Attending a conference in Colombia in frenetic times

During my visit to Bogotá, Colombia, in September, the atmosphere was full of hope and confidence in settling the bases to reach a long-expected peace. Only a couple of weeks later, it was all about disappointment and frustration.  Last August, the country had witnessed how the government of Colombia and the country´s largest and oldest guerrilla group called the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces -People’s Army (FARC-EP for its initial in Spanish), signed a peace agreement ending more than 50 years of armed conflict. A plebiscite was scheduled on Oct. 2 for the citizens to support the settlement; but unexpectedly 50.21 percent of the voters rejected it.

Sebastian Lippez-De Castro at Colombian conference

As I arrived to Bogotá to attend the 2016 Congress of the Colombian Association of Political Science (ACCPOL) from Sept. 23 to 25, thanks to the support from both the CCPA Latin American Partnership Fund and Universidad Javeriana, I felt nothing but enthusiasm.  International colleagues were also excited and a keynote speaker even highlighted that holding such a Congress in that context was a happy coincidence.  In fact, hundreds of presentations during the conference discussed effective ways to implement the agreement and overcome the armed conflict in terms of repairing not thousands but millions of victims, learning what happened with those who disappeared and the truth about those who committed crimes, promoting development in regions affected by the conflict, giving back the land to those who were displaced from it, taking children and youth out from the armed groups, framing creative initiatives for individual and collective healing, integrating former fighters to civic and political life, advancing the fight against drugs, overcoming social, economic and political exclusion which trigger violence, closing the gap between rural and urban areas, engaging community organizations in the process, promoting ways to educate on building peace from inside communities, preparing public organizations to implement peace programs with territorial lenses, adjusting local, regional and national institutions accordingly, uniting a pluri-ethnic and multicultural country, and so forth.

The Congress’ agenda also included a few panels of politicians and faculty who presented their arguments either in favor or against the peace agreement.  The general sense was that a fair, although not perfect, agreement had been reached.  In general, the Congress attendants appeared optimistic.  Furthermore, local and national media were reporting poll results indicating that most of the respondents planned to vote supporting the agreement; several leaders from other countries worldwide sent messages or even visited the country to express their support to the negotiations, and even the Pope animated voters to back up the process. None of that was enough.

Source: Juan Manuel Santos President Facebook Profile

On Oct. 2 only 37.43 percent of the potential 34,899,945 voters actually made it to the polls, and out them only 49.78 percent approved the agreement.  Only fifty percent plus one of the votes were required to enact the initiative, but those who opposed it gained 43,894 more votes than those who supported it.  Subsequent analysis show that regions in the countryside largely affected by the armed conflict actually supported the peace agreement, while most of the votes against it came from the cities where nothing or little of the war exists.  Adding to this paradox, the role of certain Christian religious groups has been highlighted as instrumental in mobilizing some voters against the agreements.  These groups pointed out the gender approach in the agreement as a supposed threat to the institution of family.  Other contradictors expressed their concerns regarding the agreement in terms of the “light” punishment for those who committed severe crimes or crimes against humanity, and others more criticized political concessions for guerrilla members.  These arguments prevailed.

After the plebiscite results went public, uncertainty reigned. For some hours the institutional stability was in doubt.  Some requested the resignation of the President and other leaders, others feared the return of war, and others just did not know what to expect.  Still others decided to insist and demand a peace agreement now! Interestingly, instead of demoralizing and demobilizing peace supporters, the plebiscite results have re-energized them. Numerous demonstrations have taken place throughout the country, and some demonstrators even decided to camp at the main square of downtown Bogotá to insist on approval of a peace settlement.  Moreover, a few days later President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, and now he, guerrilla leaders, and those who led voters against the agreement, are all negotiating to improve and amend it.

It is still unclear whether a new agreement will be reached, whether or not a new plebiscite will take place, and how long this new round of negotiations will take.  In any case, the sense of optimism and enthusiasm I felt in Sept. has slowly appeared in the country again.  But as the negotiations continue, Colombian and international scholars would be well advised to further explore and try to better understand what happened in that frenetic two months so that our analysis finds a proper balance between the optimism for overcoming violence and political realism.

-Sebastián Líppez-De Castro, MPA ’12, is on leave as a member of the faculty of Political Science and International Relations at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota and a doctoral student in the College of Community and Public Affairs.

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