At the foot of the steps of the National Gallery, in between a fire-juggler and a levitating Yoda, surrounded by pigeons and passers by, a hundred Colombians in winter jackets folded yellow, red and blue squares into origami butterflies, and wrote messages about peace onto white paper doves. There was a huge scroll of paper spread out on the ground, painted like a Colombian flag, and they were sticking the origami butterflies and white doves onto it. Other people stood around talking, drinking cups of hot chocolate, waving Colombian flags and holding up signs saying “Agreement Now!”.
This is Paz a la Calle or Peace on the Street UK, part of an international Paz a la Calle movement which started in Colombia following the unsuccessful referendum on 2nd October, in which 50.2% of voters said ‘No’ to the Havana Accords, widely considered one of the most sophisticated peace deals in the world, and 63% of the electorate simply did not vote. Shortly after this shock result, Colombians from all walks of life began to mobilise, both within Colombia and without, and within days, multiple citizen initiatives were forming with different names and characteristics, but all calling for a way out of this political impasse. Paz a la Calle is one of the main umbrella groups that has crystallised.
Colombians living abroad feel the need to get involved in this critical moment. One friend in Edinburgh described to me hearing the results of the referendum on the internet on her phone, on a train, with three Colombian colleagues, each with their own headphones, a bottle of aguardiente between them. She told of her emotional whirlwind and unrest when the ‘No’ won. While marches the size of which have not been seen in Colombia for over a generation took to the streets, and groups of Colombians all around the world joined in with symbolic actions in the streets, the Colombian community in London decided to form Paz a la Calle UK, to add their voice to the clamour for peace. They have done previous demos in Trafalgar Square, but this time, there was a special opportunity: President Juan Manuel Santos is in the UK.
This is the first time a Colombian president has been invited on an official state visit to the UK; meaning the invitation was issued by the Queen and he and his wife, María Clemencia Rodríguez de Santos, will stay two nights at Buckingham Palace. No doubt, this has to do with Santos’ work for the peace deal. As well as meeting the Queen, Santos will give a special lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Science, titled ‘The Legacy of Peace’. Paz a la Calle UK decided that they needed to do something to make the most of his visit.
Veronica, one of the organisers, is a Colombian PhD student at UCL. She told me that many different groups and people converged in Paz a la Calle UK. Some had much experience of activism, others did not. Many had begun to work together before the referendum, campaigning for the ‘Yes’ vote and trying to inform Colombians in the UK about the Havana Accords. After the shock of the ‘No’, many more people wanted to get together and do something, and the original nucleus started to grow. She explained that they aimed to achieve two things. On one hand, to add their voice to the mobilisation of citizens in Colombia calling for peace. On the other, given that they were in Europe, to send a message to the international community that despite the ‘No’ vote, Colombians wanted peace, and they desperately wanted the international support to remain with them, including the funds promised by the European Union for implementing the Havana Accords in the post-conflict phase. She thought that the media attention for Santos’ visit would be a good way of making this message more visible. She said, “I hope this event today is seen as part of a chain of actions that could have an impact on Colombian public opinion. And that the victims of the conflict, who this is all about, feel accompanied by us”.
Myriam is a long-standing activist in the Colombian community in London, and also one of the organisers of the event. About the referendum, she said, “I was expecting the ‘No’ to win a lot of votes. But what I wasn’t expecting was how few votes the ‘Yes’ would get. But it gave us an X-ray of our country. That’s the reality of Colombia and we have to accept it, that’s what we have to work with”. I asked her what Paz a la Calle UK wanted to achieve, and she told me, “We want to support the government’s action of creating a new phase in the peace process to include the sectors that voted ‘no’ and produce a new agreement”.
Myriam, an activist in the Colombian community in London. Image: Gwen Burnyeat
Since the referendum, as well as the bottom-up social mobilisation, there has been plenty of top-down politics too. Santos spent three weeks meeting with different sectors who had voted no – including church groups, businessmen, and crucially, ex-President Álvaro Uribe and his political party the Centro Democrático, who campaigned against the Havana Accords. Santos then catalogued their proposals: some of them were “viable”; some were “difficult but not impossible”; and others were completely “inviable” because they were based on the idea that there was no internal armed conflict – one example would be Uribe’s demand for removing a special transitional justice tribunal and recurring to the ordinary justice system. “If there was no internal armed conflict, there would be nothing to negotiate!” Santos exclaimed.
These proposals are now being discussed in Havana between the government and FARC negotiating teams, with the aim of incorporating some of the new demands into the agreement. It is not clear, yet, what the legal and political procedure of overcoming this impasse will be once a new agreement is in place; different experts and institutions are still debating whether there should be a new referendum, a constitutional reform, or whether the President can simply go ahead and start implementing the agreement. Hence, despite some differences as to how different sectors think that should be achieved, most citizen mobilisations like Paz a la Calle agree in their demand for an hoja de ruta, or clear procedure as to how things are going to progress from here.
I asked several different participants what their hopes were at the demo in Trafalgar Square. Ulysses, who had been a professor of economics at the San Buenaventura university in Bogotá, but had had to leave the country due to threats and now works on the checkout at Morrisons, said he thought it was important to maintain the collective enthusiasm. He dreamed of a country with better possibilities, he said, without so much corruption. Mirta, a tireless activist and philosopher, said, “I want us to send a collective message from all Colombians, that we want peace”. Nelly, who works in community service, said, “this is a little grain of sand to support the peace process”. Claudia, who volunteers at a Latin America Women’s Rights NGO, emphasised that “this is not just a continuation of the campaign. We have to listen to those who voted yes and those who voted no, and build a new path. This is peace on the street, and that means that it is for everyone, it doesn’t belong to one collective in particular. It’s an example of how to build something together”. Barbara, a poet, said that she had come to the event “because I thought it was a lovely idea to express ourselves to the President, to say to him that the Colombian diaspora is supporting him in his search for peace.”
As well as the mural with the butterflies and the doves, Paz a la Calle UK has written letters to British MPs, President Santos and the negotiating teams in Havana in order to take advantage of the state visit, and collected signatures from individuals and organisations, expressing the urgency they feel for a fast and efficient political response, and the importance of maintaining some of the cornerstone aspects of the Havana Accords, such as the victims’ rights, the differential gender provisions and the land reform.
The mural will be displayed as the backdrop to Santos’ lecture at LSE, and will be held up by Colombians on The Mall, as he and his entourage drive into Buckingham Palace. Many peoples’ hopes and efforts have gone into that mural. Myriam said, “The Nobel peace prize was a way of supporting politically the years of negotiations. The Colombian peace process is contributing to conflict resolution paradigms, so not only Colombia benefits; the world will benefit”. If the Nobel and the invitation from Buckingham Palace represent the ultimate in political support from the international community, this mural, together with the thousands of citizen initiatives and actions all over Colombia and the world, represent the ultimate in bottom-up support from the Colombian people. President Santos: the world is watching.
Gwen Burnyeat is a Wolfson scholar reading for a PhD in Anthropology at UCL researching the Colombian peace process. She was previously lecturer in Political Anthropology in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she also did a Masters in Anthropology as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. This was the basis for her forthcoming book ‘Chocolate, Politics and Peace-building: an Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and the documentary ‘Chocolate of Peace‘. Before that she studied Literature at the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge. She has worked in Colombia for over six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International.