Colombian President Juan Manuel, left, shakes hands with FARC delegate Londono Echeverri 'Timochenko' in Havana Juen 23 as Cuban President Raul Castro looks on. The Colombian government and rebel group signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement in Cuba. CNS photo/Alejandro Ernesto, EPA

D&P hopes deal brings real peace to Colombia

  • July 21, 2016

As peace slowly comes to Colombia after 58 years of shooting, Canada’s Catholic aid agency is talking with its partners in the South American country about how to adapt to a changing situation.

The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, signed a permanent ceasefire June 23. The agreement clears the way to a larger peace agreement expected soon.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has had partners working with Colombian peasants and indigenous people since the organization was founded in 1967. The long simmering civil war, further fueled by trade in cocaine and the United States’ “war on drugs,” has been the only context for development work in Colombia for the entire history of Development and Peace.

Canada’s Catholic development agency and its partners in Colombia have begun to assess the new situation, said Anne Catherine Kennedy, Development and Peace program officer and Latin America expert.

Peasant co-operatives, women’s organizations and other groups Development and Peace work with “were very, very pessimistic at the beginning (of the peace process),” Kennedy said. “Now they’re much less pessimistic, I would say. Even possibly optimistic.”

The Colombian government and FARC have been in peace talks sponsored by Cuba and Norway since 2012. Their agreement thus far rests on what the negotiators call “five pillars.” These include demobilizing the FARC fighters, political participation for FARC leaders, rural development, replacing the illicit economy fueled by drugs and help for victims of violence.

Canadian Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau went to Bogota, Colombia’s capital, July 5 to pledge $57.4 million in new development funding over five years. The new pledge comes on top of an average of $40 million in Canadian aid spending on Colombia annually. Development and Peace hasn’t had a whiff of the new money and Kennedy worries that not much of it will reach the grassroots of peasant and indigenous organizations Development and Peace supports.

“We haven’t seen a lot of mention of those types of projects,” Kennedy said.

“Our work is less money and it’s slower moving, but it’s really about building peace — not about infrastructure or distributing health and education, which are things we believe the state should be providing,” Kennedy said.

Peace in Colombia will require a deep cultural shift in a country where conflict has seeped into every aspect of life, she said.

“It’s going to be really important over the coming decades, over years, to fund grassroots initiatives that are about grassroots peace building. You have to change people’s mindset and people’s culture and people’s reactions and people’s responses in everyday life,” she said. “War becomes a way of life. When weapons go down it doesn’t necessarily mean that that warring culture is no longer there… If we hand over millions of dollars to a few groups who have lots of overhead and create big structures but it doesn’t really get to the grassroots — well, it’s the grassroots that are going to make this peaceful or not… There’s a culture of war and of aggression and of conflict. This takes a long time to change.”

Colombia agreed to let FARC and other left-wing groups become a regular political party in the 1980s. But right-wing paramilitaries — many with ties to Colombian politicians and wealthy, land-owning families — carried out a program of assassinations that killed nearly 10,000 members of the Patriotic Union, the political party formed by former guerillas and their supporters.

This time there’s a real chance for normal politics and real peace, Archbishop Luis Castro Quiroga told Catholic News Service in June. Castro is the president of the Colombian bishops’ conference, which has maintained a pastoral presence at negotiations between FARC and the government.

A 2013 report for Colombia’s National Centre of Historical Memory concluded that 220,000 Colombians have been killed and 5.7 million displaced, though the United Nations High Commission for Refugees counts the number of displaced at seven million. The report also found that between 1996 and 2005 there was a kidnapping in Colombia every eight hours and there were 1,982 massacres between 1980 and 2012.

This is the fourth attempt in the last 30 years to end the conflict in Colombia.

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