Change from Below: Constituent Assemblies Offer Democratic Route to Peace in Colombia


At the end of May, negotiators from the Colombian government stood side by side with representatives of the FARC guerrillas to announce they had reached a historic agreement in the country’s peace process.

The statement marked the end of months of arduous and occasionally tense talks over agrarian reform – the first of five points on the agenda at the negotiating table in Havana. In the joint press release, both sides promised “radical transformations of Colombia’s rural and agrarian reality with equality and democracy.” line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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However, in the early 90s, he was inspired by the country’s new constitution, which was drafted as part of a peace process with the guerrillas of the 19th of April Movement (M-19) and Popular Liberation Army (EPL). He joined an ELN breakaway group and abandoned the armed struggle, confident that the rights he had fought for were being enshrined in a document that was internationally lauded as a paragon of progressive values and human rights.

Twenty years later, while Colombia’s constitution still receives international praise, the country’s conflict still rumbles on. For Arroyave, the reason for this contradiction lies with the unfulfilled promises of that constitution. “This constitution was the reason for saying, enough, there is new way, now we can start a social project within the framework of the new Colombian constitution,” he said, “but this constitution has stalled in the air.”

Arroyave’s answer to how to bring the constitution down to the ground and construct a genuine and lasting peace this time around is through ensuring the participation of civil society, both during the peace process and after. “If there isn’t a social movement that backs the peace process [the conflict] is going to go on and on,” he said. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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In reviving the process, Arroyave believes assemblies such as these can now act as a conduit for civil society involvement in the peace process. “If we manage to connect communities to this process, to say – this is ours, it is collective, it is communal – and this is the arena in which we build peace, this is the way to build true democracy, to build justice and peace, then all the arguments for war in Colombia would end,” he said.

So far, the renewed process has seen 125 new assemblies spring up around Antioquia. The new assemblies not only allow citizens a direct say on issues such as collective economic development, the municipal budget, and local democracy and autonomy, they also discuss how they would build peace in Colombia, and have already sent a series of  proposals drafted by participants to the negotiators in Havana. line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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In Havana, the FARC and the government have now begun negotiations on the second point on the agenda – political participation. The focus of talks will be on how the FARC can safely take part in politics after demobilization.

For Arroyave, though, the key to lasting peace will not be about the opportunities offered to the aspiring politicians among the guerrilla leadership, but instead about how the people the rebels claim to represent will be able to participate in the political process and national life.

“The transformations that have to be done have to come from below, I don’t believe in the possibility of change from above,” he said. “It is moving from a vertical state, as we have today, to a horizontal state and being able to build a national project where we are all recognized as social actors and as human beings.”

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See jamesbargent.com 

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