Hoist your white flags of peace, but do it tactically! Reflections on nonviolent actions during the referendum of the Colombian Peace agreement of 2016
Author: Felipe García Arias
Translated into Spanish by Silvana Gordillo González
On October 2 of 2016 the national referendum to approve or reject the peace agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla took place, and to the surprise of many Colombians and international viewers, the agreement’s approval lost by having only the 49,76% of the votes. Before that day, nonviolent manifestations were seen around the country, but nonetheless, the movements that had supported the agreements could not guarantee the expected outcome.
What I want to argue is that nonviolent civic manifestations that sought to support the peace agreement during the referendum campaign had tactic flaws, which led to many of them not even being proper nonviolent strategic actions, thus not sufficiently influencing status-quo changes to win the referendum. Nonetheless, I want to show that the force of nonviolent actions after October 2 contributed to the agreement’s final legal approval. In this brief text, I will not analyze all the reasons why the peace agreement referendum lost, but I will reflect on the characteristics of how nonviolent actions were used during that time to increase the understanding of their limitations and impact.
Lack of unity and articulation
As stated by military strategist turned theorist of nonviolent action Robert L. Helvey, disunity can be an important contaminant of nonviolent campaigns: “Some movements never become viable, in part, because disunity within the leadership makes cooperation difficult, if not impossible, to achieve on critical issues”. El Tiempo acknowledged that the “yes” movement during the referendum campaign was split, as not all political figures that backed the peace agreement had a unified message.
That happened too with student and civic movements during that time. As a member of one of those student movements, I recall articulating actions was an important concern even within our group (the peace committee of the Los Andes student council) and with other student and civic groups of other universities. I attribute this lack of unity to reservations towards the government.
Even if the government was leading the peace agreement, and its political will was a determining reason why the agreements were possible, many academic and political sectors that supported the Agreement did not approve of the government. A too-narrow relationship between the government and the Agreements, and a lack of tactic thinking within nonviolent civic movements, created oppositional actions that should have been united for pragmatic reasons.
Not enough participation and visibility
Political scientist Erica Chenoweth suggests that movements with 3.5% of the population participating almost always had achieved their objectives (Chenowth, 2020), leading to the conclusion that the number of participants matter (as excellently exemplified by the Serbian Optor actions). The importance of massive participation can also be understood as the force of one of the sources of political power: human resources (See: Sharp, 2013, p.5). Several marches “of the white flags” (Several of those marches were called “La marcha de las banderas blancas”) took place in Bogota during that period but they lacked the massive participation that was seen after the referendum, and media coverage was limited too.
In a search of media articles between September and October 2020, this lack of visibility and massive mobilizations shows. I even remember being interviewed by a news channel after the referendum, and the reporter asked me why students haven’t mobilized before October 2, as they were doing after the results. We were mobilizing but not as massively and tactically enough to produce the social impact we sought.
Not enough diversity of methods and lack of planning
Andrés Martínez, an experienced analyst, working in Colombia and trained in the history and theory of nonviolent strategic action, considers that one of the problems of social manifestations in Colombia had been the lack of utilization of diverse nonviolent methods (a variety of actions such as guerrilla theater, processions, sky-writing, and vigils) that can be utilized in nonviolent action.
Scholar Gene Sharp stopped counting after he identified 198 different methods in 1973. Yet, during the referendum process, the most common method used in Bogota was social marches, often in the same places. From the Peace Committee of the Los Andes student council, we also did artistic manifestations and used other methods, but we may have lacked sufficient tactic diversification to create the desired outcome, making them less like nonviolent strategic actions but more like mere civic manifestations.
As stated by Erica Chenoweth, “flexible and innovative techniques are key […] movements that rely too much on single methods — such as protests, petitions or rallies — are less likely to win in the end” (Chenoweth, 2016). Just as argued by Mary King, in addition to diverse methods, they should be used in clear and well though order with clear planning:
Although indeterminate in outcome, action methods cannot be used in a vague mélange. The choice of steps needs to be strategic and related to the political purpose, with the ends and means linked, and the goals and targets manifested in organization, discipline, planning, leadership, and logistics. (King, 2008, p.40)
With little time and few resources, actions were planned “on the go” without a clear long- or medium-term strategy, and they relied almost every time on using the very same methods. Indeed, this may had been anticipated and thus may have contributed to the lack of motivation for other people to join them. I believe they were too predictable.
Actions weren’t tactically directed to bring about a shift in power
This idea is at the core of my argument. Nonviolent strategic actions or even nonviolent civic manifestations of popular opinion during the studied time lacked the strategic vision to reflect or create a sufficient shift in power. Their objectives were to support the “yes” to the referendum, thus sustaining the government, but the chosen actions were insufficient to alter the status-quo.
The target group of those movements was misunderstood; the objective should have been not only to back the government’s proposal for the referendum, but to address those pillars of support (by pillars of support I refer to the theoretical development about power done by Christopher Miller in strategic Nonviolent Struggle: A Training Manual. See: Miller, 2006, p.35) that maintains the status-quo conflict in Colombia. Indeed, we might have sought to bring about defections from the forces and institutions that sought to retain the existing state of affairs.
In this case, the targeted group was not a dictator, nor a foreign power (as many nonviolent mobilizations have targeted to bring about democratic transitions around the world), but maybe the situation was even more complex. Colombian conflict has many actors, and influential groups are comprised by national and local level politicians, economic groups, fronts, and illegal organizations.
Thus, the conflict present circumstances were maintained not only by one figure, but by several group actors that were interested for different reasons in the prolongation of the conflict. Such interests were represented by Alvaro Uribe and his political party, which in the past 20 years had determined all Colombian presidential elections except for the reelection of President Juan Manuel Santos in 2014.
It is important to consider that “the ruler,” as Gene Sharp characterizes it, is not necessarily the government, and the power-holder may be someone or a group outside it. Gene Sharp explains that “The persons, group, or regime which occupies the highest position of command in the society and government, especially the State, are here called “the rulers”, and that “political power thus refers to the total authority, influence, pressure, and coercion which may be applied to achieve or prevent the implementation of the wishes of the power-holder” (Sharp, 2013, pp.3-4).
This allows for understanding that even if the head of government in Colombia in 2016 was supporting the peace agreement, some other power-holders or rulers shared with the government its pillars of support, and even were controlling more of them.
This idea was addressed by Humberto de la Calle (head of the government negotiation team for the Peace process) in a reflection that he shared with me for this case study. He told me that it’s important to acknowledge that “the resistance that [the opponents of the agreement] created had a major success” (De la Calle, 2021). Examples of those actions and how they managed to weaken the government’s pillars of support to gain them for themselves, can be understood with the following insight of De la Calle:
A very emotional polarization came to be fueled by fake news […] the manipulation of the gender approach that was maliciously deformed by the oppositionist forces to the agreement and that generated in the Christian churches a monolithic resistance and in part of the Catholic Church that demobilized, including the ecclesiastical leadership that had been supporting the process and in this circumstance resolved at least to adopt a neutral attitude (De la Calle, 2021).
With actions of disinformation (what social philosopher Hannah Arendt refers to as power and consent could be catalogued as Propaganda and Lies [Presbey, 1998, p.34]), the oppositionist forces to the Agreements achieved among many other things a shift in power related to the allegiance of Christian and Catholic congregations.
Nonviolent actions were solidifying some government’s pillars of support and sources of power, and at the same time, those pillars were being chopped down with axes of misinformation by the opponents of the peace agreement.
Actions should have been done to directly erode those status-quo pillars of support, as the business that strongly financed the “no” campaign, the politicians, news media and religious congregations that backed it. Those “no” backing pillars of support had important sources of power too, as material and human resources, some kind of sanctions at local levels (related for example to paramilitary groups), and sufficient authority. Nonetheless, as De la Calle told me, it is relevant to recognize that considering the circumstances, what the nonviolent actions and civic movements achieved before the referendum was important, because there were many elements against them.
Even though, in the end, it helped…
The referendum was lost, but nonviolent actions by students and organized civil society, in the end, did help the final approval of the peace agreement on November 24 of 2016 at the Teatro Colón. They lacked adequate political power to generate the desired outcome for the referendum, but they gave an essential source of power by solidifying the civic and student movement’s pillars of support in favor of the national government.
Nonviolent actions after October 2 had what others lacked before: they were more unified, diverse, articulated, and had massive participation and local and international visibility. During less than a month, sit-ins, marches, vigils, and artistic nonviolent actions were performed in Bogota and across the country (See: FIP. Radiografía del plebiscite y postplebiscito. 2016.). In a very emotive march, many ethnic groups and conflict victims from all over the country came to Bogota in the “march of the flowers”; in the “silence march” vigil, thousands of participants kept in silence until a planned moment where the Colombian national anthem was played and then an unified cry rumbled in a full Plaza the Bolivar square: Acuerdo ya! (Agreements now!).
These more tactical and forceful nonviolent actions enabled the government to regain (at least apparently) the peace agreement’s legitimacy. As analyzed by De la Calle, those actions pushed the oppositionist forces to concede certain things to create new options for the agreement:
Of course, the mobilization after October 2 was decisive, not only for the guerrilla forces themselves and society in general, but also for the spokesmen of the “no” campaign, who by virtue of that mobilization agreed to open a dialogue table [and] renegotiate points that were abundantly incorporated into the new Colón theater agreement. (De la Calle, 2021.)
The impact of those actions can also be seen on President Santos’s speech just after signing the new agreement at the Colon Theater in November, were he directly referred to student manifestations to legitimize the new agreement.
Nonviolent actions of 2016 at the end managed to contribute enough to the peace agreement’s signing and incorporation into Colombian legislation, but the status-quo-ante hasn’t been changed sufficiently. Now Colombia is struggling with its implementation, greatly because the opponents of the agreement regained the presidential office and congress control. This means that the struggle continues.
Thus, nonviolent actions may be needed again as a step forward to, this time, managing to create a shift in power and a real alteration of conditions that could lead to peace. What I think we need to do is to learn from nonviolent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and from Gene Sharp, Erica Chenoweth, Mary Elizabeth King, and other academicians, in order to improve our techniques and local understanding of nonviolent strategic action.
In summary, in Colombia we need to add to our conflict resolution practices more deliberate and planned nonviolent actions to achieve our desired stability and long-lasting peace.
Following Mary King’s words: “peace-building can be thought of as a bridge that crosses from conflict resolution to ‘positive peace’. Yet since positive peace is more than merely the absence of war, the umbrella of peace-building must include the merits of learning to employ nonviolent sanctions for addressing and resolving present and future conflicts, especially if institutionalized political action fails” (King, 2008, p.42).
List of References
Chenowth, E. (April, 2020). Questions, Answers, and Some Cautionary Updates Regarding the 3.5% Rule. Harvard University.
Chenoweth, E. (November, 2016). People Are in the Streets Protesting Donald Trump. But When Does Protest Actually Work? Washington Post.
King, M.E. (December, 2008). Nonviolent Struggle in Africa: Essentials of Knowledge and Teaching. Africa Peace and Conflict Journal 1, no. 1.
Miller, A. (2006). Understanding Your Environment. In Strategic Nonviolent Struggle: A Training Manual. Nonviolent Transformation of Conflict–Africa, ed. Mary E. King. Addis Ababa and Geneva: University for Peace.
Sharp, G. (2013). Chapter One: The Nature and Control of Political Power. In How Nonviolent Struggle Works, 3-16. East Boston: Albert Einstein Institution.
De la Calle, Humberto. (February 28, 2021)
El Tiempo. (October, 2016). La escultura de Gandhi que enfrenta el abandono y el riesgo de caerse. https://www.eltiempo.com/bogota/escultura-de-gandhi-en-bogota-49183.
El Tiempo (October, 2016). Estos son los pecados de la campaña que promovió el ‘Sí’. https://www.eltiempo.com/politica/proceso-de-paz/influencia-del-brexit-y-otros-factores-en-resultados-del-plebiscito-45447
(2016). Radiografía del plebiscite y postplebiscito. http://www.ideaspaz.org/especiales/posplebiscito/
Santos, Juan Manuel. (November 24, 2016). Intervención del Presidente Juan Manuel Santos en el acto de la Firma del Nuevo Acuerdo de Paz con las Farc. http://es.presidencia.gov.co/discursos/161124-Intervencion-del-Presidente-Juan-Manuel-Santos-en-el-acto-de-la-Firma-del-Nuevo-Acuerdo-de-Paz-con-las-Farc.
 “In summary, it seems to me that the volume of votes acquired by the plebiscite accompanied by the social movements, the truth is that it was enormous in such difficult circumstances.”. (De la Calle, 2021)
 “For more than forty days, we listened to Colombians. We listen to their concerns and also their voices of encouragement to persevere and not lose this momentum, being already so close to the goal. Tens of thousands of young people throughout the country, that new generation that will build the Colombia of tomorrow demanded that we deliver a different country to the one we received: A country where violence and death are not normal”. (Santos, Juan Manuel. Intervención del Presidente Juan Manuel Santos en el acto de la Firma del Nuevo Acuerdo de Paz con las Farc. November 24, 2016.)
Author’s Short Bio:
Felipe García Arias is a MA student at UPEACE in the Master of Arts program of sustainable peace in the contemporary world, and studied History and Law at the Los Andes University in his hometown of Bogota, Colombia. Although he is publishing this article by his own accord, he is currently working in Colombia with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) contributing to the prevention of children’s rights violations. He is interested in participating in the formulation and implementation of projects dedicated to peace and vulnerable community’s protection.
Felipe’s life had been greatly influenced by inspiring people in his family who had been working in favor of human rights, education, childhood, social equity, and peace, and by engaging in non-violent actions during the Colombian peace referendum in 2016. From the Los Andes university’s student council, he was a founding member of what was called “the peace committee”, intending to promote peace, discussion, and support for the peace process. Within the committee, groups of students organized several civic actions and non-violent actions inside and outside the university, supporting conflict resolution and the peace agreement that was concluding between the FARC guerrilla and the Colombian government.
On October 2 of 2016, a small majority of the Colombian people voted to reject the peace process, and many of the citizens who, like Felipe, supported the agreement felt hopeless and defeated. They felt that a historic effort to end a 50 year-long internal conflict was crushed. From this day on, he confirmed to himself that he should not desist, and that he should devote his life to the pursuit of peace. This article is part of this commitment. He can be contacted at LinkedIn.