On the brink of peace

Afro Colombians in Cali. Image credit: Maria Claudia via Wikipedia.
Afro Colombians in Cali. Image credit: Maria Claudia via Wikipedia.

It seems as if Gabriel García Márquez, by divination, foresaw what would happen in Colombia this month, when he wrote in his seminal work, One Hundred Years of Solitude: “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.”

This could indeed be a succinct summary of what has happened in Colombia recently, wherein the space of one week: 1) a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the main rebel group, the FARC-EP was rejected in a national plebiscite, bringing the peace process to a grinding halt; 2) the campaign manager of the main party opposing the peace agreement acknowledged the use of misleading advertisement; and, 3) the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Colombia, where I’m from, is a country of contradictions, where peace and war inhabit the same nation. This has been the case for decades. It is a country with levels of inequality comparable to South Africa, where I’m based. It is a country where the presence of the state follows the wealth of the citizens. To think of Colombia now, is similar to thinking of South Africa in 1994; where uncertainties of moving towards peace are met with fears that are manipulated by politicians. The terror of the “Swart Gevaar” is paralleled by the fear-mongering anti-peace agreement campaign led by Senator (and former president) Uribe and his party, the Democratic Center.

People who voted “no” to the agreements voted so for a mix of reasons. These include: concerns regarding the possibility of impunity for the guerrillas; the fear of the expropriation of land; concerns regarding the political participation of guerrillas in politics; the fear of a pro-gay agenda hidden within the agreements (an untrue claim reproduced by some Christian churches in Colombia); and a deep distrust of the intentions of the FARC-EP, informed by their actions in the failed negotiations between 1998 and 2002.

Some Colombians now claim that the mechanisms of representation don’t in fact work in Colombian democracy. This is, however, false; the fact that representation does work is proven by the government, and the country’s electoral commission recognizing the votes of Colombians in spite of the negative consequences for the peace process. Remarkably, both the FARC-EP and the government recognized the results of the plebiscite, which means the peace deal must be renegotiated, but pleaded to maintain a ceasefire across the country. Representation is working well. What is failing is the capacity to inform citizens, not manipulate them. The latter speaks to, and gives evidence of, the opportunistic nature of the politics taking place in Colombia. Another challenge lies in the participation of citizens; one can justify citizens voting for or against the agreement out of valid concern for the future of the country, but how does one interpret absenteeism of 63% in a vote to ratify a peace agreement?

Communities and victims in conflict areas have been left in dismay and uncertainty, and a deep fear of what might happen next. The outcome of the voting has left millions of Colombians in disbelief, as if their future has been defined by the lies and manipulation of those politicians campaigning against the peace agreements, in the belief that a “better deal” could be struck. The results of the plebiscite embody the same influences that have brought about the Duterte presidency in the Philippines, Brexit in the UK, and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States; presenting a challenge to democracy itself and showing how the necessity to distinguish information from data, truth from Facebook posts, and arguments from tweets is vital to keep democracy away from fascism. Technology has changed the way we relate to information and democracy.

It cannot be ignored that the negotiations of the peace agreements were an elite-elite conversation between the leadership of the FARC-EP and the Colombian government. Ownership by civil society of the peace process was left for later. One could attribute the failure to communicate accurately the agreements and their implications not only to the terror campaign deployed by the party of Uribe, but also to the fact that civil society and those who would benefit the most from the agreements were not included as instrumental actors.

In spite of this, the reaction of civil society has been more than inspiring. In those rural communities where civilians have been victims of massacres and assassinations amidst the violence unleashed by the different armed actors in the war, civilians have come to the fore once more to ask for an agreement now; offering forgiveness and leading hope for the country. The reaction of these groups has inspired other movements in the urban areas who are now organizing themselves in something that could be described as the Colombian awakening for peace, or the Colombian spring. Campaigns under the slogans #AcuerdoYa (agreements now) and #PazALaCalle (to the streets for peace) are mobilizing those who want agreements for peace.

In addition, the “extra time” of the peace process has exposed a series of opportunities to build a more comprehensive peace; with the promising possibility that other rebel groups, such as the ELN, who were not part of the negotiation between the FARC-EP and the government, might join a wider peace process (not necessarily under the same agreement) as it has been announced the formal start of negotiations by the end of October in Ecuador. Ownership for peace can now be given to citizens, civil society organizations and grassroots organizations.

This is where the symbolic power of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to President Santos is giving Colombia and its leaders a second chance; one that can bring minor changes in the agreements, the inclusion of other actors and the acknowledgement of the concerns of some Colombians calling for a wider agreement that allays fears and surpasses the skills of warmongers.

Some of the politicians negotiating a new peace deal are the same ones that used lies in their campaigns against the agreements. In fact, they are looking to extend the negotiations as long as possible so they can profit in the parliamentary elections set to take place in 2017, and the presidential elections of 2018. This is an attempt to sequestrate and veto peace for political reasons. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize leverages the negotiations for peace, but the veto power of some of these actors is still latent. As long as agreements do not benefit them or their cadres, they won’t support a broader peace for Colombians.

It is in this space where encouragement and support from overseas is necessary. Colombia needs to be able to envision another country beyond the reincarnation of our memories of war; where we can learn that hope and peace is achievable.

Fabio Andres Diaz

Fabio Andres Diaz, based at Rhodes University in South Africa, is currently editing a volume for Routledge on the challenges of transitional justice for Colombia.

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