The “No” vote on a proposed peace deal in Colombia between the government and rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has shocked virtually everyone.
People of conscience and faith here in the U.S. should pay close attention to Colombia for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the struggle for peace there presents a mirror to our own fears and dispositions and to the global logics of the war on terror and drugs. One thing that the results of the plebiscite revealed is that it is hard to change public imagination overnight after spending decades of fueling war, demonizing enemies, and seeing issues one-dimensionally.
As a Colombian-American who wants peace for my motherland, the last month has been an emotional roller coaster, but I’ve been inspired by witnessing the resilience, love, and commitment to justice and peace of so many ordinary people. Just a few weeks before the vote, I participated in a peace delegation to Colombia. I listened to victims of the armed conflict, observed the impact of U.S. policies regarding free trade and drugs, and learned about the ongoing peace process.
I connected with displaced Afro-Colombians preserving their way of life through the Amdae community center in Bogotá; anti-militarist feminists organizing through Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres in Popayán; victims and loved ones of victims telling their stories in Galería De La Memoria in Cali; and Christians working for social justice throughout Colombia via Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz. Most of the survivors, activists, and civil society organizations I talked to were in agreement that the peace deal was a necessary, even if insufficient, first step in the pursuit of holistic peace.
So What Happened?
As Enrique Chimonja, a Colombian who has accompanied indigenous, campesino, and Afro-Colombian communities in their quests to link peace to justice, has explained: "We can begin to participate in peacebuilding efforts. But this is clearly going to mean that rights as fundamental as the right to land, the right to health, education, employment, dignified housing are truly guaranteed because we can’t fall into the trap of those only interested in ending the armed conflict, thinking that this is what we call peace.
“Peace especially requires new conditions and guarantees to resolve the social inequality which has reined in Colombia for over 50 years."
The social and political issues plaguing Colombia run much deeper than the armed conflict between the state and FARC. In fact, more than 12 activists have been killed since the recent ceasefire with FARC and 99 unionists have been assassinated since the passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2012 — most of these committed by other armed actors that include right-wing paramilitaries. Further, land distribution in Colombia is among the most unequal in the world, with some estimates that 52 percent of rural property is owned by 1.15 percent of the population. During my delegation, I talked to displaced Afro-Colombians in Bogotá who told me about being violently harassed by police (specifically ESMAD). I also saw first-hand how the communities of Pilón Mercaderes y Galindez Patía in Cauca have been waiting for an adequate response from the government while the river that has sustained their entire life and economy is currently being drained by a corporation.
Although the systemic problems are many, the peace deal between the government and FARC still could have been a step in the right direction; it will now be more difficult to tackle deeper inequalities without the baseline of this peace agreement.
While in Cauca, I spoke to a woman who recounted one of her experiences with FARC. Many years before, a unit of FARC had been passing through her rural village forcibly recruiting young boys and girls. The woman had to smuggle her son out of the village on a bus, hiding him in a package full of vegetables. That is what it took for her to prevent her son from being taken to the jungle to fight. After recounting this story, the woman told me that she was voting “Yes” in the upcoming plebiscite. I was shocked and asked her why, as it seemed she had every reason to be resentful towards FARC. She said: “If they would have taken my son, I would want him to have another chance at life. I would want to give him and others a chance to get out of war. Yes, they have done bad things. But so have many groups. We need to try to practice forgiveness.”
Forgiveness is a tricky thing. It many ways, I believe it is a free gift. Forgiveness is not something that can be demanded from victims by those with privilege. A miracle of the Colombian struggle for peace is how victims have pushed for reconciliatory efforts. The woman I spoke to in Cauca was not an exception.
Consider what happened in the town of Bojayá, one of the places hardest hit by a FARC attack: The peace deal was supported at 96 percent, one of the highest rates in the country. Even the high-profile, ex-senator Ingrid Betancourt, who had previously been kidnapped by FARC, wrote publicly in support of the peace deal. The tragic nature of the plebiscite results were that, by and large, the places most affected by the armed conflict supported the peace deal but were outnumbered by people in areas less directly affected who rejected it.
So why did the “No” votes win? The votes can be broken down in various ways. Partly, it was a low voter turnout of 37 percent that could be blamed on indifference, over-confidence, and Hurricane Matthew battering the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Partly, it was the low approval rating of current President Juan Manuel Santos — notwithstanding the Nobel Peace Prize he received for his efforts — and the manner in which he rolled out the peace agreement. Partly, it was the fragmented geographies within Colombia that have driven the divisions and civil wars throughout the nation’s history. My favorite: the Colombian who attributed it to the success of Voldemort.
Campaigning Against Peace
Ex-president and current senator, Álvaro Uribe, spearheaded a rigorous “No” campaign flanked by corporate media and right-wing religious groups. The more tame criticism of the peace deal was that it would provide amnesty and political participation to criminals who deserved prison time. Uribe was backed by Human Rights Watch whose president publicly celebrated the rejection of the peace deal.
According to local human rights defenders that I spoke to in Colombia, the points listed within the peace accord were greatly misunderstood and twisted by different agendas. A less carceral approach that emphasized restorative justice was interpreted as impunity. Opponents of the peace deal portrayed FARC as receiving special treatment but often failed to disclose the deeper context. For example, Uribe and leaders of the “No” campaign blasted the Colombian government for promising five seats to demobilized FARC members both in the house and senate. The government had included these seats in the agreement to acknowledge the political genocide of more than 3,500 members of Unión Patriótica, a political party formed in the 1980s, which included a large number of demobilized FARC members and which the government failed to protect even after making guarantees.
In his less tame criticisms, Uribe wrote open letters to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump asking for either’s support in helping to prevent Colombia become “a second Venezuela” due to the peace deal. Other right-wing politicians — and religious groups — bashed the peace deal for supposedly covertly pushing a feminist and gay agenda. Many people believe that President Santos’ appointment of now ex-Minster of Education, Gina Parody, to work for the “Yes” campaign galvanized “No” voters because she is an open lesbian.
An Uncertain Future: Where the U.S. Fits In
After the plebiscite results, it is unclear what will now happen. There are a number of possibilities. Nevertheless, I believe it is important for those of us in the U.S. to continue to support peace and to pressure our own government to support peace. When we look at the long struggle in Colombia and the current volatility, there needs to be an acknowledgement that we are implicated in this.
Although President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have recently supported the peace deal, it is important to remember that the U.S. has spent decades fueling the war on drugs and counter-insurgency in Colombia through Plan Colombia. While hailed as a success by some (primarily for helping to weaken FARC), this mostly militaristic approach has been a human rights catastrophe. More Colombians were displaced during Plan Colombia, which started in 2000, than at any other time in the half-century conflict. Colombia is once again the world’s No. 1 producer of cocaine even though Plan Colombia was originally conceived to fight drugs. In spite of this track record, Hillary Clinton has continuously praised Plan Colombia and recently said, “We need to do more of a Colombian Plan for Central America.”
President Obama has proposed a new $450 million aid package to Colombia called “Peace Colombia.” Although it has some provisions for removing landmines and for projects directly related to peace, this aid package still heavily emphasizes militarized “security” and fighting drugs. Much more work will be required in order to ensure that U.S. aid to Colombia does not repeat the failures of a failed war on drugs.
The United States was the only country with a majority of Colombians overseas voting “No” to the peace deal. I think this is significant because Colombia very much represents another underside to the United States’ war on drugs and terror.
After the tragic plebiscite results, I wonder if part of the work for peace and justice will require doing more to transform our imaginations. We can’t expect people to change overnight when they’ve been fed a steady diet of justifications for militarism, the demonization of enemies, and an over-simplification of the issues. If we are to truly step forward towards holistic peace, we will have to unlearn the logics of the war on drugs and terror, logics that we have deeply internalized across borders.