For the majority of those assembled in downtown Bogota June 23, it is the first time they have known peace. Following four years of painstaking negotiations, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have reached an agreement to end more than half a century of civil war. Among the crowd there is happiness and relief—but also apprehension as to the fragile nature of a truce opposed by powerful sectors within Colombia.
On the capital’s Seventh Avenue, Colombians of all ages and backgrounds watch events in Havana, Cuba unfurl on a giant screen. The rally was called by a coalition of progressive social movements and political organizations. As the dignitaries participating in Havana are introduced on screen, cheers erupt for Raul Castro, Nicolas Maduro, and FARC-EP leader Timoleon Jimenez, or Timochenko.
Chile’s president Michelle Bachelet and U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon warrant mild applause, while there are boos for Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, whose government has overseen human rights violations and violence on a scale similar to that of Colombia’s past. People seem unsure how to react to their own president, Juan Manuel Santos.
The rally’s location is symbolic. It was here on April 9, 1948 that radical presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was shot as he left his office. His assassination sparked urban riots across Bogota and initiated the period of Colombian history known as "La Violencia." Although the civil war officially began in 1964, many Colombians regard Gaitan’s death as its catalyst, the point when electoral politics was brutally closed to popular participation. For those present, the cycle of conflict is to be closed where it began 68 years ago.
Flags and banners on display reflect political allegiances once dangerous to express openly. Sofia Tellez, a 19-year-old economics student, holds aloft a yellow flag from the Patriotic Union, the political party formed by demobilized FARC-EP members in the 1980s and subsequently subjected to a genocidal campaign that killed thousands of its members. She wasn’t born when the violence was at its peak, but she's aware of its legacy. "Many people had to die to get here," she says. "Peace does not mean the silencing of the guns, but a social construction that will provide guarantees for the people."
Another UP militant, Luis Acosta Caneda, an Afro-Colombian from Barranquilla, is one of the estimated six million Colombians to have been displaced during the conflict. "Like all countries in the world, we want stability and social justice," he says. "This means better education, better work, better health. Capitalists and neoliberal politicians must stop hurting the people for natural resources. These resources must be used for the well-being of the people."
Luisa Tibarigua is waving the rainbow flag of the LGBT movement. A consultant for women’s and gender rights, she hopes the peace deal will have a positive impact for marginalized groups. "Urban and rural violence has limited our political involvement," she says. "As part of the LGBT community, I’m here to register our presence within the process."
Several people wear t-shirts and hold banners for the Patriotic March, the socio-political movement formed in 2012 to coordinate popular mobilization across Colombia. The party has been involved in the negotiations, with leaders such as former senator Piedad Cordoba acting as a bridge between the state and the FARC-EP. "This is a historic commitment," says one male activist, a political science student from Bogota. "The guerrillas were sustained by the failure to address poverty, misery, the lack of opportunities that exist in other countries. We must collectively construct a country and transform this model of neoliberal accumulation."
The parents of Paula Andrea, 24, were forcibly displaced several years ago. Paula is part of the Young Women’s Political Artistic Network, which incorporates art and education into political activism. "As Colombians, we need to make sure the mechanisms of demobilization are carried out effectively," she says. "It’s not only down to the state, all society needs to be integrated into building solutions."
Jorge Sanchez Quinones, from the southern department of Huila, belongs to former guerrilla organization, the April 19 Movement, or M-19. The group is best known for the Palace of Justice siege in 1985 in which the state's response to M-19's hostage-taking was an assault that killed over one hundred people. "Many comrades fell in this unjust war," he says.
But is he optimistic for the future of Colombia? "Yes, we have to be," he adds.
Not everyone welcomes the news from Havana. The right-wing Democratic Center has vocally opposed the state’s negotiations with the FARC-EP. At its headquarters across town, the media is gathering for the party’s official response. Formed by former president Alvaro Uribe in 2012, the CD advocates a military response to the insurgency.
"It worries us that the FARC-EP will now be allies of the Santos government in the fight against crime, as they are the principal narco-trafficking cartel in the world," says CD congressman Samuel Hoyos. The claim was repeated later that day by Uribe, whose governorship of Antioquia in the 1990s saw a surge in paramilitary violence against civilians.
Surely peace is something to be embraced, I say to Hoyos. "Of course peace is good, but this is not peace for Colombia. One thing is the process and another is peace itself. We have warned that this could be the source of new violence."
According to the CD, the peace deal offers impunity for FARC-EP "crimes." He makes no reference to the other armed groups—primarily paramilitary organizations representing the interests of the ruling elites and international capital—which have terrorized Colombian society and been closely linked to senior figures within his own party.
Back in downtown Bogota the fiesta has begun. People dance and embrace, some wipe away tears. Colombia can look forward, even though there are no illusions as to the scale of the task ahead. The peace treaty is merely the first phase in what will be a lengthy consolidation process.
Colombia’s other main guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army, needs to be brought into the political fold. The state must end the ongoing terror caused by paramilitary and drugs violence. With many oligarchic interests tied up in the conflict, there are many within Colombia who will seek to destabilize the post-conflict scenario. Official corruption will also need to be tackled, in order to create the genuinely inclusive society required to take the country into the new era.
Crucially, peace in Colombia needs to be constructed upon a platform of social justice critical to neutralizing the conditions that breed insurgencies in the first place. Despite the creation of land restitution laws for the millions of victims of forced displacement, only a tiny proportion have returned to their homes. Thousands of people still have no idea what has happened to their disappeared loved ones. Illegal mining devastates environments and the communities that depend upon them. All these issues remain fundamental to bringing stability to a country long accustomed to turmoil.
For now, however, the mood is one of optimism. Peace has come to Colombia, but the struggle to build a new nation has just begun.