Colombians have been living through war for more than fifty years. In a conflict primarily between the state and a leftist insurgency, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), other various antagonists (paramilitary forces, competing leftist guerrilla groups, and narco-armies) have complicated and bloodied the picture: over 220,000 people have been killed—80 percent of them civilians—and over five million people have been displaced. Multiple generations of Colombians have lived with fear, distrust, and rancor. For a short time this fall, it seemed that the long war was coming to an end. But after government and FARC forces signed a much-lauded peace agreement this September, the agreement narrowly failed to pass a national referendum in the polls on October 2.
In perhaps the most important vote to take place in Colombia this century, turnout was typically low (torrential rains kept many at home) with less than 38 percent of the population casting a vote. The No camp won by a margin of around 54,000 votes, with over 170,000 votes nullified. Some see the results more as a victory for abstention than a directed mandate from the populace. Fortunately, so far, the country has not plunged back into carnage: both the Colombian government and FARC forces have maintained that they will go back to the negotiating table, determined to bring lasting peace. Days after the failed referendum, President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In his 2004 book, Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization, Mario Murillo writes, “The conflict in Colombia is not about drugs, nor guerrillas, nor ‘terrorism,’ but rather about the unwillingness of the country’s elite to open up spaces for truly democratic participation in areas of economic and social development and political representation.” The efforts to bring an end to the conflict may be marred by a similar unwillingness on behalf of the country’s elite to open spaces for the airing of long-held grievances. Hector Aristizábal, a Colombian performance artist and therapist, told me that many of those still in power “have a lot to hide. They are more afraid of the truth than they are of war.”
Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory estimated that of the nearly 2,000 massacres that occurred between 1980 and 2012, 74 percent of them were committed by paramilitary groups or government security forces. The leading proponent of the No vote, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by leftist guerrillas, brought a mano dura (“iron fist”) to the conflict when he was elected president in 2002. In the following years, thousands of civilians were slaughtered by paramilitary death squads in what became known as the False Positives Scandal, where murdered civilians were dressed up, post-mortem, to appear as guerrilla soldiers. Uribe has been accused of having ties to the paramilitary, and current president Santos was his Defense Minister during the scandal. Despite his efforts towards peace, “Santos is not a saint,” Marcela Vásquez-León, the Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, told me. When pressed for an explanation as to why he received the Nobel Prize, Vásquez-León told me that it felt “as if they were giving the prize to the Colombian people.”
But why wouldn’t the country want to vote for peace? The question was framed to Colombians, in what many critiqued as an oversimplification (or a false dichotomy) as “¿Apoya usted el Acuerdo Final para la Terminación del Conflicto y la Construcción de una Paz Estable y Duradera?” (“Do you support the Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Peace that is Stable and Lasting?”)
Many may have pushed for “No” in part due to a fear that was rekindled by the peace process itself. As Greg Grandin wrote in The Nation:
The Colombian elite, especially the retrograde sector Uribe represents, has much to lose with peace: The end of fighting would create a space in which the country’s many social conflicts—having to do with land, labor, and resource extraction—could be dealt with on their own terms, rather than distorted through counterinsurgent politics. And peace would be costly for some sectors, especially for all those Colombians in the “security” business who for years have fed off the Plan Colombia [U.S.-military aid in the War on Drugs] trough.
The conservative elite passed along their fear of peace to the populace, in what one major No-camp strategist effectively admitted was a campaign that included deliberate misinformation, relying on years of red-baiting and homophobia. The peace agreement would have guaranteed political franchise to the leftist FARC—five guaranteed seats in both the Senate and the lower chamber through 2018. The agreement also contains language recognizing the victimization of women—which some see as an opportunity to usher in LGBTQ-friendly reforms—though changes in the agreement, after the failed referendum, could purge such language.
Actual victims of the conflict overwhelmingly voted for peace. Even the small town of Bojayá, where 110 civilians were killed inside a church during a fierce battle between FARC and paramilitary forces in 2002, voted 96 percent in favor of peace. The difference, some analysts point out, between a Yes vote and a No vote may have been, in large part, based on proximity to the violence.
In 1982, at 22 years old, Hector Aristizábal was taken by the Colombian Army and tortured for three days: starved, deprived of sleep, beaten, electrocuted, and water-boarded. Government soldiers had discovered a pamphlet in his house that was considered subversive. He also was studying at a public university, which the government saw as a hotbed of communist propagandizing. He was accused of being a member of the ELN, the secondary leftist insurgent group in the country. Aristizábal told me that the only reason he wasn’t killed was that it was election week, with international observers in the country, and that a murder would have attracted too much attention. Decades later, in 1999, his brother was kidnapped, tortured for ten days, and killed by rightwing paramilitaries. For years Aristizábal didn’t think anybody in a military uniform was a human being. “I dehumanized them, and in so doing, I dehumanized myself.” But, he survived, and healed: “I had therapy and love and friends and art to process my pain.”
Today, Aristizábal, the Founder and Artistic Director of ImaginAction, hopes for peace. Indeed, he explained to me that the outcome of the referendum is a good thing. “The country is energized,” he said. If the Yes vote had won it would have been too easy, he explained. “Colombia is a completely polarized country,” and it has a lot of educating to do. Land reform, indigenous rights, gender equality—the peace agreement is about more than laying down arms.
“All reparations are symbolic,” Aristizábal told me. “No one will ever bring back our dead. No one can take away our trauma. No amount of money can pay me back for my brother, for my tranquility.” Before we can achieve peace, he said, “We need to be able to imagine a country where we don’t need to kill each other.”
President Santos and FARC leaders are back at the drawing board now, trying to implement suggested changes from those in the No camp—and trying to exercise that imagination. A week after the referendum, hundreds of Colombians began occupying Bolivar Square in central Bogotá, where artist Doris Salcedo has covered the plaza in a white shroud, asking Colombians to remember the war, as well as to try to imagine its end.