• Friday, December 19, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    “Put Yourself in Our Shoes, Mr. President”

    Irene Ramírez
    Credit:Constanza Vieira/IPS

    Constanza Vieira interviews Colombian rural activist IRENE RAMÍREZ

    BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia, Aug 19, 2011 (IPS) – “I repeat: there will be no peace talks without concrete actions. Words are not enough,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on a visit to Argentina this week. Earlier, in Chile, he said for the first time since taking office a year ago that he was “willing” to eventually sit down to talks with the guerrillas.

    But, he said, the insurgent groups must first halt all attacks against civilians, among other “convincing” demonstrations that they are interested in reaching a peace agreement.

    The central focus of Santos’ tour, which began Monday Aug. 15 in Chile and ended Thursday Aug. 18 in Argentina, was the economic crisis in Europe and the United States.

    But he used the opportunity to complain about suggestions from abroad that it is time to try to end the armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the much smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), the two left-wing rebel groups that have been active since 1964. “We do not accept anyone meddling in our internal affairs,” he stated categorically.

    Santos had told a group of Colombian industrialists on Friday Aug. 12 that he would not take any steps towards peace talks until “it is clear that any possible dialogue will move us in the direction of an agreement that will truly bring about peace.”

    He then cited a popular saying that means “once bitten, twice shy.”

    But Irene Ramírez, a leader of the Cimitarra Valley Campesino Association (ACVC), said it was “the people” of Colombia who have been “bitten many times.”

    “There is no more biting possible,” she told IPS in this interview. “That’s why people are starting to speak out, tired of forever being subjected to poverty and deceit, and, especially, of being massacred.”

    The ACVC, which groups some 25,000 campesinos or peasant farmers and was awarded the 2010 National Peace Prize, organised a National Meeting of Rural Communities, Afro-Descendant and Indigenous Peoples for Land and Peace in Colombia, from Aug 12-14, under the theme “Dialogue is the Path”. Ramírez, a slight 43-year-old straight-speaking campesina who only has a second grade education, was in charge of the huge logistical challenge of organising the national meeting.

    She said the gathering, held in the northeastern city of Barrancabermeja, an oil port on the Magdalena River with a long history of labour activism and leftist organisations, managed to draw “the 30,000 people we were expecting.”

    At noon on Wednesday, Ramírez said she was “tired, yes, because this has involved a lot of work, but happy because it was a really great gathering.”

    She also said it was wonderful “to feel that we are so strong.”

    “Above all, for me as a campesina, I now feel much more motivated to continue fighting and learning how we can defend ourselves and gain ground as campesinos and as human beings,” she added.

    Until Thursday the organisers were busy cleaning up the areas where the meeting was held and where the participants camped, to hand them back to the city government in even better condition than they received them.

    “We believe we have to set an example, as campesino communities. And even more so because we are talking about peace, about working to make things better,” Ramírez said.

    “We are acutely aware that we have not achieved peace just by holding a big meeting” of the peace movement, she said. “This was like a small light in the darkness, with which we said ‘yes, it’s possible to talk about peace’.”

    The meeting declared that no military solution is possible in Colombia’s decades-old civil war. “We are calling on the parties in the war to sit down to talks – that is what we have been working for,” Ramírez said.

    The FARC and ELN both sent written and videotaped messages to the meeting, expressing a willingness to engage in peace talks.

    Ramírez said she thought it was a good thing that Santos “has told (the guerrillas) at this time that he is willing to think about talks. What we ask ourselves, as an organisation and as campesinos, is: ‘is what he is saying true?’”

    What former right-wing president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) did was “imprison campesino activists. (Santos) may talk very openly about things, but we hesitate to give our trust and confidence because of everything we have been through,” she said, in response to questions from IPS.

    Q: Why didn’t President Santos come to the meeting?

    A: That is what we are concerned about. He was invited to come, and he talked to several of our members. He said he would come, or send a representative. But he didn’t. In our view, despite the things he has said in a speech on TV, he isn’t really interested. If he were, I think he would have come.

    Q: Santos phoned some ambassadors, as well as Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, among other people who were invited, to tell them not to come to Barrancabermeja. How do you, who worked so hard to organise this, interpret what Santos did?

    A: That he does not have confidence in our proposals; that he considers us – as campesinos, as people – liars.

    But for us, as an organisation, Santos is Uribe’s follower (the president was defence minister under his predecessor). He should have come, or he should at least have sent a representative, and he should have simply let the people who wanted to come, come.

    Even if he says it’s not true, even if he is opposed to it, this meeting showed that many many people in this country are interested in talking about peace and are tired of putting up with everything they have had to bear.

    We are very happy that other countries have supported us. We want someone to help our president to understand…and to put himself in the shoes of all these people who were here in this swamp (a reference to the rainy, muddy conditions at the camps during the meeting).

    Why didn’t he come and listen to them? He didn’t even show up for an hour, to sit and listen or see the huge demonstration that we held. Nothing would have happened to the president, because we organised this event.

    Q: If Santos had come, would all of you have believed in him more, would there be greater confidence in him?

    A: I think so. Because if our confidence grew when Álvaro Uribe came to negotiate with us, and a month later threw campesino leaders in jail, why wouldn’t we gain trust in Santos, who has always engaged in dialogue with our organisation, who knows us, who has supported us?

    Q: When did that happen?

    A: Early this year we sat down with the president, and with the agriculture minister (Juan Camilo Restrepo), who the president sent here, to Barranca, to meet with us. We felt that he showed trust in us. But now we feel disconcerted, because he didn’t come.

    The public security forces, the army and the police, were asking us: why didn’t he come? – the same question you are asking me. Was it because he isn’t interested in this? We have a lot of unanswered questions. I don’t know if the people who knew he had said he was going to come are asking themselves the same questions. (END)

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