Riohacha, La Guajira — On October 2, 2016, the people of Colombia voted in a referendum to approve the peace accords brokered over four years by the government of President Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP). In the regions most affected by the conflict in Colombia, the victims forgave and voted “yes,” hoping to open the doors for the much-sought-after peace. Some understood that to forgive does not mean to forget; rather, it is a step forward towards the construction of a different reality. In the Caribbean coast of Colombia, there was a resounding “yes” to peace. Nevertheless, the campaign managed by the so-called Democracy Center, spearheaded by ex-President Alvaro Uribe Velez took hold. Nationwide, in the referendum on the Peace Accords signed on September 26, 2016, between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP, the “no” won, with 50.2 percent of the vote in contrast with 49.8 percent “yes,” with a slight difference of only 59,894 votes. Juan Diego Ruiz, a Colombian friend residing in New York, expressed: “Uribe’s campaign to denigrate the Peace Accords, was stronger than Santos, the Pope, Obama and the international community.”
A couple of days ago, in the conference room of a hotel in Bogota, Alirio Garcia, the secretary of human rights of FENSUAGRO, the largest workers union in the country of the agrarian sector, spoke to our delegation of international accompaniment made up of activists and jurists from the Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ), the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the United Steelworkers Union (USW). The first word that he wrote on a white board was the word “tierra” — land. “Everything began because of land,” he told us, thus beginning his story of the history of armed conflict in Colombia. The typical narrative indicates that the armed conflict has lasted 52 years since 1964, when the FARC was founded. However, Colombia has lived in a constant state of conflict since the country’s independence. The struggle for the control of land and access to the same played a central role throughout Colombian history.
In 1949, one year after the populist leader and presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitán was killed, Canadian economist Lauchlin Currie arrived in Colombia on the first mission of the International Monetary Fund in the country, and set forth his economic plan called “Operation Colombia” — which was put in effect years later under President Pastrana Borrero in the ’70s — that said the Colombian countryside should one day be free of campesinos. Currie said: “The model that we propose for Colombia is not that of a nation full of campesinos that are landowners working on small parcels of land with hand tools, but rather that of a country like Canada or the United States where a reduced number of landowners cultivate the best land and using modern techniques and lots of machinery, have reached enormous progress in agricultural productivity, with the consequent benefit to their countries. Choosing between those two models shall be decisive for the future of Colombia (1971).”
And it is still about the land. The first point of the Peace Accords — ignored by those that voted “no” so as not to “hand over the country to the FARC” — was precisely about the Colombian countryside and the need for integral rural reform. Access to land and the development of the countryside with public services such as infrastructure, health, education, food and well-being for the rural population, as well as the protection of small and mid-sized properties, were considered within the Accords. In the Guajira, campesino communities without land, Indigenous peoples and afro-Colombians displaced by the violence and extractivism due to the presence of transnational mining companies, now live in urban areas, confined and in precarious tenement conditions. Many still harbor the hope of one day returning home to the countryside or their lands of origin. Others, such as the campesinos we met in Maicao, a short distance from Riohacha and on the border with Venezuela, dream of a life that will allow them to work without the natural resources and best products of the Colombian countryside going towards enriching the vaults of transnationals. For many campesinos forgotten by the state, it was FARC, in line with the communist ideals from which they stemmed, that was key in pushing for the inclusion of said reforms within the Accords.
The metropolitan opposition clustered mainly in the center of the country, also forgot another critical point in the Accords — justice, reparation for the victims and non-repetition. A study of the electoral results in the regions most affected by the conflict — including Cauca, Nariño, Caquetá, Chocó, Guaviare, Vaupés, Putumayo, and municipalities within Meta and Antioquia — highlights that those that suffered the most deaths in the war, put their bets on peace and in those areas, the “yes” vote won by high margins. The results of the referendum now leave the victims, social organizations and human rights defenders that pushed for “yes” exposed to backlash. Although both Santos and the FARC have indicated that the bilateral ceasefire continues in place and are willing to work for peace, it is also clear that international solidarity with Colombia will be more important than ever. The focus of the international community on Colombia will be the most crucial guarantee that the human rights advocates and social organizations including labor unions and all organizations that seek the good of the people, can have. Just before the referendum, Cecilia Coicue, a leader within FENSUAGRO and owner of the land that had been projected for establishment of a Transitory Point of Normalization (PTN) in the town of La Cominera in the municipality of Corinto in Department of Cauca, was found dead.
The Colombian government will have to find a way to avoid extra-judicial killings, threats and must remain vigilant that paramilitary groups do not take advantage of this moment of confusion to do what they wish. On the national level, uribismo and the opposition will have to demonstrate that they are not only good at detracting from the peace process, but can also offer logical proposals that are in the best interests of the people. On the international level, support cannot be simply on paper but must be through deeds. Before leaving office, President Obama, who has expressed his support for the peace process, should consider the liberation of the political prisoner and FARC ideologue Simon Trinidad, who is being held in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado, so the peace negotiations can push forward. Likewise, we will have to trust that should Hillary Clinton become the next elected president, that she will have the sense that her husband did not have — of restructuring the funds in Plan Colombia so they are not directed towards military force, but rather towards the needs of the Colombian people. This perhaps is too much to ask, given her connections to big corporations and history of supporting economic interests of the United States above human rights, and even above democracy in Latin America, but hope is the last thing you lose.
On the night that Colombia lost, I walk on the wet sidewalks of Riohacha and the sad notes of Vallenato music, typical of this region, invade the streets and the senses. The last phrases of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece come to mind: “Before reaching the final verse he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men … because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”
It would seem that the immortal words of Garcia Marquez about the reality of Colombia still holds true years after having been written. Oblivion, disinformation, insensibility and collective amnesia still plague the region. But if there is something that the Colombian people have demonstrated, it is their resilience in the face of adversity. Marlon Magdaniel, an environmental engineer that works with Marcha Patriótica in the Guajira, said: “We are frustrated that the Colombian people prefer a state of war to peace, but this too, is part of the democratic process. As organizations committed to social justice, we will continue working towards a country at peace.” The struggle to build a country of the size of their dreams continues.
At the end of the night, the rain of Hurricane Matthew finally arrived to Riohacha, perhaps washing the people with tears from the skies, or perhaps invoking the return of peace to the land of oblivion.