Colombia between hope and fear

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By Lieke Prins        When I initially left my house in Amsterdam to live in Colombia for three months I had planned to go to Chocó and study Afro-Colombian small-scale gold miners and their resistance strategies against large-scale mining companies. However, the first night in my new house with my new roommates in Medellin made me rethink my initial plans and inspired me to change in course of my research.

On the first night we were sitting on the floor of our apartment, getting to know each other. One of my roommates, an anthropology student of the Universidad de Antioquia, Ana Paula, had made us a simple dinner and aguapanela, a sweet sugary drink from Colombia. The small talk you normally have when you meet new people lasted for only two minutes; the conversation soon got a more serious tone and the two girls started to discuss the developments of La mesa de Havana – the peace negotiations between the insurgent group the FARC and government Santos.

The girls talked passionately about the construction of peace, the developments of the country and the future of the conflict. They argued: “We are the sons and daughters of the war but we want to be the generation that will be known in the history books as the generation that created peace.” Their statement caused a strong expression in their faces. Later on I realized that this expression reflected a mission that manifested itself in every aspect of their lives. Anthropology students wanted to make connections between people in a country of diversity and stigmatization. Law students dedicated their career to fight for human rights and social justice. Political science students wanted to create and participate in a fair democratic system and represent left wing social movements. They were all studying  and participating in social movements and protests for a peaceful society. I decided to focus on their perspectives on peace.

The students were not the only ones that wanted peace. Just like the government and the FARC and many other Colombians people were mobilizing and negotiating peace. But what is peace? “What is peace to you?”, I asked all my interlocutors, and this triggered interesting answers. Some had difficulty imagining a Colombia in peace. The idea of a country in which there would be no violence almost made them feel uncomfortable. Others had high hopes for the country. They argued that peace meant good health care and education, basic needs for the entire nation, social justice, human rights, and fair democracy. Peace meant living without fear. To be able to go where you wanted. To be able to speak your mind without fear for the possible repercussions. To be able to develop into the person you want to be.

My Colombian friends were fighting for  peace but doubted the notion of peace of the government and the FARC. Even more so, they questioned the motives of the government to build peace in the first place. “I ask, why? Why do they want to build peace?”, Andreas said. He and many others feared the motivation of Santos to construct peace. The students argued that the government wanted to demobilize the insurgent group in order to liberate the territories from the FARC and lease out the territory to multinationals. They stated the government wanted to gain quick economic profits which will impair the living situation of the people living in those territories. The students feared that when the conflict between the government and the FARC concerning territory and natural resources would be “resolved” a new conflict concerning territory and natural resources between large-scale extraction companies and the local population would emerge.

Not only did my friends fear that the end of one conflict would be the start of the next conflict, they also feared the start of the possible peace process. What will happen if peace is signed? In the past peace negotiations were followed by periods of extreme violence. What will happen if the FARC is demobilized and the rightwing Bandas Criminales gain more and more strength? The students had little faith in the government which is no surprise considering the actions of the government over the last couple of decades. However, what will happen if the agreement does not succeed?

During my fieldwork I got to know the different sides and perspectives concerning peace and the peace process. The developments of the country do not only give hope they also bring fear. The peace negotiations do not necessarily mean peace. The intentions to end one conflict could lead to the next conflict. The notions of peace differ. However, my friends all acknowledged the importance of La mesa de Havana and the signing of the agreement. It would be a necessary and first step for the path to peace. And when on the 24th of August the peace agreement was signed, my Facebook wall exploded with messages of hope. However, the final step of the agreement has yet to be taken: what does the Colombian population think?

Lieke Prins is a MSc graduate in Social & Cultural Anthropology at the VU. She wishes to continue her research into the peace process in Colombia, and currently studies Latin American Studies at CEDLA (University of Amsterdam).

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