Approximately 100 demonstrators gathered outside the Colombian consulate in Montreal on Monday, October 10, at the corner of Rue Metcalfe and Sherbrooke. They rallied in favour of peace in Colombia after approximately 52 years of war between the federal government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The FARC grew out of a communist movement which organized grassroots anti-imperialist resistance in rural areas against corporate and state violence, and provided basic supplies and aid to impoverished communities which were effectively outside government jurisdiction.
Since the 1980s, however, the group has engaged in increasingly aggressive paramilitary operations aimed at expanding the territory under its control. These operations have been largely financed by cocaine trafficking, gold mining, and kidnapping for ransom.
Additionally, they have committed well-documented human rights abuses including the torture and killing of hostages, the recruitment of child soldiers, and violence against Indigenous peoples.
At various moments in its history, the FARC has faced armed opposition from right-wing paramilitaries, sometimes supported variously by drug cartels, Colombian state actors, and American CIA-backed counter-insurgents. Rural populations have suffered as a result of decades of violence between these factions.
Peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC have been attempted several times since the 1980s, with the latest iteration having come closest to achieving a workable solution.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC leadership signed a peace deal on September 26, concluding four years of peace negotiations. The final agreement, however, was rejected by the Colombian population in a plebiscite, which the “NO” camp won narrowly with 50.2 per cent of the vote. Only 37 per cent of the electorate participated.
“The purpose of this march,” read the event’s Facebook page, “is to ask the Colombian government and the FARC that they reach a new agreement, if possible this same year […] and that the bilateral ceasefire is not halted!”
Prior to the march, organizers warned attendees not to bring banners that reflect their positions on the referendum.
The event’s Facebook page specified that “this event should not feature banners that promote ‘YES’ or the ‘NO’ vote of the plebiscite. Let’s bring white flags, Colombian flags, and white balloons.”
“The purpose of this march is to ask the Colombian government and the FARC that they reach a new agreement, if possible this same year […] and that the bilateral ceasefire is not halted!”
Photographs were taken in front of the consulate before demonstrators walked down Avenue Metcalfe to Dorchester Square, chanting “Queremos la paz! We want peace! Viva la paz! Long live peace!”
Organizers had also arranged for rally participants to videotape messages of hope and peace for family members and others back in Colombia.
Organizers on the urgency for peace
In an interview with The Daily, José Camargo, a Colombian psychology and honours philosophy student at McGill and one of the main organizers of the demonstration, explained why the demonstration emphasized peace rather than the “YES” or “NO” votes.
“The conflict between the FARC guerillas and the government has lasted for 52 years at least,” he said, “and for the first time in the history of our country, we have reached […] a bilateral ceasefire. But since the plebiscite, the bilateral ceasefire might end. We don’t know yet.”
According to the BBC, Santos announced on October 4, two days after the referendum, that the bilateral ceasefire between the FARC and the government will have to end on October 31 if no common ground can be reached.
“Queremos la paz! We want peace! Viva la paz! Long live peace!”
“The reason why we’re marching is because we all want peace in the country,” Camargo said. “We all want this conflict to end. And at the same time, something that we want to make clear is here [at this rally] we are not taking a stance on the result of the plebiscite. [It] already happened. […] All Colombians want peace, whether or not they voted ‘YES’ or ‘NO.’”
“The plebiscite was asking for the approval of a specific peace agreement, but not necessarily for peace,” he continued. “So a lot of people who voted against the plebiscite […] want peace for the country as well. They just want some points in the agreement to change.”
Maria Silgado, another main organizer of the event, spoke with The Daily about the urgency of peace in Colombia.
“We don’t want to wait anymore because not only [do we want the] innocent people, [but] the people involved directly with the war–those kids fighting against each other–we want them to be part of our society. We want them to have the same opportunities that we have,” she said.
“The conflict between the FARC guerillas and the government has lasted for 52 years at least, and for the first time in the history of our country, we have reached […] a bilateral ceasefire. But since the plebiscite, the bilateral ceasefire might end. We don’t know yet.”
Silgado went on to praise Santos’ handling of the negotiations with the FARC. Santos recently was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220,00 Colombians and displaced close to six million people.”
“He wants to end the war after 52 years, and nobody before him could do that,” Silgado said. “He’s the […] first president who’s there sitting across the table from [the FARC], and trying to find a way out [of the war]. I think the prize is well deserved, but he needs to keep working. [Peace] has to come faster.”
“YES” or “NO”
While the event put an emphasis on peace over partisanship, many demonstrators had differing views on the referendum and the peace agreement itself.
Juan Diego, a McGill student with family in Colombia, favored the “YES” vote.
“I think the agreement was very fair,” he said. “It took almost 5 years to negotiate […] Many international organizations thought it was one of the most comprehensive peace treaties in history, and at the same time, many victims of the conflict were for the agreement, because they didn’t want others to suffer what they had suffered.”
“The ‘NO’ vote passed though,” he pointed out, “and we have to respect the democratic decision. People voted ‘NO,’ and we cannot go against that. The treaty needs to be renegotiated again, and [the government] needs to include the NO camp in the negotiations.”
Camilo, another demonstrator, concurred with Diego’s views, and addressed many “NO” camp voters’ problem with the Colombian government’s leniency toward past FARC crimes.
“It took almost 5 years to negotiate […] Many international organizations thought it was one of the most comprehensive peace treaties in history, and at the same time, many victims of the conflict were for the agreement, because they didn’t want others to suffer what they had suffered.”
“The agreement was quite fair between the two parts,” he said. “Let’s be honest: if the guerillas would have known they would go to jail for the rest of their lives, they would have never agreed.”
However, Valentine, another student at McGill, pointed out fears of FARC leadership joining mainstream Colombian politics. “I think the [biggest] fear of the people is that if those [FARC guerillas] who committed serious crimes [might] go into politics,” she said.
According to CNN, “under the agreement, FARC would have been given 10 seats in Congress and their votes would have started to count in 2018.”
Camilo noted that “it’s better that they have a voice [in Congress] and fighting for what they believe in [there], instead of fighting with guns. […] It’s better to fight with words than with weapons.”
In contrast, Valentine said that “it is scary to know that someday someone who killed a lot of people might be President. I know that it might not happen, but it could.”
Peace is not “a political thing”
Overall, attendees of the march felt that the peace process in Colombia has become too politicized and that increased civility in negotiations would be necessary to assure peace.
“It became a political thing,” said Alicia Remont Ospina, a friend of both Diego and Valentine. “Some people voted against Santos [out of spite]. The agreement became about politics, not peace in Colombia.”
“It is scary to know that someday someone who killed a lot of people might be President. I know that it might not happen, but it could.”
Diego agreed. “The issue became whether you are for or against peace,” he said. “But that’s not the issue. [It was] simply do you agree with the agreement or not?”