Colombia: Did Pope Francis Sway Opponents of Peace Accord?

By Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias*

Composite image of Santos, Uribe, and Pope Francis

Ex-president Álvaro Uribe (bottom left) continues to be at odds with current president Juan Manuel Santos (top left) over the government’s peace accords, despite Pope Francis’s call for putting peace above politics. / Santos: UNESCO/ Christelle ALIX / Flickr / Uribe: Centro Democrático / Flickr / Pope Francis: Mazur / Catholic News / Flickr / All: Modified / Creative Commons

Pope Francis’s recent visit to Colombia included a powerful message to the people, but overcoming the country’s deep polarization and high level of uncertainty around implementation of the government’s peace accords with the FARC will remain difficult as national elections next May 2018 approach.  Massive crowds assembled peacefully and homicides plummeted during his visit, and he is credited with facilitating a ceasefire between the government and the country’s other leftist insurgency, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), in force from October 1 to January 12.  The Pontiff’s reflections about peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation were seen in Colombia not only as a prayer but also as a political message to both the Catholic Church hierarchy and the country’s political leaders to unify behind a commitment to peace.

  • Divisions within the Church over the peace process will be difficult to heal. While many clergy have allied the political elite and its more conservative views about the FARC guerrilla movement, many others, such as the Archbishop of Cali, have supported approval of the resulting accords and their implementation.  The Conference of Bishops encouraged participation in last December’s plebiscite, but has remained neutral – despite the Pope’s prodding.  When President Santos and former President Uribe, a strident opponent of the accords, met with Francis in the Vatican in December, the Pope pushed hard for them to find common ground, but they left the meeting without white smoke emerging from the chimney.

Not surprisingly, Santos and Uribe don’t appear any closer to agreement after the Pope’s visit either.  Santos deeply thanked the Pope for his support of the peace process and after his departure, echoed the Pope’s main call to “to build bridges,” to “deactivate hatred,” to renounce vengeance, and to “reconcile ourselves in a fraternal encounter.”  Francis didn’t meet with Uribe (and there’s no indication that the former President requested a meeting) and spent his time in Antioquia meeting with the poor.  Uribe and his Centro Democrático party reiterated their discrepancies with the agreement.  In a public letter to the Pope, the former president said he had never opposed peace, but he forcefully rejected the political character of the war and, claiming the FARC was merely a narcoterrorist organization, and he denied their eligibility to participate in Colombian democracy.  “The legal authorization they have received to spend illicit money on their political activities, and other points, constitute incentives for crime,” he said.  Parties aligned with Uribe in opposition to the accords – Cambio Radical and the Conservative Party – have also tried to delink the Pope’s message about peace from the peace agreement itself.  They advocate a new peace agreement.

Even though the Pope hasn’t helped the two presidents mend fences yet, his concept of peace has resonated with the country’s social and political movements, ethnic groups, victims, and intellectuals.  A nascent coalition of left-leaning minority parties, called Ni-Ni’s, could give voice and organization to them and – perhaps in the future – bring some pressure to bear on opponents of the accords to come toward the middle.  Congressional elections next March and Presidential elections two months later guarantee that implementation of the peace accords will remain front and center in Colombian politics.  The national debate may be politically satisfying to some, but it will essentially preclude the sort of renegotiation that Uribe’s forces demand while also forcing delays in important national reconciliation measures.  Even if he wanted to, Santos doesn’t have the authority to jettison one of the measures most neuralgic for his opponents – the idea that a Truth Commission will bring to justice military officers accused of abuses during Uribe’s presidency and politicians linked to paramilitary forces – and, even if he could, it would not guarantee a strong enough consensus to plow ahead with the peace plan.  Pope Francis may have sown the mustard seeds of a popular movement to press conservatives to compromise, but many challenges remain.

 September 26, 2017

* Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias is a Ph.D. Candidate in International Politics and Conflict Studies at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and a CLALS Fellow.

Colombia: Pope Francis Appeals Directly to the People

By Christian Wlaschütz*

Pope in Popemobile with people surrounding him.

Pope Francis in Colombia last week. / Christian Wlaschütz

By appealing directly to the Colombian people to open their hearts to the hard work of forging lasting peace during his visit last week, Pope Francis avoided direct confrontation with opponents of the peace process but put new pressure on them to cease obstructionism and allow full implementation of the accords.  Since the Congress approved the revised version of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC in December 2016, there has been important progress on the formal level of the implementation of the peace accords.  The FARC surrendered its weapons and started its transformation from military group to political party of the same name.  However, as the country prepares to enter a new phase – with the launch of transitional justice processes under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Truth Commission – peace remains a concept that has still not achieved public enthusiasm.  As I have argued previously (here and here), one of the reasons is that common people do not perceive the relevance of the peace process for themselves and lack a sense of participation in it.  The Pope’s five-day visit, concluding last Sunday, seemed intended to address exactly these challenges.

Under the motto “Let’s make the First Step,” Pope Francis emphasized the importance of reconciliation, peace, truth, justice, and the “culture of encounter” on a spiritual level that transcends the struggles of daily politics.  Millions of Colombians, regardless of political affiliation, turned out to hear Francis’s non-partisan message of peace.  In Villavicencio, a center of armed violence during the war, 6,000 victims and former combatants publicly attested to their path from suffering towards active involvement in society.  Having found healing, forgiveness, and repentance, many now work as psychologists, human rights defenders, or social leaders.  Millions around the country watched the event on TV and saw that reconciliation is not an easy path – one without justice or truth – but includes these elements.  In Cartagena, the Pontiff emphasized two other essential components of peace: social justice and human rights.

Francis managed to combine gestures, massive events, and declarations to emphasize Colombia’s opportunity to leave the violent past behind and open a new chapter of history.  His key message – that it is possible to live together in peace – reached many millions.  In encounters with the poor, indigenous, Afro-Colombians, victims of conflict, and people with special needs, he drove home that social inclusion is a prerequisite for real change.  He emphasized that the peace process “is not a process for minorities,” but rather all of society.  Changing the political dynamics around the peace accords will take time, but the Pope has clearly invited detractors to change their attitude and support the process.  One news commentator hinted at the sort of awareness that would require.  Reporting on Francis’s visit to San Francisco, one of the most marginalized sectors of Cartagena, she said, “This is a Cartagena that we do not know. Thanks to this visit we see the other Cartagena.”  Maybe Colombians will also see the “other Colombia” now.

September 14, 2017

Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

Colombia’s Peace Accord and the Prospects of the War System

By Nazih Richani*

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A FARC demobilization zone is visited by the UN Security Council Field Mission. / UK Mission to the UN / Lorey Campese / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Colombian peace accord has achieved another historic landmark, but the process has been anything but easy – and continues to face serious impediments.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have deposited 60 percent of their weapons in UN containers to be destroyed, a watershed in the history of Colombia, as the 53-year-old insurgent group enters a new phase.  A coalition of political and social groups, however, continues efforts to stymie implementation of the accord.  It includes large landowners, cattle ranchers, agribusinesses, ultra-right religious groups, and extractive multinational corporations.  Its leading spokesmen are former President Álvaro Uribe and former Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, who are spearheading a vigorous campaign arguing that President Juan Manuel Santos and his government conceded too much to the FARC, compromising private property rights, the prevailing land-tenure system, and the country’s Christian values.  (The official line of the Colombian Catholic Church, which has strongly conservative factions, has been “neutral” on the peace accord, although Pope Francis has expressed strong support for it.)

These forces have flexed their muscles before.  They were instrumental in mobilizing opposition to the referendum on the accord last October, which forced the government to incorporate their demands by making the language of the accord clear that property rights and the agribusiness-extractive-rentier economic model remained dominant.  The opposition remains on the offensive, this time using the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Constitutional Court.  While Public Prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martínez was going after FARC money, alleging that the rebels did not declare all their assets, the Constitutional Court challenged the “Fast-Track” process by which passage of bills related to implementation of the peace accord could be accelerated by reducing the number of parliamentary debates and the time required for approval.  This opened the door for the opposition coalition in parliament to challenge the accord repeatedly with protracted debate and amendments.  Its main goal has been to prevent any change in the rural land tenure system and block the inclusion of the FARC in the political process.

The opponents’ ability to tip the political balance against the accord is likely to grow as Colombia prepares for its presidential election in May 2018.  The Santos government, the left, and center-left have already looked weak while trying to make even modest reforms necessary to create conditions for a lasting peace and facilitating a transition from a war system political economy to a different one.  The paramilitaries, including old groups that remained operative after the formal demobilization of 2005-06 (such as the “Urabeños,” mutated from the former United-Defense Forces, AUC); the drug cartels and organized crime; the dramatic expansion of coca plantations; and mining of dubious legality are important components of the “old” war system that are still potent and fuel the reactionary coalition.  The exit of the FARC (and possibly the National Liberation Army, ELN, as well) are certain to change the composition and political economy of the war system that has shaped Colombia for more than four decades, but new actors (the Urabeños and others) are emerging and mutations are taking place.  These forces will persist and wield considerable power as long as Colombia is not willing or capable of addressing the countrys need for agrarian reforms and pursuing sustainable economic development based on a more equitable distribution of wealth and income.

June 27, 2017

* Nazih Richani is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at Kean University.  In 2014, the State University of New York Press published a revised and updated version of his 2002 study entitled Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia.

Historic August for LGBT Rights in Colombia

By Juliana Martínez

Colombia Diversa / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Colombia has again shown itself to be a country of contrasts – a society ostensibly ruled by Catholic and conservative morals with one of the hemisphere’s most progressive Constitutional Courts – with two important legal decisions on LGBT rights.  The Court has defended the democratic, pluralistic, and inclusive spirit of the Colombian Constitution against powerful authoritarian and conservative forces for years.  In 2007 and 2008, it granted pension, social security, and property rights to registered same-sex couples, and it ruled that same-sex couples “constitute a family” in 2011.  In spite of some recent rulings tarnishing its liberal record, last month the Court made two decisions that, though limited, have historic implications.

  • It ruled in favor of step-child adoptions by gay couples.  After much political, legal, and even religious debate, the Court broke a four-year silence on the highly contested issue, ruling 6 to 3 that Verónica Botero could legally adopt the biological children of her wife, Anna Leiderman.  The ruling does not explicitly allow joint adoption by gay couples, but the decision cites ample scientific evidence and declares that parental homosexuality cannot be considered a risk factor for children, thus leaving the door open for further LGBT-friendly jurisprudence in the matter.
  • The court recognized the gender identity of trans women by declaring that they do not have to comply with the compulsory military service required of all Colombian males.  The case centered on Gracy Kelly Bermúdez, a transgender woman who filed a lawsuit against the mayor’s office in Bogotá when she was denied a job for failing to provide proof of her military service.  Bermudez had not entered the military because she identifies as a woman, and therefore did not have the Military Service Registration Certificate (libreta militar) required when applying for jobs, studying at the university level or accessing health care services.  She would have been exempted if she had undergone an official sex change – the right to change one’s sex has been protected in Colombia since 1993 – but this can only be legally done after undergoing sex realignment surgery, a procedure that most trans women do not have access to, cannot afford, or do not want.  Therefore, despite their gender identity and expression, the legal sex of the majority of trans women continues to be “male.”  The Court decided in favor of Bermúdez and ordered the mayor’s office to hire her immediately.

These decisions are far-reaching.  In the Bermúdez case, the Court was essentially prioritizing gender identity over assigned sex at birth.  It declared that asking trans women for the Military Service Registration Certificate when hiring them is unconstitutional because it violates their right to define their own gender.  Furthermore, the Court told Congress to draft a bill that regulates the rights of transgender people in Colombia, paving the way for a much-needed Gender Identity Law.  The ruling also has deep regional implications.  Since Argentina passed a groundbreaking Gender Identity Law in 2012, many countries have been struggling to achieve similar results – and the Colombian legal precedent can become a viable alternative for impact litigation.  Currently, at least ten countries in Latin America have compulsory military service with different levels of enforcement attached to non-compliance.  But as the Bermúdez case illustrates, military conscription mandates can turn into strange, yet effective platforms to denounce how the state routinely imposes gender identity on its citizens, often against their own will, and to catalyze legal reform that advances LGBT rights in the Americas.

* Dr. Juliana Martínez teaches gender and sexuality and Latin American Literature in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

September 25, 2014