Across the Aisle: Berkeley and Michigan Students Discuss the Election


By Sofia Gonzalez-Platas

As I walked into the room where the panel was about to take place, I was welcomed by a screen showing the faces of 12 students from Macomb County Community College looking back at us — eager and reluctant.

On the other side of the screen, the students from Macomb County could see 10 UC Berkeley students sitting down alongside professor Harley Shaiken, chair of the Center for Latin American Studies and the mastermind behind this discussion.

The majority of students involved in the panel from UC Berkeley were students from Shaiken’s class “The Southern Border,” and an invitation was extended to all students who wanted to participate. Before our panel commenced and while the speakers were in mute, professor Shaiken encouraged us to be open-minded and respectful — this activity was not supposed to be a debate but a conversation.

Michigan went through a stunning shift from blue to red during this election. Having voted for Barack Obama twice in the past, Michigan was accredited for placing Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for the presidential election because of the influence of white working-class voters.

Macomb County is the third-largest county in Michigan, and its vote made the difference for this election. On the fateful Tuesday, Nov. 8, Trump took 54 percent of the vote in Macomb County against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s 42 percent. A strikingly different picture than what happened in Berkeley, where Trump took 3.2 percent of the votes compared to Clinton’s 90.4 percent.

Talking about politics is difficult enough. Born and raised in Mexico City, I felt compelled to speak about this election because my country and its people were silenced and severely attacked by Trump’s divisive campaign and hurtful rhetoric.

The opening question addressed people’s feelings regarding the election results. The Michigan students were the first to speak, acknowledging that this election had proven divisive for them, particularly because of Michigan being a swing state.

Trump’s campaign, Macomb students expressed, triggered people’s emotions and concerns — “he tapped into people’s fears,” some of them explained. That he certainly did. And, unfortunately, because of the election results people in the United States will be living in fear for far longer than just a political campaign, students from UC Berkeley responded.

The discussion veered into the realm of economics very quickly. Macomb students explained how middle-class workers were experiencing an economic crisis with the disappearance of the auto industry in Detroit — unemployment skyrocketing and small businesses suffering to stay afloat. For Michigan, Clinton represented the past, an establishment that did little to help the working class in Macomb. Trump, on the other hand, gave economic promise and hope to a forgotten and downtrodden middle-class. He ultimately vowed to Make America Great Again — a promise that many individuals who struggle to make ends meet in Michigan wanted to hear, and something that UC Berkeley students could not comprehend given the man’s proposed political platform.

Macomb students vehemently described how Trump visited Michigan eight to nine times throughout the campaign while Clinton visited them once or twice — a difference that proved significant to them.

Many acknowledged that Trump addressed crowds that possibly did not understand economics or the extent to what he was proposing, but ultimately the levels of enthusiasm that this man created were exceptional in comparison to those Clinton ever reached. Good ol’ Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, excited people in Berkeley and in Macomb as well — that was something both sides agreed on.

Ultimately, the conversation reached a hopeful tone. Both sides agreed that conversations like this one, even if it only lasted for one hour, are necessary and essential — however awkward and difficult they may be — in order to move forward.

As Millennials in the United States, we have the immense privilege to be surrounded by communication tools every single day — platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter help our thoughts and ideas travel faster and wider than ever before. This communication accessibility, however, is a double-edged sword because it can be easy to feel disarmed and shut down by the information overload it provides, not to mention the misleading sources that spread quickly.

As time passes by, however, we need to move away from this shock and instead embrace communication. Let’s sit down and talk to one another, even if we don’t necessarily see eye to eye. The most valuable conversations are, in fact, with people who do not agree with one’s opinions. It is time to understand how this so-called “American Tragedy,” could have possibly happened but, most importantly, it is time to move forward, empathize and reconcile.

The United States I used to hear about growing up in Mexico represented unity and prosperity. If there is any country in the world that can recover from such political and social division, it is the United States — that I am sure of. But we need to learn to talk and hear one another again, there is no other way around it.

This article was previously published in The Daily Californian.

portraitSOFIA GONZALEZ-PLATAS is a fourth-year undergraduate student at UC Berkeley double majoring in Political Economy and International Development Studies. Outside of class, Sofia is involved with the Public Service Center and Golden Bear Orientation, and has been a writer for the Daily Californian since her first year at UC Berkeley. She hopes to work on immigration policy and education after her graduation. 
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Colombia: Falling to Peaces

By Lauren Withey

It has been a mixed week here in Colombia, including hopeful highs and disheartening lows. On September 26, enemies of more than 50 years, standing in front of leaders from around the world, committed to ending the longest war the Western Hemisphere has seen. Victims of some of the most horrific violence pardoned the perpetrators. Innocent children whose parents’ greatest hope is for them to grow up in a peaceful country sang as the FARC’s leader, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño Echeverri, and Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, signed an accord more than four years in the making. Santos guaranteed the right of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to have their voices heard in the political arena; Timochenko guaranteed that he and his followers would take that responsibility seriously and hinted at ways they hoped to contribute to the country in peacetime.


President Juan Manuel Santos signs the peace accord as Rodrigo Lodoño (right) watches in Cartagena on September 26. Leaders from around the world came to show their support for the peace deal. (Photo courtesy of Gobierno de Chile.)

On the evening of October 2, the positive feelings of this moment were dramatically tempered by citizens’ rejection of the accord by a slim margin in a national plebiscite. Voter turnout was low: some 13 million made the decision for the nearly 50 million Colombian citizens. Some analysts have blamed the polls for the result, which consistently indicated that the “Sí” vote approving of the accord was likely to win by a generous portion. The plebiscite would serve (the narrative had promised) as a helpful mandate for lawmakers to work under while passing the legislation necessary for the accord to take effect. Though some had warned Santos early on that the plebiscite was a gamble, given the concessions he would surely have to make, many observers in Colombia and around the world were shocked when “No” eked out a win. Few seemed to know immediately what this would mean for the country and the peace process.

Populist former president Álvaro Uribe and his Central Democratic party led the “No” campaign, after opposing the peace talks throughout the process. Uribe and his party have accused President Santos of agreeing to “impunity” for the FARC and have convinced their followers that the accord would lead the country into a state of “Castro-Chavísmo” by (among other things) giving the FARC guaranteed political seats for the first two elections after the accord was passed. Uribe has traveled around the country, hosting town halls to convince people that, as he put it, “We want peace, but not this peace.”

In the vote, the center of the country  (with the exceptions of Bogotá and the state of Boyaca) fell to the “No” side, while the peripheries voted overwhelmingly for “Sí.” It was not lost on anyone that citizens in the peripheries are indeed those who have suffered most over the last 20 years of this conflict and those who understand better than anyone that this accord is just one step along a much longer road to peace. It was a stated mission of many of them to lead the country toward forgiveness with their example, with the peace deal as a crucial step. They fulfilled their end of the bargain, but like many of their “Sí”-supporting compatriots, were horrified as results were finalized just over an hour after the polls closed.

“I couldn’t sleep. I feel like we and all those who have been working for so long toward peace have been dealt a low blow,” one community leader from an Afro-Colombian community told me a day after the vote. She is one of the many community leaders who have received death threats as a result of their efforts to protect their communities from violence over the years. Other leaders, like the one I accompanied to the polls on Sunday, were left only to contemplate the vagaries of democracy and hope that out of this crisis, a more perfect union might emerge.


Graffiti reflects Colombia’s divide. (Photo by Galo Naranjo.)

As I return to my field sites along Colombia’s Pacific coast this week, many key questions remain unanswered. President Santos has called on all political parties to meet and come up with a plan for designing a new agreement that everyone can live with and that will pass into law. Then, he and his negotiating team must take this new accord to the FARC to consider. Some have suggested that the moment calls for a more dramatic reckoning, perhaps in the form of a new constitutional assembly.

What all in Colombia recognize, though, is that even with an accord passed, there are many issues that will continue to challenge those living in the periphery. The so-called “paracos” (neoparamilitary narcotrafficking gangs who control drug routes and illegal gold mines and seek land and power through violence) pose a greater threat to rural people in many parts of the country than any other group. The ELN, a separate guerrilla army, has not yet reached a lasting ceasefire with the government, nor have they agreed on the terms of their own peace process. Public services do not reach many regions of the country, or they are of very poor quality, and massive wealth gaps remain. Official statistics suggest a third of the country lives in poverty. No crop is as lucrative for farmers as coca, and difficult transportation routes and poor support for cash and commodity crops make these products even less valuable in comparison. Latent fear and mistrust are hard to overcome after so many years of trauma instilled by all parties to the conflict.

The moment, then, could not be more important to move forward ambitiously with this peace with the FARC. The agreement as signed last week not only aimed to put an end to that fighting, but also sought to begin to address some of these grander challenges of uniting the “Two Colombias.” It is with great hope for the future of all in the country — and particularly of those I work with in the Pacific — that I will be watching closely as leaders work toward a “National Pact” in the coming days. This country is sick of war. The next few days and weeks will indicate whether its polarized parties are capable of coming together to advance an agenda that recognizes this exhaustion and helps the country toward a more inclusive and peaceful future.

Lauren Withey is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She is currently based in Cali, Colombia, where she researches forest conservation programs along Colombia’s tropical Pacific coast.

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“Yes” Is the Answer


Photo by Efrain Hererra

Por Claudia Steiner, PhD

Hace unos días caminando hacia mi casa, note en tres apartamentos de un edificio, unos cartelones pegados a las ventanas. En el primero, con letras grandes se leía NO. En el tercer apartamento aparecía el mismo cartel con un SI grande y en el del medio, uno en que se leía NI IDEA. Inmediatamente pensé en el humorista politico Jaime Garzon, asesinado por grupos paramilitares en agosto de 1999. En sus populares programas en ocasiones hacia el papel de portero en el “Edificio Colombia” donde con ironía se refería a la actualidad política del país a través de lo que sucedía entre los habitantes de los diferentes apartamentos, generalmente personajes de la política colombiana.

Creo que los carteles, con el “si,” con el “no” y con el “ni idea” en un mismo espacio reflejan de manera precisa la  situación que los colombianos estamos viviendo cuando el 2 de octubre participaremos en el plebiscito en que se votara para aprobar o no los acuerdos suscritos entre el gobierno y las Farc que permitirán abrir el camino para que la guerrilla se convierta en un partido politico legal. Si bien el SI cuenta con el apoyo y la ayuda de la comunidad internacional, para quienes el argumento que ha esgrimido el presidente durante el proceso de negociación, “prefiero una paz imperfecta que una guerra perfecta” parecería mas que suficiente, los argumentos del NO también tienen unas solidas bases.

Para quienes sufrieron la muerte y secuestro de sus familiares es difícil aceptar que los guerrilleros no vayan a ser encarcelados por los crímenes que cometieron durante los días de guerra. Para ellos no es suficiente que el gobierno comprometa a los guerrilleros a decir la verdad y resarcir a sus víctimas. Es decir, la paz por muy imperfecta que sea no puede ir acompañada de lo que consideran impunidad. Pero, y aquí esta el cartel del tercer apartamento, están los de NI IDEA que como la mayoría de los colombianos quieren la paz pero también quisieran ver un castigo mayor para quienes secuestraron y mataron a civiles desarmados. Muchos argumentos sensatos e inteligentes han esgrimido los del SI para convencer a los indecisos. Estos van desde la responsabilidad histórica para que las nuevas generaciones puedan vivir en un país en paz hasta la posibilidad de realizar programas de desarrollo social y político que antes eran imposibles en medio de la guerra.

Para quienes trabajamos durante décadas investigando sobre violencia y campesinado en Colombia, la idea de que por fin le llego la hora al campo es una razón suficiente para el SI. Gran parte de la violencia colombiana de los últimos 52 anos ha sido el resultado de un conflicto agrario no resuelto y de un sistema político que impidió la participación de expresiones distintas a las establecidas por los partidos tradicionales. El estado y los colombianos perdimos la oportunidad histórica de hacer una reformas agrarias y políticas en el momento adecuado. Las víctimas de ese NO histórico fueron los campesinos y los sectores sociales mas vulnerables del país… Los guerrilleros que hoy piden la paz han sido en su mayoría campesinos.

Los soldados muertos durante la guerra también han sido en su mayoría campesinos. Eso parecen entenderlo las víctimas y los principales actores del conflicto. Por esa misma razón ha sido alentador y admirable ver en este proceso a los generales del ejercito y a los soldados pidiendo a los colombianos votar por el SI. Por eso mismo, el lunes en la celebración  de la firma de los acuerdos entre la Farc y el gobierno para muchos uno de los momentos mas conmovedores del evento fue cuando las mujeres de pueblo de Bojaya cantaron un “alabao” la música que cantan en sus rituales funerarios. Representaron a las mujeres, principales víctimas de la guerra. Representaron a ellas y todo un pueblo que sufrir de una de las masacres mas brutales del país, cuando en un solo día de 2002 fueron asesinados 117 habitantes del pequeño caserío, entre ellos ancianos y niños. Si ellas fueron capaces de cantarle a la paz y de perdonar, porque no pensar que todos los colombianos podemos también hacerlo?


The following is an English translation of the above:

By Claudia Steiner, PhD

Last week, while walking home, I saw in one of the buildings on the street that on the windows of three different apartments signs had been posted. On the first apartment written in black letters, I read a big NO and on the third a big . I couldn’t help but smile when I read the one in the middle that said NI IDEA (no idea). I realized that these signs correctly summarized the emotion generated by a referendum that will take place on October 2 where Colombians will vote on whether or not to approve the agreements signed on September 26 between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

But the signs on the windows also reminded me of Jaime Garzón, the political humorist killed by paramilitary groups in August 1999. In his popular programs, he sometimes played the role of the doorman of the “Edificio Colombia,” where he ironically referred to the then current political situation of the country through events that took place with fictional residents of the building — usually characters in Colombian politics.

While the SI has the support and assistance of the international community, for whom the reasons argued by the president during the negotiation process, “I prefer an imperfect peace to a perfect war,” would seem more than enough, the NO arguments are also based on solid foundations.

For those who suffered from their relatives’ deaths and kidnappings, it is difficult to accept that the guerrillas are not going to be imprisoned for crimes they committed during the war. For them, it is not enough that the government has compelled the guerrillas to tell the truth and compensate their victims. In this sense, an imperfect peace for them means impunity. But, and here lies the meaning of the third sign, the NI IDEA represents the dilemma of an important group of undecided voters.

Those, that like the majority of Colombians, want peace but would also like to see more severe punishments for those who kidnapped and killed unarmed civilians. Many sensible and intelligent arguments have been presented by the SI to convince the undecided. These range from the historical responsibility that the country has to allow the new generations to live in a country at peace, to the possibility of carrying out programs of social and political development that were previously impossible in the midst of war.

For those that have for decades done research about violence and peasants, the idea that finally the time has come for rural Colombia is sufficient reason for SI. Much of Colombian violence of the past 52 years has been the result of an unresolved agrarian conflict and of a political system that prevented the participation of other expressions different from those established by the traditional parties.

The Colombian state missed the historic opportunity to make agrarian and political reforms at the right time. The victims of that historical NO were peasants and the most vulnerable sectors of the country. The guerrillas, who today call for peace have been mostly peasants. The soldiers killed during the war have also been mostly peasants. This seems to be understood by the victims and by the main actors in the conflict. For that reason, it has been encouraging and admirable to see in this process generals and soldiers of the army asking Colombians to vote for the SI.

For this same reason, last Monday, during the ceremony where the agreement was signed between the FARC and the government, one of the most emotional moments of the event for many was when a group of women from Bojayá sang an “alabao,” the music sung in their funeral rituals. They represented women, the main victims of war. They also represented the people of Bojayá. These people suffered one of the most brutal massacres in the country, when in one day in 2002, 117 inhabitants of the small village, including the elderly and children were murdered. If they were able to sing for peace and forgive, why not hope that all Colombians can do it too?

img_0905CLAUDIA STEINER has a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She has been a professor of history and anthropology at Universidad Nacional and Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. She was chair of the Anthropology Department at Universidad de los Andes from 2004 until 2009. Until 2013 she was associate professor and editor of the journal Antípoda.

She has published several articles about peasants and violence in Colombia and written the book “Imaginación y Poder en Urabá. El Encuentro del Interior con la Costa (1900-1940)”. With Roberto Pineda and Carlos Paramo she published the edited book “El Paraíso del Diablo. Roger Casement y el Informe del Putumayo, un Siglo Después.” Currently she is adjunct professor of the Anthropology Department at Universidad de los Andes.

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The Dark Side of Summer Carnivals


Photo by Kevin Burkett.

By Levi Bridges

Summer carnivals are a quintessential American tradition, an opportunity for families to enjoy time together, eat a funnel cake or two and take a ride on the Ferris wheel.

But there’s a dark side to this summer fun. These same carnivals, which sprout up in cities and towns all over the United States, are the same places where workers from Latin America, mainly Mexico, experience some of the worst exploitation among industries that legally recruit foreign workers.

Walk onto the fairgrounds of most county fairs anywhere in the United States today and you will notice that a lot of the workers are Latino. Many come from Tlapacoyan, Mexico, a bustling town in the southern state of Veracruz.


A group of men boards a bus bound for the U.S. in the town of Tlapacoyan, Mexico. Workers from Tlapacoyan are recruited to work at U.S. carnivals on H-2B visas. Many say their employers commit wage theft and other forms of exploitation. (Photo by Levi Bridges.)

A U.S. labor recruiter with connections to Tlapacoyan started bringing workers to U.S. carnivals on temporary H-2B visas two decades ago. Since then the business has expanded. Roughly 4,000 workers now come from Tlapacoyan to work at fairs all over the lower 48 states each year.

Foreigners who arrive in the United States on H-2B visas often fall victim to exploitation by employers because their visas do not allow them to change jobs if they are unsatisfied with the working conditions. Wage theft and other abuses are widespread.

Many Mexican carnival workers say they earned about $5 an hour on average and were housed in bedbug-infested trailers.

I witnessed these working conditions firsthand during a summer I spent working undercover as a carnival ride operator with workers from Tlapacoyan. I’m currently writing a book about the experience, a mix of ethnography and reporting from Mexico, as a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Some workers in Tlapacoyan, I discovered, decided to fight back. Three years ago, over a dozen migrant carnival workers in Tlapacoyan filed a class action lawsuit against their employer, Deggeller Attractions, hoping to receive lost wages. Deggeller Attractions is one of the largest carnival companies on the East Coast.


Roughly 4,000 men and women leave the Mexican town of Tlapacoyan each year to work at summer carnivals in the U.S. Many of these workers report that their U.S. employers housed them in roach-infested trailers and paid them as little as five dollars an hour without overtime. (Photo by Levi Bridges.)

The lawsuit has dragged on for over three years, and although the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, a final appeal by the employer has stalled any resolution.

I wanted to find out what had happened to the Deggeller plaintiffs three years after the case began. With the generous support of a travel grant from the Tinker Foundation and the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies, I traveled to Tlapacoyan in summer 2016.

Back in Mexico, I learned that most of the plaintiffs deeply regretted joining the lawsuit. I spent most of my time with Vicente Guerrero, one of the main characters in the book I’m writing. Like most of the plaintiffs, Guerrero never realized how much the case would change his life. Intoxicated at first with a desire to take a stand against his former bosses, the romanticism quickly wore off. Guerrero and the other plaintiffs were blacklisted by the recruiter in their town from ever returning to work at U.S. fairs.

Guerrero now works driving a taxi. He usually just earns enough money to live day by day. When we met last summer, he had grown desperate. Once a vocal opponent of the carnival industry, he now longed to return to the American fairs.

When his old supervisor at Deggeller Attractions offered him a job if he agreed to drop out of the lawsuit, Guerrero told him that he would even take a pay cut for the opportunity to work with them again.

Thousands of towns like Tlapacoyan are scattered across Mexico. The potential benefits of what work in the United States can provide rural Mexicans back home often makes workers put up with abusive employers. Speaking out frequently results in workers losing the best economic opportunity available to them.

The experiences of workers like Guerrero have unfortunately become commonplace.

Some names in this story have been changed to preserve the identities of those involved.


Levi Bridges is a print and radio journalist focusing on immigration and labor and a current student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has reported for Radio Ambulante, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and helped found one of Mexico’s first shelters for Central American refugees during a year spent in the country as a Fulbright Scholar. He grew up on a farm in rural Maine.

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Interview: CLAS Chair Harley Shaiken Interviews Sergio Fajardo on the Challenges for Colombia Post-Peace Agreement

Fajardo_FForum copy

Photo by Jim Block.

The following is an edited transcript of an interview that took place on August 25, 2016 between Professor Harley Shaiken of UC Berkeley and Sergio Fajardo about the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC that was signed Wednesday evening.

Sergio Fajardo recently stepped down as governor of Antioquia and was voted “Best Governor” in Colombia.  Formerly, he served as the mayor of Medellin (2004-2007) and was a vice-presidential candidate in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Harley Shaiken: The peace agreement has been widely described as significant and historic, not simply for Colombia, but for all of Latin America. What in your view is most significant about this peace agreement for the future of Colombia?

Sergio Fajardo: A few things can be singled out as very relevant for Colombia, in terms of negotiating the peace process. This was a very well designed process in many ways. One thing that has to be pointed out is this is a process that is taking place with a lot of advances in the world regarding human rights and international law — all these new conditions — that I think are crucial for world development. They were taken into account.

We have had peace processes before in Colombia, for example the process, which reduced harsh conditions to a general amnesty. (It reduced them. It wasn’t trivial.) With that process you had to take into account the international laws. There wasn’t such a thing as a general amnesty, and it had to fit within the law. And that was an advance that was crucially and carefully crafted so that it could stand up in front of the international community.

That is another point that is crucial here with the current process: It was important to have the international community involved in the negotiations as well as rallying behind the peace agreement and the Colombian government. The support has been very important. And it’s very important for Colombia.

At the same time it is a process that is carefully crafted. It’s very well organized. It is usually difficult to negotiate a process such as this one after more than 50 years. It’s very difficult to come to terms with what has happened. This agreement has many details that answer questions that are usually left out when negotiating, which is important because if you don’t include them then they become a real problem when it’s going to be implemented. And of course there is leeway in there, but there is plenty of exactitude in the design of the process. There will, of course, be many loose points left out that will translate into other problems when we come to terms with it.

And finally, it is a process that solves a more than 50-year problem. I mean, in Colombia we have had the FARC as a main actor in life for more than 50 years. And it’s an actor associated with a negative condition in many senses. So it [the agreement] allows us to turn the page definitively, in spite of all the difficulties. There are natural difficulties and it’s a complex process, but in spite of all the perturbation that we have in Colombia, and the polarization, it’s quite an advance for us in Colombia. As a society it’s an opportunity for us.

Harley Shaiken: My second question would be: The plebiscite for ratifying the agreement is scheduled for October 2. What do you view as the central challenges between now and that plebiscite?

A crucial challenge is explaining to the Colombian people what this agreement is all about. That’s not easy. The agreement itself is close to 300 pages. Turning that into material that can be understood by any Colombian in any condition is quite a challenge from the pedagogical point of view and from the political point of view.

There is quite a reaction — a negative reaction — led by President Uribe and his political group. They have been opposing some of the conditions in the agreement and are very relevant political actors in Colombia. They have a lot of followers. And there is a confrontation with the National Government at a time when the image of President Santos is quite low with regards to the Colombian people.

So explaining in the middle of this confrontation, having the wisdom to show the real profit of where we are going as a society by signing, and being able to overcome particular details that are troublesome, naturally troublesome, and show the whole picture will be challenging. Many people have to get involved, even those of us who are for peace, but don’t belong to the unity government that President Santos leads, have to show support.

We have to understand something that is crucial: The way we handle these times is going to represent the way we are going to live and what lies ahead for us. And we have to have the ability to understand the orders, to listen to the orders, and stop doing something we usually do which is think, ‘you think differently than me, then you’re my enemy.’

And that may sound simple, but it will be quite a challenge and change for our Colombia society. I think those are the challenges for October 2. I think it’s going to be successful but it has to be worked out and we have to take the time and have the patience to show the Colombian people that this is quite an advance for us.

HS: And finally, post October 2, I know — impossible to predict — what do you think the challenges will be to build a new Colombia post-ratification?

We claim that after ratification, the signing, and the final ratification — that’s the moment to build peace, and it has to be built in the territory. This is as a new chapter in our Colombian life is going to force us to relate among ourselves in a different way. We have to understand what it means to be at peace in the territories. I’m talking about those places in Colombia that have not been the subject of the state’s special attention — like the agricultural sector, which has been underdeveloped for decades. But, the first challenge will be reconciliation. How are we going to handle differences? How are we going to pay attention to and honor what is signed?

For example, there are many conditions that require money we don’t have at the moment. Colombia is going through a difficult economic situation, so we have to be able to reconcile the terms and translate the agreement into concrete, practical, real steps that allow us to see that we are implementing what we signed. That requires a lot of political subtly and agreements so that it works and it doesn’t become a disappointment and then a new confrontation. That’s crucial.

Then I think a key point in Colombia right now is the fight against corruption. There is a growing sense of corruption as a very bad characteristic of the political world in Colombia. And if you look at the polls where people are asked about what they think about different institutions, at the lowest levels of opinion you will find President Maduro, FARC and politicians and the congressman. And that’s very bad when politicians, congressman, and justice are held in such low regard by society. It means we are in trouble. We have to work on that and the fight against corruption is a central and crucial need for the Colombian people. There is a lot of indignation associated with it.

And then finally, we have to avoid becoming trapped by the process because there are many aspects of development in a society. We cannot start living only in terms of FARC and the agreement from here on for 10 years. FARC has to become part of the political spectrum in Colombia. That’s the spirit of this negotiation: They can bring their ideas without guns and weapons and we will be discussing Colombia and some of its very pressing needs, in particular our focus on education as an outstanding factor.

After turning the page of destruction, let’s give ourselves the opportunity to write a new page — one that has education as the base of the whole thing.

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An Imperfect, Just, and Necessary Peace

colombia flag

Photo by Martin St-Amant.

By Almudena Bernabeu 

After years without respite, in the next few hours Colombia will sign a peace deal to end more than 50 years of armed conflict that have devastated the country, and in many cases, redefined it politically, culturally, geographically, and even psychologically. Negotiations conclude today with the signing of the peace agreement, which will be followed by a referendum that will validate it, a peace that will be celebrated, and a significant number of agreements that will be implemented. What is perhaps most trying, although not unexpected, is that the closer we come to the final signing of the peace agreement, the more Colombian society becomes polarized. There are those who believe that negotiating with the FARC implies surrender, they advocate a military victory — they always have — and not a negotiated peace.

One of the most delicate points on the negotiation agenda — in any case, the one I know best because of my work and my convictions — has been Point 5, the Victims Agreement, which establishes a legal framework for the mechanisms of transitional justice that must be put into operation once the peace agreement has been signed successfully. Published by the negotiating table in Havana in December 2015, the Victims Agreement has been severely criticized by those both near and far. It’s a complex document and hard to understand, but without a doubt, it is a solid beginning that lays the foundation for a framework of justice in transition that takes into account the victims and the serious violations that have been committed against the Colombian people over all these years.

The presence of the victims from very early on in the negotiation process was the result of efforts by Colombian civil society organizations and institutions that have spent years organizing, fighting, exposing abuses, and ultimately, ensuring that the collective victims of this severe and long-lasting conflict are heard. The result is indisputable: an agreement that affords the much-needed recognition of this collective and contemplates the necessary reparations.

However, if it was difficult to guarantee victims a voice in the negotiation process so that their presence would ensure this fifth point of the agreement, the process of implementation is expected to be even more difficult. Common threats, like bureaucracy, ineffectiveness, possible conflict in the division of powers, political manipulation of the lack of results, etc., are real risks that may aggravate the victims’ distress, yet they are neither new or unusual for those of us who strive to promote these processes of transitional justice.

The Victims Agreement thus acknowledges the importance of truth and justice in the construction of historical memory as an essential step for the reconciliation of Colombian society. With such a long, painful, and complex conflict, it is imperative to recognize in detail, through the construction of historical memory, the victims, the perpetrators, and the necessary reparations. The Colombian agreement provides for the formation of what has been called the “Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition,” which will include, in addition to the Special Court for Peace, a Commission of Truth, bodies that will promote and set the standards for collecting the information needed to finally understand what happened during the conflict, how it happened, and who have been the most affected.

As I have already said, there has been criticism and even outright rejection of the Victims Agreement. It has even been called an agreement of impunity. I disagree. Those who have expressed these opinions publicly demonstrate a failure to understand the difficulties entailed in negotiations of this sort and seek a spotlight that is inappropriate and endangers the process and its success. If you care about Colombia and a lasting peace, you must support the agreement. It is true that the sanctions could be more severe, that suggestions of individual criminal responsibility are dangerously evaded, that it is difficult to imagine a reality in which existing institutions and new institutions coexist while maintaining the necessary autonomy. It is even possible that Point 5 may need to be reviewed and refined to make it more effective and ensure the results that the victims crave. Yet none of this excuses or justifies the failure to recognize that Colombia and Colombians have made a huge effort to build peace and establish a justice system that confronts and recognizes the human rights violations committed during the conflict.

There is no instruction manual for a peace process, let alone a peace process as complex as Colombia’s. There are lessons learned, wisdom both explicit and intuitive, but above all there is exhaustion. Exhaustion and desire — I truly believe — to imagine and experience another Colombia, a Colombia that unlearns the violence and, hopefully, does not remember what it is to be born, grow up, and live in war.

As an international lawyer, as someone who believes in and implements transitional justice, and especially as someone who respects and admires Colombia, I have no doubt that today all Colombians and the international community as a whole should celebrate and support the conclusion of these peace negotiations and place their bets on the definitive end of the conflict, to throw in for peace, without reservation. Again, I’ll insist that this does not mean making compromises or giving up the right to be critical or to demand more; it does not mean renouncing personal beliefs or suddenly overcoming justified fears; everything in due time. Without a doubt, these are key strengths for guiding the end of the conflict and the implementation of these agreements. Once the agreement is signed and peace is iron clad, the challenge will be to ensure proper implementation. Important steps already have been taken to implement the agreement, and there are many of us who will remain close by to try and lend a hand in everything that we can in this process, so that today’s agreement materializes and thus makes a space for the victims, ensures justice, and transforms Colombia forever.


Almudena Bernabeu is an international lawyer and director of the Transitional Justice Program at the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco. She divides her time among San Francisco, London, and Madrid. Bernabeu has worked for more than a decade in Latin America and around the world in defense of the rights of victims in post-conflict situations and in the wake of state abuse, fighting for justice in all transitional justice processes. Bernabeu advises key civil society organizations and institutions in Colombia on the peace agreement, with special regard for matters relating to victims and special justice for peace, which today is part of the peace agreement being discussed in Havana.

Original Spanish version available here.

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Una Paz Imperfecta, Justa y Necesaria

colombia flag

Photo by Martin St-Amant.

Por Almudena Bernabeu

Tras años sin tregua ni descanso, Colombia firmará en las próximas horas un acuerdo de paz que pone fin a los más de cincuenta años de conflicto armado que han abatido y en muchos casos redefinido política, cultural, geográfica y hasta psicológicamente el país. Las negociaciones se cierran hoy con la firma del acuerdo de paz a la que seguirá un plebiscito que lo refrendará, una PAZ que se celebrará, y un importante número de acuerdos que la implementarán. Quizá lo más duro está siendo, aunque no inesperado, presenciar cómo cuanto más cerca esta esa firma definitiva de la paz, más se polariza la sociedad Colombiana, pues hay quienes consideran que negociar con las FARC es rendirse, abogando por una victoria militar — siempre lo han hecho — y no por una paz negociada.

Uno de los puntos más delicados en la agenda de negociación y en todo caso el que conozco mejor por mi trabajo y por convicción, ha sido el punto 5, el Acuerdo de Víctimas. Este punto 5 ha estado a cargo de establecer un marco jurídico para los mecanismos de justicia transicional que necesariamente se pondrán en funcionamiento una vez se haya firmado con éxito la paz. El Acuerdo, que fue publicado por la mesa de negociación en la Habana en diciembre de 2015, ha sido criticado por próximos y ajenos con severidad. Su lectura es compleja y su comprensión elusiva, pero no cabe duda que es un principio sólido que sienta las bases para un marco de justicia en transición que tiene muy en cuenta a las víctimas y a las graves violaciones que durante todos estos años se han cometido contra el pueblo Colombiano.

La presencia de las víctimas desde etapas muy tempranas en el proceso de negociación es consecuencia del trabajo de las organizaciones e instituciones de la sociedad civil Colombiana que llevan años organizando, luchando, exponiendo los abusos cometidos, asegurándose en definitiva que las víctimas como colectivo inevitable de la gravedad y la duración del conflicto, tengan su propia voz. El resultado es indiscutible: un acuerdo que proporciona el reconocimiento necesario a ese colectivo y contempla las reparaciones necesarias.

Sin embargo, si fue duro asegurar que las víctimas tuvieran voz en el proceso de negociación y con su presencia se garantizara este punto 5, aún más dura se prevé su implementación. Riesgos tan comunes como la burocracia, la inefectividad, un posible conflicto de delimitación de competencias, manipulación política de la falta de resultados etc., son riesgos reales que pueden agravar el desasosiego de las víctimas y que no son ni raros ni nuevos para quienes trabajamos por el éxito de estos procesos de justicia transicional.

El acuerdo de víctimas reconoce así mismo la importancia de la verdad y la justicia en la construcción de la memoria histórica como paso imprescindible para la reconciliación de la sociedad Colombiana. Con un conflicto tan largo, doloroso y complejo, es imperativo reconocer en detalle, a través de la construcción de la memoria histórica, quiénes han sido las víctimas, quiénes los victimarios y cuáles son las necesidades de reparación. El acuerdo Colombiano prevé lo que se ha dado en llamar la formación del “Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y No Repetición,” que incluirá además de la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, una Comisión de la Verdad, instancias que promoverán y sentarán las bases para recopilar la información necesaria para finalmente entender qué pasó en el conflicto, cómo pasó, y quiénes han sido los más afectados.

Como apuntaba más arriba, no han faltado voces críticas y hasta negativas con este acuerdo sobre víctimas llamándolo incluso un acuerdo de impunidad. No estoy de acuerdo; quienes han dicho esto públicamente revelan un desconocimiento de la realidad de las dificultades que una negociación de estas características reviste y buscan un protagonismo inoportuno y peligroso para el proceso y su éxito. Si a uno le importa Colombia y su paz definitiva, debe estar de acuerdo con lo pactado. Es cierto que las sanciones podrían ser más severas, que se eluden peligrosamente teorías indirectas de responsabilidad penal individual, que cuesta imaginarse un universo donde instituciones preexistentes y nuevas instituciones coexisten mientras mantienen la necesaria autonomía. Incluso es posible que más adelante haya que revisar y matizar este punto 5 para hacerlo más efectivo y asegurar los resultados que las víctimas anhelan. Nada de esto sin embargo es excusa ni justificación para no reconocer que Colombia y los Colombianos han hecho un esfuerzo enorme en la construcción de paz y al establecer un sistema de justicia que enfrente y reconozca las violaciones a los derechos humanos cometidas durante el conflicto.

No hay manual de instrucciones para un proceso de paz, y mucho menos para un proceso de paz de la complejidad del Colombiano. Hay lecciones aprendidas, sabiduría explicita e intuida y sobre todo hay cansancio; cansancio y deseo, en mi opinión genuinos, de concebir y vivir otra Colombia, una Colombia que desaprenda la violencia y con suerte no se acuerde de lo que es nacer, crecer y vivir en guerra.

No me cabe duda, como abogada internacional y como alguien que cree y pone en práctica la justicia transicional, y sobre todo como alguien que respeta y admira Colombia, que hoy todos los Colombianos así como la comunidad internacional por entero deben celebrar y apoyar la conclusión de esta negociación de paz y apostar, sin matices, por el fin definitivo del conflicto, por la paz. Esto, insisto, no significa hacer concesiones o abandonar el derecho a ser crítico o a pedir más; no significa renunciar a creencias personales o superar de pronto miedos justificados; todo en su debido momento. Estas serán sin lugar a dudas bazas claves para guiar el post conflicto y la implementación de estos acuerdos. Firmado el acuerdo y blindada esa paz, el reto estará en asegurar su correcta implementación; ya se han adoptado importantes pasos para ponerla en marcha, muchos somos quienes estaremos cercanos e intentaremos echar una mano en todo lo que podamos en ese proceso con el fin de que lo acordado hoy se materialice y con ello dar espacio a las víctimas, garantizar la justicia, y transformar Colombia para siempre.


Almudena Bernabeu es abogada internacional y directora de justicia transicional del Centro de Justicia Y Responsabilidad en San Francisco. Almudena desempeña su labor entre San Francisco, Londres y Madrid. Almudena lleva mas de una década trabajando en Latinoamérica y en otras partes del mundo en defensa de los derechos de las víctimas en situaciones de post conflicto y concluidos periodos de abuso por parte del Estado luchando por garantizar justicia en todo proceso de justicia transicional.

En su calidad de experta Almudena asesora a organizaciones e instituciones claves de la sociedad civil Colombiana en todo lo relativo al acuerdo sobre víctimas y justicia especial para la paz, que hoy hace parte de los acuerdos de paz que se discuten en la Habana.

English version available here.

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