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Colombia: building the first bridge


From the Llanos del Yarí — a special series for LAB. Part two will be a report from the FARC’s Tenth Conference.

The Colombian Middle Classes and FARC: The First Bridge

We arrived after several hours on unpaved road at a gloomy town which was little more than a mud-track through road with wooden houses clustered around it, and a billiard hall with rancheras that boomed late into the night. A border town of sorts. There were no police there; we had left them far behind. Beyond this point, we were in their territory. A four-by-four took us to the wooden house, over the 1300km of roads that they themselves have built in this region, the Llanos del Yarí, the flat plains that meet the foot of the Andes mountains on the border between the departments of Meta and Caquetá, where dense Amazon jungle gives way to land stripped bare for cattle-grazing.
This photo and header image: Lucas Peña, Rodeemos el Diálogo
We were invited to come in and rest. We had to leave our shoes outside. The house was spotless, the floor swept, and red buckets with herbs and aloe vera plants surrounding the patio. Within minutes we were being given rice and plantain by a girl in camouflage trousers. After lunch, we sat in the soporific heat, to wait for our meeting. As I wrote in my last blog about the challenges for the Colombian plebiscite, one of the hardest things for the urban middle classes to swallow is the idea of FARC participating in politics after their demobilisation. The official discourse during ex-President Álvaro Uribe’s eight years in power was that there was no armed conflict in the country, but rather Colombia faced an internal terrorist threat. When President Santos came to power in 2010, one of his first measures was to ‘recognise’ the existence of the conflict, which mean that international humanitarian law could be applied. This prepared the ground for talking to FARC, and seeing them as a legitimate political antagonist. But the country has been slow to catch up. The Colombian conflict has largely taken part in the countryside, and many of the middle classes in the cities have never lived through the war or had any contact with any of the parties to the conflict, base their idea of the FARC on right-wing media accounts, and sustain the view that FARC are baby-killing, drug-dealing, pipeline-exploding, kidnapping, terrorists. For this reason, they simply cannot comprehend why the government would want to do anything except annihilate them by bombing or send them to rot in a jail cell for the rest of their lives. Many of these people are considering voting ‘No’ in the plebiscite on October 2.

What makes the FARC tick?

But not all the middle classes feel the same. Some of them would like to know what makes the FARC tick, how they think, what they eat for breakfast, and of course, how they feel about the peace process. A small group of members of Rodeemos el Diálogo (ReD) decided to travel to FARC’s heartlands in the Llanos del Yarí and build that first bridge. ReD is a transnational network of civil society Colombians and friends of Colombia who support the negotiated solution to the conflict and promote the culture of dialogue as essential for peace-building. Andrei, Samuel, Karen and Lucas each took individual responsibility for their decision to participate in the trip (it was not a formal ReD activity), and this decision was based on their desire to conduct peace education at this crucial moment in Colombian history. They have similarly sought to talk to the army, to the right-wing Centro Democrático party, to demobilised guerrillas and paramilitaries, to victims of the guerrilla and to victims of the state, and to everyone in between; now they have come to talk to the FARC. They seek to listen and talk without legitimating the position of one side or the other, but promoting the importance of each putting itself in the other’s shoes. “People see the FARC as inhuman”, said one of the group as we arrived. “I wonder what they’re really like?” It was nearly 9pm by the time we were invited to sit down in a hut next to the house, clearly built for meetings with visitors, with Byron, the political commander of the Eastern Bloc of the FARC, and Mauricio, alias ‘El Médico’, first commander of the Eastern Bloc and member of the Estado Mayor, the Council of Commanders. Mauricio began. He said he was aware of the massive level of misinformation across the country. “For us, it’s very complicated: many sectors of society do not know us. I feel pained when I hear what they think. They say so many bad things about us”. In Uribe’s time, he said, “they painted a whole image of us. Timo [Timochenko, top commander of the FARC] says that in the battle of the media, Uribe won and we lost. I feel that we haven’t had the chance to give them our version. And now we feel that for the first time, a window has opened up”. The group from Rodeemos el Diálogo explained that they worked with the urban middle classes, and wanted to be able to help that sector see beyond the simplistic media representation in order to understand the peace process in more depth. Mauricio admitted “We never managed to get to those sectors. So I’m happy that you are here, and that you want to talk to us about these issues.” Some images of FARC from their own website: colombia_farc_troops_700 colombia_farc_with-parrot_700 colombia_farc_village2_700 Mauricio told us he had been involved in the secret phase of the negotiations, before they were made public in a ceremony in Oslo in 2012. This was during the hard-line military offensive financed by the US. Santos sent a letter to then commander Alfonso Cano, saying that FARC’s agenda was “discussable”. Cano convinced the Secretariat that they had to try to seek peace, but in the midst of this tentative approach, the government killed him. “Santos gave the order”, said Mauricio. After that, everyone in the Secretariat felt pain and anger, but decided unanimously that they should continue down the path their leader had started. I thought later, there’s nothing so influential as someone’s dying wish. “So we began discussions”, said Mauricio. “But we felt at first that the government didn’t really want peace. They gave us a document to sign. They said it was a proposal, but it read more like a declaration of surrender. We said that, instead, we wanted to agree on an agenda”. Thanks to the insistence of the guarantors from Chile and Norway, they continued to talk. Mauricio underlined especially the role the former President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, played in facilitating dialogue, intervening in moments of tension. “Chávez told us to make an effort even though it was hard to talk to the government, to keep going”. Given that one of ReD’s objectives is to promote a culture of dialogue, the group asked Mauricio what that experience of dialogue had been like. “Hard”, he said. “We had a white-board, and we would write a phrase on it, an agenda topic for example, and the government would take the pen and rewrite it completely so as to completely change its meaning. We said, we can’t go on like this. So we asked for another white-board. Then we began to make progress, with two white-boards next to each other”.

Creating a new language

I recalled that Sergio Jaramillo, the government’s High Commissioner for Peace, had said at one point that the first thing the negotiating teams had to do was to create a whole new language, a new dictionary, because the terms they shared had completely different meanings. This meant that the relationship signifier/signified was broken, and that each side operated with a different logic. “We had to learn tolerance”, said Mauricio. “It was difficult to talk. Sometimes, in order to clear the air, we would set aside the agenda and tell each other stories, talk about other things”. Despite the challenges, they managed to arrive at the six-point agenda, which has now resulted in a final agreement: land reform, political participation, ending the armed conflict, drug-trafficking, victims, and implementation and verification. One member of ReD asked about the land issue. Byron replied, “The relations of production in Colombia are still feudal. The only way of changing them is with the participation of local communities. But in order to do that, first all the land titles have to be legalised”. Another ReD member said, “Many people on the left don’t believe in the peace process because they think that the government will give over all the land to the multinational mining companies”. Byron replied that he knew that it would be difficult for all of the agreement to be completely fulfilled, but “what we are doing is giving a powerful tool to civil society with which to demand implementation.” One of the group asked what they planned to do after the demobilisation process. Mauricio told us that many of the fighters wanted to study. “There are many guerrilleros who never had the opportunity to get a university education. Many of them are skilled in things for which they have no formal qualification. They have to go to university”, he said. “For example, there are comrades who learned nursing. No degree, but they learned to do surgery. You have to study, to learn, to get that far. You have to learn where the arteries and veins are. And they learned”. Byron added, “I trust our own nurses more than those of the state hospitals” (which are notorious for being underprepared and underequipped, especially in poor regions). “There has been internal training, we have produced pamphlets, and the best experts we have are in orthopaedics. Because many bones are broken in combat”. One member of the group said, “Perhaps within the framework of restorative reparations you should think about installing health centres!” By this point in the conversation, there was a more egalitarian dynamic. Instead of the members of Rodeemos el Diálogo asking all the questions, they were offering suggestions, points of view, explaining how the middle classes saw FARC, recalling some of the key anti-FARC narratives that circulate which they would have to take seriously if they really wanted to connect with those sectors they had never been able to reach. At one in the morning we decided to say good night, and they drove off back to their camp. The group was shown to a room with two thin, lumpy mattresses on the floor, on which we settled ourselves up as best we could. Next morning, we heard the guerrillerada wake early and start clomping around talking about cows. Some of them went out to do the milking, and by the time we all were up they were in the kitchen cooking breakfast, plucking chickens, fixing motorbikes, washing from a bucket out back, mopping the floor. There was a general sense of contented busyness. One member of our group chatted to one of them who asked her things like, ‘what time do you wake up in the morning?’, ‘what do you eat?’, and ‘what do you study?’. One of the girls asked me if my hair colour was natural. We were clearly a focus of curiosity, but not at all of resentment. Two of the girls were wearing earrings painted with the Cuban flag and images of Che Guevara, which they said had been sent as gifts by their comrades in Cuba. One guerrillero told us he wanted to study system engineering after the demobilisation process. “I want to help with the technical stuff in the future political party and land reform”, he said. After breakfast, Byron turned up with Carlos Antonio Lozada, from the secretariat and one of the negotiating team in Havana who had been involved in the sub-commission on the ending of the armed conflict. Carlos reiterated the fact that he knew it was important to connect with the middle classes and the people in the cities, because “within that sector are people who are enemies of peace, or who could become enemies of peace”, and because of that, he was pleased that ReD had decided to visit. One of the group said that over the last twenty-four hours she had got to talk to the guerrilleros in the house and build confidence, just by being there, and see them as human beings.

Who will protect us?

Carlos complained that the media had told the country that “no one wants us; no one supports us”. He told us that in one region, a guerrillera had been giving a talk to the local farmers about the peace process, and the people said to her “Please don’t demobilise, who is going to protect us?” The guerrillera replied, “Raise your hands all of you who don’t want us to demobilise”. They all raised their hands. Then she said, “Now raise your hands all of you who are willing to come and fight alongside us and risk your lives?” No one raised their hand. Carlos said, “our purpose is not to look after the farmers’ cows. We are involved in a social revolutionary process”. One group member asked about the lands that FARC had in their possession, and asked what they were going to do with them. Carlos replied “No organisation can survive 54 years of war without generating an economy of war. But I came into the organisation owning a shirt and two pairs of trousers. If I come out of it with more than that, we’ll be seen very badly. The goods that we have acquired will be put at the service of the political organisation that will be born from the FARC”.

Not in our name

Finally, one of the group then asked about what would happen to dissident factions that refused to participate in the demobilisation agreement, such as the First Front, a faction which in July publicly expressed disagreement with the Havana accords, and were then explicitly disowned by FARC. Byron said that in general, the unity FARC had managed to maintain over the years was an amazing achievement, considering the geography of the country and the clandestine way they have had to operate. He told us that the commanders of the First Front had already been replaced, and that they knew that they had to do everything possible to ensure those kinds of things did not happen again. “Those who do not go into the demobilisation zones with us will no longer be FARC. They will be bandits, criminals. They will not be allowed to use our name”, he explained. “That’s why our Tenth Conference is so important – to send a strong, united message to all the Fronts”. FARC’s Tenth Conference, he said, was already underway – there have been preliminary discussions in all the fronts across the country, to inform and discuss with all members of the organisation. But the final, public phase will take place between 17th and 23rd September, prior to the signing of the agreement between President Santos and the FARC leader Timochenko on 26th September in Cartagena. Just as Colombian society has to vote for or against the peace accords, so do FARC members; which is the main purpose of the Conference. For the first time, they are inviting media to the conference, in order, perhaps, to start projecting the image of their political project out to the country, and to the world, and to begin to counteract the stigma that they are only terrorists who long since lost their political ideology. They are willing to admit that they have been involved in atrocities. “We are going to recognise our errors”, said Byron. We did make mistakes”. But in order for the country to recognise them as legitimate political actors and to begin to trust that they will fulfil their part in the Havana agreements, a bridge will have to be built with the middle classes. By visiting them in their heartland, ReD was offering to help in this task.
Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer based in Colombia and the UK. She has been lecturer in Political Anthropology in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she also did a Masters degree in Anthropology as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar and wrote her thesis on the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Before that she studied Literature at the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge. She has worked in Colombia for six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International. As well as academic articles she also writes short fiction, and has recently produced the documentary ‘Chocolate of Peace‘. As of September 2016, she will be a Wolfson scholar reading for a PhD in Anthropology at UCL researching the Colombian peace process.

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