Easy to imagine the president sizing up how that Nobel Prize would look on his mantelpiece. But the impact of the No vote will only become known in the fullness of time.
The shock registered everywhere.
On October 2, Colombians rejected the government’s peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). To say it caught the government by surprise would be an understatement: foreign minister María Ángela Holguín said in the aftermath of the plebiscite result that ‘there is no Plan B’.
With President Juan Manuel Santos’ eggs all in the basket of the Colombian people ratifying the peace process – to the extent that a lavish signing ceremony had already taken place – a return to war now constitutes a real possibility.
But what, exactly, would peace have signified in a country which continued to suffer extreme levels of inequality and political violence throughout the peace process? On whose terms was peace being negotiated? How did peace for millions of conflict victims correlate with the state’s vision for the new era? Questions were asked over who was actually intended to be the main beneficiary of the agreement.
In short, does the rejection of the accords actually make a large difference to those social sectors long abandoned or repressed by the state and other armed actors in the world’s longest-running armed conflict?
At least thirteen social leaders were murdered within three weeks of the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announcing the agreement in late August 2016. These deaths were not attributed to the war but followed a model of targeted assassinations of community leaders that characterises the conflict.
For the Colombian politician Piedad Córdoba, the killings brought back painful memories of an earlier attempt to incorporate Colombia’s guerrilla insurgency into the political mainstream. ‘Since last week we’ve been asking the government to take the necessary actions because it was this way, with selective murders, that the extermination of the Patriotic Union began,’ she told Semana magazine in September.
Córdoba was referring to the political party founded by members of the FARC following the 1982 peace process under president Belisario Betancur. After mild success at the polls, the Patriotic Union (UP) was subjected to a mass extermination campaign that saw thousands of its members and supporters killed by right-wing paramilitaries and state security forces.
‘We are too worried,’ said Córdoba. ‘Supposedly the government has made a very important effort to end paramilitarism, but what we are seeing is all to the contrary.’
Córdoba was one of the most prominent figures within the peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba, where she mediated between the state and the insurgency. A long-time ally of progressive movements in Colombia and a long-term critic of successive governments, Córdoba is equally admired and reviled by opposing sides of the political spectrum.
The murders took place between August 26 and September 13, the majority in the southern departments of Nariño and Cauca, two of the regions most affected by the civil war. Other killings occurred in Antioquia and Cesar.
The victims shared several traits. They were advocates of the peace process. They opposed extraction projects that harmed local populations and the environment. They were known as social organisers within their communities.
The deaths increased to at least 51 the number of social leaders killed in Colombia in 2016. Peace may have been on the table, but the spectre of political terror remained, regardless of the plebiscite. For many groups within the country, violence is still the standard decision-maker in territorial, environmental and political disputes.
Prior to the vote, however, the government had been telling another story.
Hindsight reveals the folly of the Santos administration’s overconfidence.
Throughout the peace negotiations the war economy continued to boom.
‘The end of the war is felt throughout the national territory,’ said Santos on September 5. ‘One week ago, at midnight on Monday August 29, I decreed the bilateral and definitive ceasefire against the FARC. The guerrillas reiterated on this day the same order to all their members. Since then, there has not been a single death, nor an injury, and no confrontation.’
While the road to peace had been a fraught and delicate process, polls suggested the country would approve an end to conflict and allow the FARC formally to enter the political arena. Yet the prominent ‘No’ campaign headed by former president Álvaro Uribe clearly gathered greater traction than the government expected. Opponents of the agreement claimed it granted impunity to ‘narco-terrorists’ and set the foundations for a future ‘Castro-Chavista’ government. This hard-line stance was supported by many Colombians and issued in the surprise plebiscite result.
The ideological battle was waged with media campaigns and political propaganda rather than bullets and aeroplanes, but the potential repercussions could be as grave. The ‘No’ success threatens to plunge the country back into the maelstrom from which it worked so hard to emerge.
But the peace process was not a simple case of ending hostilities and advancing into a new era of cooperation and resolution. It contained many flaws. Framing the treaty as a bilateral agreement between two opposing forces failed to reflect the multilateral lines along which the war had developed. Nonaligned guerrilla groups, paramilitary organisations, foreign multinationals and diverse social movements all needed to be considered. Questions were asked over who was actually intended to be the main beneficiary of the agreement.
As we travelled around Colombia interviewing people whose lives had been affected by conflict, we encountered optimism but also met many who felt excluded from the peace process. Some felt that economic considerations were prioritised over social ones. Others felt the state was doing little to resolve the ongoing issue of displacement that has forcibly removed millions of people from their homes. The role of indigenous groups, African-descendants and women was also prominent, as these groups have been disproportionately affected by the war.
Throughout the peace negotiations the war economy continued to boom. In 2015, Colombia spent 3.5 percent of its GDP on the military, comfortably the highest in South America and more than double any country other than Ecuador (2.7 percent) and Chile (1.9 percent). Although the global fall in oil prices had squeezed state finances, the government was committed to maintaining the armed forces at conflict levels. ‘I don’t think we will see a big reduction in the defence budget,’ said Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas in 2015. ‘But with time, an economy in peace can dedicate fewer resources to security.’ Reducing that spending now seems a distant prospect.
Fighting for peace
The supposed transition to a democratic and secure post-conflict scenario had been predicated on six key accords. Post-plebiscite analysis is now looking at some of these to determine why they were narrowly rejected by voters. Attention has focused on the amnesties awarded to guerrilla leaders as a principal factor in the No vote’s triumph. Yet the same amnesties would also have applied to high-ranking figures in the armed forces who oversaw atrocities such as the False Positives scandal in which civilians were murdered and dressed in guerrilla fatigues to suggest army successes in combatting the insurgency.
It took four years of negotiations to reach a consensus on the six accords. Even if talks are resumed, nobody can predict how long it will take to establish a new agreement, particularly with the political right now vindicated in its opposition to the agreements by the plebiscite.
The initial accords were to be constructed on multiple platforms that would not only create the political space for a legalised FARC-formed party to operate, but also to tackle the social and economic conditions which have fuelled insurgency. This included the issue of agricultural reform, with major investment in infrastructure, transport links, public services, technical assistance, health, education and communications. This national plan pledged to reduce poverty by 50 percent in ten years. Diversifying the political arena is vital to improving democratic conditions in Colombia.
Guaranteed political participation
The issue of the FARC’s guaranteed political participation for at least eight years is another factor being cited as a factor in the plebiscite result. Under the deal, the FARC would have formally entered national politics in 2018 with a minimum number of senate seats for two terms, at which point it was to become subject to standard electoral procedure. Although Santos had initially argued that the FARC should be elected like any other party, subsequent negotiations conceded the impracticality of a peace process without guaranteeing political involvement.
From an insurgency perspective, this inclusion had to incorporate greater political representation for marginalised regions and populations. It argued that Colombia’s diversity must be represented at institutional level, a radical shift from the domination of urban liberals and landowning conservatives that has charted the country’s political development.
The No vote also pulls the rug from under agreements regarding political protest, social movements, women, LGBTI communities, free expression and citizen participation in the media. Diversifying the political arena is vital to improving democratic conditions in Colombia. The No vote has reassigned these groups, at least for the time being, to the political margins.
Rather than begin the six-month disarmament process in 28 concentration zones, FARC guerrillas have been urged by high command to take up secure positions. Following the government’s announcement that the ceasefire only lasts until October 31, the issue of timing has become imperative to salvage the deal. Until that happens, FARC units will prepare for any eventuality.
As part of the agreement, in addition to hostilities ceasing between the guerrillas and the state, the FARC had also agreed to end any illicit practices used to finance military operations. It had also promised to work with the government to eradicate coca production. Although the conservative right has long claimed the FARC to be the country’s largest narco-trafficking organisation, arguably the greatest factor in the growth of the drugs trade have been neoliberal trade policies which made coca production more economically viable than other forms of cultivation. The No vote has reassigned these groups, at least for the time being, to the political margins.
Yet it is the controversy over the FARC’s post-conflict status that has been cited as the major sticking point with Colombian voters (of whom only 36 percent went to the polls). While the FARC insisted it should be treated as a victim of the conflict, having been forced into armed struggle by historic repression of rural communities, the state faced strong criticism that the deal allowed senior guerrillas to avoid prison. This now seems to have rankled highly with the population.
Other factors attributed to the failure of the plebiscite range from the severe weather which struck the Caribbean coast – where polls predicted a majority Yes vote – to the unwise decision to stage the signing ceremony, which now appears arrogant and suggests complacency on the part of both government and citizenry that peace was a formality.
However, a Yes vote would not have solved the nation’s litany of problems. The process failed to account for many within Colombian society who have been most affected by the war. We found a country that was deeply divided over the issue of peace, and not for the issues outlined in the post-plebiscite breakdown of what went wrong. For many people, the peace deal was further evidence of Colombia’s centralised institutionalism yet again abandoning those on the peripheries. Peace was worth fighting for – under any terms – but it lacked the scope to implement the radical social transformation that was vital to establishing a true democratic era of stability.
That simmering sense of frustration reached boiling point in June.
The agrarian strike of June 2016 emphasised Colombia’s need for agricultural reform as parts of the country, including highways, ports and factories, were brought to a standstill. The double impact of conflict and resource extraction has had a devastating impact on rural Colombia, with indigenous and African-descendant populations most affected.
The strike – or the ‘Minga’, an Andean term for communal labour – was rooted in government failure to fulfil agreements made following another national strike in 2013. That led to the formation of the Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit (Cumbre Agraria), a popular coalition of rural organisations and social movements which had created a list of collective demands.
Existing trade policies, the cause of 2013’s protest, have ruined agricultural communities in Colombia, as reduced import tariffs and rising inflation leave small-scale farmers unable to compete in the market economy. Authorised and illegal mineral extraction pollute rivers and soil, destroying crops and forcing people from their homes. Social protest is repressed by the army or by paramilitaries.
In Cauca, where the strike was particularly intense, indigenous and campesino communities had concentrated at La María, the traditional meeting point for collective mobilisation and political struggle. La María served as the command nucleus for the strike’s regional front. Two kilometres to the north, a blockade closed the nearby Pan-American highway and rendered Cauca inaccessible by road for thirteen days.
On day four of the strike, Colombia’s militarised Mobile Anti-Disturbance Unit (ESMAD) shot dead two indigenous guardsmen, Gersain Ceron and Marco Diaz Ulcue, at the Cauca blockade. Hundreds of protesters were arrested. Police helicopters regularly buzzed La María, where elderly people and children had joined the strike. Another young indigenous man had been killed in Valle de Cauca on the eve of the strike. While the state was promising dialogue, it was also utilising force to counter the protests.
José Ildo Pete, a senior counsellor of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), one of the main organisational bodies within the Cumbre Agraria, spoke to us inside La María’s main hall. ‘The principal theme of this Minga is the defence of territory,’ he said. ‘For indigenous peoples and social sectors in this country, the defence of territory is fundamental to the survival of the people, their culture, spirituality. If we don’t have territory, where are indigenous groups going to live?’
Demands included official recognition of the Cumbre Agraria as a political body; legal rights and participation regarding land entitlement and resource extraction; investment in infrastructure and improved access to services; and the assured autonomy of indigenous groups whose ancestral permanence in the region predated the formation of the Colombian state.
Joining the peace process
Also central to the demands was a role within the peace process, especially around issues of human rights, militarisation and social justice. Many people were sceptical of the state’s assurances. For them, the establishment of peace depended on addressing structural issues which fuel conflict: poverty, exclusion, repression, and so on. Regional populations find themselves in the eye of the conflict as they attempt to balance diverse armed groups fighting for supremacy. [Santos] has the will to engage in dialogue, but he doesn’t meet his commitments.
José Ildo Pete was wary of empty rhetoric. ‘In the national development plan, Santos’ government has signed 194 agreements, but it has only fulfilled 30 percent,’ he told us. ‘He has the will to engage in dialogue, but he doesn’t meet his commitments. Indigenous groups have signed 1,200 agreements with the Santos government, and in his first mandate – he’s now in his second – it complied with 7 percent of these.’
The Minga ended after the government agreed to the involvement of rural communities in the social and economic reforms. Despite its reservations, the Cumbre Agraria remained committed to the ‘Yes’ campaign. It saw the consolidation of peace in rural Colombia as the first step in instigating political inclusion and improved social conditions for the millions of people left behind by the current system. Where these war-ravaged communities go from here is hard to say.
Extermination of a people
As war depopulates territories, it clears the way for multinational corporations to extract mineral resources or develop agro-industry, with profits reinvested in the expansionary motors of conflict capitalism: militarisation and paramilitarisation. The state’s absence in some regions means health, education and access to clean water are inadequate. Thousands of indigenous and African-descendant children have died in recent years from preventable diseases, malnutrition and thirst.
At the northern tip of Colombia lies the arid and isolated Guajira peninsula, which borders Venuezela and is home to the Wayuu, Colombia’s largest indigenous group. Also located in the Guajira is the huge Cerrejón mine, which extracts over thirty million tonnes of coal per year. Owned by the multinationals BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Xstrata, the mine has had a catastrophic impact on the Wayuu.
4,151 Wayuu children died between 2008 and 2013.
The Cerrejón exemplifies how foreign capital drives resource extraction at the expense of local populations. In the early 1980s, the US and Canadian export banks provided loans to develop the mine. Due to the Wayuus’ lack of legal ownership of their ancestral homelands, they were expelled from these zones with only minimal compensation for any properties confiscated by the state. The Wayuu have since been routinely subjected to forced relocation and increased militarisation of the Guajira.
This continued throughout the peace negotiations. For example, 2015 saw 32 armoured personnel carriers deployed to the Guajira at a cost of $84 million. The Canadian-made vehicles reflect how foreign arms are paid for by Colombian taxpayers to protect the interests of foreign corporations.
In recent years the humanitarian situation has deteriorated following the damming of the Ranchería River, ostensibly to create reserves for times of drought. The reality is that water is diverted from upper Guajira towards the Cerrejón, which uses 2,700 cubic metres of water per day. Promised infrastructure, such as water pipelines, has failed to materialised.
Arelys Uriana is a Wayuu counsellor for women and families at the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC). ‘There is a method and strategy to exterminate our communities,’ she told us at her office in Bogota. ‘A national plan of development opposes indigenous communities with the presence of multinationals and large mines in indigenous territories. This provokes violence, prostitution and drug addiction among the young people who are our future. There is a campaign of physical and cultural extermination of the indigenous peoples.’ Her organisation says that 44 percent of the Guajiran population is malnourished.
Other official statistics paint a shocking picture. According to Colombia’s Department of National statistics, 4,151 Wayuu children died between 2008 and 2013. This is probably a conservative figure, due to the tendency not to register births or deaths. Wayuu officials put the figure at between 12,000 and 14,000 child deaths since 2008. In 2012, the mortality rate for under-fives, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), was a scarcely-credible 38.9 percent (compared to a 0.15 percent national average). In a country which in 2015 spent almost $13 billion on its military, these figures imply absolute abandonment of the regional population.
Uriana said: ‘The Cerrejón has brought misery, abandonment and territorial displacement of our communities. Children have died. For those of us who defend the rights of indigenous peoples, we are very worried about this situation. We have been the most affected, but the impact has been very strong, not only in Guajira, but in Chocó, in the Orinoco. These are situations linked to the armed conflict.’
Like indigenous leaders in Cauca, Uriana believed indigenous society was excluded from the government’s vision for post-war Colombia. ‘At the moment the FARC and the government are sat together, but they are not joined by civil society or ethnic groups,’ she said. ‘We are not part of the peace process. It has not taken into account nor consulted with indigenous groups, the principal victims of the conflict. I think it will be a total failure.’
Her implication was that the post-conflict scenario would fail, rather than that it wouldn’t even get off the ground. The humanitarian catastrophe in Guajira emphasises how resource extraction can be as damaging as conflict. The incompatibility between capitalist growth and social justice is most apparent in the Guajira, yet it affects all Colombia.
March of the displaced
In Bogota, hundreds of forced displacement victims were marching along Seventh Street (la septima) towards the central Plaza Bolívar. Having been displaced from elsewhere in the country, most lived in shantytowns on the peripheries of the capital. They were angry over unfulfilled government promises and were calling for greater focus on the plight of more than six million other people in similar situations. The diverse place names on the banners held aloft – from the Guajira in the extreme north to Putumayo on the southern border with Ecuador – reflect a conflict which has left few parts of Colombia untouched.
'We are protesting to Santos because we do not feel represented as victims in the so-called post-peace agreement.’
'We are protesting to Santos because we do not feel represented as victims in the so-called post-peace agreement,’ said Orlando Burgos of the National Strengthening Committee for Organisations of Displaced Populations. ‘The principal demands of this movement are, first, comprehensive compensation for victims. Not one victim has received reparations. Second, these reparations must be accompanied by plans for housing, education, healthcare, political inclusion.’
Vivian Castiblanco was from the Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn) women’s organisation for conflict victims in the department of Meta. ‘In Havana they haven’t taken us into account,’ she told us. ‘There are many mothers here who have lost everything. They don’t have a home or health. If they have a meal one day, they don’t have breakfast the next. The government doesn’t want to support or contribute.’
Much frustration centred in Law 1448 for Victims and Land Restitution, which the Santos administration created in 2011 to begin the process of returning displaced citizens to their homes. Now halfway through its ten-year implementation span, only about 200,000 of several million hectares have been returned to their former inhabitants.
A 2012 report by Amnesty International found Law 1448 to be severely flawed. The state’s denial of paramilitary activity in Colombia means communities displaced by such groups are classed as victims of ‘criminal’ rather than ‘conflict’ displacement and therefore do not qualify for state assistance. There is also wide disparity between the official quantity of appropriated land (two million hectares) and that of external analysis (cited in the report as between four and six million hectares). Further, for ‘agro-industrial and other economic projects’ which obtained land through illegal means, the law could actually provide them legitimate ownership or compensation for relinquishing lands.
One of the organisers of the Bogota march was Alfonso Castillo, director of the National Association of Solidarity Help (ANDAS), which supports displacement victims. The organisation’s offices in downtown Bogota were behind reinforced metal doors, standard security for human rights defenders in Colombia. When we arrived, a group of displaced women were receiving food and clothing parcels donated by another agency.
According to Castillo, there was little prospect of Law 1448 being implemented. ‘It is a failure,’ he told us. ‘There is no interest on the part of the state to return lands to campesinos. Here, there is large interest in maintaining illegally-appropriated lands for the development of agro-industry and energy mining projects.’
He believed this to be the true motive behind the peace agreement. ‘The peace process is part of a policy by the dominant classes to generate investor confidence,’ he said. ‘International companies will no longer face the pressure of guerrillas burning their tankers or kidnapping their officials for ransom. They’ll now be able to reach regions they couldn’t before, like the Eastern Plains, or departments like Caqueta, Guainía, Guaviare, where there is immense mineral and energy wealth.’
The anti-peace brigade: just say ‘No’
The peace process encountered intense opposition from the conservative right. In 2012 former president Álvaro Uribe formed the Democratic Centre (CD) political party, which advocates a military solution to the armed conflict despite that strategy’s clear failure. According to the CD’s political declaration, the party ‘rejects that President Santos endorses a unilateral cessation of hostilities with the FARC’ while asserting that ‘terrorism is the result of the abandonment of democratic security and the promise of security within the legal framework for peace’. The peace process encountered intense opposition from the conservative right.
On June 22 2016, Colombians awoke to news of a ceasefire between the FARC and the state. This advance in the negotiations suggested a formal peace agreement was close, representing a blow to the hawks in the CD. Having obtained 45 percent of the vote in the 2014 presidential election on a militaristic platform, the establishment of peace would have rendered obsolete the CD’s major selling point: that it alone possesses the mettle to liquidate the insurgency. Political factors therefore played a major role in the successful No campaign.
The CD’s party headquarters in midtown Bogota had sprung into action at news of the ceasefire. While Uribe is constitutionally barred from running for a third presidential term, other, younger party members hope to pick up the mantle. One of them, 32-year-old Samuel Hoyos, was elected to the national congress in 2014. We asked him how peace could be perceived as anything other than progress. ‘The warnings we have given is because we want to achieve peace,’ he said. ‘Signing an accord with terms that don’t benefit the state is not going to deliver peace to us. That’s why we have given these warnings. It could even be the source of new violence.’
The CD claims to favour the concept of peace, but its actions do not support this. From June, the party promoted the No vote by collecting signatures from Colombian citizens, claiming to have gathered over one million. The CD’s strong performance in the last election showed this to be a party with large support. That has been reconfirmed in the plebiscite – which many are interpreting as a popular referendum on Santos and Uribe themselves. Victory in the 2018 presidential elections for a rejuvenated Democratic Centre would likely signal renewed conflict. If it hasn’t already occurred by then.
The No campaign argued that the accords allowed guerrillas guilty of human rights violations to walk free. ‘There is a statute of Rome which impedes the Colombian state from granting impunity to those responsible for atrocities and crimes of lesser humanity,’ Hoyos told us. ‘This is a fundamental aspect of why we ask for punishments of deprivation of liberty which are proportional to the crimes committed by the FARC.’
The flipside to Hoyos’ claims is that the CD has been decidedly less vocal over other armed groups linked to senior figures within the party. As president, Uribe signed a 2003 demobilisation agreement with Colombia’s largest paramilitary organisation, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). The AUC committed massacres, displaced communities and was involved in the drugs trade. The demobilisation process enacted under Uribe saw thousands of men return to civil society unpunished for crimes they had committed.
The AUC committed massacres, displaced communities and was involved in the drugs trade.
Yet the extent to which paramilitary organisations did actually disband is disputed. Many observers believe these groups reformed under different guises. This situates them outside the political sphere and gives credence to claims that the paramilitary issue had been resolved. Violence committed by those groups – rebranded as Bacrim (criminal bands) – could now be classified as ‘criminal’ rather than ‘political’, suggesting state progress towards conflict resolution.
The Santos administration has tended to sidestep questions relating to the continued presence of paramilitaries in Colombia. Yet political violence remains prevalent in the country. Between 2011 and 2015, over 500 community and social leaders, activists, unionists and journalists were murdered. Groups such as the Black Eagles and the Urabeños have orchestrated terror campaigns in regions rich in natural resources or prone to guerrilla activity. These killings continued throughout the peace negotiations.
From a FARC perspective, the disbandment of paramilitaries had been one of the major requirements for peace. Many guerrillas feared demobilisation would leave them vulnerable. The paramilitaries have benefited from instability and violence and their presence would severely undermine any peace agreement. If peace were ever to be implemented, paramilitary activity would have to be fully eradicated, an extremely challenging task.
Work in unity
In the hillside barrios overlooking Medellín, a peace congress was taking place. We had come to the Comuna 3, which once swarmed with sicarios carrying out the dirty work of drugs cartels, but who are now fighting for a different objective: to carve out its own space within the post-conflict scenario and help local residents move beyond the violence that once dominated their communities.
The tone was one of reconciliation. ‘I believe we are taking a good path,’ said one displacement victim from Belen de Bajira in north Antioquia. She was 39, but looked older from prolonged malnutrition. ‘Although we are victims, we have to move ahead learning and to live with many of these people,’ she told us. ‘It’s work in unity. If I don’t have forgiveness in my heart, I can’t contribute to peace.’
Violence in Medellín has fallen dramatically since the Pablo Escobar era, when the murder rate soared to an astonishing 380 per 100,000 people (by way of comparison, today’s most globally murderous city, Caracas, has around 119 murders per 100,000 people). Repression of social organisers was continuing, however. It was near Medellín that community leader María Fabiola Jiménez was shot dead while travelling by bus in September. It was near Medellín that community leader María Fabiola Jiménez was shot dead while travelling by bus in September.
At the offices of the Patriotic March (MP), citizens were also seeking an active role in consolidating peace. The March has become one of Colombia’s largest progressive social movements since emerging from anti-government demonstrations in 2010. It occupies a building off the city’s main Plaza Botero, where it supports peace initiatives, agrarian reform and citizen sovereignty projects.
We sat down with a group of veterans from the Patriotic Union, the doomed political party formed from the 1982 peace process. Among its thousands of murdered members were mayors, councillors and presidential candidates. The lesson of the UP influenced FARC dialogue with the state, with the guerrillas understandably determined to avoid the fate of their predecessors.
Beatriz Acevedo’s husband was among those killed. ‘They displaced us in 1997 and killed him the same year,’ she said. ‘I was 23 and he was 26. They displaced us because we were members of the Patriotic Union and we belonged to the Communist Party.’
She continued: ‘When I went to the police, they acted as if he hadn’t been murdered. They said “you’re not displaced. You’re from the guerrilla”.’ Her experiences reflected how war has benefited Colombian elites: labelling those demanding greater economic and social justice as subversives has encouraged repression of social movements and collective organization.
Like Acevedo, Camilo Vargas was from Apartadó, one of the most violent zones in the entire country. ‘The only crime we committed as the Patriotic Union was being a party of the left and of the opposition,’ he said. ‘And they massacred us.’
For Vargas, the peace process represented a continuation of the UP’s social agenda. ‘Now we are fighting for true change in Colombia, rather than for those who are against the peace process, like Mr. Álvaro Uribe,’ he said. ‘The far right is trying to rid Colombia of what little remains of the left. The Patriotic Union, we were always trying to help people, trying to follow a democratic path. So they said we were guerrillas.’
The new beginning?
While most Colombians we spoke to were broadly supportive of the peace process, nobody was under any illusions of the size of the task ahead. International media painted a picture of a nation about to enter a new era of prosperity and stability. It wasn’t hard to imagine the president sizing up how that Nobel Prize would look on his mantelpiece. The impact of the No vote’s success will only become known in the fullness of time.
Yet for peace to truly arrive, now or in the future, a massive shift in how the country deals in politics would have to take place. Regardless of whether the accords can be redrafted to be more palatable to the electorate, the state will have to address structural issues of inequality and poverty in order to truly move the country forward.
The commodity of violence that trains many young people in the act of killing – available to the highest bidder – already threatened to continue bloodletting in the new era. What would have been the relevance of peace to communities whose children are dying of the most basic and preventable causes? A social restructuring from misery to dignified living conditions was of the utmost urgency even before the No vote. That has not changed if anything is to be salvaged from the plebiscite disaster.
With the United States overseeing the peace transition of its informal client state, how did Washington’s future vision for Colombia’s untapped natural riches sit with the need to bridge the social chasm? Peace depended on humans taking precedence over capital, perhaps for the first time in national history. Peace depended on humans taking precedence over capital, perhaps for the first time in national history.Based on modern trends, this was always an unlikely proposition.
From the beginning, the odds were stacked against the peace process. The Colombians we spoke to knew this. Yet it was dynamics of capital and power that most concerned them, with nobody believing that the people themselves would sabotage the deal. The No vote represents a crisis not just on a national level, but on a regional one as well, in which populist right-wing rhetoric has once again dominated political discourse and found a receptive audience.
But for the children dying in the Guajira, or the indigenous communities being torn apart by resource extraction in Cauca, peace was unlikely to herald the new dawn promised by Santos. The rest of the country now accompanies them into an uncertain future. Colombia’s long conflict rumbles on.
Travel support for this article was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.