War, art and peace: the Colombian referendum and peace agreement

Colombia is a country of contrasts. It positions itself as the happiest in the world, but has been trapped in a state of war for over fifty years.

Located in the corner of South America, its north and west are bounded by two oceans whilst the south and east are home to the Amazon rainforest and the Eastern Plains. The Andes, running the length of the country, are the backbone of the country’s development, spread in and around their valleys and mountains, and stand in contrast with the forgotten and abandoned Colombia lying out of their reach.

The contrast is not, however, limited to landscapes and climate, but also extends to the levels of respect and opportunity enjoyed by the different segments of Colombian society.

Ever since the Muiscas saw the Spanish disembark, bringing Africans as slaves, and Colombia began to come together as an independent nation in 1819, the country has seen no end to its long process of cohesion and Colombianisation. Its success has been somewhat timid.

The words “black” or “Indian” continue to be used as derogatory or discriminatory terms, whilst social mobility and justice have more to do with the colour of a person’s skin and the strength of their bank balance than the solidity of public institutions and education.

The greatest contrast is between those born with a prospect of development and those only born with the prospect of subsistence, the vulnerable sectors of society, whose future is monopolised by agents of greed and war.


Bipartisanism and a third violent armed force

The Colombian peoples’ life force has been consumed by wars, battles and struggles of all kinds: since the one brought about by the search for El Dorado around Bacatá or Bogotá, to those against the pirates of the Caribbean near Cartagena and San Andrés, followed by the fight for independence and the post-independence struggles across the country.

As for the bipartisan violence of last century, this was overcome by a power rotation agreement between the two sides, which then led to the rise of a third political force that was fragmented, armed, violent and opposed to the two-party state.

Irregular armies in turn gave rise to irregular counter-armies, which established themselves on the left and right of the state itself. Guerrilla and paramilitary groups, a reflection or even an extension of the Cold War, went and imposed their armed law on the peoples and villages of forgotten Colombia, from where they connected with urban militias to coordinate the logistics of bombings and kidnappings.

Financing was not a problem. Colombia is fertile land for the cultivation of all kinds of flowers, fruit and leaves, such as coffee, roses, banana, or marijuana, coca and poppies, because nature is oblivious to the penal code. From the corner of the continent, Colombia has simultaneously been a global production and distribution centre for the legal and illegal trade that has been the economic source both of its development and the war impeding it.

Colombia’s most recent battle has been waged against the drug cartels of Medellin and Cali and the associated coca and crime multinationals. For these transnational criminal organisations, the corruption and murder in Colombia are the lifeblood of their drug trafficking trade. They are also irresponsibly promoted by global coca consumers in search of ephemeral pleasure.

Despite the complex geopolitics and the turbid macro-criminality, past governments have managed to dismantle cartels, guerrillas and paramilitary groups. The structures of the Quintín Lame, M19, EPL and AUC no longer exist, whilst the guerrillaS of the ELN, the FARC and a few leftovers from the paramilitary forces, split into criminal gangs (known as BACRIM), are still there to remind us that destructuring a group and putting an end to it is not the same thing. But it is only by destructuring that we have been able to embark on the path towards the less troubled, more optimistic and more unified Colombia of today.


Legal acrobatics, mistrust and fear

It is against this background that we are going to decide, on Sunday, 2 October, whether to support the agreement drawn up between the government and the FARC guerrilla organisation, which is to be dismantled and reincorporated in civil society and active political life.

It is the first time we are being asked about it. Perhaps because it is the oldest guerrilla group, the penultimate one, and it is essential that the transition be engraved in the Colombian heart and at local level across the country.

This Sunday, we will vote yes or no to the agreement painstakingly negotiated for four years. It is a 297 page long politico-legal work protected against any subsequent amendment by its international coating.

The FARC are terrorists for a government, a drug cartel for others, and a warring party under this agreement, negotiated between nationals then taken to international level as a Special Agreement under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, whereby the ICCPR or ICESCR should be transposed, as international human rights treaties, into national law, under the constitutional bloc.

These legal acrobatics, the 297 pages and the fours years of negotiations above all reflect the level of fear and mistrust.

For fifty years, the FARC wanted to overthrow the state and the state wanted to exterminate the FARC. The state is accepting the FARC’s entry into the democratic life of the country, without arms or dirty money, and the FARC does not want to be left open to annihilation, such as that suffered in the past by 3,000 members of the UP (Unión Patriótica). At the same time, both fear the prospect of a government driven by hate coming to power, repealing the agreement and making them pay for it.

Broadly speaking, the deal affirms the rights of minorities; includes a strong gender approach; agrees on a comprehensive agrarian plan based on comprehensive rural reform that does nothing to change the economic model; takes the FARC’s arms out of the country to be melted down and used to build monuments; subsidises the replacement of illicit with licit crops, and strengthen the framework for public protest and political opposition. It also provides for the establishment of a comprehensive truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition mechanism, aside from the ordinary justice system, for the purposes of the transition. It will be comprised of entities for (i) the truth, (ii) the search for the disappeared and (iii) the special jurisdiction for peace (JEP), which would culminate with rulings delivered by the Peace Tribunal.

Following demobilisation, the FARC guerrilla fighters will be concentrated in over 20 rural areas for 180 days, under UN monitoring, and apply for amnesty and embark on the process of civil and socioeconomic reintegration. Those who have committed crimes not eligible for amnesty will be tried before the JEP, where they should offer the full truth, in a timely manner, about the violations, massacres, kidnappings and mass graves, as well as bank accounts and money stashed in the jungle, or face up to 20 years in prison.

The punishment for those telling the whole truth early on in the process would consist in the restriction of their freedom through community service tasks such as construction or coca and mine clearance, among other non-custodial sentences.


FARC set to fill the vacuum left by Castro and Chávez in the region?

In short, the FARC fighters have to exchange bullets for ideas, give up arms, renounce violence, tell the truth and submit to the state and its institutions, whilst we have to cover the cost of their transition to civilian life and the reparation of the victims, give them a fixed number of seats in congress and finance the launch of their political party.

It creates fear – given our context – that any crime may end up being linked to the conflict and that the transitional justice mechanism of truth and forgiveness may ultimately override justice (which punishes the damage caused with prison). Equally worrisome is the fact that the implementation of territorial development and peace rests on contractual booty, against the backdrop of corruption.

Under the agreement, everything ranging from the strengthening of the rural and solidarity economy of campesinos, African-Colombian, indigenous and Roma peoples, to the production projects of former FARC rebels and publicly managed monitoring mechanisms, will chiefly fall on the hiring and establishment of not-for-profit organisations or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). These legal entities, since 2012, and in light of the Teoría de la Alteridad Jurídica (Theory of Legal Alterity – Ruiz-Restrepo, 2011) of which the above-signed is the author, are no longer negatively and residually defined but are now also equipped with a positive definition, a precise and certain identity as organisations working towards alterity (Article 468-3 # 4 of the Colombian Tax Code).

Whilst this provides civil legitimacy, facilitates transparency and strengthens legal security, the understanding of public-citizen involvement in democracy remains poor.

As a result, there is cause for concern that the alter-intentioned organisations within Colombia’s organised civil society may be reduced to acting as commercial adjuncts for the implementation of social agendas or politico-ideological satellites for controlled social mobilisation.

In operational terms, the agreement will depend on the strict application of the law, the transparency within the state and citizen empowerment. At political level, the debate is a completely different one.

On the Yes side, some believe less bullets and blood will help to accelerate the country’s development, whilst others believe Colombia needs to be freed from the oblivion of the war. On the No side, some fear that the old political guard and the same old business circles will use the peace agreement with the guerrilla as a pretext for pressing ahead even more forcefully with their ambitions, whilst others fear the leadership vacuum left in the region by Castro and Chávez will be filled by the FARC.

Some forgive, others don’t want to forgive, but most damaging of all is the publicity over-simplifying information available to the public and reducing everything to Colombians who want peace and Colombians who don’t want peace. The result is the infantilisation of some sectors and the dehumanisation of others.

As with beauty, we all long for peace. Art, for this reason, better explains the dilemma: is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain an object of beauty, or is it not? It all depends on our knowledge of Dadaism and/or our canons of beauty with regard to Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, our children’s schools drawings, or both.

The referendum on Sunday is a matter of interpretation. Colombia: do you or do you not see Peace in the 297-page agreement? The sum of the responses will chart the course of our destiny. Wish us luck.

And you? What do you think?

@ruizrestrepo @equaltimes


This article has been translated from Spanish.