Colombia: Will the people say Yes to peace?

With the entire final agreement finally signed in Havana, the peace accords must now be submitted to a national referendum on October 2. The outcome remains uncertain. Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer, who has been lecturer in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and has also lived with the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Here she gives us a first hand account of how Colombia received the final news of the peace process.
by: 
Gwen Burnyeat

The announcement that the Colombian government and FARC had, after almost four years of negotiations, managed to produce a final agreement, caught me by surprise. I was in Pereira, a mid-sized city in Colombia’s coffee region, doing peace pedagogy with my film Chocolate of Peace, together with Andrei Gómez-Suárez from Rodeemos el Diálogo. We were due to give a conference in the Universidad Tecnológica de Pereira, but as soon as we heard that the announcement would be transmitted live from Havana, it was decided to cut our event short by an hour so that everyone could watch the speeches in the university auditorium.

Andrei has worked tirelessly supporting the peace process from civil society since the peace talks began. Both of us were sad to miss the celebrations in a plaza in Bogotá, but the rest of Rodeemos el Diálogo were there, together with hundreds of others who were crying with happiness and dancing in the streets as they watched Humberto de la Calle and Iván Márquez, the heads of the government and FARC negotiating teams, make their speeches and recognise each other as colleagues in building the agreement. De la Calle referred to his counterpart as “esteemed Iván”, and Márquez addressed the other side as “friends from the government”.

The next step: referendum

Despite missing the big party, it was significant to be in Pereira with the audience in the university, as peace in Colombia will have to be built from the regions. And that was precisely the purpose of our visit – to talk to people in the department of Risaralda about how to understand the 297-page text of the peace accords. Because the next step is a national referendum on 2nd October in which the Colombian people will have the chance to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the agreement.

To a foreign spectator, it might seem absurd that any country could say ‘no’ to peace. But it’s a real possibility, with precedents such as Guatemala’s 1996 accords being turned down by a national referendum. Just as Britain saw with Brexit, a referendum is based partly on rational analysis, but also on emotional reactions. In Colombia, the ‘no’ campaign has a lot of support, as polarisation has been growing on the issue of peace since the 2014 re-election of President Santos, who promised the country a deal with FARC, to the disapproval of ex-president Uribe’s party, Centro Democrático, who thought the government should not “negotiate with terrorists” and is now campaigning actively for a ‘no’.

As the live streaming began in Pereira, the audience stood in the auditorium as the negotiating teams in Havana sang the national anthem. We watched the speeches from Havana in silence and then turned to each other and started hugging each other. Claudia, a teacher in the university’s Peace Diploma program, had tears in her eyes. Ana María, a schoolteacher and activist, said “I never thought I’d get to see this historical moment”. But by the end of the speeches, most of the 200-plus audience had gone. Only 10 had stayed. And this is an indication of much of the country’s feeling.

Over the last month I have been giving talks and screening Chocolate of Peace all over the country. In upper class boys’ school Gimnasio Moderno in Bogotá. In Florencia, capital of Caquetá department, which has suffered effects of the illegal coca economy. In a school in a slum on the outskirts of Pereira, and in forums with 200 teachers from Pereira and Dosquebradas, another city in Risaralda department. In the town hall of Algeciras, one hour’s drive south from Neiva, the capital of Huila department, which has been greatly affected by violence from FARC, who destroyed their church and a whole block of the town with an improvised explosive device in 2001. I have talked to hundreds of ordinary Colombians – taxi drivers, my hairdresser, airport staff, church workers, teachers, students, local government officials, restaurant owners and doormen. And though internationally heralded as a solid agreement, a win for the Havana accords in the October plebiscite is by no means straightforward. There are hopes, dreams and expectations from those who plan to vote ‘yes’. There are doubts, criticisms and fears from those who plan to vote ‘no’. Throughout August, tension has been growing.

A Bogotá taxi driver professed he was going to vote ‘no’ in the plebiscite, because “I have children”, and he was concerned for their future if the FARC participated in politics. “Basically we are going to end up like Venezuela”, he said. In Colombia, fear of communism is as alive and well as during the Cold War. Venezuela and Cuba are the examples used by those campaigning for the ‘no’ vote to warn people of the dangers of the peace process – claiming that Santos is “handing over the country to the FARC” and that once the guerrilla get inside Congress, it won’t be long before they are running an Iron Curtain style military “dictatorship”, which they believe would mean the end of private property and a debilitated economy.

Pereira: how school children see peace. 'Yes' .

..and 'No'

A difficult pill to swallow

After the plebiscite, assuming the ‘yes’ vote wins, FARC will concentrate in 32 points across the country, with accompaniment, protection and verification by a commission made up of members of the army, FARC members and UN. Over six months their arms will be decommissioned, those who have been guilty only of political crimes (rebellion or insurgency) will be amnestied, and those who are guilty of crimes against humanity will have to face the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a tribunal created to judge these crimes committed by FARC, but also members of the army, and civilians, such as land-owners. The transitional justice model created by the Havana agreements has been heralded as one of the most sophisticated in the world, building on past experiences from countries such as South Africa, Philippines and Northern Ireland. This might be easier for Colombians across the country to comprehend, if it weren’t for FARC’s plan to create a political party. This is toughest thing for many to swallow, not least because for decades, the dominant political discourse has suppressed any mention of political aims and referred to the guerrilla as ‘narco-terrorists’ and highlighted their multiple crimes such as kidnapping, drug-trafficking, and bombing towns, like Algeciras. One taxi driver in Bogotá told me that he thought that the paramilitaries were “a necessary evil”, and not as bad as FARC.

Algeciras: the altar with the images of six children killed by the FARC

In our conference in Algeciras, we were interrupted by two local councillors who wanted to express their strong concerns about the fact that FARC members will be “given” 10 seats in Congress in the next two mandates (2018-2022 and 2022-2026). Their feelings were so strong that after speaking, they stormed out of the mayoralty building. We understood their emotionality afterwards, when we walked among the bombed-out houses, inside one of which a resourceful farmer had started growing corn, and the church, which had been rebuilt by the people of the town with no help from the government. On the altar was a Christ on the Cross, around which were painted the faces of six children who had been massacred by the FARC during an attack on the police. Yet, accompanying us was Alejandro, whose brother had been killed by FARC, and who was adamant that he was going to vote ‘yes’. “This war needs to stop”, he said. “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anybody else, ever again in Colombia”.

It is easier to understand the agreement on FARC’s participation in politics when one looks at it from their point of view. In the ’80s and ’90s, the Patriotic Union party, created by FARC but joined by multiple sectors of civil society, was destroyed by alliances between paramilitaries, drug-traffickers, army and politicians. 5000 members of the party were killed, including two presidential candidates. They had 13 seats in Congress, and the agreement seeks to redress this. FARC’s revolution, in a military sense, has failed, but they have not lost their political goals. They have negotiated an agreement which will allow them to work for the changes they want to see in the country by participating from within democratic structures. It is also important to see the agreements as an interdependent whole, but this is not easy for many Colombians to grasp, hence the desire from so many people like Alejandro and his colleagues to bring in experts to talk to their communities and offer them new ways of seeing the peace process.

Political emotions

The lady at the airport check-in desk said, “I don’t think I’m going to vote. I don’t agree with the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’. I don’t like Uribe or Santos”. Many Colombians feel that the plebiscite is a vote for Santos, who has very low levels of popularity, despite his success with the peace process.

At a dinner party in a friend’s house in Bogotá, one woman said she “hated” ‘uribistas’ (those who support ex-President Uribe). Another lady became passionate when the discussion turned to possible scenarios if the ‘no’ won. She wouldn’t let others talk, kept interrupting, saying, “it would mean going back to war, all the work over the last four years would be destroyed, they would kill all FARC who demobilised”. It became so socially awkward that dinner soon came to an end and we went home. It emerged that her boyfriend had been a member of M-19, a guerrilla movement that was demobilised in 1990, and had been killed post-demobilisation.

Political emotions, the concept used by Australian-Lebanese anthropologist Ghassan Hage to refer to those emotions that we invest in political events, are, in countries like Colombia, never simple, but have complex historical trajectories with which, at best, we can endeavour to sympathise, without judging.

Polarisation and persuasion

I have also had many conversations with hopeful Colombians who are working flat out to educate people about the contents of the agreements, and to counteract myths and lies. These are sure to be the peace protagonists of the future, assuming the ‘yes’ vote wins. In Neiva, a woman in a corner shop where my group drank a few beers before our return to Bogotá, welcomed us enthusiastically. “How do you feel about the announcement about the final agreement?” I asked. “Oh it’s wonderful, I’m so excited, I cried, I couldn’t believe it!” she said. “I have had a few tough conversations with people who come in here to drink and are for the ‘no’, but you have to try to change their minds!” My hairdresser, when I asked him how his clients felt, gave me a forty-minute speech about the different ‘no’ narratives and why they were all wrong, and told me he had convinced several clients to at least read the agreements before voting ‘no’. My friend Carolina of Rodeemos el Diálogo argues with her ‘no’ friends over WhatsApp to try to convince them.

In the Algeciras conference, after the emotional confrontation when the councillors stormed out, a member of the audience asked for the microphone. “We are sorry about this disrespect being shown to our visitors. But it is interesting to ask ourselves, what is behind the ‘no’? Who is manipulating them? There are people in Colombia who stand to lose a lot if the peace process goes ahead.” I replied that I thought it was a valid question to ask what was behind the ‘no’, but not to polarise the country more. There have been enough political elections in which two sides have hated each other, threatened each other, insulted each other, even killed each other. The plebiscite should not be a repetition of the past. It is an opportunity for Colombians to campaign peacefully, with arguments based on facts and on a close reading of the accords and their context, for whichever side they feel is best. It could be an opportunity for civil society to come together, not just thinking about winning a referendum, but preparing the ground for the post-conflict by working across different sectors and developing new ways of relating to each other, which ultimately will be the best foundation for the implementation of the agreements and the construction of peace by civil society.

As Luis Ignacio Sandoval from NGO Redepaz said in a Peace Breakfast I attended, “The discourse of peace cannot be used to insult Uribe. It must be used to persuade everyone”. Everyone is in the task of persuading now. The countdown to the plebiscite has begun, and it is all hands on deck. So I took the decision to stay on in Colombia another month, offering my small contributions to educating people about the peace process, so that they can make an informed decision on 2nd October, and bearing witness to a unique moment in history.

All photos by Gwen Burnyeat. As of September 2016, Gwen will be a Wolfson scholar reading for a PhD in Anthropology at UCL researching the Colombian peace process. For more great current Affairs articles please visit http://lab.org.uk