AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
Thousands of rural farmers, indigenous activists, and students marched in cities across Colombia on October 12, 2016 to demand that a peace deal between the government and leftist rebels not be scuttled. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
Update: Late on November 30th, Columbia's Congress voted overwhelmingly to approve a revised peace accord, which had been narrowly defeated by voters on October 2, 2016. Here's the back story to this historic vote.
On October 2, the people of Colombia went to the polls to vote on a historic peace agreement negotiated over a four-year period by representatives of the guerrilla group FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and the Colombian government. Against all expectations, the “no” vote won, although only by less than one half of 1 percent—53,894 votes out of more than 12.8 million.
While heavy rains and winds from Hurricane Matthew made access to polling places difficult in much of the country, with some polling places not able to open, many Colombians decided not to vote. Others were convinced to vote “no” or not to vote by a campaign orchestrated by former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, which sought to sow fear by falsely alleging, among other things, that government pension funds would be transferred from retired persons to the demobilized FARC guerrillas and that private lands would be expropriated and handed over to FARC members. Only 37 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
It was a terrible setback, but there is still reason for hope. On November 12, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, announced a revised accord that could provide a basis for lasting peace.
As Americans who followed the development of the talks very closely and have been involved in solidarity and peace work in Colombia for decades, we were greatly disappointed by the initial rejection. The war has touched us closely. After decades of fighting, we remember many victims of the war who worked for peace, good government, ending the armed conflict, and developing a more just society.
For instance, we remember Albeiro Bustamante, the president of the Apartadó city council, a gentle, friendly man who welcomed our Colombia Support Network delegations to Madison, Wisconsin’s sister community of Apartadó. He was a member of the Patriotic Union Party and was murdered because of his party membership.
Likewise, we remember Patriotic Union Senator Manuel Cepeda, who met with us in Bogotá with other leaders of his party in 1994 to ask if we could help them escape threats on their lives, as we tried to do by publishing and circulating “urgent action” messages. Tragically, before we had a chance to act, Senator Cepeda was murdered at the order of paramilitary commander Carlos Castaño. And Luis Eduardo Guerra, the legal representative of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, who had visited Madison to speak to our organization, was killed by a joint patrol of Colombian Army soldiers and paramilitary forces.
Colombia has long been ruled by a narrow economic and social elite, which is determined to protect its privileges. During the negotiations with FARC leaders in Havana, Cuba, the Colombian government’s chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, expressed the Santos administration’s position: “We are not going to negotiate the development model of Colombia, nor the legal framework which supports private property, nor the current foreign investment model in the country, nor the military doctrine of the government.”
The peace agreement that Colombian voters rejected drew widespread praise from observers all over the world. The negotiations were carried out with the support of the governments of Norway and Cuba. They were held in Havana at the invitation of the Cuban government; the Norwegian government paid for the expenses; Chile and Venezuela acted as guarantors of the talks.
The negotiations produced a carefully structured plan for transition from war to peace, after fifty-two years of conflict between FARC and the Colombian government. According to the National Center for Historical Memory, in the period from 1958 to 2012, 218,094 people died in the conflict, 81 percent of whom were civilians. Another 27,023 were kidnapped, and nearly six million persons were forced from their lands, nearly one of every eight Colombians.
Under the initial agreement, persons who committed serious crimes—such as murder, kidnapping of civilians, and rape—would face trial, a process that would allow family members of the victims to learn the truth of what happened. This applied not only to the FARC, but also to the paramilitary forces and the Colombian Army.
But the revised pact offers further protection for military personnel, as members of the Colombian armed forces are granted a presumption of legitimacy for their actions. And all magistrates of the Peace Tribunal, part of a larger Special Jurisdiction for Peace, must now be Colombian citizens, whereas before four international legal experts could be court members; they are now limited to advisory roles.
The new agreement still calls for returning lands to those who were forced off by the guerrillas, paramilitary forces, or the Colombian military. Land ownership and use has been the principal source of conflict in Colombia ever since 1946, under the Conservative Party government of Mariano Ospina Pérez. The revised agreement tweaked provisions to curb the trafficking of illicit drugs, principally cocaine. The FARC and the Colombian government agreed to develop alternative crops and stimulate other agricultural and livestock production, to replace coca as an economic support for campesinos (farmers).
Finally, the agreement continues to provide for the demobilization of FARC guerrillas and their reintegration into civilian life. It calls on the guerrillas to lay down their arms, which would be collected by United Nations personnel and destroyed.
Humberto de la Calle, head of Colombia's government peace negotiation team, center, sits with Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramilla, second from left, Senator Roy Barreras, far left, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo, second from far right and team negotiator Frank Pearl, far right, during a press conference to explain the changes in a new peace accord, at the presidential palace in Bogotá, Colombia, November 15, 2016. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
Humberto de La Calle, head of Colombia’s government peace negotiation team, center, sits with Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo, second from left, Senator Roy Barreras, far left, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo, second from right, and team negotiator Frank Pearl, far right, during a press conference to explain the changes in a new peace accord, at the presidential palace in Bogotá, Colombia, November 15, 2016.
Colombia has one of the worst income-distribution disparities in Latin America, and this is not likely to change anytime soon. President Santos made this clear on September 28 of this year, when he told those attending the Second International Congress of the Colombian Oil Association in Cartagena that social protests, blockages, and other efforts by environmentalists opposing the petroleum industry and its installations would be met by the army.
On another occasion, Santos said implementation of a peace agreement with the FARC would not result in a decrease in the military budget. Indeed, his administration has expanded the riot police, units of which have killed several campesinos engaged in peaceful demonstrations. Friends and associates in the community of Sibundoy in the Putumayo Department, where we have supported the indigenous community in its opposition to building a major highway through its sacred lands, have told us of increasing militarization. And our Dane County sister organization, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, continues to report threats from a paramilitary organization.
Yet Santos has adopted the counterfactual position that there are no “paramilitaries” in Colombia, since the paramilitary forces were demobilized through the farcical so-called Justice and Peace Law of 2005. And Santos has consistently promoted multinational business interests, especially in mining and oil production.
Members of the FARC have criticized the Santos government’s determination to develop large-scale agricultural production and have called for implementation of a different model, the campesino reserve zones. Oscar Salazar helped us establish, with Noam Chomsky, a reserve of forested land known as the Carol Chomsky Forest, named in honor of professor Chomsky’s late wife.
Salazar still hopes to establish a campesino reserve zone to protect the community and lands of small-scale farmers from the threat of multinational mining interests in an area where several of Colombia’s major rivers are formed.
So what, then, are the prospects for lasting peace?
The armed struggle of the guerrillas appears to be nearing an end, and popular support for an end to the war is growing. Since the October 2 vote, thousands of Colombians have demonstrated in favor of peace in the streets of Colombia’s major cities. And popular organizations, such as the Congreso de los Pueblos, of which one of our sister community leaders, Marylen Serna Salinas of the Movimiento Campesino de Cajibio, is a leading spokesperson, have gained widespread support for their message of peace.
We have also been encouraged by the FARC’s interest in asking victims of the violence attributable to them to participate in meetings where the guerrillas would ask forgiveness for their actions. We recently met with the families of three U.S. citizens who were murdered by FARC guerrillas in 1999. Ingrid Washinawatok of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin; Lahe’ena’e Gay, an indigenous woman from Hawaii; and Terence Freitas of California, were killed by a FARC unit in Arauca, Colombia, after helping the indigenous community there with education plans. Our meeting took place on the Menominee Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin, where we discussed the possibility of the FARC asking forgiveness for these terrible crimes.
FARC members say they will not continue an armed struggle to obtain favorable solutions for the landless campesinos, or for any other purpose. They appear convinced, rightly, that the guerrilla warfare model is doomed in their country. When Colombian government forces under President Santos killed Alfonso Cano, FARC’s leader at the time, in 2011 the group did not pull out of the peace discussions; it was clear they saw no future in guerrilla warfare.
Leading opponents of the peace agreement, principally former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez and former Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez, presented several suggested changes. The government negotiators and the FARC representatives in Havana have agreed to several changes in an expanded draft of 310 pages which President Santos plans to present to the Colombian Congress, where a favorable vote is expected.
However, congressional approval will not have the constitutional force which the plebiscite would have had if “yes” had won. In addition, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace is now limited to ten years, with an additional five years for concluding cases underway in the courts.
In the meantime, violence in the countryside continues. Civil society organizations such as the Congreso de los Pueblos have called for unity in opposition to the economic and military plans of the Santos government. This may mean more conflict.
Those in positions of authority must realize that peace can be achieved only by implementing measures that improve the social and economic status of all Colombians. On winning the Nobel Peace Prize, President Santos said that he would accept the award on behalf of the victims of the armed conflict and give the money he receives to victims of the war. In this, he is setting a good example.
We can only hope that the amended agreement will pass, since even as amended it presents a workable plan for peace. And we hope that all parties commit themselves to achieving peace with justice.
Jack Laun and Cecilia Zárate-Laun are co-founders of the Colombia Support Network. Cecilia is from Colombia and has for many years been the program director of the organization. Jack and Cecilia live in Middleton, Wisconsin.