A young generation leads a citizen movement in Colombia after peace deal rejected

In Colombia, a new movement called Peace on the Street is growing in the wake of that country’s rejected of the peace deal with FARC guerrillas.
In Colombia, a new movement called Peace on the Street is growing in the wake of that country’s rejected of the peace deal with FARC guerrillas. Carolina Moreno

Carolina Moreno and her friends had been expecting a win for Colombia’s peace accord on Oct. 2. So when they learned the country had rejected the deal with the FARC guerrillas, they were so surprised they began to cry.

A few minutes later, though, they received a message on the WhatsApp messaging platform announcing a meet-up at Park Way, in the La Soledad neighborhood of Bogotá. When they arrived, they found a group of mostly young professionals who had gathered to share their sadness at the result of the plebiscite, which they had hoped would finally end 52 years of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

“Some of them brought candles. Others had guitars. One of them asked the crowd how they felt about having a civil assembly the next day,” Moreno recalled.

The response was impressive. About 300 people showed up at the same spot the following day. They decided to try holding a weekly civil assembly to mobilize people. The organization grew and eventually was named Peace on the Street, with members in 26 cities in Colombia — including several locations in Bogotá — and 10 countries in Latin America, North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Juan Felipe Valbuena, a 25-year-old lawyer, was part of the initial group that began in La Soledad.

The organization tries to emphasize peaceful ways to resolve conflict. He is on the streets, he said, because he thinks that “the implementation of the peace accord shouldn’t be delayed and victims of the conflict should be the priority. We should never go back to war.”

Government and FARC negotiators are back in Havana trying to salvage the peace deal, which critics worried was too lenient on the guerrillas. President Juan Manuel Santos has said he hopes a new agreement might be ready by year’s end.

Martha Ceballos, who lives in Pasto, about 550 miles from the capital city, also joined the protest group and began marching. Her brother was killed 16 years ago by the paramilitaries. No one was punished for the crime.

“I think that other generations deserve a different fate. Mobilization is important because walking together for a unique goal is really moving,” Ceballos said.

Thirsty for peace

Members of Peace on the Street and other similar groups have found their voices after the rejection of the peace accord. They chant, hold silent marches and — of course — engage people on social media. They select different themes for mobilizations including candlelight vigils or flowers to honor the victims. They camp in Bogotá, Ituango and other Colombian cities to draw attention to the movement.

María Paula Pardo, a 23-year-old law student, is part of a campaign called Agreement Now, a group of university students whose purpose is to “make peace a reality.”

“We participate in mass mobilizations and work on specific proposals,” she said. “We are trying to stop political polarization between those who voted yes and no, including some students.”

“It is enlightening to reflect on how student apathy impacts society,” Pardo said. “But democracy isn’t just voting. It is having a voice.”

Carlos Cardona, a political analyst in Colombia, called the campaigns impressive.

“They are searching for peaceful paths to end violence and war in Colombia. It has a tremendous value that younger generations are leading mobilizations for civil society participation,” he said.

Even former guerrillas are noticing the change. Carlos Velandia, a former member of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said the youth mobilizations offer hope.

“We are living in a very critical moment. The political elite doesn’t know how to solve this situation. Young people are mobilizing to prevent an elite deal and asking for an inclusive agreement,” he said.

Mobilization’s future

The campaigns are capitalizing on particular strengths, such as their inclusiveness, their independence from political parties and the way they have harnessed social media.

Juliana Paucar lives in Medellín, where the mobilization started at Pablo Tobón Theater.

“They invited us to a civil assembly on Oct. 3,” she said. “It started as a youth movement, but now it is a citizens’ movement.”

But where the movement goes now is a subject of debate. Valbuena, with Peace on the Street, said the groups need to change their tactics if they are to grow and remain effective. Another activist, Carolina Corcho, 33, thinks that mobilizations should evolve because they’ve reached their peak.

And human rights activist Alfonso Castillo, from Bogotá, said the groups face a new issue.

“I believe that street mobilization is a useful tool to react to uncertainty,” he said, “but if this spontaneous movement doesn’t transcend, it could be co-opted by political parties.”

Sustaining any movement requires broadening the spectrum of people who participate in it, added Velandia, the former ELN member.

“Usually, if these agendas are not supported by sectors of society such as workers and citizens, these could be very weak,” he said. “I believe that marches had momentum, but they will be declining.”

Activist Andrea Rincón, 26, from Bogotá, echoed the idea. She thinks peace-building will come with inclusiveness, making sure that the movement incorporates youths, scholars, women, workers and artists.

“Young women are the most impacted by war. Young women’s bodies are used as a war trophy. We are also struggling in poor neighborhoods. We, the youngest, are the ones sent to war due to mandatory military service,” she said.

Young people have an important reason to participate in the marches, she added.

“We are also trying to demolish stereotypes about our inability to lead our lives and lead social transformations in Colombia.”

Fernanda Sánchez Jaramillo @vozdisidente