Colombia’s election could shred peace deal

The former congress woman and recent presidential candidate Piedad Cordoba explains what is at stake in this Sunday's presidential election. Kimberley Brown reports

Piedad Cordoba has long been a well-known Colombian human rights activist, lawyer, former congress woman, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and was once named the most influential Ibero-American intellectual by Foreign Policy magazine. She also briefly ran as a candidate in this year’s presidential elections, but dropped out of the race in March.

Central to her platform was supporting the peace process with the FARC guerrillas. Cordoba, often referred to amiably as ‘la negra’, or the black woman, has long considered herself an ‘ally for peace,’ but this process could be in major jeopardy after the elections, she says.

This Sunday (17 June), Colombians will decide on a new president, forced to choose between polar opposite figures: the far left policies of former mayor of Bogota and M-19 guerrilla, Gustavo Petro; or the far right Ivan Duque who has long been adamantly against the country’s peace process.

Cordoba doesn’t hide her concern, if Duque and his Centro Democratico (Democratic Center) party wins, the peace process will ‘be torn to shreds’, she told New Internationalist.

‘He represents the interests of a political class that doesn’t suit them if the pact is fulfilled,’ said Cordoba. As a result, rejecting the original peace agreements has been a central part of his campaign, she added.

Piedad Cordoba. Ministry of Culture, Argentina (CC 2.0)

So far, Duque, who won the first round of elections with 39 per cent of the vote, has been backed by the agro-industry and the business sector, as well as the right wing political parties, Conservatives, Liberals and Cambio Radical (Radical Change) – all bodies that stand to lose if certain elements of the peace agreement are implemented, like rural development, land redistribution and social programs.

Part of Duque’s popularity, and the origin of his policies, is due to his close connection with Alvaro Uribe, the founder of Centro Democratico. Uribe president between 2002-2010, was loved by many for his pro-business economic policies, and hated and feared by many others for his links to paramilitary groups and aggressive military policies. These same divisions and alliances apply to Duque today.

Duque was leader of the ‘No’ campaign in the 2016 plebiscite against the peace deal, which won by one percentage point, shocking the country and the international community.

When he launched his political campaign in January, Duque distanced himself from the ‘No’ campaign ideology, and said it wasn’t necessary to destroy the peace process, only to make major modifications in the agreement.

‘But even though he changed his discourse… we all know that’s not how it will be,’ said Cordoba.

Duque has already been critical of three major points in the peace agreements, which he is likely to change: the FARC’s participation in national politics; the crop substitution programs for coca farmers – most of whom are small landholders in impoverished areas – which Duque says has been too lenient and instead will apply forced eradication of all coca crops; and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a special judicial body created to try people accused of war crimes – both guerrillas and government – that runs parallel to the state judicial system.

According to the FARC, ‘this is a core element of the Peace Agreements, without it there would be no peace agreements at all.’ But according to the Centro Democratico party, it will lead to impunity.

Despite the importance of the peace agreements in Colombia, the process has already disillusioned many people and has repeatedly been considered ‘a failure’. This includes increased violence and new mass displacements in some rural and indigenous communities, and the government failing to comply with many of its promises in the peace deal, like providing financial aid to the former FARC guerrillas for productive projects and rural development plans in Colombia’s largely impoverished countryside.

But one of the peace agreement’s biggest failures Cordoba blames on President Juan Manuel Santos, for not legally protecting the agreements from changes or alterations.

‘For as much as Santos says the agreement is protected so that future governments can’t change it is a lie, this has already been demonstrated several times in congress, within the Fast Track framework. The executive and legislative [branches] can make the modifications they like or never implement the pact,’ said Cordoba.

‘Duque can do with the pact whatever his free will desires, and we know what he desires,’

Initially the Fast Track system was implemented in order to pass certain laws through congress and be implemented more quickly however over the past year congress has already made several controversial changes. This includes, canceling the 16 seats in the Senate that were promised to victims of the armed conflict in order to have representation in government, and numerous changes in how the JEP is allowed to operate, says Cordoba.

Given these circumstances, ‘Duque can do with the pact whatever his free will desires, and we know what he desires,’ said the former congresswoman.

The only thing that can save the peace process now, added Cordoba, is the actual political will to follow through with the agreements as originally agreed upon in Havana, Cuba, where the peace talks occurred between 2012-2016. The most urgent reforms must be passed immediately, she added.

According to Cordoba, Gustavo Petro and his Colombia Humana (Humane Colombia) party is the only one of the two candidates who has promised to do this.

A Petro Win?

But even if Petro wins adhering to and implementing the peace deal won’t be easy. The majority of seats in congress are occupied by right wing parties who ‘have expressed their nonconformity with the final agreement,’ said Cordoba, including 18 seats for Centro Democratico.

‘For this reason, citizen support [for Petro] will be key and vital in his exercise of government,’ said Cordoba. ‘The challenge, if [Petro] wins, is to overcome the barriers in conventional political spaces and contribute to the construction of a new citizenship, one that is more conscious, informed and qualified to make demands on politicians.’

The fact that Petro has made it to the second round has already made this a landmark election, as this is the first time a far left government has come this close to the presidency.

But despite Petro’s contribution to peace, many have refused to vote for him saying his politics are too extreme – three of his most important themes have been, addressing discrimination, strengthening the public sphere and climate change. Even the two other left wing presidential candidates Sergio Fajardo and Humberto De la Calle, who both ran pro-peace campaigns, have refused to back Petro and instead both will vote blanco, or neutral.

Colombian right wing presidential candidate Ivan Duque speaks with Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado on the Simon Bolivar international bridge in Cucuta, Colombia 5 June 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Part of people’s reticence in voting for Petro has been generated by the opposition continuously implying that his left wing policies will turn Colombia into Venezuela, which is seeing a major political crisis under the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro.

But this is all ‘fake news’, says Cordoba, denying that there is any connection or similarity between Petro and Maduro. But much more than that, the comparison is irrelevant, she added.

‘There’s no need to compare Colombia with other countries, ours suffers so many problems that are not seen anywhere else,’ she said, listing a myriad of problems like children dying daily of hunger, high number of sexual abuses, people being killed for having different opinions, and many communities lacking sewers and drainage systems.

‘Those who passed [these problems] onto us have been the representatives of a political class that is not interested in people or the common good, and that political class was born and raised in Colombia not in Venezuela,’ she said.

According to the latest polls released Sunday by Guarumo, a private analytics company, 52.5 per cent of respondents said they would vote for Duque and 36 percent for Petro. Another 11.5 percent said they would vote neutral.

No matter what the results this Sunday, the road to peace in Colombia will be a rocky one, but if Duque wins, ‘the future of peace will be a lot more uncertain,’ said Cordoba.