Occupy Bogota

Young people are giving Colombia a masterclass in democracy and peace

Dania Maxwell

BOGOTA— It’s been drizzling throughout the night in Bogota’s main public square. The cloud cover is so thick by sunrise that it hides the green mountains that tower above this Andean city.

But the rain and the cold mountain weather haven’t deterred a group of 150 activists from camping out overnight.

They’ve been here for several days in an occupy-like protest in defense of Colombia’s peace process, which took a worrisome turn earlier this month when Colombians voted surprisingly to reject a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas. The residents of this improvised peace camp say that maintaining their protest is a way of showing their commitment to the country’s future.

“Our goal is to be here until a peace deal is reached in Colombia,” says Maria Lopez, a journalist from a leading Colombian news magazine, who took a break from her job to join the small tent village.

Maria Lopez organizes her tentDania Maxwell

Maria Lopez organizes her tent

Lopez slept in a yellow tent with three other activists to keep warm at night. “It’s never easy to sleep on the floor, or to go hungry,” she says. “But those are just minor things to deal with when you want to change the country.”

The demonstrators in the plaza are part of a larger protest movement that includes students, indigenous groups, people who voted “Yes” to the peace deal, and even a few people who voted “No” but now want to see a new deal hashed out. The combined effort seems to be breathing new life into the country’s democracy in the wake of a plebiscite in which only a minority of eligible voters participated.

Peace camp residents hosted a "dance marathon" for peace on SundayDania Maxwell

Peace camp residents hosted a "dance marathon" for peace on Sunday

Many Colombians who supported the peace deal have been taking to the streets for the past week to pressure politicians to sustain the army’s ceasefire with the guerrillas and ink a new peace deal soon.

The demonstrations so far have included two massive marches for peace, a dance marathon, a protest in front of a TV station, and an artistic performance that covered the city’s main square in white sheets bearing the names of war victims.

“Unfortunately, only protests in big cities are visible,” said Alejandra Calderon, an anthropology student who spent the night at the peace camp on Sunday and has been to the marches. “So those of us who come here are also representing people in the countryside who suffer from the war each day and want this to end.”

The protest movement doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street. Some analysts say the movement has already become the largest wave of street mobilizations that Colombia has seen over the past two decades.

“We had a student movement in the ’90s that led to a new constitution,” says Maria Victoria Llorente, the director of the Ideas por la Paz think tank. “Maybe the students who are protesting can put pressure on all sides, and make them realize that it is not in their (political) interest to delay a new peace deal.”

A protester brings his bike into the peace camp. Some demonstrators alternate the peace camp with their daily routine.Dania Maxwell

A protester brings his bike into the peace camp. Some demonstrators alternate the peace camp with their daily routine.

After the rejection of the peace deal on Oct. 2, opposition parties who campaigned for the “No” vote have been meeting with the government to discuss ways the current treaty can be amended. Among their demands are stiffer penalties for guerrilla leaders who committed war crimes, and modifications to conditions offered to guerrillas to enter politics. Leaders of the conservative Centro Democratico party have also expressed concerns with the land restitution program that is attached to the deal.

20161009_dpm_ocupy_14Dania Maxwell

The peace camp is located right in front of Colombia´s presidential palace

But some activists worry that the opposition is stalling on negotiations to serve their own political purposes. Colombia will hold presidential elections in May of 2018, and some think opposition leaders are trying to holdout until then to leverage the peace deal as a campaign issue.

“We need to put a time limit on these negotiations,” said Emiliano Moscoso, a 34-year-old businessman who attended a popular assembly on the peace process on Monday. Moscoso worries the ceasefire could fall apart as the guerrillas have to find ways of sustaining their troops.

“When my generation takes over this country, I’d like us to tackle other problems, like how to be more competitive or how to tackle income inequality. I don’t want to keep talking about war,” Moscoso said.

Every night at the camp, and at meetings across town, protesters discuss the latest developments in the peace negotiations and plan new ways of pressuring the country´s political elite.


At meetings activists shake their hands in the air instead of clapping, the rules facilitate discussion

“Being here has been an exercise in democracy,” says Waily Gamboa, a member of the peace camp. “We may have different opinions on what kind of a peace deal we want to see, but I think we have found ways to get along. Ultimately we are all here in the defense of life.”

Some activists say one of the main goals of the mobilization is to combat the large amount of indifference and skepticism that has plagued Colombian democracy.

Only 37% of eligible voters participated in the plebiscite. Activists are hoping that people who did not vote will realize the cost of abstentionism, and get involved in the effort to pressure politicians to come up with a new peace deal.

“Political parties failed to convince people about the importance of this peace process,” says activist Juan Camilo Caicedo. “So we’re trying to create a space where people of all tendencies can discuss what is happening. We’re not allowing any politicians to lead any of our actions, because unfortunately in this country anything related to politicians scares people away.”


A peace march on Wednesday was attended by more than 50,000 people

But so far it’s too soon to tell if the recent wave of protests has gained support from those who didn’t vote in the plebiscite. At the peace camp and the marches I attended, most people said they had voted.

But now Colombia needs more than just their vote. And it also needs non voters to get involved.

“This is a moment that cannot be wasted,” said Maria Lopez, the journalist who also slept at the camp. “We have the opportunity to push for a peace deal that more people will feel comfortable with. But civil society has to play a role in this.”