Editor´s Note: On October 3, 2016, the Colombian people shocked the international community by narrowly rejecting a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). After more than 50 years of violence, most observers in Colombia and around the world expected that there would be widespread support for such an agreement, in order to end one of the longest-running civil conflicts in the world.
Coming four months after “Brexit”, and one month before the stunning election of Donald Trump, this result was yet another reminder that the political realities of 2016 escape easy explanation or categorization. While the government and the FARC have since reached a new peace deal – one that is not subject to a popular vote – the previous electoral result highlights the difficulties of actually implementing the agreement.
To help us better understand the root causes of this civil conflict and the recent context behind the referendum campaign, I recently spoke with Tatiana, an economist from Colombia who is now working in the United States. Tatiana was an active participant in the referendum campaign and experienced its twists and turns alongside her compatriots.
In the first part of the interview, Tatiana explained some of the historical context of the conflict with the FARC, and how it affected her family. In Part II of this interview, we explore her views on the peace treaty and referendum campaign, and her vision for Colombia’s future.
Q: Although you don’t support the FARC and are critical of President Juan Manuel Santos, you are supportive of the peace accord they signed. What are some of the main reasons why you ultimately supported this accord?
A: I have a clear memory (of the past) – I have a clear memory of the killings, the kidnappings, of my friends that were kidnapped. We had a local newspaper that once showed the picture of a policeman’s head, and the guerrilleros were playing football (with it). When Pablo Escobar and his sicarios came about, he paid money for them to kill policemen, but in the most savage ways, by cutting off their heads and returning them (to the public). These are the things I remember from when I was nine, 10 years old.
Like me, many other Colombians grew up with all these images. With all the violence of the narcotraficantes, with the bombs, with all the villagers who were displaced and didn’t know how to read or write, and had to live off the streets… you had to confront that. And you see all the misery in the cities from all the displaced people, each with a horrible personal story. You would ask for blood (of those who were responsible).
Clearly, we couldn’t be a healthy society. Therefore, one of the reasons I supported the accord now, is precisely this. The war didn’t affect me (directly) – I don’t have children, and don’t plan to. But, I think about my cousins, my friend’s children, and other villagers’ children who have to face all this inequality in their lands… I think of a future in which the generations to come will know a better Colombia – all this is enough for me to support a “Yes” vote.
Q: As you mentioned earlier in our interview, the conflict between liberals and conservatives, and between the government and the guerilla movement, has lasted for generations. Why do you think now was the time when both sides could come to an agreement?
A: First, the strikes that the Uribe government led against the guerrilla movement were very violent and rough, and weakened the guerrilla movement militarily. Secondly, when the FARC was identified as a terrorist organization, it lost all the support it had been receiving from some European nations. So, they were transformed from being political agents that were acting militarily, to becoming a terrorist group. So, they lost this support. And when they became formally linked with the narcotrafficking, one of the intellectual leaders of the guerrilla was captured and extradited to the United States. This made the guerrilla leaders tremble, because they saw that they had been transformed from political and military agents, to objects of the U.S. penal system’s fight against narcotrafficking. Sadly, it was worse to be seen as a narcotrafficker than a murderer of children, at least as far as the United States was concerned.
The guerrilleros preferred to die in the mountains of Colombia, rather than die in U.S. prisons. So, in this context, they accepted to talk with Santos. Santos said, “Look, this is what I can offer you. Let’s talk about peace.” It’s for this that I say that the consequences of talking peace are more important than the terms of the peace deal itself. It doesn’t really matter what’s on paper; what matters is that the guerrilleros now have to respond politically.
Q: What is the media in Colombia like today? What effect do you think this had on the recent referendum?
This is reflected in why some people voted “No” vote, for example. There are many people who voted “No” with discernment and because they didn’t agree with the treaty, that’s very valid. But the majority of people lost their minds due to how the campaign unfolded on the two main privately-owned television networks. And if you see the Colombian newspapers, you’ll realize that they’re commercial papers, but not papers of profound journalism. The newspapers that truly dedicate themselves to journalism and investigation are independent, few in number, and aren’t accessible to everyone. So they always lag behind (in readership) and their stories don’t come to light. The vote is a reflection of that.
For example, in Bogota, there are important, interesting publications, but they don’t have a national reach. Some people don’t have access to these. As a result there is information that is “trapped” there. The media that has national reach is always slanted towards particular interests. So it’s not that there isn’t freedom of press; there is plenty of freedom. But, the problem is that the money to publish and disseminate information is what often prevents information from getting out. So the independent media is shut out and doesn’t have access (to the larger public). It’s much easier to listen to news programs… Part of the discomfort is that we’ve witnessed so much violence – not just the violence related to this conflict, but all violence related to narcotrafficking – that we´ve been bathing in civil war.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what’s written in the accord, you know? Because it will not bring back the dead, it won’t change my childhood, it’s not going to bring us back money (that was stolen)… there is not a perfect accord, there is nothing you can really put on paper that will heal the victims.”
Q: Much of the opposition to the initial peace accord appeared to come from the leniency with which it would treat FARC fighters. What are your perspectives on the terms of the accord? If you had a chance to re-write it, what would it contain?
A; The peace accord is more important for the (societal) consequences it will bring, rather than the accord itself. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what’s written in the accord, you know? Because it will not bring back the dead, it won’t change my childhood, it’s not going to bring us back money (that was stolen). It’s not going to bring back my uncle, it won’t undo my friends’ kidnappings, and my father won’t become younger and return to his hometown. So, there is not a perfect accord, there is nothing you can really put on paper that will heal the victims.
The only thing we can do to help the victims heal is for us to finally feel like we’re in peace and reconciliation. To at least have the comfort that all the suffering that has happened will not return. To think that there won’t be one more child guerrillero. That is an advance.
To be sure, the role of the army is to fight and to protect. But as one soldier said in a dialogue that I had the opportunity to attend: “There are a lot of us who are waiting for the perfect accord. But let’s get rid of this weight and work to overcome this. This is an advance. Because we ultimately have to fight when the people tell us to fight. But if we don’t have to worry about them (the FARC), that makes thousands fewer guerrilleros, thousands fewer ‘bad people’ against us.” And he was completely right in this.
But I saw other who had much worse stories than my family, who said, ‘We’re tired (of the violence). This peace is for us.’ So, when I went through this process with my family, we said, ‘This is for our future. This is for our nieces and nephews, for our cousins, for our children.'”
Q: How difficult was it to support the Yes side, given all the violence you had seen with the FARC?
A: One of my classmates in university had a boyfriend who was a guerrillero with the FARC, and they kidnapped her. And this was a shock for that whole generation of students. It was something we couldn’t believe.
Another friend told me, “I can’t forgive them. They killed my father, I can’t stand them. I want to vote ‘No’, but my conscience for everyone else doesn’t allow me to vote ‘No’. But I don’t want to have anything to do with the FARC. I’ll never be able to forgive them.” And I think this is a very respectable opinion.
But I saw others who had much worse stories than my family, who said, “We’re tired (of the violence). The peace is for us.” So, when I went through this process with my family, we said “This is for the future. This is for our nieces and nephews, for our cousins, for our children.” And we decided to forgive as a family. We only had one opportunity, we didn’t have another option if we wanted to be at peace. And the inner sense of peace that you feel gives you a hopeful heart.
There was a moment when the guerrilleros asked for forgiveness from all the victims. Those are foolish words, you know? “Yes, forgive us for all the damage we have done. Forgive us for the dead.” Those are words that clearly won’t bring back the dead, or make up for the hurt and the lost time. But at least they recognized that they had caused great harm. When I saw this, I was at work and I had to go to the washroom, because I couldn’t speak about this with any of my co-workers. I called my parents and my sister, who was living in another country. We all videoconferenced, and were all very emotional because none of us thought we would ever see this. And so today, I feel bad about those people who haven’t had to go through that, and can allow themselves to deny this opportunity.
Q: How do you view the role that President Santos played in this negotiation? Do you think the accord would have received more support if it was negotiated by someone else?
A: The former presidents – (Andres) Pastrana, (Alvaro) Uribe – were supporters of the “No” side. They were the most committed (to the “No” side), and they were the ones who most tried to bury the FARC (during their time in office). Before that time, Pastrana tried to talk with the FARC, but they would never sit down with him. If we talk briefly about this – this is a story about egos. They tried to do the same on their end (as Santos).
The only person with all the resources to do this deal was Santos. Santos had already fought the FARC militarily, as he was Minister of Defense for the ex-President Uribe. He commanded all the strategic strikes, the harshest strikes against the guerilla movement, through all his contacts. He had worldwide contacts, and controlled all the power structures in the country. Uribe tried to take this away from him, and this caused them to separate politically.
The party that President Santos leads is called the “Party of the U”, for Uribe. Uribe founded it when he finished his term as president. He built it up with the hope that he could maintain power through a crony, since he wasn’t able to run for re-election immediately (following the end of his last term in 2010).
He thought Santos would be this person. But when Santos won, he said, “No sir. I am the President. And I’ll do what I want to do.” So Uribe returned to the Senate, to throw a wrench in President Santos’s mandate through the Congress.
In reality, they are people whose only preoccupation is themselves. They are needy people, they don’t have the democratic spirit, where someone could perceive the collective good above the personal good.
Q: What do you hope will happen next with this peace accord? Over the long term, what is your vision for Colombia?
A: I have the firm hope that this peace accord does indeed come to fruition, and that Colombia can finally be free of this war. I hope it will also be easier now to reach an agreement with the ELN (the National Liberation Army, another guerrilla organization that is still not at peace with the Colombian government). I hope that the war against narcotrafficking comes out of the shadows, borders, and the politicians that support it, and that the drug business simply becomes a crime, or that it resolves itself in some other way.
I believe Colombia in the future will be a country that doesn’t have to be weighed down with this history. It will be a country where children can go out to play. Many of the guerrilleros sincerely want to return to their homes. A country where there won’t be any more kidnappings, at least under the pretenses of politics or social justice. No more kidnappings, no more torture, no more disappearances, no more mass graves.
I dream of a Colombia, when I become old, all the kids will be talking about different things. Not about the man from the corner store who was assassinated, or the old woman who was kidnapped, or a bomb that exploded, or that another child lost a leg… that all these stories of blood and violence will be in our past. And that we have the opportunity to build a better future, and that the in five, six generations from now, they will be reaping the harvest the fruits of a development that wasn’t weighed down by armed conflict.
A big thank you to Tatiana for giving her time and sharing her experiences, perspectives, and hopes for Colombia’s future, in order to give us a fuller picture of the context behind the recent Colombian Peace Accord. As a generally good source of news and perspectives from around the world, Tatiana recommends following the German website Deutsche Welle. If you found this interview helpful, I encourage you to share this with your networks in order to spread the lived, human experiences behind the headlines around the world.