By Camila Osorio, EL PAIS, July 24, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The leftist Senator is the one responsible for landing in the Colombian Congress the peace proposals that Gustavo Petro promised. “We are going for a radical pacifism,” he says in an interview with EL PAIS.
There has never been a better political moment than this one in the history of Colombia for Ivan Cepeda. Fifty-nine years old, born in Bogotá, this Senator has been working from the opposite corner of power for his whole career. He has fought since his youth in different leftist movements; he has risked his life as a human rights defender, and he was the spokesman of an important movement that gathers together victims of crimes committed by the government. His father, Manuel Cepeda, who fought in the Patriotic Union Party, was hunted by the military and by the paramilitaries, and was murdered in 1994. Cepeda has dedicated his career to reparations for the victims of the violence and a negotiated conclusion of the war—during the administration of former President Santos, he was a facilitator for the peace negotiations with the FARC and the ELN.
But in the Congress, where he has held a seat since 2010, he was always in the minority. When Gustavo Petro won the Presidency, and consolidated majorities in the Congress, the political scenario changed for Cepeda. Now he is a Senator close to the President-Elect and influential in the administration’s coalition to pass in the Congress what Petro calls “Total Peace”. Cepeda explained to EL PAIS from a studio at his residence on Friday morning how he hopes to pull Colombia out of a war of more than 50 years.
Question. Just an hour ago, Petro announced Iván Velásquez would be the Minister of Defense. What’s your opinion about that?
Answer. I salute the designation because I think he is man who has always been characterized as an excellent jurist, a fair man, and of the highest professional quality. He is an honest person, resistant to any kind of blackmail or bribe, and I have no doubt at all that he will do an extraordinary job with the Armed Forces and the Police. Obviously, he will have to converse and dialog with a whole universe that has never been part of his experience, but I think he has all of the talent to do it very well.
Q. Velásquez is a well-known anticorruption lawyer. Don’t you think that the message to the military is, “Here comes somebody that’s going to investigate you”?
A. That could be one way of reading it, and I do think it’s necessary to root out the corruption in the Colombian government. Even though the “parapolitica” corruption he worked on is history, this is something different. Here the specialists in these matters are talking about a coopting of the government. Today the Colombian government is practically kidnapped by every kind of criminal network, mafiosos, and politicians. Things can’t continue that way, and it’s impossible to hide it in the Armed Forces and the Police. Iván Velásquez being part of the administration is a message for the administration itself, and it’s that we won’t tolerate corruption. In his campaign, Petro committed to that message, and actually, all of the candidates, everybody competed to say how they were the most anticorruption. Well, OK, the moment is here. Let’s see if it’s serious.
Q. You are the Senator in the new administration that has to work for “total peace”. What are the implications of this new role? What changes are needed?
A. It means a change in the mentality. What the administration wants to promote is that the previous model of peace had some problems that demonstrated its historic limits. Where are those problems? Basically, it’s that in Colombia we were trying to make peace bit by bit, in a fragmented manner. So now we are able to undertake a dialog with a group, reach an agreement with that group; later the agreement is regularly violated, or a high percentage of it is violated. Then the dissidents rise up, the government doesn’t go into the countryside, then there are dissidents from the dissidents, and so we have organizations like the so-called Clan del Golfo, which is a summation of the dissidences. We can’t go on that way. In spite of the fact that the 2016 Peace Agreement with the FARC has led to enormous advances, the model that has to be applied is different, and it’s an all-encompassing model.
Q. How do you understand that this all-encompassing model could function?
A. What’s new would consist in looking for a simultaneous and global solution of all of the factors in the violence. Three major dimensions would be included: the insurgent groups that have a political rationale; the common criminal groups that are part of the drug trafficking or criminal gangs; and finally, the dialog among us Colombians, which is not the least. We need to have dialogs in the countryside and we need a national agreement. Petro has said this frequently: peace is not built in discussions among armed elite groups, or in the government, but we have to have the citizens taking part. That is what is called total peace. Some say that this is a Utopian task, one for the Pharaohs, but there is an enormous accumulation of experiences, and there is also a feeling of fatigue in all of Colombian society about the violence.
Q. Well, that’s pretty ambitious.
A. Yes, and we’re going all out. It’s possible that we’ll make mistakes, have some failures, but you have to dream of change.
Q. Let’s bring the total peace in for a landing. Will there have to be legislative action starting in the first year? Will the Peace institutions that already exist have to be changed?
A. Yes, we’ll have to reform several things, like the institutional framework. While the institutional framework of wartime in the government is perfectly compact, and functions hierarchically, ordered and synchronized, the institutional framework of peace now is a disaster. We just finished seeing that in the transition: Every Ministry has a piece of the peace. Here is the Office of the High Commissioner, then there’s something else in the Re-Incorporation Office, or there’s the Office of Territorial Matters. There can’t be a coherent organized policy that way.
There is no institutional framework for peace that goes to the countryside, or comes out of the countryside where the conflicts are. How is it possible that in territories that have lived through 50 years of violence there is no agency in charge of peace? We need to centralize, but at the same time, territorialize.
Another problem, how do you manage the peace funding? First, there are several funds. And second, nearly all of them have been robbed. You centralize the accounts to keep that from happening, centralize the funding, trying to have audits or auditing mechanisms that are clear enough that we can avoid having those funds, which are not much, go down the drain of corruption. And there are other issues, but I won’t tire you out.
Q. It’s not quite clear whom you’re going to sit down with for a dialog. This week there was a message from groups linked to the drug traffic that want to negotiate, but later on that first message was denied.
A. That is an enormous problem and it’s that the groups have multiplied exponentially. In a city like Medellín, where they once were called “The Office”, now there are many organizations. In the region of Catatumbo there are five armed groups and every group has a subgroup. But yesterday’s message was important because it shows that one group of people would be willing to join such a process.
Q. President Petro talked in the campaign about wanting those groups to submit, and they are now asking to avoid their extradition so they can sit down to negotiate. What’s your opinion of that offer?
A. There’s a really clear answer to that. Extradition can’t be negotiated. In general, we can’t negotiate with the organized crime groups. But you can have a dialog with them, and there is a clear difference between dialog and negotiation. The dialog is for listening and eventually for making some decisions. But no, no way can there be any kind of barter or bargaining. Now, extradition is a matter that involves two governments. In that precise case, the government of the United States and the government of Colombia. And there you can have a negotiation. You can have agreement about how to outline reforms of that character to extradition, which will have many problems.
Q. How can you manage another peace with the dissidents of the FARC who left the Agreement of 2016.
A. There are two kinds of dissidents, those that were never part of the peace process, and those that entered the process and later left. I think that the second kind can, if the peace process is handled well, if the task is carried out seriously, re-incorporate eventually. On the other hand, there’s the possibility of a good statute allowing those other organizations to take advantage of a legal pathway. Some colleagues would like us to present such a bill right away. I’m more in favor of waiting for a while and looking at options for presenting it and for it to be well drafted.
Q. You took part in the last negotiations with the ELN during the administration of Juan Manuel Santos. Why do you think that could work now after the Duque administration cut them off?
A. Because at that time, for the first time, we were able to put together an agenda; for the first time there were some important agreements: protocols, and we had begun the discussion of the first point on the agenda. So, yes, we can. The thing is that there has to be political will to make progress on this. That means, we give up the idea of continuing the war in Colombia and out of that, we are going toward a radical pacifism. The option of keeping on with this, this maelstrom, in this perpetual cycle of war, we’ve already discarded that as a historical option.
Q. You are part of a new coalition of parties that are very different, and just in Historic Pact, your party, there are members of Congress with opposing positions. Are you worried about lack of discipline in the Congress?
A. No, that doesn’t worry me. Because we are not a political cult that follows a leader blindly, we are a democratic institution; we have shown coherence and cohesion up to now. The demonstration of that is that, while other coalitions in the election debate ended up atomized (the coalition on the right, the coalition in the center), Historic Pact became more comprehensive. Now it’s the Historic Pact plus another quantity of political figures that make up what we have called the “Wide-Ranging Front”. Our tendency is to grow. Now, it’s perfectly legitimate, sometimes even necessary, that there will be differences. But here is where democracy rules. The one who lost in a debate has to give in. It could be that sometimes the disagreement will remain, but we have behaved, and we will behave, as a caucus. That is a commitment.
Q. How does it feel to have been a member of Congress who was in the minority, and in the opposition, and now to be one of the most influential Senators and part of a majority?
A. It’s a double sensation. First, it’s an enormous joy and satisfaction to see that the efforts we made have borne fruit. To be the majority, that’s the second; it implies responsibilities. That’s to say, we can’t keep on acting like members of the opposition, at least not in everything. You always have to be rebellious, critical, and we certainly will be that in our relationship to our own job, being the administration itself. But now everything doesn’t have to be criticism, not everything has to be opposition, not everything has to be negative. Now we have to be efficient in our legislative work and that implies producing laws and exercising the political control that is needed. We ourselves have to make sure that what we pass in Congress becomes reality in the executive branch. We aren’t going to pass laws that are just a salute to the flag.
Q. In the Congress, you always did politics like a countervailing power; you were the leader of an important movement that made complaints about crimes by the government. Now you’re the government.
A. Of course there have to be some changes in mentality. I say that you can’t keep acting like the opposition when you’re obliged to exercise as a government, but there are some matters where you can’t stop being an opponent. And that’s, let’s say, understanding that having arrived at the government is a temporary condition; it’s not a situation where we are gods, but rather human beings that are going to make some mistakes. What we can’t mistake would be to lose our organic connection with the people. That means, if we turn away from the social movements, if we lock ourselves up in the Congress, if we are locked up in the President’s Palace, and if we don’t listen to what the people are telling us, we will stop being a force for renovation of this country. And we aren’t going to lose that.