Shortly before the unpredicted Presidential victory of Trump in the United States on November 8, 2016, another electoral vote shocked the world. That was the victory of the NO vote on Oct 2, 2016 to a plebiscite referendum on the peace accord between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government. It seemed incredulous that the majority of citizens would vote against a peace accord designed to bring to close a 52-year-old civil war responsible for killing close to 220,000 people and displacing almost 6 million.
Nobel Peace Prize Amidst a NO to Peace Campaign
Five days after the rejection of the peace accord by a narrow popular margin, Colombian President Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for his persistent efforts to end the entrenched armed conflict. The peace accord was the result of four years of ongoing negotiations held in Cuba between the government and the FARC. This followed three previous failed attempts to negotiate an end Latin America´s longest standing war and $10 billion of US military and social aid under Plan Colombia. Although a plebiscite vote was not a legal prerequisite to implement the accord, it was held to demonstrate widespread civilian support. That strategy of Santos backfired when political opponents rigorously organized the NO campaign with widespread use of the media to discredit the accord. In contrast, there was no YES campaign to promote the accord and many citizens in favor did not vote, assuming the referendum would pass by a very large margin, as predicted by all the polls.
After the plebiscite NO Victory, both signatory parties to the accord quickly proclaimed their determination to maintain a cease fire, in place since June 2015, and to work to implement the accord. After 41 intense days of re-negotiation, a new accord was signed on Nov 24, 2016 with adjustments to address the concerns of representatives of the NO Campaign, who were consulted closely in the process. These included former President Uribe, a major landholder who vowed to eliminate the FARC, responsible for killing his father; under his presidency, paramilitary forces expanded greatly. Also included were Christian evangelical pastors who had mobilized tens of thousands within their mega-churches to vote NO, inciting fear that the country would loose its moral character because of what they denounced as a lack of family values and the presence of a gender ideology in the accord. In addition, Uribe and others demanded stronger punishments for FARC members.
The new accord did include further concessions on the part of the FARC but at the same time, remained true to the spirit of social inclusion of the original. The FARC began as a movement to vindicate the rights of the poor peasants, focusing on the issue of land reform and greater equality, yet it lost much support from the civilian population when it began to sustain itself through kidnappings, extortions and drug trafficking. It is still made up of many rural peasants, some forcibly recruited as teenagers, some joining out of revenge for family members killed by paramilitary forces, others lured in by the need for food and basic sustenance. The final peace accord retains a focus on land reform, true to the historical demands of the FARC, in an overall aim to make Colombia a more equitable society. With no second plebiscite, the renegotiated agreement went directly to Congress where it was approved in less than a week.
Palpable Yearning: Red Zones of Conflict say YES to Peace
During this tense historic time between the NO vote and the approval of the re-negotiated accord, I traveled to Colombia with Friends Peace Teams to visit their programs throughout the country and to co-facilitate two Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops with members of an indigenous community in a former Red Zone of armed conflict, and with members of the Mennonite Church in Bogotá. Throughout our visits, we were deeply moved by the extravagant generosity of the people, their enthusiasm for AVP and their unwavering commitment to build peace from the bottom up, starting with themselves. We encountered an unwavering will to persevere in the pursuit of peace, a yearning very palpable. For example, after the NO victory, a nationwide peace encampment campaign began, catalyzed by youth who took to city squares throughout the country refusing to leave until the peace accord was honored. We visited two peace encampments, in northeast Colombia and in downtown Bogotá. An imperfect peace is better than a perfect war.
Red Zones which endured fierce engagement between the FARC and the military, overwhelming voted YES to peace. These areas represent citizens who have lived through generations of unimaginable violence. Those who voted NO to peace were clustered in urban areas where the armed conflict had not had its greatest violent impacts. This led many public commentators to note with awe and disbelief the greater capacity to forgive on the part of those who had suffered most.
The geographical areas with greatest vulnerability in the conflict have been the indigenous and Afro-Colombian territories, located in the coastal and southwestern regions rich in natural resources. We traveled to one of those zones in order to facilitate a workshop with the indigenous Nasa community in the southwest Department of Cauca, a former FARC stronghold; participants included both a former guerilla and a former military soldier. The local sponsoring organization was the Pentecostal Church whose pacifist pastor serves on the municipal reconciliation committee. One striking feature of the workshop was participants emphasis on the relationship between peace at home and peace in the country, with profound reflections on the trans-generational nature of violence toward women.
Women Make the Connections: Transforming Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Over and over, people proclaimed to us that peace is not made solely by signing an accord at the national level on one special day but by transforming violence at the local level every single day. Long-term activists throughout the country spoke strongly about their determination to maintain the ceasefire and to address the underlying cultural roots of violence. For women activists, this commitment includes addressing patriarchal structures which perpetuate violence toward women within the family as well as within the war. Of the victims of the armed conflict, 75% are women.
In Monteria, northeast Colombia, we met with 10 peace and human rights activists including three AVP facilitators, members of the Citizen Commission on Reconciliation and Peace, the Youth Network, Prison Ministry, and Victims Committee. The conversation was riveting, revealing the dramatic reality of violence in the area and the transformational impact of AVP. . When asked whether the peace discourse in Colombia included an understanding of overcoming violence toward women in the home, all the men immediately said no, while the women emphatically said yes. The women emphasized the high levels of sexual violence toward women in the war and the uninterrupted spectrum of violence from the private to the public spheres. There was much interest expressed for AVP workshops with women and children victims of sexual and gender violence. Participants shared moving stories of forgiveness toward perpetrators. With emotion, one victim explained she went to the prison to speak with the man who murdered her loved one: I forgive you! But… PLEASE, tell me where the body is!
Christian Leaders Oppose Peace Accord: Gender Equity and LGBT Inclusion
Thanks to the advocacy of women´s rights groups in Colombia, the peace accord includes a gender analysis and guarantees equity for women in areas of historical exclusion such as property rights and land titles. In addition, it recognizes the rights of other historically vulnerable groups such as indigenous and afro-descendent peoples as well as the LGBTQI community. The issues of gender equity and LGBTQI inclusion became a major rallying point of right-wing groups against the accord, including evangelical Christian mega-churches whose political organizing was instrumental to the plebiscite defeat of the peace accord. Such heterosexist Christian leadership led a number of news commentaries to declare that peace was rejected because of homophobia. Marcela Sanchez of Diverse Colombia lamented, it is sad in this country that there are people who have more fear of homosexuality than war.* This stance represented a backlash to legal advances within the past year, including marriage equality, resulting in jarring juxtapositions of large Christian churches refusing peace and inclusion with secular forces asking for forgiveness and re-integration.
Guerillas Organize Prayer Vigils for Peace
In the weeks after the NO vote, in fact, FARC members organized prayer vigils around the country, calling together diverse sectors of local populations to pray for peace. Filling the need for proactive religious leadership for peace, the guerrillas sponsored inclusive ecumenical services with progressive Christian and Catholic as well as indigenous and animist leaders. Carlos, a Mennonite pastor in training and former military officer, attended a vigil in the Red Zone of Cauca, south western Colombia. After preaching on Love Your Enemies, he walked over to the Guerilla Commander and hugged her. With emotion, he admits this action to model the Gospel message was very difficult but brought him an overwhelming sense of peace.
Indeed, we found a stunning thirst for peace among armed actors, hearing over and over stories of both police officers and guerillas who sat down and cried when they heard the peace accord had been rejected. FARC guerillas, 40% of whom are female, were on the verge of laying down their arms and returning to their children, many of whom are now adults, when they realized they had to turn back to the mountains with their weapons. They had celebrated with great joy on Sept 26 when the peace accord was signed, only to be told within a week that the majority of citizens rejected it. Guerillas asserted to civilians: we want peace more than you do.
Conscientious Objectors: Promoting Non-Hegemonic Masculinities
Images of a military officer hugging a guerilla, of a guerilla crying when he is not allowed to lay down his weapons, of a police officer crying when peace is rejected…. all images which challenge the hegemonic construction of masculinity very much tied to war and violence. In Colombia, one year of military service is mandatory for young men. The wealthy classes often avoid it through paying off appropriate officials. But the less endowed economic classes do not have this privilege and have to resort to more creative alternatives if they want to resist fighting in the army.
In Bogota, we met with young men of a Conscientious Objectors organization who actively promote disrupting militaristic constructions of masculinity, both in their actions of refusal to join the army as well as in ongoing workshops with other young men who yearn to live in peace. They face rejection from family and society as they redefine what it means to be male in a militarized culture, leading workshops on Non-Hegemonic Masculinities. The group is very interested to collaborate with U.S. facilitators who have developed AVP workshops on masculinities. The Mennonite Church in Bogota provided the foundation decades ago for this work with men in conscientious objection and continues to be a prophetic voice of peace in Colombia.
At the end of our trip, Carlos, the former military officer now in training as a Mennonite pastor, brought us to a press conference in Bogota offered by a top commander of the FARC, a military general and the UN officer in charge of supervising the disarmament. All confirmed their determination to maintain the ceasefire; the FARC promised no more death during this transitional time; now our only weapon is words. Following the press conference, we visited the Peace Encampment in the Plaza Mayor where an inter-generational group offered a lively song for peace they had composed with guitar and gut-level yearning. In that moment, feeling the deep determination of the people in a setting which modeled diverse community and joined to peace efforts across space and time, with pictures of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi all around, I was filled with joyful certainty that anything was possible. So, it was a shock to learn that the peace encampment was dismantled shortly afterward by the government. This outcome was somehow symbolic of the contradictory peace process whose sudden reversals and twists have defied expectations. The soulful site so easily swept away, the song is now singing itself within the wild winds of the fiercely free spirit of Colombia, impossible to destroy.
Donations are essential to PLA work in Colombia. Please consider donating to help bring more workshops to Colombia during this vital time for peace!
Rev. Dr. Mónica Maher serves with Friends Peace Teams as Peacebuilding in the Americas Program Coordinator, traveling frequently to Central America and Colombia.
* As cited by Nicholas Casey, “Colombian Opposition to Peace Deal Feeds Off Gay Rights Backlash,” The New York Times, Oct 8, 2016.