Rallying for Peace

President Juan Manuel Santos, Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, the Peace Commissions of the Colombian Congress, the Marcha Patriótica, and a broad range of social organizations called for a national march to support the peace process on April 9th.   The date was highly symbolic, having been established last year as a national day of memory and solidarity with the victims of Colombia’s internal armed conflict by the Law for Victims and Land Restitution.  April 9th is also the anniversary of the killing of Jorge Luis Eliécer Gaitán, the popular presidential candidate of the Liberal Party, whose death in 1948 set off partisan fighting that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and launched the period known as La Violencia, a precursor to the current internal armed conflict.

Colombians will go to the streets on April 9th to show their support for the peace talks in Havana

Colombians went to the streets Tuesday to show their support for peace.

In his address on the eve of the march, President Santos affirmed that the “stars are aligned” for peace and noted, “The best tribute we can give to the millions of victims of violence is to ensure that in the future there are no more victims, there is no more conflict, there is no more bloodshed or tears:  that we conquer peace.”

What began as a day to commemorate victims exploded into a widespread call for peace and a series of marches and ceremonies.  In Bogota, the mayor declared a “civic day” and granted public employees a holiday to enable their participation in the day’s events.  Marchers dressed in white, held white balloons, and wore shirts that affirmed, “My contribution is to believe, I believe in peace.” (Mi aporte es creer, yo creo en la paz).  Banners called for a negotiated solution, a bilateral ceasefire, and peace with social justice.  Victims’ groups called for a place at the peace table.

At an early morning event at Bogota’s Monument to Heroes Fallen in Action, President Santos paid homage to the millions of victims of Colombia’s 65-year old conflict, including “soldiers and police who fell defending the nation, democracy and security.”  He told uniformed military and police to ignore rumors that they would be sacrificed at the peace table, and underscored their role in making peace possible.  (At the event, Santos reiterated his opposition to a bilateral ceasefire, which has been demanded by many civil society organizations, noting that it would be tantamount to declaring the entire national territory a demilitarized zone.  See my earlier post on ceasefires.)

Santos and Petro plant symbolic tree of peace at the Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliacion

President Santos and Mayor Petro plant symbolic tree of peace at Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliación (CMPR).   –Photo from CMPR

Following the ceremony, the crowds proceeded to Bogota’s newly opened Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation, where President Santos and Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, jointly planted a wax palm tree, Colombia’s national tree, as a symbol of peace.  Petro’s speech on reconciliation reinforced this image of unity and sent a message that Colombian politics can accommodate ex-combatants within its electoral  structures.  This is a timely and appropriate message for the negotiators in Cuba as they prepare to wrap up work on the issue of agrarian development policy and begin discussions about political participation.

Representatives of a vast ideological spectrum and a wide range of sectors–totaling some 900,000-1 million people, according to the Bogota police–participated in the day’s activities.  (Check out these pics of Bogota.) Outside the capital, other cities –Barranquilla, Cali, Medellín, Cartagena, Santa Marta–held their own marches for peace.

Significance of the Rallies for Peace

While noting the complex intersection of electoral politics with the march (which some observers considered the launching of Santos’s re-election campaign), political commentators noted that the rallies were successful in giving President Santos a clear mandate for pursuing a peace agreement. (See “Semana en Vivo.”)

Members of the Colombian government negotiating team, some of whom were present at the rallies, and the FARC negotiating team, recently reinforced with new members in Havana, expressed satisfaction with the public show of support for the peace talks.  Sergio Jaramillo, the High Commissioner for Peace, like the President himself, acknowledged that progress continues at the peace table, and that broadening the FARC negotiating team with new negotiators, including Secretariat member Pablo Catatumbo, will help ensure that whatever agreement is reached has the backing of a broader array of guerrilla forces.

Tuesday’s march suggests that the public is watching what is happening in Havana, and that a substantial portion of Colombian society across the board favors an end to the armed conflict.  An informed, engaged public will have an important role to play in ensuring that the parties remain at the table until an agreement is reached, and in pressuring for the negotiators to reach agreements.  A pluralistic, peace-loving public is also a potential counterbalance to the small but powerful sector lead by former President Alvaro Uribe that has opposed the dialogues in Havana.  Finally, without sufficient engagement of civil society, it will be difficult to legitimize any agreements reached by the table.  Much remains to be done to ensure a solid constituency for future accords, but this week’s activities were a good start.


About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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6 Responses to Rallying for Peace

  1. childvelez says:

    I thought that the march, to a certain extent, was full of political motives. Santos was able to get his popular mandate for the peace talks, the absence of which was the source of criticism from former President Andrés Pastrana. Gustavo Petro, who originally called for President Santos to join the march, also had weakening leadership be strengthened by a commitment to peace. Finally, the biggest winners were the Marcha Patriótica and their leader, ex-senator and human rights activist, Piedad Córdoba who were stigmatized by a supposed association to the FARC-EP (as said by Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón). The only real opponent to the march was Uribe, whom El Partido de la U abandoned yesterday as well. The Colombian urban upper and middle class in 2008 was marching in ‘Un Millón de Voces Contra las FARC’, validating Uribe’s Democratic Security policy and counterinsurgency, and forgetting the crimes of the AUC and the armed forces. Now, Colombians are marching with supposed guerrillas for peace. Colombians clearly want to put their differences aside with the FARC-EP and take advantage of this rare opportunity for a viable peace. However, Dra Bouvier, I must remind you of one of the most important events on Tuesday – the murder of Ever Cordero, human rights activist in Valencia, Córdoba asking for the restitution of his land. Communities that are still menaced by this new manifestation of paramilitarism (los neoparas/las mal-llamadas BACRIM) are left out of this peace, and this march. The government discourse was one of memory and hommage to fallen soldiers, and a chance at peace, in contrast to many of the signs that I saw by victims groups that emphasized justice, peace, memory, and reparations.

    For more thoughts, I’d invite your readers to check out my reflections on the political interests behind the march, who is excluded by the march and the peace process, and the price of peace.



    • Thanks for this great synthesis of the politics behind the march! I would add that there were other political agendas too. Santos is looking ahead to his own reelection, and the march was in effect a launching of his campaign. Multiple, contradictory, and sometimes very confusing discourses around victimhood responded in part to Santos’s effort to bring everyone onto the peace train. At some point, the discussions around who is a victim in the conflict, and who is accountable for victimhood, will need to be addressed–probably after the Congressionally-supported regional discussions on victims expected to begin later this month. In the meantime, Santos has bent over backwards to keep the military happy throughout this process, underscoring their role in creating conditions for peace, seeking military jurisdiction for human rights crimes, increasing the military budget, reassuring the military and police not to listen to rumors that their fate is being decided at the table. This comes from past experiences with the military as spoilers in previous peace processes.


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