MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Thousands of Colombian citizens took to the streets Friday evening to voice their support for a peace agreement between the government and the country’s largest rebel group, which was narrowly rejected by voters in an October 2 plebiscite.
After 52 years of armed conflict, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a historic peace deal on September 26. The agreement was almost universally expected to gain public approval during the October 2 plebiscite vote, but a fierce campaign against the accord and low voter turnout resulted in a slim rejection of the deal.
The unexpected victory of the “No” campaign has generated a political crisis in Colombia. In recent days, President Juan Manuel Santos has convened talks with leaders of the “No” movement in order to hear their suggestions for how to revise the rejected accord, which they claim was too lenient on the FARC.
The outcome of these talks remains uncertain, but some experts say that a failure to renegotiate the agreement could result in a collapse of the four-year-old peace process and a return of the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.
In the midst of this polarized political atmosphere, students and victims' organizations across the country have organized massive marches in support of President Santos’ efforts to hammer out a new agreement.
More than 30,000 citizens demonstrated in the country’s capital city Bogotá on Wednesday, with thousands more holding simultaneous marches in Cartagena, Cali, Barranquilla, and several other major Colombian cities.
On Friday, an estimated 10,000 citizens joined a pro-peace march in Medellín, the country’s second largest city and a stronghold of the movement against the peace deal.
Medellín, and the department of Antioquia where it is located, has long been a bastion of support for former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe who led the conservative Democratic Center party’s opposition to the peace accord.
But the thousands of demonstrators who turned out on Friday sought to make clear that the popular politician’s views on the peace accord are not shared by all of the area’s residents. They repeatedly chanted “Antioquia is not Uribe,” a phrase that later became a trending hashtag on Twitter.
“This march is historic for Medellín,” said Nicolás Guillermo Heron, the mayor of the nearby town of Anorí, which has suffered landmines, illegal mining, and coca cultivation during the conflict.
Heron said he was sorely disappointed when the peace agreement failed to gain the needed votes, but that the student-organized march made him feel hopeful again.
“Something good happened on October 2, we realized that the peace process is much more important than political divisions in Colombia,” Heron said.
The agreement was rejected in Medellín and other central areas of the country in large part due to “a lot of fear” and “misinformation” spread by the “No” campaign, said Heron.
The “No” campaign’s manager, Juan Carlos Vélez, has admitted that their approach ignored the contents of the peace agreement and centered on leveraging social media to promote “indignation” and fear to “get people to vote all riled up.”
Some Medellín locals were surprised that these tactics were so effective in a city that had experienced the conflict firsthand.
“Medellín has lived war, bombs, military occupation,” said Albert Suñiga, a Medellín resident who came out for the march. “It upsets me that the ‘no’ vote won here of all places.”
The “No” campaign attacked the contents of the agreement on numerous fronts. In addition to arguing that it would have unfairly allowed FARC members to escape jail time and participate in the political system, opponents of the deal also seized on aspects of the agreement that touched on hot-button social issues.
One tactic the “No” campaign used was to tap into a growing social conservative movement concerned that “family values” were being threatened by the current government’s support of an “ideology of gender” or a “gay agenda.” The “No” campaigners linked issues like the recent legalization of gay marriage and the accord’s recognition of LGBT victims in order to sway homophobic voters to oppose the agreement.
José Rollano, a writer and LGBT rights activist who attended the Medellín march, recognized the particular significance of the accord for the rights of the LGBT community.
“This 52 year long war left more than 3,000 LGBT dead or disappeared in cases of ‘social cleansing,’ killings based simply on them being a part of the LGBT community,” Rollano said, adding that the accord “gives support to other laws that could protect us.”
LGBT rights, in addition to women’s rights, were included in every point of the accord thanks to the work of a gender subcommittee, the first of its kind in any peace process in the world. Significantly, the agreement would bar perpetrators of sexual violence during the conflict from being eligible for amnesty.
At the Medellín march, Blomia Perez Alvaréz of the Network for Women Victims and Professionals said her group represented victims of sexual violence who want “clarity” in the “cases of sexual violence that still haven’t come to light.”
Perez Alvaréz said her group was supporting the march in the hopes that it would help “generate peace” so that their children can live in a “country that is free and full of peace and hope.”
Throughout the night, marchers chanted slogans supporting the agreement, including “the accord prevails because the people deserve it” and “respect the accord for the victims of the war.”
While some supporters said they have reservations about some aspects of the agreement, overall they hope to see some version of it implemented soon.
“The accord isn’t perfect. There won’t ever be a perfect accord,” said Rollano. “There are aspects of it that I don’t like, just like many of the people who voted against the accord. But, at a negotiating table both sides need to win something… The right to peace and life is more important than anything else.”
As Colombians struggle to reach consensus amidst political division and uncertainty over the future of the peace process, most agree that the best path forward is peace. Even the “No” campaign has said that they support the idea of eventually reaching a peace agreement with the FARC.
On Friday, Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in spite of the vote rejecting the accord. The Nobel Committee said they hope the prize will “encourage all those who are striving to achieve peace, reconciliation and justice in Colombia.”
In a nationally televised address, President Santos accepted the award on behalf of the victims of the conflict and called on Colombians to “come together and unite to complete this process, and begin to build a stable and lasting peace.”
Senator Uribe congratulated Santos for receiving the Nobel Prize, while continuing to call for changes to the accords, which he describes as “damaging for democracy.”
It remains unclear how soon an agreement may be reached, but thousands of Colombian citizens have committed to rallying behind the process.
“Peace is now the responsibility of all Colombians,” said Pedro Fajardo, technical director of Medellín’s governmental body for youth. “ It doesn’t matter if you voted ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The plebiscite results showed that peace prioritizes the needs of victims.”
“This is an opportunity for us to become more united as a country,” Fajardo continued. “A peace accord in a country like this isn’t a surrender, it’s a give and take so that we can start to coexist in the way that we deserve.”