By Sergio Jaramillo, EL ESPECTADOR, May 15, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Sergio Jaramillo, who was the High Commissioner for Peace until 2017, analyzes the “layers” of the country’s current crisis, criticizes the “government’s political ineptitude”, and proposes “a process of credible dialog, with method and guarantees”, which connects the young people and the universities as protagonists.

The question in Colombia today is: are we going to include or are we going to divide? It’s an inflection point five years after the signing of the Final Agreement, in the midst of the pandemic crisis and a social explosion. A crisis of this size can also be leverage for transformation: it depends on us. With the demonstrations by the young people and by people that have been spectators in their own country for such a long time, the answer cannot be anything but opening doors and windows wide, building bridges, exchange, and above all, listening. The end of the conflict and now the pandemic have lifted a veil. Now we have to recognize the reality and sit down to talk. Recognition is the best antidote to resentment.

This is an opportunity to put on the table the joint building of a new national agenda. The point is not simply that the country’s problems related to the peace and to security, and to overcoming the economic and social crises that are overwhelming all of the proposals and the capacities of all of the candidates for 2022. That is true. Also, we don’t need a new savior; we have to save ourselves. The point is that no agenda will be accepted and take root if, besides the vote, it doesn’t guarantee a voice. Above all, the voices of the young people.

The crisis has layers. At the base is the movement of the tectonic plates of the end of the conflict. With the exit of the FARC, the powers in the territories regarding the coca are reconfigured, creating a scenario of fragmentation. At the same time, the disappearance of the coercion by guns, and the Peace Agreement, empowered people and took away their fear. For us in Havana, it was predictable that in one of the two most unequal countries in the world—and with the worst territorial development in the OECD—the protests claiming rights, by people and by territories, would be increasing.

That’s why we agreed that there had to be legislation to guarantee “the rights of the demonstrators and of other citizens”. The idea was to achieve an equilibrium between rights, including the right to mobility, as occurs in European countries. That bill is still sleeping in the Congress . If it had been developed, it would have resolved the current argument about the blockades years ago. I am not trying to insist here on the value of the Agreement, but rather I’m calling for recognition of the reality of the challenges in the transition to peace. I repeat: a new scenario of protests was foreseeable, just like the new security scenario was foreseeable. The Duque government is a failure in the area of security, and is failing in the face of the protests because it isn’t capable of reading this new reality.

Onto this fertile soil fell the pandemic. In Cali it’s the equivalent of a social earthquake. As Mauricio Cabrera points out, in Colombia the number of poor people has increased by 20%, but in Cali that number is multiplied by more than three: 67%. If a real earthquake had taken place, and half of downtown Cali had collapsed, as in Armenia, we would have had the whole government mobilized, with special funds created and a brand new undertaking of reconstruction. But this earthquake is quiet and much more insidious—there are tens and even hundreds of thousands of young lives that are being lost—they have been systematically ignored. Who could be surprised when even with the risks of the pandemic, the people are going out to march?

With their spirits exacerbated by desperation and by the confinement, this volatile situation could turn out to be much more violent if the incendiary pronouncements of Álvaro Uribe Vélez continue. His call to the Armed Forces to make use of weapons in the protests—censored by Twitter—and his request for “forceful and sustained military action in the city of Cali” are really an incitement to violence. Uribe’s strategy seems like a copy of Chávez in Venezuela: create a fracture in the society to mobilize hate and fear, then present yourself as the protector and redeemer. Except that one mobilized the poor against the middle and wealthy classes; and the other did the opposite. Chávez talked about “ the scrawny ones” and Uribe now is talking about “the terrorist hordes that are invading Cali”. It’s part of his electoral strategy to not lose control of the government apparatus and of the investigations against him. But for Colombia, it’s a national security problem: it’s the road to a new war, to the extent that the young and enraged demonstrators find no political response, but instead a clash with police, they will be radicalized and look for weapons, as happened so many times after the ‘68 demonstrations in Europe and the United States, and in our own country in the ‘70’s.

Which is exactly what Duque is doing, treating the marches in Cali like enemies. That is the signal that he sends when he puts the Army Commander in charge of the situation—“In Cali we have the best Army and Police Officers, headed by General Zapateiro,” he told El País—and when he says he won’t visit the city “so as not to distract the Armed Forces from their work”, he’s renouncing his political responsibility. Zapateiro has no business being in Cali; he ought to be leading in Guaviare, fighting the dissidents more effectively. If Duque continues Uribe’s strategy, setting the country’s cities on fire, he’s falling into a trap. (Sometimes I wonder if that is not Uribe’s plan: take over de facto control. People in the know say he’s already calling the Army Commander and the Police Director more than he calls the President of the Republic himself.)

How? With a complete answer to the marches. If the government’s response to the mobilization is to put some desperate young people in front of ESMAD, who will be surprised if it ends up in violent clashes and more fury? Every day the complaints of police abuse are accumulating. And when the Police don’t take action against a roadblock, because they know there are armed men and blood could be shed, then come the critics from the other side. The government’s political ineptitude is dangerously fracturing the relationship between the Police and the citizens. Nobody is unaware of the fact that there are criminal groups intermixed into the marches, and they have to be countered. The narcos and the dissidents—who are also narcos—are paying some gangs to cause destruction, and with that they use Cali as a “vaca flaca” (subterfuge). While the city fills up with police, they are pulling their coca out of the canyons of the Pacific. But that is not the basis of the problem.

Rather, the solution is in recognition. In a change in language, showing understanding, and in a process of credible dialog, with method and with guarantees, which is neither the National Conversation of 2019, nor the Agenda of that which is Fundamental. An Afro-Colombian asked the Representatives in the Chamber in Cali: “If we lift the blockades, where is the guarantee that they will listen to us?” That is what has to be designed.

There are a number of questions to be answered. First: What is it that we will agree on? Many problems are local and require local agreements. But other demands are structural, of a national character. Humberto de la Calle and I recall that the Final Agreement foresaw an accord of this kind, where “all of the parties, political and social movements, and all of the living forces in the country get together to fashion a great National Political Agreement leading to the defining of the reforms and institutional changes necessary to meet the challenges that peace demands.” In a framework such as that, you can discuss a new national agenda that channels the marchers’ demands institutionally.

Second: With whom are we going to agree? While the government organizes and puts forward a speaker with credibility—the Minister of Education, a competent official who knows the young people and is not guided by ideology, could be helpful—the young Representatives in the Chamber from different parties are filling that space. And they started out a stupendous initiative in Cali’s ward 21. “The young people have the floor.” And they took the critical step; they started to listen. In every case, any structural agreement necessarily has to end up with a democratic deliberation of the Congress of the Republic.

And on the other hand? The Strike Committee that was formed in 2019 was able to deal with some of the issues with the government, but the current protests are exceeding their representativeness. They will have to start with bottom to top and use participative methodologies to collect the demands from different points in the protests in a credible manner, because no one represents the others. It’s difficult but not impossible if we take advantage of the knowledge accumulated by specialized organizations and their regional capacities. With the same logic of territorial peace, it’s urgent that the universities, business owners, labor unions, organizations, and, naturally, the agencies that are watching the marches, jointly open some spaces for discussion and conciliation. In any case they will need facilitators that keep the accounts and offer guarantees to the participants.

The key is in dividing the problem in two, in space as well as in time. In the space, creating new levels of discussion, the regional and the national, with links from one to the other, which could be the young Representatives. Part of the problem of the negotiations in the strikes in the past has been that the governments reduce them to splinters, without the capacity of putting the proposals together, at a cost so high that it benefits only a few and with poor results, as happened in the Catatumbo Strike in 2013.

And you have to divide the process into two phases. The first gives rapid results—on both levels—to build confidence, and a second for structural matters. It’s the understood sequence of transformation that John Paul Lederach proposes for processes of reconciliation: first mend the relationships, and later the structures. But nothing stops you from taking on some structural issues rapidly, besides listening to immediate demands, such as a mission that establishes what happened in the events of violence related to the protest.

For example, the young Representatives are already thinking about organizing public hearings that could flow into legislative proposals. Subjects like reducing Congressional salaries or reforming the Police, taking them once and for all away from the Defense Ministry and from the Military Justice System, or regulating peaceful protest and giving weight to rights, could be on the agenda. People need to see quick results.

But you have to have the discussion with the doors open to the young people—and the universities are being called upon to convert themselves into a central scene of debate and discussion—about a new agenda for Colombia, one that thinks more about the future generations than did the agendas of the past. As always, the process is as important as the result. We have to learn to hear somebody that thinks very differently—as was done in the rural development forum in the peace negotiations, where the SAC (Colombia Agriculture Society) sat down beside the battle-hardened campesino organizations—and above all, you have to put aside arguing and deliberating with blind emotion.

Because out there they want to use the extremists on both sides—the ones inspiring fear, the others malice–, asphyxiating the space for democratic debate in Colombia. To reconcile, you have to deliberate.

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