After the Colombian Ceasefire Deal

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Can Grassroots Communities Show a Pathway Toward Reconciliation?

Entrance_Peace_CommunityPhoto: Entrance to the Peace Community San José de Apartado, Colombia  (Copyright: Tamera)

History is being made in Colombia. After three and a half years, the peace negotiations between the administration of President Santos and the FARC-Ep guerrilla group taking place in Havana, Cuba have reached a breakthrough with a “bilateral and definite ceasefire” signed by both parties on Thursday, June 23rd, putting an end to the longest lasting internal war the world has ever seen.

The armed struggle between the Marxist-Leninist rebels and the Colombian state, persisting over 52 years, killed more than 220,000 people, displaced over 5,700,000 and left the country traumatized. FARC-Ep, a guerrilla troop, which had started out as defenders of the marginalized and silenced, became wrapped up in the drug trade, vile kidnappings and extreme blood-shedding as their movement mutated from one of resistance to survival, by any means necessary. After a tumultuous journey, they have now committed to renounce violence and participate nonviolently in the social and political process of the country.

This is a crucial milestone for Colombia and Latin America, which we have to salute. At the same time, however, we must not be mistaken: This does not mean there is peace in Colombia now. This is merely a first important step in a long process. The negotiations will continue to define the details of the peace deal until August; there still are many open delicate questions to be answered. In addition to the deal with FARC-Ep, the government is leading another negotiation with ELN, the second largest Colombian guerrilla force. Beyond the cessation of hostilities between the government and the guerrilla, peace in Colombia will require the beginning of a reconciliation process, which above all must support and protect those most direly affected by the war – farmers, indigenous people, human rights defenders and union activists. Among these, still many doubts about the peace process remain. Warning voices come from some of the country’s most courageous activists, for example the peace community San José de Apartadó.

San José is a community of over 600 persecuted farmers in nonviolent resistance in the north of the country. Their history epitomizes the drama of this country and more broadly, of persecuted people throughout the Global South. Since 1997, the people of San José have been establishing an island of humaneness in the middle of a bloody civil war. As they did not receive any protection from massacres and expulsions by the Colombian state, founding a solidarity community with a neutral stance in the war seemed to be their last hope for survival. They refuse to cooperate with any armed party, do not carry weapons and allow no drugs. San José is a ‘realized utopia’ for a world of solidarity and peace and has inspired other villages in the country to establish similar “neutral zones.” Today the project represents a movement of farmers, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities throughout the country, which have long been powering another peace process – from the bottom up.

Yet paradoxically, it seems that the Havana peace deal could be used to dismantle projects like San José. How can this be?

San José de Apartadó is located on land rich in natural resources, which multinational companies have been eager to exploit for many years. This is a major, yet far less known, aspect of the Colombian war. In the shadow of the conflict between government and guerrillas, paramilitary troops have long terrorized the civil population. According to estimates, paramilitaries have killed far more people than the war between guerrilla and the state, yet the paramilitary violence has continued during the peace negotiations. These right-wing death squads were initially formed in the 1980’s, predominantly financed and deployed by landlords, politicians and multinationals to drive the rural population into the cities and crush civil resistance to make way for lucrative mining and agricultural mega-projects. “The paramilitaries became the hidden right hand of the state,” says Arley Tuberquia, spokesperson of San José, “commissioned for the dirty work that the army cannot carry out in the light of day.”

After many years of the Colombian government denying the existence of paramilitary troops in the country, Thursday’s ceasefire deal was a positive surprise as the common declaration of government and FARCE-Ep states their intention to disarm paramilitary groups and their successors. However, in the final deal and its subsequent implementation they will have to prove the sincerity of such statements. Without dismantling the paramilitaries, there will be no peace in Colombia.

As they refused to leave their lands and established an alternative community that resisted the exploitation of the multinationals, the people of San José became the target of a ruthless extermination campaign, carried out by paramilitaries in alliance with the state army as well as mass media and former president Uribe, slandering them as “terrorists.” The community suffered countless massacres killing more than 200 of their members. Despite all they endured, they have continued, bound together by a deep solidarity and the unwavering commitment to overcome hatred, to answer the atrocities by creating a living example of another possible world. As their late visionary Eduar Lanchero said, “As long as we are able to transform pain into hope, there will always be community.” Essential to their survival has also been the support of numerous NGOs and international activists. San José allied with the Tamera peace research center in Portugal and other like-minded projects around the world in building models for a sustainable, post-capitalist culture free of war.

There have been less killings over the past years, yet the efforts to dismantle San José have not stopped. Many community members have been offered money to vacate and there has been ongoing trickery in attempt to take away the farmers’ properties. After the peace treaty, many international organizations that have so far supported persecuted people in Colombia will likely move on to other crisis areas, thereby leaving San José in a very vulnerable position. Gloria Cuartas, former mayor of Apartadó, has accompanied the peace community since its foundation. She says, “While the world will soon believe there is peace in Colombia, paramilitaries still continue to go behind those working for human and union rights. We have evidence that parts of the government and multinationals will use the cover of apparent peace to manage what they so far have not – ending the peace community.”

An international alliance, including world-renowned linguist and scholar Noam Chomsky, Bolivian water warrior Oscar Olivera, Mexican writer Gustavo Esteva, former Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim, Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner, among many others, are now urging the negotiating parties in Havana to include a clause in the final agreement guaranteeing the right for Colombian peace villages to live freely on their land. The success of this calling would not only usher a new era for San José, but be a milestone for territorial justice – for the rights of countless marginalized farmers and Indigenous Peoples all over the country.

Tens of thousands of guerrillas will soon cease fighting and try to reintegrate into society. This will likely be more difficult than reaching a political contract – and in order for this process to succeed it will require authentic examples for reconciliation and nonviolent coexistence. Could villages like San José de Apartadó, which have been most brutally persecuted, now turn into role models for a future without war in Colombia? As the alliance of human rights experts and peace activists argue, such grassroots peace projects indeed hold an essential key for the next phase of the Colombian peace process, turning the silence of arms into lasting social justice.

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