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Amnesty: a win for Colombia's peace process?

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The Palace of Justice in the Republic of Colombia. Bogotá, Colombia. Kinori under a Creative Commons Licence

Liliany Obiando is finally free – after nine years.

For almost a decade, Colombian sociologist, human rights worker and former political prisoner Liliany Obando has been engaged in a long and complex battle with the Colombian state and judicial system. She was charged with ‘rebellion’ in 2008, but this March the state officially granted her amnesty, in what she calls a ‘major achievement’.

The amnesty came as part of the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which was passed by congress in November. An amnesty law was agreed to pardon those accused of minor crimes in the war – both guerrillas and the military.

The law has also been extended to include human rights workers, union members, student activists and others who have been imprisoned for political crimes over the years. According to human rights organizations, thousands of political prisoners are now eligible for amnesty.

When Obando was arrested in 2008, she was a human rights director and fundraiser for FENSUAGRO, Colombia’s largest agriculture workers’ union.

She was initially accused of rebellion and aiding a terrorist organization after investigators supposedly found documents connected to her on the computer of Raul Reyes, a FARC leader who was killed by the Colombian military in Ecuador under Operation Fenix. The latter charge was eventually dropped after a judge ruled that evidence taken from this computer was illegal.

Obando was sentenced to 70 months in prison, fined $368,347, and banned from holding any public position until her sentence elapsed. She spent over three and half years in Buen Pastor prison in Bogotá. Like many other maximum security prisons in Colombia, it is known for its human rights abuses, particularly extreme overcrowding, poor hygienic conditions, and absence of medical care for prisoners, according to human rights organization Justice for Colombia.

In 2012, Obando was granted provisional freedom after the state recognized that she was a sociologist, teacher and single mother – not an enemy of the state. She spent a year under house arrest in her small apartment in Bogotá that she shared with her mother and two children. The state also continued to pursue her. Once, officials brought her into custody, where, unable to contact her lawyers, she was questioned and detained for 14 days by Colombia’s special intelligence service, DAS.

Thanks to the amnesty, she is less likely to be detained again. Her fine has been cancelled and she now has the possibility to obtain public employment. She explains what this amnesty law means for her and Colombia’s peace process.

It has been more than five years since you were released from jail. What does this amnesty mean for you now?

This process has been very complex and long. It started in 2008, and then in 2012 I was let out on provisional release, having been in prison for almost four years without being sentenced. So that was the first freedom, but the process continued its course of investigation.

Even though it was an unjust sentence… throughout the process, I went from confinement to confinement, three imprisonments. They accused me of appearing in Reyes’ computer [files], but when I was convicted they said they weren’t actually sentencing me for that [because the computer was obtained illegally]. So they attached other supposed crimes to me, which never appeared in the investigation. That’s to say, neither the lawyers nor we had a chance to debate it, and that’s a right that everyone has who is being investigated. I was sentenced illegally.

Until the amnesty law, I still had the burden of the fine to pay, even though my freedom was given in 2015. As well as being condemned illegally by the State, they ordered me to pay this fine to the victims’ unit, as if I had somehow caused a victim harm, which never happened. So I refused to pay. As a woman and a single mother, out of the workforce, I couldn’t pay. They didn’t let me return to my professional post. So what does a woman in these conditions do?

My lawyers requested an amnesty for this penalty, and to remove my inability to take public-sector jobs.

In December 2016, we applied for the amnesty, as a result of the Peace Talks between the FARC and the government.

So your amnesty has a link with the peace talks?

Yes, all the amnesties have a link with the peace agreement. In this agreement, the fifth point is the one about victims.

The FARC and the government agreed on and created a unique system in the world of justice: the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-repetition. This new judicial system will judge all sides involved in the conflict, not only the FARC guerrillas but also the people, army, police, paramilitaries... Everyone who was involved in the armed conflict.

It is a special justice, because its purpose will not be to imprison, a system that already exists in Colombia, but a restorative justice. It changes the idea that prisons are the only form of punishment.

Within this special jurisdiction for peace, they mention a need to create a law of amnesty. No insurgent organization will sign a peace agreement without demanding the release of their members who are being held prisoner. The military and state prisoners being held by the FARC were released during other processes throughout the war, as a unilateral decision taken by the FARC. So, if the FARC wasn’t holding members of the state when the peace accords were signed, the only political prisoners were those in Colombian jails.

Not all the political prisoners were members of the FARC. There are members of the ELN [the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group] and other insurgency groups, but also a large number of political prisoners from social organizations: campesino groups, human rights workers, students, academics. The authorities began to flag any person for thinking distinctly or similarly to how the insurgency thought. They took us out of our spaces of struggle and militancy and put us in jail.

I was condemned for crimes of rebellion, a political crime, so I had the right to request amnesty.

Is it true that the government has blocked the amnesty law from being included in the constitution?

Well, it’s still under discussion, the creation of the special jurisdiction for peace. It’s at a stage called ‘conciliation’, but the court still has to review it. The special jurisdiction for peace cannot not be installed, but this government has already made changes that weren’t in the final agreement.

It is not yet known whether it will be in the constitution or not. But what is certain is that the government has to comply, as it has already been approved as law.

Following the work of certain congresspeople – including [former rightwing president] Alvaro Uribe’s Centro Democratico Party – there is a new need to regulate this law through a special decree, the decree 267 of January 2017, which places conditions on those who can apply for the law of amnesty.

This law grants amnesty to those people who, in the context of the armed conflict, were linked to the insurgency, investigated and sentenced. But they did not necessarily belong to the insurgency.

Are things actually changing for good in the country now? Do you have more faith in the peace process?

We always knew that implementing the peace process would be more difficult than the negotiation part. There are some in Colombian politics who are very reactionary and don’t accept what was agreed. They interfere not only through political means but through the continuance of the ‘Dirty War’ that we have lived so much of in this country: through assassinations and reviving paramilitary groups.

The government promised to disrupt those armed groups, but in reality they are not doing that at all, and [the paramilitary groups] are becoming stronger because the FARC has left the zones they once controlled. These groups took over these territories, and are sending a message rejecting the peace agreement. They are mainly sending this message to social movements by assassinating their leaders and pursuing people from union organizations, popular movements, peasants supporting the peace process. An incredible number of social-movement leaders have been assassinated since the signing of the peace accord.

So, the climate is really tense, but the amnesty law is also incredible.

But it was signed in December, and you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of prisoners [who have been released]. I was [lucky because I was] already out [of prison], which meant I could go and see my lawyers and get all the paperwork and formalities ready. But the people who are still in jail have had a number of problems pursuing the amnesty law. They are almost all still in prison. Lawyers are asking details that they say are necessary, but this has made the whole process more cumbersome. This process of who should be released, who should not, who complies, who does not… So with all these pretexts, they are leaving people in jail longer.

In January a decree was released to clear up these doubts, but now the judges responsible for processing the amnesty requests have called a strike. They belong to a union called Zona Judicial, and they say, ‘There are many amnesty cases and we don’t have sufficient personnel, plus the government owes us a lot of money, so we are not taking any more cases.’

You were accused of ‘rebellion’, but what does that mean exactly?

Well, for many of the people who fought for national liberation, rebellion was not a crime but a right. Even in the preamble to the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 it says that every person that has been subjected to an oppressive regime or been oppressed has the right to rebel.

But in Colombian legislation, there is a long explanation of ‘rebel’ groups without arms, which is what rebellion means, and was assumed to be a crime in the Colombian penal code. So, rebelling against the Colombian state – even if it is an oppressive state – is a crime. But because it is a political crime, you can request an amnesty, which you cannot get for common crimes.

Judges and magistrates have amplified the law, depending on who is in government. It keeps getting modified. So, they say, ‘Now it’s not only an act of rebellion if you are armed, but also if you look for help, or look for financing, or anything for an organized group.’ This is why a lot of people end up in jail accused of rebellion.

You were in Bueno Pastor prison in Bogotá. What are the conditions inside Colombian prisons like for women?

There is no differential treatment in the justice system between men and women’s prisons. But 9 out of 10 women in prison are mothers, and that puts women in a particular place of vulnerability, not only for them, but for their families.

The majority of those mothers are also the head of the household, because the fathers are absent. So where are these kids? When you take away their mother, who cares for them, feeds them, protects them? There are no re-socialization [programmes for the female prisoners], no opportunities to study and no compensated work. The most affected by this are the minors, the sons and daughters of the mothers in prison.

The prison population is 120,000, but women only represent some 6 or 7,000 of them. This could be seen as positive, that [lots of] women aren’t going to prison. But, it’s also negative, because it means that these women are completely invisible inside the prison [system], because the system thinks all the time in terms of the masculine. But women and men have very different needs, different bodies.

This affected you too, didn’t it?

Yes, but because of the age of my kids, they were never in prison with me. Children can only be with their mothers [in prison] from 0 to 3 years old, then they take them away. You have to give them up, whether or not you have family on the outside to help you. If you don’t, you have to give them to the Family Welfare institute.

What do you want to see happen with the amnesty law?

What we need first is to get the prisoners their freedom. Part of our activist work with the political prisoners has been solidarity, judicial campaigning and training, trying to get them involved in courses. The aparatus that controls the prisons, the National Penitentiary and Prisons Institute, puts a lot of obstacles in the way for us as human rights workers. But there are sometimes also difficulties between those doing the solidarity work.

We are also presenting a complaint asking why people have not yet been released. Also, the few who have been let go face very difficult conditions: people get sick, people leave [prison] without clothes, they don’t have anywhere to go. So, what we also do is try to provide for their exit, give them a safe departure.

A closer look at Brazil’s economy

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Brazil's new president Michel Temer. © Wikimedia Commons

The Brazilian economy isn’t looking great these days. The country is facing one of its most severe economic crises since the Great Depression, with unemployment at almost 12 per cent and inflation hovering around 8 per cent. The scene has caused a lot of anger, resentment and suffering across the country.

But Brazilians are about to get yet another shock, since the new President Michel Temer has chosen to respond to the country’s economic troubles with a series of neoliberal measures that include cutting funds to social programmes, healthcare and education – which many Brazilians have come to rely on.

Temer took office this summer after former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached for manipulating budget numbers. The move booted the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) government from power for the first time in over 12 years. Temer then proceeded to load his cabinet with unelected officials and allies of his Brazilian Social Democratic Party government.

To unpack some of the implications of a floundering economy and new neoliberal policies, New Internationalist spoke with Brazilian political scientist Sergio Gregorio Baierle. Baierle previously worked with the Central Bank of Brazil and advocated for Participatory Budgeting with the NGO Cidade in Porto Alegre.

Brazil’s economy is in one of its worst recession its been in since the 1930s, while President Temer also announced last week that the economy isn’t expected to emerge from recession until the second half of next year – which is also later than expected. How is this actually unfolding in Brazil itself? How is it affecting people right now in the country?

The situation is awful – the situation for the poor but even for middle classes. It’s very difficult because the economy is not recovering.

For example, this year they [the government] have been able to produce some primary surplus for only two months of the year. They have not been able to achieve any primary surplus for the remaining months, so the debt with the banks is increasing, despite all this speech that there is a new hope for the economy and that many investors are trying to come to Brazil.

But what are investors actually doing? They are profiting off of the highest interest rate in the world. So, for example a debt in credit card costs you around 500 per cent a year. It’s unbelievable.

And for the government, of course, their interest rate is much less, although it’s still very high. They can make a lot of money. People with money, they actually don’t want to invest in anything because it’s much easier to make money just buying the debt bonds from the government. It’s much easier.

So, all the sectors are suffering. The industrial sector was already in a decline and continues to decrease, while the service sector was the last one to fall, but now is falling. And that means a lot of unemployment because this sector employs a lot of people. The traditional retail sector is also facing a severe crisis.

The only sectors that are surviving are the renters, for example the shopping centre owners. They live from the rent that people pay to put their stores there, so they can make some money. But even this group is suffering. They are suffering because, in some areas of the city, a lot of places are now vacant. This is just an example to show that the populations’ consumption too is decreasing.

I don’t see how to get out of this, because I think both projects are failing. Of course, this project of trying to implement a pure neoliberal political economyis just for the benefit of the very rich so it saves, at least, the banks. That’s its main proposition, save the banks.

But the other project that was using traditional Keynesian policies in order to push consumption and grow the economy was also not working. Dilma [former president Dilma Rousseff] tried to improve the economy through just investing government money in this process, decreasing taxes for industries or very low interest rate loans for some business sectors, and it didn’t work.

Brazil, of course, is now facing its most severe crisis in its history. But I think the problem is more complicated than that and it’s not restricted to Brazil: it’s not working in many places. Even in the United States, the gross domestic product’s rise was slow compared to other periods where they tried to recover from recessions. Now they recovered from the recession of 2008, but it was much harder than in the past.

Maybe we should consider crises not to be just crises in a linear time line: they are accumulating. So, I think we are in a process of arriving at a harsher crisis in the near future, internationally.

Do Temer's neoliberal policies actually differ that much from what Rousseff was putting forth in the last couple of years? Because she was heavily criticized for her neoliberal policies too.

Yes, she was. Dilma received criticism from the right wing at the beginning of her term because of the policies she implemented in the first years. But in her last mandate she appointed a neoliberal minister to run the economy.

And some measures they [the Temer government] are implementing today, she tried to implement then, but was not able to get the majority to do that. The idea of reducing funding for health and education was already there, but what occurred was that now they really implemented that measure. Now they have accentuated these policies, and have the majority in congress, so they can pass what they want.

What are some of these specific policies that Temer has recently passed?

They passed one that freezes public expenditure on all levels of government for 20 years.

But the point is that they are also in a harsh crisis so they are investing almost nothing right now. So this policy implies that, regardless of how well the economy is doing, for the next two decades they will be investing next to nothing.. It’s not sustainable.

For now, they get political support for those regressive decisions and I don’t know how much time it will take for people to withdraw their approval. It depends how fast people realise they are not in a new economy that will build fast. No. They are in the beginning of a crisis that will get worse and worse and worse for the foreseeable future.

Right, this is the Proposed Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 241? This is one of the more controversial new measures. What will some of the more specific effects of this spending cap be? And how will it affect the legacy of social policies built by the Workers’ Party (PT)?

Now they [the Temer government] are reviewing all beneficiaries of all social policies, one by one. They are obliged to go through, for example, in the case of the family grant, Bolsa Familia, they are checking all the beneficiaries and they cut the beneficiaries that are making more than $100 per member of the family. So they are going into some details and attacking people individually, and making them feel guilty – and if they are making some more than the cap, even just a few cents more, they can no longer receive the family grant.

Some programmes they are cancelling altogether, and they are also preparing to increase the retirement age.

In terms of education, for example, they are proposing a change in the educational system, cuting some disciplines like history, sociology and philosophy at the high school level. They would just be an option, and not an integral part of the key curriculum.

Another proposal is for full time schools. In Brazil, we have a tradition of half time schools, with different morning and afternoon students. But many people in high school are also at the age that they need to work, so if they need to be at school full time during the day it will be very difficult. School will also become more expensive because students need to be there during the entire day. The government is also considering reducing the number of places in schools – because they will not be able to fit both morning and afternoon students at the same time.

How do you see the Brazilian public responding to these measures? Some areas of Brazil have very active social movements.

Yes, there is a strong response today. Public sector school workers are striking to protest the proposed changes in school policies.

But the problem in Brazil is that the media are strong and very controlling, and they have almost the same interests. Two or three groups control the mainstream media.

One of the reasons that they were in favor of Dilma’s impeachment was because they wanted more public funding for big media. And that was one of the first things the new government did, to put a lot of money in publicity in the big media, such as the Folha de Sao Paulo and Globo.

They are also offering them contracts. For example, the Globo was offered a contract for administrating museums, and they are also interested in the school books industry – they are going far beyond just being a newspaper. They are trying to be present in the daily life of the schools and communities.

Besides Michel Temer taking office recently, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party has made other gains in the country in the last few elections, including the municipal elections in October and in Sao Paulo a few weeks ago. They picked up a lot of seats that were once occupied by the PT. Some media organizations are interpreting this as an indication that voters, or citizens, are angry with the PT for leading them into a two-year recession. Do you agree with this?

It’s half true. Because what is really happening is that people have thrown their vote, most of the ballots are blank. Most of the people went there but they didn’t vote for any candidate. So, for example, in Puerto Alegre, the mayor was elected with only around one third of the vote. And most of the voters they voted for no-one.

People distrust the Workers’ Party for two reasons. One reason is what the media is saying about the Workers' Party or whatever. But the other reason is that they don’t feel a strong difference between the Workers’ Party and the other parties. In the beginning people used to say the Workers’ Party was different, they were more ethical etc. But the middle class that traditionally showed more support for them now distrusts the party, although that doesn’t mean they are in favour of right-wing politics: they don’t see any other option that could follow.

Is there any truth to the media reports that it was predominantly the policies and actions of the PT that lead Brazil into this recession?

No. What lead to the recession was the end of the commodities boom. On the one hand, the end the commodities boom was linked to an internal problem where Brazil was not able to profit from the commodities boom. They were not able to recover industry or to establish a better relation with the financial sector in Brazil, because they had never really addressed that kind of dominance of the financial sector. And on the other hand, the crisis has an international context, because in my opinion the key point was the price of oil falling and hugely impacting the countries that were taking profit from the commodities boom, like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. I think that the crisis in Venezuela would not be as big as it is today if the price of oil wasn’t as low as it became. Of course there are internal factors, but things don’t just happen by chance.

How will this affect the economic bloc between BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)?

The problem now is that Brazil is not part of the BRICS, Brazil is trying to get connected to the United States again. They think that the chance for Brazil to survive the crisis is to get a more friendly connection to the United States, increasing our exports there. I don’t think this will occur, especially with incoming US president, billionaire businessman, DonaldTrump. Why would they increase imports from Brazil if they can import for cheaper from other areas?

Over the past years, Latin American countries – particularly the traditionally left-wing countries, Brazil's previsous PT government, Ecuador, the former Argentine government, and Bolivia – have been trying to create more regional union and trade amongst themselves, and to aid Latin American integration. How are Temer’s policies going to affect this Latin American unity?

Temer's governmet is trying to break with this trend. Now the international relations sector in Brazil is very right wing. José Serra is the new minister for foreign affairs, and he is in favour of improving ties with Argentina, blocking Venezuela. And I think for Mercosur (Southern Common Market), for all the policies they have been trying to implement before, they will have a difficult time in the present.

Unless another change occurs in the near future… for Latin America I think we are going back to that traditional alternation between some liberation and some return to dependence on the United States policies for the area.

Another blow to Colombia’s peace process

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Poster for the National Army of Liberation (ELN), National University of Colombia, 7 March 2007. Julián Ortega Martínez under a Creative Commons Licence

The Colombian peace process was dealt another huge blow last week, after the launch of the long anticipated peace talks with the ELN guerrillas was cancelled Thursday. This move left many people feeling even more concerned about the future of the country and its prospects for peace.

Last week, the Colombian government and the second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), were scheduled to begin the long process of peace negotiations in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. But, at the last minute, the launch was canceled by President Juan Manuel Santos over a hostage dispute with the guerrillas.

According to the president, the ELN failed to meet the deadline to release former legislator Odin Sanchez Montes de Oca, who has been held captive since April of this year. The government had given the guerrillas an ultimatum: release Sanchez by Thursday or the talks won’t happen.

The ELN responded by saying ultimatums are a bad way to start the peace talks and will jeopardize the process, but reluctantly agreed. According to the group’s main negotiator, Pablo Beltran, the release process was underway and Sanchez would have been released during the first round of negotiations – what Beltran says was the initial agreement.

RELATED: The November edition of New Internationalist magazine takes an in-depth look at peace in Colombia.

Both the Red Cross, which will facilitate Sanchez’ release, and the government’s lead negotiator, former Minister of Agriculture Juan Camilo Restrepo, have since confirmed that the release process is now underway – but the peace talks still have not been rescheduled.

The launch of these negotiations with the ELN would have been somewhat of a saving grace for Colombia’s peace process, after citizens narrowly voted down the peace deal with the FARC in a national plebiscite earlier this month. Heads are still spinning, while the world wonders how Colombians could have possibly voted 'No' for peace.

But this win can be partially explained by a strong campaign against the peace deal led by former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe. Uribe managed to convince many Colombians that the FARC were getting off too easily and that the left-wing rebels would soon turn the country into the next Venezuela – a socialist country that is currently seeing major economic, social and political instability.

The campaign was mostly based on a series of lies and deliberate misinterpretations of the details within the agreement. As one human rights professor recently told me, if the government demobilizes the guerrillas, 'Who will demobilize Uribe?'

Many analysts have said that the war won’t stop without a similar agreement with the ELN

But the result of the plebiscite have also sparked nation-wide protests by those demanding the peace agreement be accepted. These include mass marches in several major cities, student sit-ins, and the occupation of Bogota’s main square, Plaza Bolivar. The vote has left the nation divided and the country’s future uncertain.

The FARC and the government have since returned to the negotiating table in Havana, Cuba, where they have been undergoing the peace talks for almost the last four years. President Santos announced last week that they expected to reach a re-negotiated deal in a matter a weeks, not months. The FARC has not commented on this new time line, however.

But even if Colombians had voted to accept and implement the peace deal with the FARC, many analysts have said that the war won’t stop without a similar agreement with the ELN. The talks scheduled to begin last week would have shown that Colombia is still on the road to peace. But now, this too will have to wait.

Of course, another hindrance to Colombia achieving lasting peace is the continued existence of violent paramilitary gangs, which many believe could grow stronger with no guerrilla groups around to challenge their territorial control. But, this doesn’t seem to be a major concern for the government, many of whom have been accused of having ties with paramilitaries, including Uribe.

According to many analysts, the cancellation of the ELN talks is a major indication of how the negotiations are expected to proceed: prolonged and complicated.

Who are the ELN?

The ELN was founded in 1964, the same year as the FARC. Both guerrilla movements were born out of a response to years of extreme inequality, oppression in the countryside and the monopolization of land ownership, which has its routes in Colonialism.

The two groups share a leftist, Marxist ideology, but they differ in several distinct ways.

For starters, the FARC is predominantly a campesino movement, made up of small farmers fighting for land rights and against the oppression in rural areas.

The ELN, on the other hand, is also fighting against wide spread inequality in the country, but was founded by students, intellectuals and other activists in the cities. The movement was highly influenced by the Cuban guerrilla movement and the 1959 revolution. Many of the initial founders of the group were actually trained by revolutionaries in Cuba.

In its early years, the ELN also had religious roots inspired by Liberation Theology – a branch of Christianity mainly concerned with liberating the oppressed. Liberation Theology has been strongest in Latin America over the years, particularly in the 1950's and 1960's, since the continent has strong Catholic roots (since the Spaniards arrived) and has an overwhelming amount of social inequality.

A report by BBC World earlier this year described the ELN as a mix of 'Jesus, Marx and Che Guevara.' The FARC, in contrast, remained strictly a Marxist-Leninist group, without religious influence.

One of the main figureheads behind combining Liberation Theology with the ELN’s Marxist beliefs was Priest Camilo Torres Restrepo. Restrepo was also a university professor, and an outspoken critic of the government and the mass inequality in the country. He was killed in 1966, in his first combat as a guerrilla but he left behind a legacy of what the 'model guerrilla' should be, while other priests and clergy members followed his example.

Over the years, the FARC has grown much faster than the ELN and has always been a larger movement in terms of numbers. It now has anywhere from 8,000-14,000 members, depending on the source.

The ELN only has an estimated 3,000 members, but still has a strong presence in the country. Their main areas of operation are in the departments of Arauca, Norte de Santander, Santander, Cesar, Bolivar, Antioquia, Boyaca, Casanare, Cauca y Nariño.

The structure of the ELN also differs from the FARC, which is one reason why the peace talks are expected to be long and complicated. The ELN leadership is much more horizontal than the FARC’s, who has a clearer hierarchy. This means that decisions within the ELN are made by consensus between all members of the Central Command (COCE). According to reports by Colombia’s El Espectador, this need for consensus could drastically prolong the peace negotiations.

Professor Javier Fayad at the Universidad del Valle en Cali recently told me that because the ELN has fewer members and is spread out within a large territory, they are also not as tightly controlled as the FARC. This could also prolong the organization and decision making process.

Structure of the talks

Like the FARC, peace talks with the ELN have been attempted in the past, but have all been cut short.

The decision to begin negotiations again came after two years of preliminary discussions between the ELN and the government, which started in January of 2014.

If and when the talks finally do begin, the structure will follow a six point agenda, similar to the model laid out by the FARC negotiations.

Cancellation of the ELN talks is a major indication of how the negotiations are expected to proceed: prolonged and complicated

However, the points of the agenda are different. For the ELN, these include: the participation of civil society in the peace-building process, democracy for peace, transformation for peace, victims’ rights, ending the conflict, and finally the implementation of the agreements.

For the FARC, the points agreed upon in Havana are: agricultural development policy, political participation, the end of the conflict, solution to the problem of illicit drugs, victims’ rights, and implementation of the agreements.

President Santos also stressed that the two guerrilla groups are different, and therefor negotiations with the ELN will be distinct from those with the FARC.

Like the negotiations with the FARC, which were held in Cuba, the talks with the ELN will also be held on neutral, foreign territory with international observers. Cuba, Norway, Venezuela, Chile and Brazil will all send observers to the negotiations held in Quito.

The cancellation of the talks last week were a set back in the peace process and highlighted the major tensions that still exist in the country. But the way Colombians have been mobilizing the past few weeks have made it obvious that citizens want peace, they have long been striving for it, and will continue to work for it.

But for the peace process to be successful, leaders behind the negotiations must be willing to do the same.

The last days of war: FARC’s 'final conference' in pictures

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FARC Guerrilla David Preciado. David is 33 years old and has been in the FARC for 19 years, having joined at the age of 14. David lost his left arm after he was shot 6 times during a conflict with the Colombian army, and doctors were forced to amputate it. © Kimberley Brown

On 2 October, Colombia has a chance to put an end to a 52-year conflict, as it will hold a referendum on its historic agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

FARC are the largest guerrilla movement involved in the Colombian conflict, having started as a Marxist-Leninist peasant force in 1964. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez ('Timoshenko') signed the peace deal on Monday, after rebels met at a jungle conference to plan their political future.

A giant professional stage sits in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. The FARC set up the stage for the sake of the conference where there was a concert every night playing everything from traditional joropo music to reggae fusion.

Kimberley Brown

FARC leaders Timoleon Jimenez, otherwise known as 'Timoshenko', and Ivan Marquez at the closing ceremony, where they announced that all fronts agree to the Peace Deal.

Kimberley Brown

Over 500 national, international and alternative press were present at the conference throughout the week. Many of them were seeking interviews with top commanders, who were mostly unavailable to the press since they were in closed door meetings all day. One day, the media was let into the meeting room for a two hour window and swarmed the leaders who were there and available for brief questioning.

Kimberley Brown

FARC guerrilla Norbey Hernandez Aporo. Norbey entered the FARC in 1996 at 13-years-old, saying he grew up in a poor rural area in the department of Guaviare where there were no access to schools or jobs. He said he joined the FARC not only because they offered him a better opportunity, including education, but also because he believed in their message to fight for equality in Colombia.

Kimberley Brown

One of several FARC encampments that was set up for their 10th National Guerrilla Conference (17-23 Sept) in the area of El Diamante.  The area lies on the border between the departments of Meta and Caqueta, just outside the Amazon jungle, and was once a high conflict area between the guerrillas and the Colombian army.

Kimberley Brown

The guerrillas sleep in individualized bunks, which they call 'calettas'. When arriving at a new site, each person is responsible for building their own caletta, which can take from 40 minutes to up to 2 hours. The rest of the camp is built collectively.

Kimberley Brown

A female guerrilla sits smoking a cigarette in a caletta. Women apparently see little machismo within the FARC and share tasks 'as a team', they say. They also make up over 40 per cent of all FARC insurgents.

Kimberley Brown

Kimberley Brown

Guerrillas cut up the meat from the cow that was killed that morning. They have to work quickly so the meat doesn’t go bad, and do this early in the morning before the jungle heat sets in.

Kimberley Brown

Guerrillas cook the meat that was killed earlier in the day.

Kimberley Brown

FARC Guerrilla David Preciado. David is 33-years-old and has been in the FARC for 19 years, having joined at the age of 14. David lost his left arm after he was shot six times during a conflict with the Colombian army, and doctors were forced to amputate it.

Kimberley Brown

A FARC guerrilla holds a cow that had escaped from the heard.

Kimberley Brown

Look out for the November edition of New Internationalist magazine 'Peace in Colombia: Hopes and Fears', where we take an in-depth look at this South American country.

Why Brazil’s art scene is fighting the impeachment

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by Ocupa MinC RJ Facebook page.

‘Temer Out!’ ‘Against the Coup!’ and ‘Culture and Work!’

These are some of the signs plastered all over the walls of the Ministry of Culture building in San Paulo. Visual artists, filmmakers, designers, dancers, actors and many others have been occupying the building for more than a month, protesting the current impeachment process that has engulfed the country – what many here are calling a coup.

‘We artists, and the people who form the country's democracy, we reject this imposed government and do not recognize it as an authority,’ said Cesar Haber Paelornik, a graphic designer and member of the occupation.

The interim government of Michel Temer has been in power for just over a month, since the Senate voted to suspend President Dilma Rousseff and put her on trial for impeachment. The move has baffled political analysts and angered a large part of Brazilian society, since Rousseff is one of the few Brazilian politicians who has not been charged with corruption.

We artists, and the people who form the country's democracy, reject this imposed government and do not recognize it as an authority

Instead, the suspended president is being charged with manipulating budget numbers ahead of the last national elections to cover up Brazil’s failing economy. But this is largely seen as an administrative error and is not an impeachable offence.

The impeachment put the opposition PMDB party in to office for the first time in over 12 years. Since 2003, the party has lost four consecutive elections to the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), including the latest one in 2014, which saw President Rousseff re-elected.

This political maneuver also brought someone to power who is so unpopular he would have almost no chance of winning in a national election. According to polls released two weeks ago, only 11.3 per cent of Brazilians actually support Temer’s acting government.

‘If you remove someone from power who was democratically elected, that’s a coup,’ said Gabriela Campus, a sculptor and another member of the occupation, adding that, ‘At this moment I support the return of Dilma… I support her because I don’t support a coup.’

Not all occupiers and protesters across Brazil agree with the fact that Rousseff should be brought back to power to finish her term, however. Many have lost faith in the president and are calling for new elections. But they all remain unified on one point: that Temer’s government is illegitimate and must go.

Over the past month, artists have been holding cultural events on a daily basis in their occupied space, in an attempt to unify Brazilians against the impeachment and raise awareness of the country’s current social and political situation. These events range from concerts, soirees, theatre, dance, lectures among others, many of which occur concurrently – what Le Monde Diplomatique Brazil described as, ‘a place of vibrant political formation.’

But Sao Paulo is not the only place where artists and other citizens are angry. In the past month, the movement, which began in Rio de Janeiro, has spread across the country. Now, cultural ministry buildings are being occupied in almost every state.

‘I came from the occupation in Rio de Janeiro, to learn and share experiences’ said Campus in Sao Paulo, ‘and what I’m observing is that in all the occupations the message is the same, that Temer must go.’

Since he came to power Temer has made a series of controversial decisions. These include naming a cabinet composed entirely of white men, eliminating political diversity in a country where 53 per cent of the population is black.

In addition, 15 of his 26 newly named ministers are facing criminal investigations, mainly on charges of corruption. Three of those ministers have since been forced to resign because of their connection to the infamous Lava Javo corruption scandal, a massive graft scheme involving the state owned oil company Petrobras and, what seems like, most of Brazil’s Congress. Last week, Temer himself was implicated in the scandal, but has refused all accusations.

Temer has also been quick to change the PT government’s social progressive agenda and enact a series of cost cutting measures, which are due to affect the lives of thousands of Brazilians. These include cutting social programs and government ministries that were focused on promoting equal rights for women, rural populations and minorities.

Among the first ministries to get slashed were the Ministry of Women, the Ministry of Racial Equality, the Ministry of Human Rights, and the Ministry of Agrarian Development. Most of these government bodies were created after the fall of Brazil’s violent 20 year dictatorship (1964-1984), to encourage the growth and spread of democracy.

Temer’s decision to axe these ministries within his first weeks in office, ‘comes in an authoritarian way,’ said Paelornik, leading many to fear that this government takeover is a step backwards for Brazilian society and regression to the time of the dictatorship.

But even those who don’t see these policies as a direct step back into a violent past, say they don’t respond to the present or future that Brazilian citizens voted for.

Since Rousseff was elected in 2014, her popularity has plummeted, mainly because of the floundering Brazilian economy. But this lack of confidence has not been applied to the PT government in general or its progressive policies. In fact, former president and PT founder Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva still sees some of the country’s highest approval ratings and is believed to be the most likely to win the next national elections, if he choses to run.

In all the occupations the message is the same, that Temer must go

Temer’s agenda of cost cutting and minimizing government, ‘has already been defeated in the polls,’ said Paelornik.

The artists’ protest initially began during Temer’s second week in office, after he announced that he would close the Ministry of Culture and fold it into the Ministry of Education. He soon rescinded his stance however, and agreed to keep the ministry open after several well-known Brazilian actors and musicians denounced his policies internationally and refused to promote his government.

However, the fact that the ministry was eventually saved made no difference to Brazil’s creative types. They continue to occupy government spaces, and denounce Temer’s leadership and policies, and they seem ready to do so for the long haul.

‘The answer I hope for is that the government see that people are not sleeping,’ said Joao Carlos, artist and occupier in Sao Paulo, ‘everything that symbolizes a step backwards we are here to resist, so that the country advances.’

What is digital humanitarianism and what did it do for Ecuador?

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A view of the San José de Chamanga affected zone, near Mache river. An earthquake hit here on 16 April destroying several houses and public buildings. A boy walks over the rubble. UNICEF/ECU/2016/Reinoso under a Creative Commons Licence

After a massive earthquake hit Ecuador’s coast in April, the country was devastated. Entire towns were destroyed, hundreds were killed and thousands more left homeless.

The scene was chaotic, and aid efforts immediately sprung up across the country. But this included more than donation points and people rushing to the coast to try to help. It also included online activists working behind the scenes who began mapping the crisis from their computers – a growing movement known as digital humanitarianism.

‘In the beginning, the feeling of helplessness of people here was intense,’ said Ricardo Arguello, a digital volunteer in Quito some 200 km from the earthquake’s epicenter on the coast. He is one of many minds behind the crisis mapping website AyudaEcuador.ec (Help Ecuador).

‘But many of the people volunteering here told me that they feel they are doing something concrete, something that works effectively… that what they know, technology, is being applied directly to the problem.’

One major reason that crisis mapping has been successful is that it relies entirely on crowdsourcing and open source software, making the technology available to everyone, not just tech junkies. And the fact that it’s all online means anyone around the world can help.

The night of Ecuador’s earthquake on 16 April, software engineers, website designers and mappers from around the world instantly took to chat groups to discuss how technology could help the victims. They quickly compiled maps of the disaster zones, then began to receive messages directly from people on the ground via SMS and social media (mainly Twitter) and reported their needs onto the map.

Within little time, this group of volunteers grew to include regular citizens, who helped filter through, prioritize and map the incoming messages. The result is a more accurate way to locate what aid is needed where, and deliver it faster.

‘It’s a socially interesting phenomenon because this has never happened here before, the idea that we all come together due to software or something technological…’ said Arguello.

The idea that maps are necessary for crisis response is nothing new. It has long been a necessary tool in disaster zones to try to make sense of the chaos on the ground.

The night of Ecuador’s earthquake on 16 April, software engineers, website designers and mappers from around the world instantly took to chat groups to discuss how technology could help the victims

But mappers often ran into problems since existing maps were often out of date or incomplete, especially in rural areas, making it hard to report exactly where aid was needed.

Online crisis mapping has revolutionized this process by arming regular citizens with the tools to create better maps and pinpoint where aid is really needed.

The crux of this initiative is two main platforms, Ushadihi and Open Street Maps.

What is Ushahidi?

Ushahidi, which means ‘witness’ in Swahili, is an open source software that was developed in Kenya in 2007, as a response to the violence unfolding across the country during the national elections.

The platform was created to collect reports of violence from citizens, then categorize and place those reports onto a map to inform others.

Ushahidi has since become a standard tool for crisis response, including natural disasters and ‘complex emergencies’ like armed violence, according to Luis Hernando, Information Officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Colombia.

Aid responders used Ushahidi for the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in 2010, in Libya during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, and the Nepal earthquake in 2015, among many others.

‘One metaphor I like to use is that we’re the same as any citizen who goes to donate goods, food or water, except we donate time, knowledge and expertise,’ said Hernando.

Hernando, a trained psychologist and software developer, has long been interested in technology and how it impacts the construction of relationships. He has been working with digital response mechanisms since 1995, using the little social media that existed at the time (mainly Facebook and YouTube) to help humanitarian actors make decisions on the ground.

But digital activism, he said, really didn’t take off until Ushahidi was developed and applied in Haiti in 2010. This response was revolutionary since it allowed regular citizens to take part, not just specialists working with the UN.

According to Hernando, Ecuador’s digital response to the earthquake was unique for several reasons, but mainly that it developed entirely from the ground up. In other disaster responses, crisis maps were created and applied by the UN or other international bodies.

One of the reasons Ecuador’s response came so quickly was that Arguello already had an Ushahidi website up and running. As a member of the Association of Open Source Software of Ecuador (Asociacion de Software Libre de Ecuador), Arguello had long known about the platform and its potential to help.

Following the earthquake in Haiti, Arguello bought the domain name desastre.ec (disaster) and mounted an Ushahidi platform on the server, because, he said, ‘it will be useful if something ever happens.’

‘I buy domains like that. When an idea comes to me, I just buy the domain,’ he said.

The same night as the earthquake, Arguello immediately began an online chat with other programmers about how to best use the website.

The rest of the team of volunteers developed pretty organically, he said. Open knowledge advocates, software developers, website designers and mappers soon joined the chat to work out the specifics. This meant collecting, validating and organizing the incoming reports from the coast, as well as maintaining the website. The team eventually changed the name of the site to the more positive sounding AyudaEcuador.ec.

This chat group also included specialists from around the world, like Spain and Colombia who had previously worked with Ushahidi, as well as its original creators in Kenya, who all shared their expertise and experience with the new volunteers.

According to Arguello, in the initial days following the earthquake, there were always people connected to the chat waiting to help, no matter what the hour.

‘There was a feeling that the technicians from other parts of the world were supporting our initiative, without any kind of ulterior interests,’ said Arguello. ‘If it was a platform that you had to pay for… maybe there would not have been the same level of enthusiasm from the people who are collaborating. Everyone is collaborating because they know this doesn’t belong to anyone.’

The answer lies in the map

While the Ushahidi works directly with collecting and organizing reports, the crux of its success is the map that it uses.

Collaborative mapping projects, such as Open Street Maps, have been revolutionary to the development of digital activism. The project takes satellite images and converts them into online maps by volunteers, who manually trace the detail of the image.

These maps are not just at the street and highway level, like Google Maps, but also include houses and other buildings, making it easier to pinpoint aid requests. They also use the latest satellite images for more up to date information.

‘This cartography with this level of quality, if it wasn’t for volunteers, would cost billions of dollars. But it’s free. It’s open,’ said Hernando, adding that OCHA has long worked with collaborative mapping projects like Open Street Maps.

Following the earthquake, Mapping Ecuador grew out of the same project.

Daniel Orellana, a professor at the University of Cuenca, has long been involved in Humanitarian Open Streets Maps (HOT), an international group of volunteers that work specifically on mapping crisis zones. Because of his experience in HOT, he became a crucial driver for developing a community of mappers for Ecuador.

In the first week immediately following the earthquake, over 2,000 people around the world were mapping parts of Ecuador’s coast.

Less than three weeks after the earthquake, Mapping Ecuador had 2,343 volunteers and had made over three million changes to the map – that’s three million streets and houses added that had previously not been there.

‘There’s an international community that’s been organized around HOT,’ said Andrea Ordonez, a mapping volunteer who works in international development. ‘Daniel helped with the mapping in Nepal, so people in Nepal said “well, we’ll help you guys now.”’

Since then, mapathons – events where people get together to trace maps – for Ecuador have been organized in Cuenca, Loja, Milan, Seattle, Barcelona, and cities across the US.

Digital activists agree that these platforms, and global citizen participation, are fundamentally changing disaster response.

In Ecuador, volunteers also plan on using this recently created digital infrastructure for the long term. Not only will it be valuable for tracking reconstruction efforts and community planning, but it will also be useful if and when another catastrophe hits the country – such as the pending erupting of the Cotopaxi volcano.

But according to Ordonez, the longevity of the project depends entirely on people’s interest in it, since it runs exclusively on volunteer efforts – what she says will be a challenge, but not impossible.

Anti-impeachment protests highlight Temer’s failures in Brazil

Thousands of protesters rallied Sunday against the interim president’s assault on diversity and what they described as an undemocratic impeachment process, Kimberley Brown reports.

On Sunday, massive anti-impeachment protests were organized in Sao Paulo, Brazil, by the MTST, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto or Homeless Workers’ Movement. Various other social movements participated, including women’s rights organizations, unions, workers’ collectives and student movements.

The protests were aimed against the new interim President Michel Temer and his changes to government ministries making their composition all white, male and staffed with representatives from unelected parties. The changes do not represent the diverse people of Brazil, said protesters at the event.

Many were opposed to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff because of their anger with Temer. Some made clear that they were against Temer because they were pro-democracy and he was not elected. However this did not easily translate into tacit support for the previous outgoing administration.

‘We don’t necessarily support Dilma’s government, but we do support democracy. Because we elected a government and all we got was this confusion,’ said Samara Gardenia from Intersindical.

A local journalist (working with Brasil da Fato) speculated that there were some 30,000 people participating in Sunday’s event. The journalist has been following the anti-impeachment protests around the city and this was one of the smaller ones he’s seen. One reason for this difference in size is that the event was organized mainly by one group, the MTST, rather than several, he said.

The march started at roughly 3pm local time, with about 45 minutes of speeches, rallying and a long march to Temer’s house. The plan for some was to storm his home, but protesters were stopped by officials.

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SOUNDBITE 1: (Portuguese) ‘We don’t necessarily support Dilma’s government, but we do support democracy. Because we elected a government and all we got was this confusion.’ – Samara Gardenia from Intersindical

SOUNDBITE 2: (Portuguese) ‘Good afternoon, I’m Luis from Vila Nova Palestina. This is not the first time that we’re here fighting this long battle against regression. Temer’s state, which is doing many things here, this interim government that took power is taking positions that it shouldn’t and cutting things that the incumbent president implemented, which is Dilma.’ – Luis from the MTST

SOUNDBITE 3: (Spanish) ‘In talking about this interim government, we as women don’t believe, well, they don’t represent us.’ – Marli from the Marcha Mundial das Mujeres

SOUNDBITE 4: (Spanish) ‘This coup that is there, it’s better not to call it the government, has no legitimacy. It wasn’t elected, and nobody in the ministries represent the people. They didn’t get one vote from the people. So, they have a long term project, but we don’t want that project. We don’t want it. That’s why we’re fighting. That’s why we’re in the street.’ – Marli, soy de la Marcha Mundial de las Mulheres