Democracy ominously repeats itself: what happened in Colombia?


A Colombian friend has offered their take on the referendum and what it all means. Is there hope? Will the conflict ever end? What will Colombia do now? Contributing to this, our Editor first offers reflections on public referendums generally and what they mean for democracy, peacebuilding and beyond…

2016 will be remembered, if at all, as a strange dark year.


A British Perspective

“Democracy is sick” a close Colombian friend declared when their Peace Referendum was announced. I could not quite fault them, as a victim of Brexit myself. For I too had silently come to a conclusion that full public referendums were not the enlightened acts of truly democratic states idealists may have hyped them up to be. They were in fact, purely in my opinion (of course), susceptible to scare-mongering and fact-manipulation on all sides.

How could the general public truly vote with clear heads, clear hearts? We elect politicians to make the complicated decisions on our behalf, why should we then suddenly consider ourselves experts on whether the UK should remain or leave? I still do not understand the finer intricacies because I certainly never received an education on what the European Union meant to Britain, what our membership entailed. But as a recent student of human rights, I certainly did not wish to relinquish the UK’s membership to one of, if not the only, world’s shining example of an effective human rights court.


“Britain votes to leave the EU”

I will never forget where I was June 24th when the Brexit result surfaced: newly arrived in Beijing, my first ever trip to China. Fresh off the Trans-Mongolian railway from UlaanBaatar, I was checking into my hostel tired, in need of a shower and a good bed. Connecting to the WiFi my phone went nuts “Britain votes to leave the EU“. My heart stopped, yelling too loudly “What the…” I was in shock for at least 5 minutes. Immediately after recovering my senses, I inundated my family’s WhatsApp group with the result, not realising that my message would be the first they read upon waking up, before seeing the news themselves.

Perhaps it is because I am British and therefore subjective that I still cannot fully comprehend how the Leave Vote won at Brexit. Perhaps it is in part because I left the country in February and did not witness the mayhem of the final weeks: the articles, TV spots, Obama (well I witnessed that, but from afar). One thing I do comprehend is the nature of the referendum, it was important and will shape generations to come but my friends felt able to tease me mercilessly: the jokes poured in, Memes, GIFs, puns, my European friends spared me not an ounce of sympathy…and they could because really it was not personal.


Déjà vu

Two weeks ago however, sitting at work in the early morning, it was an entirely different situation. Covertly watching a Live Colombian news channel, my friends haphazardly translating over WhatsApp for me, the results were announced and it felt like Déjà vu, except it wasn’t. October 2nd was about ending a conflict and unsurprisingly no jokes popped into my head, no puns, no mirth, no sarcasm. A country had voted no to Peace, what next?


A Colombian Perspective

On the 2nd of October a referendum took place asking the people of Colombia if they were or were not in favour of the agreement signed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government. Just over 4 months earlier, on June 23rd, this agreement was published and released to the general public, initiating a massive campaign by the government to demonstrate the work of four long years of negotiations.

The signed agreement is based on six points: rural reform, political participation, ceasefire, the drug problem, justice and how to implement the agreement. I had the opportunity to read the whole agreement and in my understanding it was a way to find a solution for more than 50 years of war, it was not perfect but it was a beginning to change. The agreement focused on trying to stop war as fast as possible, giving chances to FARC to adapt itself to the political system and stop using violence as a method to gain political power.

Arguably, the main problem with the agreement is that a huge percentage of Colombians do not believe it brings justice, that FARC members will not get the punishment they deserve for atrocities committed during the last years. This situation raises the question of what is more important: justice or peace?

The Colombian government made a reference that voting not in favour of the agreement was to be in favour of perpetuating war and that those in favour of voting no maintained the discourse that voting to be in favour of the agreement was to promote terrorists getting into power. These two discourses created a highly polarised population at the polls on October 2nd, the results were Yes 49.7% and for No 50.2% with this only representing 37% of the voting population.

Most of the people I know feel upset with the results. As I see it, a no vote is a way to bring all political factions together and create a better agreement. Those political leaders proclaiming for the No should now bring solutions to the table and a way to construct a real durable peace.

This is the moment for all Colombians to really understand what peace and justice are, together finding a balance that is desperately needed, to find a solution to decades of war.

How would you balance peace and justice?

My Life Journey: Activist to Academic

Marcha por la vida y la convivencia
March for life and coexistence, Medellín: I co-organized the march for life and coexistence celebrated on 8th of March of 2015 in Medellín, Colombia. This aimed to call the attention about the daily violence in which we are used to living as a society, and also as a way to support the peace negotiations.

Some years ago, while I was doing my bachelor’s in Finance, my girlfriend broke up with me. I fell into a deep sadness, I lost my appetite, my academic interest, and my passion. Soon after, came the economic crisis of 2008 and my lack of interest grew into a strong criticism of the financial sector and I no longer wanted to become a banker or a stockbroker. Suddenly all the formulas and processes to calculate profits, incomes, balance sheets, income statements and so on were meaningless to me.

But life has funny ways of showing new perspectives: mine came from a successful interview for an internship in a strange office located in the basement of a public building. It was a public program run by my city council called “The Opportunities Bank”, a microcredit public strategy that had recently been created in the marginalised areas of Medellin.

Soon after, I was working with small entrepreneurs in places I had never visited before in the city in which I had always lived. The motivation and passion was back.


Where Passion Leads You

Since that moment my life changed direction: I became a political activist, getting involved in peace initiatives, grassroots projects, youth collectives, and environmental justice movements. I worked in different development sectors: an early childhood development program, a security and coexistence observatory. During my last job I led the creation and implementation of a participatory education strategy with rural youth.

I volunteered with an NGO in art and coexistence, co-hosted a community radio program, co-organised an artistic performance to raise awareness of forced disappearances, and a march promoting peace and coexistence. I even did urban gardening with a bunch of hip-hop artists and was invited to give a TED talk.

What I learnt throughout these various experiences is that social change is not a profession but a way of living. It cannot be done alone, it needs the participation of the many, to work collectively and collaborate with each other. That, incidentally, is the subject of my TED talk.

This is an image of one of the participative education workshops that I led. This was part of a non-formal educational strategy for youth empowerment.

Learning By Doing

Learning by doing (with others) is how I became a development practitioner, in the very challenging context of Colombia. It is hard to explain the deep connection I have with my country. We have many problems such as violence and a long armed conflict, corruption, a culture of illegality with roots in drug trafficking, huge inequalities, to name a few.

Despite these problems, Colombians are a diverse and resilient nation living in one of the most bio-diverse habitats on the planet. With my work, I was able to see the deep rural Colombia that was so disconnected from the realities of my urban upbringing. It was precisely this diversity that inspired me to take the next step: I grew up in a mountainous tropical environment but I always felt as though those mountains also restricted my perspective. I wanted to see the world and understood that I needed to complement my experience with an academic degree.

Obstacles To Studying

It took me three more years of working to make this dream come true. I started studying English, I sought the advice of those I considered my role models. I saved money and searched tirelessly for programs, countries, and cities that I would like to live in. I decided upon what I wanted to study through the Global Association of Masters of Development Practice (MDP) programs and a close friend recommended Monash as one of the options.

Being here at Monash today is the result of long hours of dreaming, planning, searching, and studying. After finally receiving my acceptance letter, the final stages of my project were to apply for a scholarship, quit my job and pack my things.

But macroeconomics played a trick on me: the oil prices went down, the currency exchange rate fell and my hard-earned savings were severely reduced. What happened next is an example of when the power of collective action can come into play.

This was a beautiful moment when many friends gathered together to give me their good wishes and give me a hand to complete my financial resources. Each of the people brought some objects to donate that were sold during the event. The Red Baron airplane was the symbol of the event and the symbol of my journey as well.
This was a beautiful moment when many friends gathered together to give me their good wishes and give me a hand to complete my financial resources. Each of the people brought some objects to donate that were sold during the event. The Red Baron airplane was the symbol of the event and the symbol of my journey as well.

Some of my friends decided to support me and we created a fundraising strategy: we did an eco-touristic trip, an auction and a farewell party. More than one hundred people were involved and I was able to fundraise AUD $6,000. I had money for the first semester, my flight ticket and my bags packed.

I was already on my way to Australia when I learnt that I had not been successful in the scholarship application. The sense of uncertainty I experienced learning this, felt like jumping from a high cliff but nothing would stop me now.


Hard Work Pays Off

It has been a year now since I came to Melbourne. Since then I have had the opportunity of seeing my country from a different perspective, to study its development history, to follow how the peace process is coming to an end and the multiple challenges that this will bring for Colombia’s future.

One of the most valuable aspects of the MIDP has been to share a classroom with students from such diverse backgrounds; all of them so passionate and so talented. Understanding the challenges that we all face as human beings and how we all share common problems in such a diverse world is one of the most rewarding things about studying at Monash.

Being in the MIDP program has been a wonderful experience but also just a part of the whole journey. It has been a great challenge to deal with solitude, to find a place to live, make new friends and get a job to support myself. I have worked as a cleaner, as a dishwasher, as a waiter, as a chef. However, I have also had the pleasure of both enjoying and suffering the full four seasons. I have surfed for the first time, I saw snow and snowboarded too. I went to the Formula1 Grand Prix and the Australian Open Grand Slam. I have enjoyed most of all, living in such a diverse and open-minded city as Melbourne.

To summarise, my life turned around again and I feel that I have grown, learnt and have demonstrated to myself that I can achieve many things. One year later I got the scholarship and I am now tutoring at Monash. And I tell you what, I am sure that many more good experiences are yet to come.

El arranque poster

Sebastián Restrepo Henao
MIDP Student

Development for Peace

FUrrego Main Picture

In order to understand the reason why I decided to study the Masters in International Development Practice at Monash University, I should first provide you with a quick summary of the history of Colombia.

A brief history of Colombian conflict

Colombia was a Spanish colony from the 1500s until its independence in 1810. Its history as an independent country has been strongly marked by violence and war, so much so that just in the Nineteenth Century we had more than four civil wars. The other major impact upon Colombian society nowadays has been the constant ruling of a small elite who have continued the status quo from the colonial era, maintaining the inequality that still characterises the country today.

At the middle of the Twentieth Century, leftist groups emerged wanting to fight the oppression created by this elite. However, the government’s suppression of these groups was so violent, they were forced to flee. And so, guerrilla warfare commenced as they hid deep in the Colombian jungle. This necessity, of the people to fight inequality, brought war again to our country. These groups, in pursuing control of the power themselves, began killing civilians indiscriminately and brought a sense of terror upon the population.


A brief history of this Colombian Felipe

Here is where my story begins, by the year 2005 Colombians were tired of this war of terror and gave big support to our armed forces to fight these illegal groups. Right after finishing school, in my willingness to help end the war that had cost too many lives, I joined the Colombian Navy. I have already been ten years in this institution and only now, by the combined effort of the Colombian Armed Forces, have we brought the main illegal group to sit and hold peace negotiations with the government.

All these years in the military have given me the opportunity to get to know almost all the corners of my country, to see the people’s needs and to witness the devastation that war brings. The only thing I could do at that moment as a member of the Navy, was to provide security and try to alleviate basic needs.


Linking development and post-conflict Colombia

Over this past decade, in my understanding of the major issues and the experiences I have had, I have come to realise that you cannot fight violence just with stronger armies: that is like fighting fire with fire. What the Colombian Armed Forces need are new ways to help the people, to offer more than just cyclic violence and illegal lives.

My goal here is to learn how to create Sustainable Development programs in isolated communities and communities that have been victims of the conflict. With these programs I hope we will be able to provide more than just the choice of becoming another illegal actor because of the lack of opportunities for a better future.


Why a Colombian naval officer at Monash?

In my search to find new tools to help the situation in Colombia, I started to look for other countries or places where I could take a different perspective of my country’s situation from outside the military. Australia and especially Melbourne is a place where I have many friends from back home and also it is considered the most liveable city in the world; what a great place to experience an example of modernity and welfare. I received a scholarship from the private sector in Colombia and the Colombian Navy approved my choice of study to help build new plans for a post-conflict society.

I decided to come to do the Masters in International Development Practice because it provides an opportunity to learn of the different trends in development and how I can better approach my goals and be successful in them. The other aspect that I find very important and interesting about being in this masters, that I had not considered before coming, is that it is full of enthusiastic people from different backgrounds and lived experiences.

MIDP offers a multicultural environment that I enjoy because the students bring their own points of view, different to my own, that are so important to understanding development.

This article expresses the personal opinion of the author and not the opinions of any institution mentioned within.

Felipe Urrego Gonzalez
MIDP Student