Traveling in Colombia During an Almost Historic Moment

Traveling in Colombia During an Almost Historic Moment

By Ariana Crisafulli

The excitement was palpable in the Plaza Simón Bolívar in Bogotá, Colombia. On September 26th a crowd had gathered, carrying “Sí” signs and wearing “Vota sí por la paz” (“vote yes for peace”) shirts while others carried banners and waved white flags. In the plaza named for the great liberator, hundreds had gathered to witness another liberation; a freedom from the guerilla warfare that had caused so much calamity and civilian deaths for more than 50 years: the signing of the peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels.

In 1964, FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or in English, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) formed in response to a chain reaction of political violence. Although the history of Colombia’s political unrest began centuries ago, the seeds that spurred the growth of FARC were planted in 1948 with the assassination of Liberal party leader and presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.

On April 9th, 1948, Gaitán was shot and killed in downtown Bogotá. Gaitán was charismatic and highly idealistic. He described the working class as admirable and worthy of Colombia’s moral restoration. On the other side of the political spectrum, according to Gaitán, was the oligarchy, which he referred to as “evil.” He was highly popular among lower-income citizens and union workers because of this rhetoric and because he explained the issues to the undereducated in terms they could understand. It was a political awakening among the plebiscite.

His assassination triggered massive riots known as El Bogotazo, which left much of downtown Bogotá flattened. What followed was ten years of civil wars known as La Violencia between the Liberal and Conservative parties.

In the aftermath of La Violencia, government forces attacked enclaves of communism, and FARC arose as a military branch of the Colombian Communist Party. They had Marxist-Leninist leanings and promoted agrarianism and anti-imperialism through military tactics that often crossed into terrorism. The United Nations has estimated that 12% of all civilian killings were the result of these tactics by FARC and other Colombian guerilla forces.

After over half a century of violence, everyone in the plaza had “sí” on their minds. The crowd was happy to see President Santos and FARC leader Timochenko sign the peace deal, even though one week later, in a move that would surprise everyone, the country would vote against the deal. In the Plaza Simón Bolivar on September 26th, it seemed as if peace would win.

Curious about the timeline of events, I inquired a couple of Sí-attired Colombians in the plaza.

“If the people vote against the agreement, then the peace deal is canceled. But we’re celebrating early because we’re happy about the peace accord.” In hindsight, it seems like a cruel setup for a deal that would fail in a few days’ time.

On October 2nd, as the news networks broadcast the results, the “No” party found themselves unexpectedly celebrating their victory and declaring that justice had won. Equally surprised was the leader of the No party, former President Alvaro Uribe, who had predicted that the Sí party would clean house. But for the No, the proposed deal had just a few too many lenient policies for FARC. The four main terms of the agreement were: 

  1. FARC would have non-voting representatives in Congress throughout 2018, giving them the ability to influence political outcomes. They would also be guaranteed five seats in each of their parliamentary houses for two consecutive legislative terms.
  2. FARC would admit to their crimes and openly discuss deaths and violent events.
  3. A special court would have handed out lenient punishments to FARC members, with no prison time for their crimes.
  4. FARC members, in exchange for laying down their weapons and integrating into society, would have received salaries equal to the Colombian minimum wage for two years after the accord. Each ex-combatant would have also received a one-time payment of a sum equal to $2,500.

For 50.2% of Colombians, these terms were hard to stomach. Opponents argued these conditions gave too much power and leeway to criminals who have profited off the drug trade and killed thousands of civilians.

Many Colombians, especially those with lower incomes, found the promise of salaries hard to swallow. To them, it was tantamount to rewarding criminals with cash prizes. One Colombian attendee described it thusly,

“It’s like saying ‘the only thing I need to do to earn a decent salary is become a criminal and then promise not to do criminal activities anymore.’”

President Juan Manuel Santos, recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the conflict, had said this peace accord was the most reasonable outcome of over four years of bargaining with the rebels. While trying to appease the citizens of Colombia, the deal also had to be appealing enough for FARC to essentially give up a revolution. In a way, the communist cause had been lost and this was equally as hard for FARC members to stomach.

On the day of the peace signing, it seemed people were just happy that the violence was finally coming to an end. Attendees marched through the plaza with “Hope for peace” signs and banners displaying newspaper clippings of the peace accord. Vendors pushed their way through the crowd with cold beers and snacks as people danced to the entertainment onstage such as popular Colombian performers Sistema Solar and La Etnnia. At the opposite end of the plaza, a veritable carnivale was taking place complete with stilt-walkers and jugglers. During quieter moments, groups of people could be heard chanting “One minute of silence for a lifetime of violence.”

One bystander offered his opinion on the matter. Yes, some of the terms of the agreement were not quite fair, but this was the only way to achieve peace. Giving the ex-combatants salaries was the only way to properly integrate them into society. With no skills other than guerilla warfare, coming back into society would mean the formation of gangs and continued violence.

But Bogotá was an island of “Sï” in an ocean of “No.” Many outlying provinces that were hit hardest by the violence, voted yes for the deal, while those closer to the center, with the exception of Bogotá, voted no. In the more central province of Casanare, where farmers had been extorted by FARC rebels for years, “no” reigned, while the outlying province of Vaupes, where the residents have seen attacks on their towns and police taken hostage, 78% voted yes.

On September 26th, when the now-void historical moment came, the treaty was signed by FARC and President Juan Manuel Santos with a pen made of bullets.

“Our history was written with bullets. Our future will be written with one, too.”

It seems that, with the failure of the peace deal, the bullets may yet resume, although President Santos says the ceasefire will remain in place while negotiators plan their next move. Even the “No” party wants peace, but with adjusted conditions. Former President Alvaro Uribe urges that FARC leaders serve prison time for their crimes, that those found guilty of crimes be barred from running for office, that FARC pay compensation to their victims with their illicit gains, and that no changes be made to the Colombian constitution.

These sound like reasonable amendments to the deal, but for FARC, these terms are not enough for them to lay down their weapons.

Both sides will keep working towards peace, with negotiators traveling to Havana, Cuba for more peace talks to secure the future of a conflict-free Colombia.

Published: 10/10/2016

Ariana is a writer and world traveler. Her writing covers her three main passions: women’s empowerment, travel, and culture. The beauty of the world is not just in scenic mountain views or turquoise waters; it’s in doing the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. For Ariana, that thing is stringing words together.

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