Colombia: Marcha Patriótica Gains Momentum in the Struggle for Peace with Social Justice

A sea of people from all across Colombia marched in Bogotá with a common desire for an end to the country’s armed conflict. They lined the streets in a lively procession, including dancing, music and performance. Countless people waving flags, holding banners, and wearing symbolic T-shirts marched to the city’s famous Plaza de Bolívar, united by a common desire for peace.

Along Bogotá‘s iconic Carerra Septima, a semi-pedestrianized street usually bustling only with local Bogotános buying from the stores and street vendors lining the thoroughfare, a very different sight was seen on April 9. A sea of people from all across Colombia marched with a common desire for an end to the country’s armed conflict. They lined the streets in a lively procession, including dancing, music and performance. Countless people waving flags, holding banners, and wearing symbolic T-shirts marched to the city’s famous Plaza de Bolívar, united by a common desire for peace.

One of the largest mobilizations for peace in recent memory, the march was planned to coincide with and support talks taking place in Havana between the Colombian government and the armed rebel group FARC. The talks, which began last year in Oslo, before moving to Havana, are of huge significance, given the hard-line stance taken by Colombia’s former president Álvaro Uribe, and considering that the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister in Uribe’s government, has committed such a bold about-face by engaging with the FARC. Significant gains have already been made. For example, a chief government negotiator recently announced that an agreement had been reached on the central issue of land.

The march was held on the anniversary of the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Colombian Liberal Party candidate and hero of the poor. His death led to some of the country’s worst violence and the date has major symbolic importance in Colombia’s political history . Given the huge turnout to the march on this year’s April 9, it is clear that many Colombians want an end to a conflict that has lasted over half a century and claimed around 70,000 lives and many think that, this time around, an agreement may be possible.

However, the national and international media largely failed to cover, or misrepresented, many of the central facts about the historic mobilization of April 9. While the mainstream media reported on the participation of President Santos and Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, who marched for peace alongside “other organizations”, , many outlets failed to recognize and credit the role of Marcha Patriótica, a grassroots coalition which seeks to unite social movements with political parties working for peace and social justice. It was Marcha Patriótica that was the original organizer of the march and at least 150,000 of its members came to Bogotá to take part in the peace march.

Andres Gil, Marcha Patriótica’s spokesman, explains that the organization mobilized almost 3,000 buses from all corners of the country. Campesinos, women, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, workers, union leaders, and students  travelled up to to 36 hours to reach Bogotá and express their support for peace. These facts were almost completely absent from the mainstream coverage of the event. Reuters and the BBC didn’t mention Marcha Patriótica at all and, along with the Christian Science Monitor, reported the total number of people at the march in the tens of thousands, despite the a statement released by the Colombian government itself, saying that around one million people were in attendance.

Worse still, some aired the far more serious allegation that the march organizers and participants are puppets for the FARC guerrillas. The Christian Science Monitor reported, “Military intelligence says the Marcha Patrótica is financed by the FARC,” repeating this predictable and hackneyed objection without providing any reference to what evidence has been provided for this claim . According to the news website Colombia Politics, former president Uribe made this allegation, again without reporting whether he had provided any evidence.

Marcha Patrtiótica has countered these accusations. Gil explains that the economic resources for the march came from the more than 2,000 member organizations  part of Marcha Patriótica. Campesino organizations, student collectives, and social and grassroots community organizations worked for the six months to assure that 75 to 100 delegates from each organization could come to Bogotá on April 9. Far from being a monolithic FARC front group, the alliance brings together men and women from diverse sectors of civil society, common people deeply committed to defending their human rights, as well as the struggle for a real independence, a peace with social justice, democracy, sovereignty, and Latin American unity.

The primary sin of Marcha Patriótica, making it the target of this kind of smear campaign, is not any real or imagined FARC connection, but rather the principles for which it stands. The peace Marcha Patriótica envisions is not just a possible peace agreement between the government and the guerrillas – that would be a meaningless document, an empty discourse. What it demands is a National Constituent Assembly, a bilateral ceasefire, a genuine democracy, and defense of the public domain: in essence, peace with social justice. For this movement, social justice means quality education for students, land owned and worked by campesinos, and the construction of a different economic model to counter neoliberalism.

All of the above has either been criticized, under-reported, or ignored by the media. For example, Marcha Patriótica’s call for social justice and an alternative to neoliberalism is unacceptable to many. Kevin Howlett, writing in the English-language publication Colombia Reports, acknowledges that ” the overwhelming number of marchers appeared to be Marcha Patriótica supporters” but describes this as “disconcerting”, stating that it is “unsettling too to see thousands of MP branded t-shirts and flags among the hordes.” He criticizes the chants at the march that were in favor of social justice,  against neoliberalism, and hostile to Uribe, saying that this “politicization… sullies and cheapens the event,” as if the march could be anything but political.

Part of the reason for the media’s hostility is that the goals of Marcha Patriótica have significant popular support; yet many are unacceptable to Colombia’s ruling class. For instance, a bilateral ceasefire makes sense as a prerequisite to talks, as it means both sides can concentrate all of their energy on negotiations rather than being distracted by fear of attack. But the Colombian government has not accepted this, as it would mean reigning in an aggressive counterinsurgency effort by the army and paramilitaries.

Land reform is also toxic for the Colombian ruling elites, since it could mean that multinational corporations would no longer be able to throw rural campesinos off their land, or, at least, no longer with impunity. James Bargent wrote earlier this year for In These Times about one such example of how agribusinesses covet land for profit and sometimes remove the rural farmers to which it  belongs, often enlisting the help of paramilitary death-squads – or las mocha cabezas – to clear the land.

As Justice for Colombia notes:

The situation in Colombia is a humanitarian disaster with around 4.5 million people, or 10% of the population, having been displaced – the second highest rate in the world after Sudan. Recent years have seen around 2 million people forced from their homes. No real progress seems to have been made in tackling the problem and the numbers being displaced each year remains huge. In Colombia displacement is primarily used as a method of seizing land and, to date, around 7 million hectares (an area about the size of Austria) has been seized. The victims are predominantly peasant farmers, indigenous or Afro-Colombian people, sometimes entire communities, whilst those responsible are most commonly the paramilitaries.

These problems have been further inflamed by Plan Colombia and the free trade agreements which have facilitated and expanded dispossession.

This highlights what the country’s right-wing fears most, that Marcha Patriótica will bring to public attention the real causes of the conflict and the deep-seated reasons behind why the FARC continues to exist. Whereas the government and the political elite want to dismiss the FARC as motivated by nihilism and a lust for power, the reality is that its continued existence is a reflection of genuine grievances about Colombian society. A letter signed by many Latin American intellectuals, including Eduardo Galeano and Adolfo Perez Esquivel, and also United Nations Human Rights Council member Jean Ziegler,  states, “Analyzing the political history of the country, it can be affirmed that the guerrillas are the consequence not the cause of a war that has political, economic and social roots.”

The consequent vilification of Marcha Patriótica for raising this point has already gained traction, with fatal consequences. Just in the past few weeks, three  members were found dead. They were assassinated after they attended the III Encuentro de Zonas de Reserva Campesina in San Vicente del Caguan, which took place on March 22 and 23, bringing together almost 4,000 peasants.

Marcha Patriótica has every reason to be worried it may get worse. The Patriotic Union, a coalition formed as a result of the peace talks during President Belisario Betancur’s administration, which included FARC members, and attempted to enter the political process, was subjected to a protracted campaign of violence, in which roughly 4,000 members were murdered. We spoke with former Patriotic March member Luis Angel Garcia, who said he had survived four attempts on his life. “It’s very possible that if Marcha Patriótica becomes a political party, it will face the same kind of oppression as the Patriotic Union,” said Garcia.

Marcha Patriótica may be able to defend itself, at least in the intellectual sense, on the grounds that is different to the Patriotic Union Despite being labelled by many as a successor to the Patriotic Union, it is clear that Marcha Patriótica is made up of a far more diverse base and is a fundamentally different movement. Gloria Cuartas, former senator and mayor of Apartadó, said, “The Patriotic Union was born in a moment of negotiation between an insurgent group and the government [whereas] the Marcha Patriotica emerged from social movements.”

But the connection has been difficult to rub off and the existence of Marcha Patriótica has led to fears that the FARC will enter the political process,  a concern which has attracted significant media attention. Reuters states that “many believe the movement is a launch pad for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to enter politics.” Leaving aside whether there is any significant relationship between FARC and Marcha Patriótica, a number of questions arise: What is the problem with FARC entering the country’s democratic political institutions, if people want to vote for them? Isn’t that how democracy works? Wouldn’t it be better for FARC to be engaged in mainstream politics rather than armed struggle? By virtue of entering into peace talks with the government, have they not already entered the political process in some sense?

An analysis of past peace processes will show parties previously designated as terrorist organizations being incorporated into the electoral political process and, in some cases, government itself. Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were branded terrorists by, among others, Britain’s Thatcher administration and now are the ruling party in South Africa. Likewise, Sinn Fein, derided by the British government as terrorists and a front for the Provisional IRA, are now part of the power-sharing administration governing Northern Ireland. These facts lead to another question: if the rebels are not incorporated into the political process, can there be peace at all? The attempt at peace that took place during Betancur’s presidency failed, in part, for this reason. Garcia said of this period, “The government didn’t comply with its part of the agreement. So the people [within the demobilized part of the FARC] who were supporting the political process had to go back into the jungle.”

A related fear also exists, that Marcha Patriótica will itself become part of the political process and that a genuine left will emerge as a significant player in Colombian politics. In other parts of Latin America, political change has come about in part because of the influence of social movements that preceded the election of leaders who pursued a program of social justice and other aims like those of Marcha Patriótica. Many of the new leaders in Latin America are an expression of social movements and a coalition of popular demands.  In addition to a peace agreement that incorporates social justice, the existence of Marcha Patriótica may well facilitate a resurgent democratic left in Colombia.

The ruling class have every reason to be fearful. The sheer show of popular support that Marcha Patriótica demonstrated on April 9 was breathtaking. It also has some influential supporters. Journalist Jorge Enrique Botero and film director Lisandro Duque are two key opinion-makers said to be involved. There are plans for a Marcha Patriótica television and radio station, and it recently began publishing a newspaper. As has been noted, Marcha Patriótica aims to be a political party in the long-term. With a movement like this and its momentum, there is hope for a true peace, a peace with social justice, and the emergence of a new, exciting force in Colombian politics.

Peter Bolton is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá. Alejandro Gonzalez is a human rights lawyer and researcher for PASO International, a labor advocacy organization based in Colombia.