In Colombia the Winds of Peace Are Blowing: Interview with Piedad Córdoba
Following President Juan Manual Santos’s August 27 announcement that exploratory talks were underway with the FARC to put an end to Colombia’s armed conflict, the organization “Colombians for Peace” issued a proposal for achieving peace from the perspective of civil society. The Americas Program was present and interviewed one of the spokeswomen, social and political leader Piedad Córdoba, about this new and, hopefully, definitive peace process.
In recent months, there have been rumors about possible talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Finally President Juan Manual Santos put an end to speculation with a brief communique in which he acknowledged the existence of “exploratory talks with the FARC” and the possibility that guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN) would also be interested in participating in negotiations to end the violence.
President Santos stated that the government’s participation in a peace process must be based on three guiding principles: 1) it must learn from past mistakes to avoid repeating them; 2) any peace process must lead to the end of conflict, not prolong it; and 3) military presence and operations would continue “in every centimeter of national territory.”
That last principle was clearly an allusion to the unsuccessful peace process carried out in 1998 during the administration of Andrés Pastrana. At that time, the government conceded a “zona de distensión” [demilitarized zone] to facilitate negotiations, but the practical result was that the FARC built up its military strength.
Meanwhile, the newspaper El Espectador revealed that the government and the FARC have been planning talks for some time. A meeting took place in Havana, which was attended by a representative of the FARC, a high-level presidential advisor and the president’s brother. It was reported that Venezuela and Chile would be the first guarantors of the peace process and that talks would take place in Cuba and Norway.
The president’s announcement of an eventual peace process is significant. It addresses a demand from many sectors of the country, especially those suffering the cruelties of war, for a politically negotiated, peaceful end to Colombia’s many years of armed conflict. The citizens’ organization Colombians for Peace (CCP) has taken up the call for peace. CCP has persistently tried to bring about peace, in opposition to a strategy of military defeat and annihilation. CCP has also been recognized for mediating the release of politicians, police, members of the armed forces, and, most recently, a French journalist held hostage by the FARC; some of the hostages had been held for many years. This fact alone makes the group indispensable in any upcoming talks between the government and the guerrillas.
A serious risk to a process that is still in the early stages is the threat of retaliation from the enemies of peace. Such retaliation is likely to take the form of the typical dirty war, attacks on social leaders, disappearances, and acts designed to undermine citizen hopes of a peaceful solution. As this article went to press, just days after the exploratory conversations were confirmed, two violent explosions took place in the cities of Calí and Popayán; there is no clear indication as to who was responsible.
Civil Society’s Peace Proposal
In the wake of the president’s announcement, Colombians for Peace presented a proposal called “Peace Held Hostage: The Need for Urgent Change” at a press conference on August 29. The document reflects the concerns of many civil society organizations throughout the country: campesinos, students, indigenous, workers, organizations of victims of violence, academics and other social sectors who seek to be part of a broad-based negotiating table.
It emphasizes that the conflict has roots in longstanding, unresolved structural problems, and says it is time to look at “the reality of the country without omissions and without falsehoods” and recognize that the conflict is a consequence of a complex social situation. Evidence of that complexity can be found in an economic model that has made Colombia one of the most unequal societies on the planet, in high levels of corruption, a crisis in the administration of justice, impunity in serious human rights cases involving public security forces; and connections between paramilitaries and political leaders, among other factors.
The document proposes beginning with the recognition that “the country is at a crossroads that throws into question the whole political process and whether the construction of true democracy is possible.” The proposal acknowledges the efforts of President Santos in seeking negotiations with the guerrillas and agrees with the president that one of the guiding principles of the process must be to learn from errors that caused previous attempts at negotiating a peace agreement to fail.
The last peace process with the FARC came under severe questioning from the right, and was used to justify the hardline military strategy pursued by the government of Alvaro Uribe. From 2002 to 2011 that strategy cost at least 75,000 lives as a direct result of armed conflict, of the 186,524 violent deaths registered in Colombia during the period, according to official figures from the Colombian Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science. The obvious question is whether all this bloodshed doesn’t make crystal clear the need for a new hope for peace.
CCP says that one of the first steps in these preliminary negotiations must be a change in language: This means recognizing the political existence of the adversary and extending bridges between opposing positions that allow for the vindication of politics over violent actions and the threat of arms from both sides. Moreover, there is a serious threat that starting negotiations without a bilateral ceasefire could lead to violations of international law from both sides.
One aspect of the proposal, which no doubt will be among the most contentious, is the need for a legal framework for transitional justice that is more ambitious than the legislation recently approved by the Senate known as the “Legal Framework for Peace”. According to Colombians for Peace, the recent law was not designed as the product of consensus or negotiations between the two parties. In addition, it supposedly does not recognize political crimes and related offense, which is essential for those who want to disarm but do not want to be treated as “terrorists”. No doubt this is a subject for broad debate, not only in Colombia, but in all armed conflicts, and implies sacrifices and balancing peace in exchange for commitments, truth, and pardon.
In summary, Colombians for Peace considers it crucial to support the exploratory talks, to rigorously respect international humanitarian law in the process of “humanizing the war”, “to make sure that the rights of political prisoners are respected by applying national and international standards, to pave the way for an efficient transitional justice system that accepts and protects the idea of political struggles. Alliances must be made to counteract the powerful diatribe of the enemies of peace; a new political and legal framework must be advanced, one that is based on social consensus and transformation with the participation of multiple voices.”
Colombians for Peace also called for a bilateral ceasefire to prevent further militarization; avoid a humanitarian crisis, and put a stop to paramilitarism as a response to negotiations, particularly on the part of those with economic interests in seizing land.
Piedad Córdoba Speaks
Social and political leader Piedad Cordoba responded to questions from the Americas Program about peace talks between FARC and ELN guerrillas and the Colombian government. The following is excerpted from her remarks during the press conference as well as our interview with her after the release of the document “Peace Held Hostage: The Need for Urgent Change.”
Americas Program (AP): As a representative of civil society, what guarantees are you asking from the government and those involved in the conflict on behalf of regional leaders, who are speaking out and mobilizing around this proposal?
Piedad Córdoba: I think you have to ask the Colombian government for guarantees, and that starts with language. Because if the government proposes something as important as peace talks and later uses the language of war, it puts at risk everything that those who have been working for peace have accomplished so far. We can’t just ask the rebels for guarantees; the Colombian State is the one that has to give the guarantee, and, obviously, request and demand of the rebels that they don’t involve civil society and the community in general [in the conflict].
For example, I am taking advantage of this opportunity to tell the president of the republic to withdraw military bases from La Julia, in La Uribe [Department of Mena], where one of the [army] bunkers is located exactly 20 meters from primary and secondary school. This has been a source of lot of conflict for the community in the region.
You have to be very clear and respectful about all this. There is a first phase that has to do with the exploratory talks, that has to do with discussion, in which the government has already agreed with the rebels as to how they are going to go forward [negotiations], where they are going to proceed and the government will announce the agreements that it has made with the rebels. What we want is for society and people in general to also be able to contribute, to be part of the discussion about the negotiations.
The decision about who accompanies [the talks] will be made by the FARC, the ELN, and the government in due time, and I think that … it’s not about whether I am or am not there. I think we already are and we have been since we began to work on freeing those held captive, the whole struggle for humanitarian exchanges, women for peace in the world, the various declarations we made, writing letters, prison visits; we even reached an agreement with the government to start that in the coming days.
Now some members of Colombians for Peace are involved in this, but I don’t think it’s a form of pressure nor a correct way to begin to influence government decisions. We have earned a space, an enormously strong working position. We have been doing this, traveling throughout the country. You remember the uproar that took place in Cauca for what I said about the withdrawal of military bases. I imagine that there will also be reactions to what I said two days ago in La Julia that go beyond la Uribe [Department of Meta]. But this has to do with [your question about] about protecting civilians from the conflict. That’s our job. Moreover, we are doing it with full responsibility, contributing, being bold, proposing alternatives, and I think we are satisfied with that.
We are satisfied if the government has decided to name—I don’t know if it’s true or not– Luís Eduardo (Lucho) Garzón [the former mayor of Bogotá], to propose that people are going to accompanying the talks in Havana or wherever. For us that’s good, because what we want is peace, not the limelight or to create our own agendas. But as organizations, yes, we are going to insist on the possibility of having our proposals on the negotiating table.
AP: How do you make this peace process successful? You state that if the structural causes of the conflict are not resolved, surely this will end up as just one more peace process.
Piedad Córdoba: Well, I think the way to make it successful is to do what we are doing right now, constantly working, and meeting. Besides, there’s something else that’s important: I don’t think you create peace by sitting back comfortably in an easy chair, offering opinions and criticizing. When you travel throughout the country, that’s where your agenda comes from.
We all start from that basis–and the document says it—that you can’t go back and repeat past errors. One of those errors, the most important, was not having agreed to a bilateral ceasefire at the time and then creating a double agenda: One wing building up for war and the other sending a message about the possibility of peace. But at the same time there’s a third mistake that can’t be repeated again, which is that people, the nation, civil society, which we are all part of, cannot be excluded. And we’re going to work to earn our space and, however, difficult it may be, not allow the talks to stop.
AP: In recent months several human rights organizations have reported an increase in so-called emerging paramilitary gangs in several regions of the country. How can we ensure that not having a repeat of the infamous Unión Patriótica phenomenon [leftist political movement violently annihilated after the peace process began during the administration of conservative Belisario Betancourt in 1985] be one of the tenets of the negotiations?
Piedad Córdoba: I think that the country and the world in general do not want to see it happen again, not only the exclusion, but also the intimidation of those of us who are working for peace. We had a chance to ask for an appointment with UNASUR …to bring up our concerns not only as “Marcha Patriótica” [recently created Colombian political and social movement], but also as organizations in search of a political solution.
I don’t think it can be repeated [the genocide of the Unión Patriótica]. In the first place because we aren’t going to let ourselves get killed so easily. It’s not that we are going to buy rifles or bulletproof vests, but that we have a moral and ethical force in this country to rise above those who think that we should disappear.
In the second place, because our itinerary for the country, our way of “walking the talk,” means we rely on the work of the communities to denounce what’s wrong and support the work, but at the same time appealing to the international community. We are no different from those who today can talk about having peace; we are the same. The difference is that, despite the difficulties, we have continuously been searching for peace negotiations.
AP: Piedad, is there hope for peace in this country at this moment?
Piedad Córdoba: I think so, but it’s a hope that has to be filled with content, hope in the work that has yet to be done, in concrete possibilities of building agendas. Above all because it gives breathing room to the popular movement that has been organizing itself in this country for some time.
AP: Several years ago you were kidnapped by Carlos Castaño, the top paramilitary leader in Colombia. Recalling that terrible episode that almost cost you your life, what arguments for peace in the country helped save your life, and remain valid at this time?
Piedad Córdoba: I think that the most important thing in life is the common thread that connects your actions: coherence, the commitment that is constant. What brings us to search for peace, for a political solution, is precisely the desire to put an end to such a shameful war. It is incredible that a country said to be thriving is not capable of resolving the differences that we have as a country, as a society, as a political entity.
AP: What do you think about the fact that the same Inspector General who barred you from holding office as senator, as Magistrate of the Council of State reversed the disciplinary sanction against General Mauricio Santoy. [Santoy was chief of security for President Uribe from 2002 to 2006. In August he pleaded guilty in a Virginia federal court to charges of aiding a drug-trafficking paramilitary organization classified by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. In 2010 Córdoba was removed from her senate seat and barred from holding office for 18 years for alleged ties to the FARC]
Piedad Córdoba: What the inspector general did with me was all a show, it’s a show he’s putting on because everyone knows that he was friends with all those people on the right, that from his position in the legal system he protected them, all their felonies, and now he wants to clean up his act to stay in the Office of the Inspector General. Hopefully Congress is aware that the worst thing they could do is re-elect him because he is going to be a total enemy of peace.
AP: What should the role of the inspector general be in an eventual peace process?
Piedad Córdoba: The role it has to play according to the constitution. [The Procuraduría or Office of the Inspector General is the highest office of the Ministerio Público, which, according to Article 118 of the Colombian Constitution, is responsible for “the safeguarding and promotion of human rights, the protection of the public interest and monitoring the official conduct of those who hold public office”].
AP: What message would you send to those who have persecuted and stigmatized you if you were sitting with them at a negotiating table?
Piedad Córdoba: I think the fundamental message is that there is space for discussion and debate in a civilized manner, and that what we are trying to do is resurrect politics, not consolidate the war that the policies of the right have forced on us for the past 15 years.
Alex Sierra R. is an anthropologist who has also worked as an independent investigator and consultant on issues such as human rights and international cooperation efforts for development and public policy in Colombia. He has worked in active conflict zones and with vulnerable communities in his country for the last 12 years. He is a monthly columnist with the Americas Program www.americas.org.
Translator: Barbara Belejack
Editor: Laura Carlsen
For more information:
Colombians for Peace: Peace take hostage and the need for an urgent change to achieve it. October 9, 2012, CIP Americas.
Photo: Damián Quiroga