Peace in Colombia?

This blog post by Gwen Burnyeat, Wolfson PhD scholar at UCL, was first published by the London Review of Bookson 1 December  2016. In this piece, Gwen comments on the recent development in the post-referendum context and the adoption of a new peace agreement in Colombia.

Photo: School-Children in Pereira draw their hopes for peace, August 2016, by Gwen Burnyeat.

Photo: School-Children in Pereira draw their hopes for peace, August 2016, by Gwen Burnyeat.

The new peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was signed in Bogotá’s Colón Theatre on 24 November. It was a more sober ceremony than the extravagant signing of the first agreement in Cartagena on 26 September, a week before Colombians narrowly voted against it in a referendum. The second signing was a closed event, and only President Juan Manuel Santos and the Farc commander, Timochenko, gave speeches. A subdued group of Colombians in the main plaza in Bogotá watched it on a big screen. The right-wing TV channel RCN, meanwhile, held a panel featuring only figures opposed to the deal, for ‘balance’.

After the referendum rejecting the agreement, the government held meetings over three weeks with opposition leaders, spearheaded by the former president Álvaro Uribe, and collected more than 400 counter-proposals and objections. The Farc said they would be open to amendments to satisfy voters. Both sides then returned to the negotiating table in Havana and spent two weeks thrashing out a new agreement. Colombians all over the country and abroad took to the streets in larger numbers than they had before the referendum, calling for a new agreement.

‘Whether or not Uribe is happy,’ a Colombian in Edinburgh said to me when the new agreement was published, ‘this is an amazing example of democracy. It makes me proud to be Colombian.’ Santos says the second deal is better than the first. The Farc have made some concessions: the political party that will replace them will receive less money than previously specified; only Colombian magistrates (no foreign judges) will sit on the Special Tribunal for Peace. And some other things have been made explicit: private property laws remain intact, and large-scale agribusiness won’t see its interests harmed by land reform in favour of peasant farmer co-operatives. The new agreement emphasises the role of religious communities in peace-building; a lot of churches led staunch No campaigns, and in some cases led their followers to believe they were voting against abortion and homosexuality.

But Uribe’s party, the Centro Democrático, has rejected the deal, saying they should have had an opportunity to comment on it before it was signed, and objecting to things in it that have not changed: Farc leaders who have been involved in crimes against humanity are not barred from entering politics, a transitional justice system will be set up, and parts of the agreement will be incorporated in the constitution. Santos says any peace accord depends on these measures.

Congress voted in favour of the new agreement unanimously in a special debate this week, but the Centro Democrático abstained because they said it was an ‘illegal’ form of endorsement. Congress will now have to pass legislation to implement the agreement. Farc combatants around the country have been on hold and the delicate ceasefire has already broken once, ostensibly by accident, leaving two guerrillas dead. Six community activists have been killed since the referendum, almost certainly by right-wing paramilitary or mafia forces that do not want peace. The political confrontation is likely to continue until the parliamentary elections in 2018. Timochenko, in his first interview on national television, called for a transitional government to unite against the pro-war forces. A broad peace alliance is now the best hope, as the agreement is implemented in a climate of political polarisation and a spike in violence.

About the Author: Gwen Burnyeat is currently a Wolfson PhD scholar in Anthropology at University College London (UCL), researching the social history of the Colombian peace process. She has been Lecturer of Political Anthropology Policy at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she also did a Masters degree in Anthropology as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar, also financed by ICETEX, which was the basis for her forthcoming book, ‘Chocolate, Politics and Peace-Building: an Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2017), as well as her award-winning ethnographic documentary ‘Chocolate of Peace‘. She also writes a political analysis blog on Colombia for the Latin America Bureau platform: lab.org.uk/gwen-burnyeats-colombia-blog.

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