Colombia’s Peace Agreement and the ‘Poison of Revenge’

Global Café Breakfast: Hector Aristizábal

Colombians and the world at large were shocked when an October 2nd referendum on a peace agreement to end 50 years of war saw a majority vote "No". "We have a very polarized country," said Hector Aristizábal, a therapist and peace activist from Medellín in Colombia. "The bigger message [from the vote] is we need more peace education," he told a LAWAC Global Café Breakfast meeting on Wednesday, October 12th. Some 220,000 people died in the long conflict between the government and the FARC leftist guerrillas, and from the results of the referendum it became clear that many Colombians are not ready to forgive and forget. "People need to understand we can have opposing views but we don't have to kill each other," said Aristizábal. "The poison of revenge is something you take yourself, hoping the other person dies - it doesn't make sense."

Digging deeper into the surprising result, Aristizábal said "it was the most sophisticated peace process ever done." It was negotiated secretly in Havana by representatives of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrilla leadership, and Santos went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on October 7th. But the major spoiler of the peace agreement was Santos's immediate predecessor as President, Álvaro Uribe, who campaigned strongly against the pact, arguing it was too lenient on the rebels. Uribe's father was killed by the FARC, and he also had strong personal disagreements with President Santos. Uribe enlisted the support of evangelical Christians in Colombia, who opposed the peace agreement on the grounds - with no apparent justification - that it would allow children to be adopted by same sex parents. "The politics of fear - it is the same everywhere in democracies," said Aristizábal.

The results showed that in those areas most affected by the war, people overwhelmingly voted "yes". It was in the cities where the fighting had had less of a direct impact on people where the "no" vote prevailed. "The people who know what war looks like know they want peace," said Aristizábal.

Aristizábal uses theater as "a laboratory for reconciliation" - gathering groups from all sides together to hear their stories. He has worked on conflict reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Palestine, Croatia, Guatemala, and Rwanda. Although he was shocked by the referendum result, he said that at least both the guerrillas and the government said they will go back to the negotiating table. "I was impressed, wow, I was very impressed," said Aristizábal.

He understands the need for people to get over the revenge instinct - he himself was tortured by the military, and his brother was tortured and killed - "I drank the poison of revenge and hatred for many years." But he came to see he was a prisoner of his own hatred. "We need to imagine a country where you and I can have completely different views about life and politics," said Aristizábal, "but I don't need to kill you or I don't need to think that you might kill me." He said the peace agreement is giving the people of Colombia the opportunity for a chance for something else. "They want something different for their children."

Roundtable Luncheon: Jorge Alejandro Tagle Canelo - Consul General of Chile, Ambassador Juan
Gabriel Valdés, Terry McCarthy, Rodrigo Mladinic - Trade Commissioner of Chile in LA

Coincidentally at a Roundtable lunch for Directors and International Circle members of the LA World Affairs Council on the same day, October 10th, the Ambassador of Chile to the US, Juan Gabriel Valdés, addressed the same subject of the Colombian peace agreement. Valdés said that when a conflict ends with no clear-cut winner - such as the case in Colombia between the government forces and the FARC, but also in Chile between the forces of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet and the pro-democracy movement, "you need to negotiate. And that means making concessions - on both sides." In Chile's case the only way to get Pinochet to give up absolute power was to give him a post as head of the military and then make him a senator for life. "That was a very painful concession for many of us." But in Chile's case it worked, the country returned to democracy and the economy has prospered since then, with average per capita income increasing by 300%, making Chile the richest country per capita in Latin America. "For Colombia you cannot have a peace deal where the rebels go to jail and the army goes to the podium for medals - concessions will have to be made on both sides." Valdés also said that negotiations will have to come soon in Venezuela, and also ultimately in Cuba - the idea that one side can take all simply is not tenable.

Aristizábal said that despite the uncertainties in the immediate future in Colombia, he is optimistic that a settlement will be reached, as neither the FARC nor the government want to go back to fighting. "In the end, it's been very good for us," said Aristizábal of this latest attempted peace treaty, "the country is re-energized."