by Gareth Axenderrie
Gareth Axenderrie studied Peacebuilding at Universidad de los Andes, Bogota. Here he met members of the Colombian military, government and demobilising members of the world’s oldest rebel group: FARC-EP.
Peace, defined as ‘a state or period in which there is no war’. It is something many countries strive for and fail to achieve either politically or militarily, across the world. So, one would assume that given the option, a populous would always vote for peace if given the option, right? That assumption proved incorrect in Colombia last October, when a referendum on a peace deal with the country’s oldest rebel guerrilla group, FARC-EP, delivered a no vote from the public. It appeared, to the outside world at least, that the country had voted against peace.
Those inside South America’s oldest democracy weren’t so surprised however.
Colombia’s history is ravaged with violence and saturated in bloodshed.
Ever since populist politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated during his presidential campaign in 1948, the country has been deeply divided along geographical and economic chasms. Such divides between urban and rural, and rich and poor have been extremely violent. As liberal and conservative politicians have exchanged control of the corridors of power in Bogota, the state’s lack of control across the country’s vast periphery has resulted in a power vacuum, filled by some of the most violent groups on earth. From Marxist-Leninist groups like FARC-EP and the ELN, to paramilitary groups funded and enabled by the government, Colombians have lived with violence for more than half a century. Trust of government is low due to the country’s record of corruption. Hatred of FARC-EP and other groups is all encompassing, with over eight million victims recorded, not forgetting the hundreds of thousands of dead and disappeared. With turnout a meagre 37% last October, to many, this peace agreement ignores ordinary Colombians, who have become desensitised to the violence. Instead, it is viewed as a deeply suspicious handshake with a much-hated band of violent extremists, pedalled by an out-of-touch president.
One year on from the plebiscite, the Colombian government has pushed on with the peace agreement, against the wishes of over 50% of the population. In June, the world’s oldest guerrilla group, operating in Colombia for over fifty years, laid down their weapons in a transition from internationally recognised terrorist organisation to political party. Many of its members are set to stand for election next year.
This progression has left President Manuel Santos, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, with approval ratings around the 20% mark, just one year out from the country’s presidential elections. With a swing to the right predicted, several candidates standing on platforms opposed to the peace deal, and a population still deeply divided, what are the chances of a lasting peace in Colombia?
Despite the vote, there is still a heavy desire for peace in the country, not least of all within the country’s huge victim population. Over six and a half million citizens are internally displaced, migrating from rural areas where the conflict has been especially violent to major cities like Bogota and Medellin. Statistics from the Centre for Victims suggest most of these people voted yes to the deal. Alan Jara, a former governor of Colombia’s Meta Department, was himself held captive by FARC-EP for eight years between 2001 and 2009. Now director at the Centre for Victims, Jara is forthright in his belief that Colombians should embrace the deal.
“If you don’t forgive, you will always live your life as a victim.”
“I have suffered enough already, being away from my family for a decade, I don’t want that for future generations. Silence of the guns is an opportunity that has never happened before. We all deserve an opportunity to enjoy this peace.”
Likewise, FARC-EP and their estimated 7,000 demobilising members are also intent on a genuine road to peace. A three-hour bus ride from Bogota, along dusty beat up roads, is the Icononzo Demilitarised Zone. Here the United Nations are overseeing the ‘laying down’ of FARC-EP’s weapons. Just a day after the peace deal was officially signed, I visited the 295-member camp. There, clad in Marxist regalia, many meeting British and Americans for the first time in their lives, members outlined why the deal is so important to both them and Colombia on the whole.
“We want to show the world we are not monsters as the media would portray us.”
“Peace must contain several main elements to have a positive impact on everybody in this country. Accessible education for everybody, justice for the proletariat and the government must implement measures to help all communities.”
It is rhetoric that echoes socialist and left-wing voices around the world, but in Colombia these are views that many see as a path to a more equal and prosperous nation. At this point, the demobilising members were quick to clarify their role in the nation’s violent past.
One of the most important things is memory, and remembering that there were actors behind actions of evil on all sides.” It is an important point. Despite FARC-EP being painted as enemies of the people for the last half century, around 80% of all violence is attributed to the state’s forces and associated paramilitary groups.
Clearly there is an appetite for peace, but the issue that concerns Colombia’s voters appears to be the process rather than the result. The deal, negotiated between 2012 and 2016, is complex and built around a six-point framework. Two of those points are especially controversial: establishment of FARC-EP as a political party and amnesty for many of its members.
As Luis, a tour guide in Colombia’s coffee region explains, “Guerrillas have killed many people. I have had family members murdered.”
“I am not against a peace, but I am against these people going free. They should pay for the atrocities they have caused.” The maximum sentence an ex-combatant can serve under the peace deal is eight years, all of which are non-custodial.
This sentiment is exacerbated by political motivations to obstruct the peace process. Colombia, unlike many of its Latin American neighbours, is widely a right-wing country, and there are many individuals for whom it is possible to assume that peace is not desirable. Previous president Álvaro Uribe, a hugely popular figure in Colombia’s political establishment, led the ‘No’ campaign last year. Uribe’s communications teams produced campaign propaganda that included fear mongering and homophobic rhetoric.
As the as a source close to the President admitted, “When a political giant with the influence of Uribe plays on the fear and suspicion of huge parts of the population, including the use of fake news, it’s incredibly hard to counteract.”
The resentment toward the deal has certainly continued through the last year. Despite the implementation, many of the issues influencing the vote of the population intensify going into a year of presidential elections. Colombia’s peace deal faces huge challenges from public opinion and the looming uncertainty of whether or not the next government will respect the process.
Security is also a huge concern. Attacks on demobilised zones have already occurred, and assassination attempts on future political candidates are deemed likely.
Corruption is rife at both a local and national level, and Colombia ranks 94th globally. Illegal cocaine production, where Colombia once again leads international producers, is nearing an all-time high. Many fear the deal does little to address many of these issues.
Colombia has come a long way since its war-ravaged years of the mid to late 20th century. Over three million foreign tourists visit its sandy beaches, picturesque mountains and multicultural metropolises last year, a huge amount compared to levels during the 1990s. President Santos, and those on the ‘Yes’ side, will hope the deal is the next step on the long road to lasting peace and prosperity.
We return to former captive Alan Jara for an analogy of peace that many who’ve suffered for generations will hope can inspire a positive outcome. When quizzed on how it feels to have her husband back, Jara’s wife Claudia replied, “It’s a new life with an old friend.” Colombia must make new friends with old enemies if peace is to prosper and endure into a new life.