In a month, Colombia will go to the polls to approve the terms of the peace agreement with the FARC. This is the result of lengthy negotiations that have been the subject of controversy and criticism from important voices of the nation. The result is a complex document that goes well beyond the ceasefire itself, including matters of social and economic policy. Surprisingly and perhaps conveniently, the first chapter of the agreement is a proposal for rural development.
Colombians do not need to check the surveys to understand that the country is divided. It pops up in our faces every time we look at social media, our Facebook walls or our newspapers. Every one of us has friends or acquaintances in each side of the election. We have been exposed to grounded and intelligent; visceral and inflammatory remarks supporting both sides: “approve” or “reject”. Most of the conversation is about the most controversial aspects of the agreement:
- A temporary expansion of the House of Representatives: 5 seats guaranteed for the FARC, and one additional seat for each of 16 special war-affected regions. The 16 seats are voted in, open only to political affiliations not represented in today’s Congress. The temporary expansion is only good for 2 election periods (8 years).
- A temporary expansion of the Senate: 5 seats guaranteed for the FARC for the same 2 election periods (8 years).
- The creation of a special peace jurisdiction: for FARC members subscribing to a final peace agreement with the government; for State agents who have committed crimes in the context of the conflict; and for parties who have voluntarily financed and/or collaborated with the criminals.
- Those who have committed crimes against humanity and confess the crimes exhaustively are subject to a sentence of between 5 and 8 years of jail.
- Those who do not confess the crimes follow the judicial process, with a maximum sentence of 20 years of jail.
- There is an amnesty clause, highly controversial, for those accused of crimes of a different nature like coercion, public document falsification, some murders committed during combat and involvement in drug trade to fund combat operations.
I think it’s important to mention the details of the agreement to disprove some myths. It’s not true that the FARC are going to have “dozens” of guaranteed Congress seats. They would have 10 for 8 years. The 10 seats represent 5% of the expanded Senate and 3% of the expanded House of Representatives. It’s not true that the agreement itself establishes a call to impunity. It all depends on its implementation.
The exaggerations and extreme positions that Colombians hear every day appear to be the result of two factors: some are the result of ignorance about the terms of the agreement, but more importantly, the majority of these voices are the result of deeply embedded mistrust. After all, the parties negotiating the conflict have failed us way too often. Both the government and the FARC have committed betrayals and atrocities over the last five decades. They are both to blame for the continuation of the war and the endless chain of civil casualties. They have lied to the public convincingly and unconvincingly. What we are seeing in our Facebook walls is essentially the aftermath of decades of broken promises. There is no sentiment that runs deeper in the human soul than justice and fairness. Unfortunately, a peace process of the magnitude that Colombia needs cannot fully satisfy everybody’s expectations of justice, and cannot repair the damages incurred during three generations. We are simply not that strong as a country. More sadly, nothing can fix the matters of life and death. Nothing can give us back a life time spent in fear.
With that said, I feel committed to express publicly my decision to vote “Yes” (aka. “Accept”), looking forward for the acceptance of the peace agreement terms. I made my decision after contemplating the pros and cons of each scenario, not only as it applies to my own life, or my family’s, but to the people who have been directly affected by the war. As is the case in every conflict, the victims deserve to have a special voice. The deciding factor for me is the fear of the lost opportunity. History has shown us, over and over, how similar opportunities have been passed with the worst possible consequences. For example:
- We already missed the opportunity to end the conflict with the FARC twice. The first time was a ceasefire that lasted 3 years, between 1984 and 1987. Peace and stability ended as 4,000 members of the socialist Union Patriotica were murdered systematically, in crimes for which no one served or is serving a significant sentence. Union Patriotica was part of the FARC political strategy. One can easily see the scenario in which the FARC would have been dismantled, peacefully and voluntarily, if the darkest forces of the society had not interfered with the dreams of Colombians. It’s worth to notice that these events happened before the FARC got deeply involved in drug trafficking. A great lesson of the risks that may lay ahead on the road when peace opportunities are wasted. Now we are back to a similar point, after 30 additional years of crippled communities, with an agreement that it’s less popular and in many ways, more imperfect.
- The Ayatollah Khomeini missed the opportunity to sign the peace with Iraq in 1982, under an agreement that was very favorable to Iran and included monetary reparations. He saw the proposal as highly unjust, since the aggressor wasn’t punished enough and pre-war boundaries were to be fully respected. The war lasted until 1988, with two thirds of the deaths occurring in this period. By 1988 Iran was economically devastated, could not finance the war anymore and a full generation of young Iranians had been lost as casualties. Khomeini was forced to sign a much less favorable deal.
- I could go on and on. Vietnam is a good example, since Richard Nixon pledged to end the war as a Presidential candidate. Instead, the war continued with most American deaths occurring during his mandate. In the same period, the new President expanded the war to Cambodia and Laos, actions that created popular support for the Khmer Rouge and gave rise to the conditions that preceded the Cambodian Genocide, in which an estimated 2 million people died. Again, I would like to emphasize the danger of missing the opportunity. In this type of matters, it’s important to remember that everything can get worse.
A very close friend of mine resumed my arguments in one sentence: “the peace will be signed today, or after 1,000 more deaths, or after a million. So, why not now?”. More importantly, he reminded me that the magnitude of the result and accompanying decision is not the same for me, a Colombian living a continent apart; for him, a Colombian sheltered in the Bogota bubble; or for a farmer living in one of the war-torn areas. The result of the referendum has a completely different meaning for this latter. I would like to invite you to think about the victims, of the past, the present and the future. Transcend your own self and consider if your definition of fairness, justice and correctness is not selfishly getting in the middle of a historical decision, that quite frankly, matters most to the victims.