This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Moving beyond yes or no: The search for prodigal peace in Colombia

Photo: Carolina Perez, MCC Colombia worker and member of a Mennonite Brethren Church in Bogotá participates in a march in Bogota to demand peace accords after the plebiscite. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Bonnie Klassen is the Area Director for South America and Mexico. She lives in Bogota, Colombia. 

I still remember when the Caguan Peace Talks between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ended on February 25, 2002. Like my colleagues at Justapaz, the Colombian Mennonite Justice and Peace Center, I felt distraught, but not surprised. It was a sad ending that we could all see coming. During the three years of dialogue, all of the armed groups in Colombia, including the FARC, the Colombian Armed Forces and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) had intensified their military strategies and horrific attacks against the civilian population. In hindsight, it’s hard to remember genuine gestures for peace from any of the armed groups during those years.

Now, 14 years later and after four years of new peace talks, the sequence of events in the last six months has created an entirely different mood, with a series of emotionally charged scenes leading up to a momentous finale: ceasefire agreements on June 23, the final text of the peace accords on August 24and the formal signing on September 26. These announcements punctuated a polarizing campaign in support of and against the peace accords, leading up to a national plebiscite on October 2. Nonetheless, everyone expected an exhilarating “THE END” to the negotiation process with the approval of the peace accords in the plebiscite.

Shocking everyone, the no vote won, with 50.2 percent of the total 13 million votes.

There was only a difference of 60,000 votes between no and yes. I am not sure how to understand the call from some opponents of the peace accords to “respect the voice of the Colombian people.” It is entirely inaccurate to say that most Colombians voted against the peace accords, when, as usual, most Colombians did not vote, with 65 precent abstention.

When I found out about the results of the plebiscite, I was on a very remote road in one of the regions hardest hit by the armed conflict. Travel was once prohibited in the region between 6 p.m. and 6a.m., due to “combat hours.” Riding in the dark, the memory made me nervous. Would this region return to that?

In the shock of the moment, I felt as if the country had just jumped off an edge without checking the depth of the fall or whether anyone brought a parachute.

In reality, Colombia has not shattered into pieces and this is not just a strange final ending.

No one expected the no vote to win. The government admitted, “We had no Plan B.” The no campaign leaders seemed equally surprised that they actually won and had no specific alternatives ready to propose. The Norwegian Nobel Committee also had some additional explaining to do when they awarded President Juan Manuel Santos and the Colombian people the Nobel Peace Prize a few days later.

What might the vote mean?
  • The Colombian government was convinced that yes would win by a wide margin. The government failed to understand the general population of Colombia. The government did not invest in significant dialogue with civil society about the peace process throughout the four formal years of negotiations, despite urgings from peace movement leaders. The Colombian government only began a marathon campaign to explain the peace process in late August.
  • Meanwhile, according to its campaign manager, the no campaign abstained from referring to the actual content of the accords in order to focus on eliciting indignation. Misinformation won the day.
  • The map of the election results provides a striking image of yes winning in the periphery and no winning in the center, except for Bogotá. It illustrates the historic tensions in Colombia between periphery and center, rural and urban. While urbanites debated the concepts of transitional justice, the vast majority of people in communities most affected by the armed conflict responded in very practical terms. On Oct 3, I sat with a farmer whose home region had been affected by both the guerrilla groups and the paramilitaries. The AUC had forced his close friend to shoot him. Miraculously, he is still alive, with scars in his jaw and below his ear where the bullet passed through. He said to me, “I have let go of hate and resentment. I just want to see an end to the war. That’s why I support the peace accords”. This voice is consistent with what we have heard from many victims.
  • In Bojayá, Chocó, where 118 people died from an exploding gas tank launched by the FARC, 96 percent of the population voted yes. This is one of the few municipalities where the FARC leadership had already visited to formally ask for forgiveness. Process matters.
  • The yes vote was for the implementation of the 292 page signed agreement. The no vote represents dozens of different issues, many of which don’t directly relate to the peace accords. When I talked with people in cities before October 2, I heard them say they would vote no: “because I don’t have a job,” “because the government is so corrupt,” “because there is too much injustice in this country,” and “because gender ideology is encrypted into the accords,” among other responses. It is challenging however to now adjust the accords to satisfy the dozens of specific reasons why people voted “no”, because this information was based on street corner rumors and not the actual content of the accords.
  • After the vote, I heard some people say, “I was sure that the yes vote would win, so I voted no for a clean conscience when things don’t work out.” Was the no campaign also partially about this same non-responsibility? Was it groundwork for the 2018 Presidential elections, based on a “we told you so” approach?
  • The government, full of secular intellectuals, underestimated that Colombians, in general, are conservative and religious. Very little in the campaign language connected with the spiritual element of reconciliation. People who believe in a punitive God vote against restorative justice. Moreover, misinformation around “gender” in the accords raised fears in churches, both Catholic and Evangelical, uniting them almost without precedent around “conservativeness.”
  • A Colombian proverb suggests that “something bad that we know is better than something good we don’t know.” After decades of armed conflict, people have a hard time imagining that change is possible. People distrust the country’s political leadership. Too often the campaigns, on both sides, fed fears and distrust rather than inspiring hope and vision.
  • Hurricane Mathew hit Colombia on Oct 1 and also impacted the results. From the window of a bus traveling out of Cartagena on October 2, I saw whole communities waist-deep in water. At least 60,000 people in the Atlantic Coast region, where the yes vote won percentage-wise, couldn’t vote due to the flooding. I am not sure however, that a very small yes win margin would have been a better scenario. It might be worse to move forward with just minimal explicit support.
  • Rather than quibbling over the explanations of this insignificant (0.1%) difference in the number of people who voted no or yes, compared to the total population, we need to remember that most people didn’t vote at all. Certainly some people had a hard time getting to the voting booths, but many people simply didn’t see a connection to their lives. Perhaps they feel like the taxi driver who said to me a week after the plebiscite, “I can’t believe they’re still talking about this on the radio!”

In the end, a small group of leaders from the different facets of the Colombian elite (the government

Jenny Neme of Justpaz receives communion bread in the plaza during an ecumenical service for peace after the plebiscite. Photo by Anna Vogt.
Jenny Neme of Justpaz receives communion bread in the plaza during an ecumenical service for peace after the plebiscite. Photo by Anna Vogt.

and its political opposition) will likely reach a new agreement behind closed doors so as to not destabilize the country, to their detriment. At least this is what happened at the end of Colombia’s last civil war in the late 1950’s.

Unless, however, the Colombian people step into the scenario and create a new twist in this story. Instead of just spectating or getting stuck in analysis, Colombians can focus on understanding and inclusion, in the face of a long legacy of elite exclusion, mirrored in general society. That sounds too idealistic to be practical, unless we change our practice. This is why Colombian Mennonite peace leader, Ricardo Esquivia, immediately evaluated the plebiscite results as “a unique opportunity to make sure community voices emerge and are heard.”

As I think about listening to all of the voices, I was struck by this reflection by Elizabeth Phelps, Co-Representative for MCC Colombia, based on the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32):

“I wonder about the prodigal son’s older brother. Could it be that he didn’t feel included in the decision to reintigrate his younger brother into the family? Could it be that he never really felt love and kindness from his father? Could it be that he was super worried about educating his many children, and he suspected that his father was going to divide the remaining inheritance with the prodigal? Maybe he doubted that his brother was truly repentant? (And what about their sisters? Is it possible there were no daughters in the family?) How can there be a national dialogue based on respect, trust, empathy, listening, and fraternity? At the very least we can begin little by little, in our team, in our work places, in the churches. It is very clear to me that this country is living through a moment of intense pain right now, and we must be compassionate in response.”

I am encouraged by the thousands of people who have marched for peace together across the country in the last two weeks, even though they may have voted (or not voted) differently on October 2. My husband has probably participated in every peace march to Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolivar in the last 30 years, and he has never seen such diversity and respectfulness among participants. The massive marches keep happening, every day in different towns and cities. In a country where we have been afraid to go out at night for so long, these candle-lit vigils, organized by young Colombians, seem like an awakening and a call for a different ending.

I place my hope in the many communities in the periphery of Colombia, including the Anabaptist churches in Chocó, Cali, Cauca, Ibagué, Soacha and Bogotá, who have been caring for victims, speaking the truth and re-humanizing perpetrators of violence for years already – with or without the accords. These are Colombia’s peacemakers.

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