Today is a day that will stand in history.
Today is Sunday 2nd October 2016.
Today is the day Colombian citizens decide whether or not to vote for peace.
When I decided to move to Colombia I was hit with a barrage of comments, jokes and warnings. These came from people close to me, as well as those I hardly knew. Very few included anything other than Pablo Escobar-induced clichés about cartels, drug wars and abductions. Almost all involved a certainty that living here would be a bad idea.
The Colombia I’m experiencing is very different to the one the Western world reads about. It can definitely be dangerous, there’s no doubt about that. But the country I‘ve come to love is stepping from the shadows of its turbulent past in a hopeful move towards peace.
This vote, officially termed a plebiscite, is the second part of the peace process. It follows the momentous signing of the peace treaty by the Farc, Colombia’s most notorious paramilitary group, earlier in the year. Citizens must now vote for their future, deciding whether to accept the terms of that treaty.
On the surface, this should be an easy decision. Everybody wants peace. But the subject is a complex one.
Having been fought for 52 years, Colombia holds the sad title of having the longest-running armed conflict in the Americas.
Statistics from the Colombia National Centre for Historical Memory, reported by the BBC, show that ‘during the conflict 46,383 people have ‘disappeared’’ and ‘a further 29,682 have been kidnapped’. ‘Fighting has led to the deaths of 260,000 people. The majority were civilians.’1
The difficulty for many people comes from a lack of answers or justice for the suffering imposed upon loved ones. By the terms of the treaty, members of the Farc who confess to their crimes will not receive prison sentences. This is an understandably difficult pill to swallow. So many Colombian lives have been dramatically impacted by the Farc’s actions.
‘To make the vote’s result binding, the winning side would need a majority of ballots cast and support totaling at least 13% of eligible voters. Most recent polls show 66% of voters will approve the deal, but a third of voters will reject it. And the division between the two groups is perhaps most acute among direct victims of the Farc.’2
Graffiti documenting these issues adorn the streets of cities across the country.
In total, 34 million people are expected to vote today. Some will attend the school I work in to do so. It’s been selected as one of the regional voting centres for the city and therefore deemed unsafe for students to attend school on the days either side of this weekend. They didn’t seem too disappointed.
Due to the massive importance of this vote, a blanket ban on the sale of alcohol was instated late last night. The intension was to ensure all eligible voters attend with a clear and focused mind. The evening was a little livelier than I’d expected but by the time a convoy of police cars rolled by our house around midnight, everything had quietened down. For a city built on parties and salsa dancing like Cali, that’s no mean feat.
A Colombian colleague of mine was selected, in a similar way to jury duty, to participate in overseeing the voting process. She explained to me that the document detailing the peace treaty terms is long, at 297 pages. This combined with legal terminology, makes understanding it a difficult and time-consuming task for many people.
To overcome this, summaries have been created highlighting important aspects of the agreement. Radio announcements remind listeners of the weight of their vote and stencilled images and posters urge people to check the ‘yes’ box for peace. The streets of Cali are plastered with the word ‘Si’.
According to the BBC, ‘the UN will deploy over 450 observers to certify the laying down of arms within 150 days of the peace deal coming into force.’1 This will be a massive task to undertake if and when the time comes.
It’s an extremely interesting time to live in Colombia, a diverse and beautiful nation working so hard to shed the last connections to its lengthy violent past. The scars of those infamous times are still in the memories of the people here, but today they have the chance to change their country’s future.
As I consider the impact of the pending decision, I can’t help but think of my students; their hopes for the future, educational opportunities, chance to live amazing lives without the fears endured by generations before them. They’re teenagers like any other. They’ll be doctors, singers, teachers, writers, dancers, chefs; whatever they want. But for now they just want to look good in a selfie, date whoever they’re in love with this week and worry about the same things as any other teenager in the world. I hope today’s decision will play a part in allowing them to do that.
Whatever Colombia decides, it’s a country of passionate, resilient people, beautiful landscapes and outstanding friendliness. Hopefully one day soon the rest of the world will see that too.
1 BBC News. (2016), Colombia’s 52-year armed conflict, [Online Video], 27 September 2016. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/bbcnews/videos/10153955098237217/?pnref=story . [Accessed: 27 September 2016]
2 Brodzinsky, S. The Guardian. (2016). Farc peace deal: rebels and Colombian government sign accord to end war | World news | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/colombia-government-farc-rebels-peace-deal-52-year-war . [Accessed 30 September 2016]