colombians.

Lack of time, poor political campaigning

According to Luis Jairo Ramirez, a conflict resolution and political studies expert, this is just a transitional impasse due to the political crisis of this regime. Nevertheless, he believes civil society mobilizations in defence of the peace process and public negotiations with ELN will maintain the environment for peace in Colombia.

Luis Jairo Ramirez

Juan Manuel Charry, a constitutional attorney, believes that both the No and Yes campaigns used simple messages based on peace, war, and exclusion. “The result is clear, even with a small difference,” Charry told Ricochet. “[It’s] a lesson about the poor quality of political campaigns.”

Alfonso Castillo, a long-time leader of forcibly displaced people, feels the referendum and campaign were badly designed, with lies from those promoting a No vote and government propaganda selling the illusion of peace without a rigorous explanation of the agreements. “The lack of time made campaigners use false and insufficient information for voters,” Castillo said.

Colombians want peace without exclusion: rebels

Beyond the narratives used during the campaign, there is a concern about its legal implications.

“The effect of ‘No’ is that the president isn’t legally allowed to implement the agreement, but doesn’t have the obligation to start a new one although he could do it,” explained Charry.

A spokesperson from @ELN_RANPALcolom, a Twitter account affiliated with the rebel group, thinks the negative result generates doubts about the government’s capacity to obey the accord and shows that right-wing opposition is an obstacle to peace with social justice. “The plebiscite’s result also left us a positive lesson: the majority of Colombians want peace that doesn’t exclude them. Therefore, peace processes without majorities won’t lead us to safe harbour.”

In written responses from the ELN-affiliated account, the spokesperson told Ricochet the agreement between the FARC and government contains many points that favour the Colombian people, a fact that one of the opposition parties, known as Democratic Center, ignore because they won the referendum.

“It is important to note that millions of Colombians abstained from voting. They were apathetic because they didn’t see this peace process as the adequate route to true peace; therefore, they didn’t support it. However, we insist on the importance of what was achieved in Havana,” they added, in reference to the years of peace talks that took place in Cuba.

A massive peace rally Oct. 5 in Bolivar Square.

Luis Celis, a political analyst, sees the defeat of the Yes campaign as an opportunity for the peace process and the negotiations with ELN because this surprise outcome provoked massive street mobilizations in favour of the accord and of peace in the country. Celis hopes that civil society will “surround the negotiations” as soon as the new talks begin. “A priority is to agree upon a way for civil society to participate and find solutions to social problems,” Celis said.

Mistakes to avoid

Multiple sectors of society want to crystallize and improve peace efforts. Ramirez noted that Colombia has several unsolved problems, such as poverty, unemployment, and government negligence. “The correlation of forces has an important impact, [so] people’s mobilization could have a positive effect on these dialogues,” said Ramirez. “It hasn’t happened yet, and therefore what is needed is to strengthen social movements.”

Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, a union activist, believes that the biggest mistake during the negotiation with FARC was the absence of representation and participation from Colombian society. “Now they’ve announced the beginning of public negotiations between ELN and the government,” Ramirez Cuellar said. “They don’t represent Colombian majorities. Afro-Colombians, Indigenous people, farmers, and women should be at the negotiation table.”

Francisco Ramirez Cuellar

According to Castillo, another mistake was leaving peace pedagogy to the end of the campaign. Unlike Castillo, Carlos Alfonso Velasquez, a retired colonel and a teacher, thinks fewer mistakes were committed because of learning from three previous peace processes. “However, with ELN we could avoid starting the negotiations without de-escalating the conflict,” he advised. “We could look for a faster ceasefire and a more efficient way to divulge the accord without show. The process shouldn’t be submitted to a plebiscite nor a referendum,” said Velasquez.

Frank Pearl, a government spokesperson, said of the new talks, “The expectations we have is to develop the agenda and to put an end to the armed conflict with ELN. We will discuss the ways they will make a transition to civilian society by forming a political organization.”

Pearl reminds us that FARC and ELN are different organizations in their origins, ideologies, structure, and the way they make decisions. “FARC’s power has to do with the number of people they have in arms, while ELN’s power relies on their militias and their strategy has been to be invisible. They are also different in the way they relate to communities.”

“We can expect a process in which their identity will be respected and [that] doesn’t mean we justify violence,” said Pearl. “At the same time, through citizens’ organizations [and] views and participation we will be able to land on some specific projects for regions that have to do with decreasing poverty, inequality, improving environmental management and also reducing corruption,” he added.

Francisco Ramirez argued that we cannot talk about peace in the current conditions. “I believe this kind of process will be good if the economic model changes, because it generates violence,” Ramirez said. “Our biggest question after the signature and implementation of the accord is if the establishment and transnational corporations can govern without killing social leaders, making alliances with drug dealers, criminals, and without corruption.”

Social problems unsolved by peace deal

Gilberto Torres, a union activist, believes there won’t be peace if Santos’ government continues attacking people’s rights, violating their right to health, education, employment and housing, and selling the country to corporations. “Peace dialogues should be open to farmers, Afro-Colombians, Indigenous people and LGTBI communities,” emphasized Torres.

A farmers’ leader, Guillermo Perez, shares this opinion. “Peace means to have a dignified life, to receive back the land that was stolen by corporations, agrarian reform, and to be recognized as political subjects, not just signing peace agreements with guerrilla movements,” Perez told Ricochet. “Accords between guerrilla and government don’t solve farmers’ systemic problems.”

Diana Sanchez, coordinator of Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders), explained that the armed conflict has roots in exclusion and inequity. Therefore, she said, social and cultural conflicts must be overcome.

Peace talks between rebels and government are insufficient to build peace, but it is a starting point. “We need transcendental social reforms to defeat exclusion and inequity because the government protects private interest, capital accumulation, and it isn’t in favour of majorities, which need social investment and a dignified life,” said Sanchez.

Castillo defends the agreement, but insists it isn’t perfect. “It leaves serious problems unsolved. One of them [is] the lack of action against paramilitaries and a legal policy for those who threaten activists.”

Recent reports from We Are Defenders indicate that from January to July this year 35 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia, with 19 more assassinated from July to September. Unfortunately, impunity prevails.

All of the people interviewed for this story believe that peace requires a long-lasting effort. They also emphasized that peace includes political, social, economic, and cultural dimensions. They agreed that negotiations with rebels are necessary but insufficient to achieve peace.

Indigenous people participate in Oct. 12 peace march.

As a rebel organization, ELN makes it clear they will dialogue about the armed conflict but that, nevertheless, all Colombians should discuss the social conflict. “We should all bring proposals in order to find solutions to the social conflict that generates our rebellion. Social movements called this debate a ‘Great National Dialogue’ to discuss the transformations needed immediately and in the medium-term.”

Sanchez is one of the leaders promoting the Great National Dialogue. “Society has the legitimacy to negotiate these conflicts,” she said. “Society needs to complement the agenda designed by the government and ELN. We propose our participation on peace building from the territories; in spite of the criminalization of social movements, we still mobilize and organize people. We have lots of proposals.”

Sanchez insisted that without guarantees for human rights defenders, the social conflicts that lie beneath the armed conflict — such as dispossession, big mining projects, and landowners’ abuses of farmers, Indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians — will become evident once the armed conflict finishes.

Photos courtesy of Luis Ramirez, Francisco Cuellar, Diana Sánchez and Carmen Castro.

Oct. 12 mobilization for peace.
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