Colombian students and faculty talk peace agreement

Colombia voted to reject peace terms with its largest guerilla group – we talked to students and faculty

 Paola Guzman, left, and Maria Fernanda Bohorquez, right, are journalism exchange students from Colombia. Both support the Colombian peace agreement which was rejected earlier this month. (Martin McFarlane/The Omega)

Paola Guzman, left, and Maria Fernanda Bohorquez, right, are journalism exchange students from Colombia. Both support the Colombian peace agreement which was rejected earlier this month. (Martin McFarlane/The Omega)

Colombian members of the TRU community have plenty to say about the rejection of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the country’s longest-standing rebel group.

The peace agreement was made in September between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rebel group that formed in the mid-20th century. Started as a group of farmers demanding land reform, the group is notorious for its involvement with the drug trade and kidnapping for ransom.

The conflict between the rebels and government has killed more than 250,000 people, displaced six million, and, having lasted 52 years, is the longest ongoing conflict in Latin America.

The peace agreement is the result of four years of talks in Cuba between the government and FARC and a ceasefire has been in effect since Aug. 29.

The agreement was rejected by a razor-thin margin in a referendum on Oct. 2, with 50.2 per cent voting no and 49.8 per cent voting yes, a difference of 54,000 votes. The vote had an alarmingly low turnout, with only 38 per cent of voters casting a ballot.

Paola Guzman and Maria Fernanda Bohorquez are fourth-year journalism students on exchange from Universidad de La Sabana near Bogota, Colombia’s capital. Both of them support the peace agreement, but agree that it isn’t perfect.

“Both parties need to leave some things behind,” Bohorquez said, adding that while it is not fair that FARC members would have received lenient sentences for involvement with the conflict, it is the only way to achieve peace.

Guzman and Bohorquez’s friends have had family kidnapped and even killed as a result of the conflict.

On the topic of the peace deal’s financial component, Bohorquez said that giving the rebels 90 per cent of Colombia’s minimum salary is necessary in order to re-integrate them into society.

“It is unfair, because FARC is getting money while many people in Colombia are unemployed. But, at the same time, it’s the solution. You’re not giving them millions of Colombian pesos, you are giving them the basics for them to survive and adapt to society,” Bohorquez said.

Adding to Bohorquez’s statement, Guzman said that giving FARC members a minimum salary is necessary because they are terrorists and will have criminal records.

“No one is going to hire them,” Guzman said.

When asked about the differences in voting among the country’s regions, Guzman and Bohorquez said that the “no” vote came primarily from regions that were least affected by FARC, which were the urban centres. The rural areas, where most of the fighting has taken place, overwhelmingly voted to accept the deal.

Bohorquez said that many people voted no to ensure justice for the victims.

“You don’t have the power to vote for the victims. You can only vote for yourself,” she said.

Juan Manuel Cabrejo is a second-year journalism student who is originally from Bucaramanga near the Venezuelan border, but was raised in Calgary. Cabrejo does not support the peace agreement, believing that FARC’s commitments to cut their drug trade ties are just “words on paper.”

“I don’t think that they are willing to sacrifice millions of dollars that they receive to just have a place in government,” Cabrejo said.

Criticizing the way that the media has portrayed the “no” vote as voting against peace rather than the terms of the agreement, Cabrejo said that he is also disappointed by Colombia’s portrayal in media, citing the popularity of the Netflix series Narcos – the show centres around a Colombian drug kingpin active from the late ‘70s to the ‘90s.

“On Facebook I’ve seen people dressing as Pablo Escobar for Halloween. It’s kind of sad to see that,” Cabrejo said, adding that people should not be idolizing the drug lord.

Juan Manuel Cabrejo, second-year journalism student born in Colombia, opposes the peace agreement, believing that rebels cannot be trusted and would not give up the drug trade for seats in government. (Martin McFarlane/The Omega)

Juan Manuel Cabrejo, second-year journalism student born in Colombia, opposes the peace agreement, believing that rebels cannot be trusted and would not give up the drug trade for seats in government. (Martin McFarlane/The Omega)

Gloria Ramirez, an education faculty member at TRU who is also originally from Colombia, supports and campaigned on social media for the peace agreement. She said that the conflict is very complex because of social and political issues, not just in the country, but worldwide, mentioning the Cold War and rise of the drug trade.

When she was young, Ramirez remembers illegal paramilitary groups, who were set up by the country’s elite to fight FARC, coming to her town to collect payments from business owners in exchange for “protection.” She also recalls neighbours coming into town barefoot, fleeing the armed conflict that took place at their farms.

Ramirez also has had family members kidnapped by guerillas.

“It is not the perfect deal,” Ramirez said. “But it is the best we’ve had in 50 years.”

Explaining why she believes the “no” vote won, Ramirez said that there is a big fear that by giving FARC seats in congress, the government is giving them a platform to take over the country.

Gloria Ramirez, faculty member in Education, has personally experienced the Colombian conflict and supports the peace agreement. (Martin McFarlane/The Omega)

Gloria Ramirez, faculty member in Education, has personally experienced the Colombian conflict and supports the peace agreement. (Martin McFarlane/The Omega)

In reality, FARC will only receive 10 seats in congress, guaranteed for a decade. It equals just five per cent of the makeup of government.

“They are representing a voice. They represented it in the wrong way, through their weapons, but we need to hear those voices,” Ramirez said.

“Any peace deal requires amnesty. How did Ireland sign a peace agreement with England? Of course there has to be components of amnesty.”

Ramirez hopes that the peace deal survives and doesn’t die as a result of the referendum.

Ramirez, Cabrejo, Bohorquez and Guzman all said that it should be made clear that Colombia did not reject peace, but rather disagreed with the terms of the peace agreement.

The president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, is currently in talks with FARC to amend the agreement. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in recent weeks for his work in getting a peace agreement with FARC.

Colombia has imposed a deadline of Oct. 31 for an agreement to be reached.