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Latin America and the Caribbean

Meeting of the SI Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean in Colombia

28-29 August 2015

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Latifa Perry

 

On August 28th and 29th, the Socialist International Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean convened in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, hosted by the Partido Liberal Colombiano (Liberal Party of Colombia, PLC). The topics for discussion were ‘Peace in Colombia – a common objective for people throughout the region and a necessity for progress for all’ and ‘The current electoral processes in Latin America and the Caribbean: perspectives and evaluations’. The member parties of the region also presented the Committee with reports on their national situations and their work in their respective countries.

At the opening of the meeting, the Committee had the opportunity to listen to the Colombian national anthem and other choral works performed by an ensemble of children from families which had been displaced from the zones stricken by the armed conflict that has affected Colombia for more than half a century. With ‘Music for Reconciliation’ emblazoned on their shirts, the ensemble gave expression to the hopes and desires invested by Colombian society in the peace process currently underway.

Subsequently, a video was shown: this had been made in March, 1990, when the guerrilla group 'April 19 Movement' (M19) and the Colombian government signed the agreement that allowed M19 to be demobilised and reintegrated into the social and political life of the country. This event, some 25 years ago, demonstrates the Socialist International's longstanding commitment to peace in Colombia, creating trust between the parties, furthering political dialogue, and putting together a Commission to supervise the surrender and destruction of the weapons held by M19.

During the opening session of the meeting, there were contributions from the Secretary General of the SI, Luis Ayala, from PLC leader Horacio Serpa, and from the chair of the SI Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean, Miguel Vargas Maldonado (PRD, Dominican Republic).

Luis Ayala began by thanking the Liberal Party (PLC) for their hospitality. Referring to the video, he reiterated that the ideals and values that inspired the SI 25 years ago were the same as those that motivate the organisation and its members today. He recalled that peace is a condition for those values to be embodied and realised, laying down weapons through political action. Likewise, he maintained, this meeting of the Committee in Cartagena de Indias has a special significance, being held at the same time as the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC was making progress in Havana, and reaffirms the commitment of the SI to peace in Colombia. The SI is there with the same message about constructing peace in other parts of the world where there are ongoing or unresolved conflicts, including the fight against terrorism, such as Syria, Northern Iraq and other regions. Or in its work to ensure the peaceful resolution of the conflicts in the Middle East; between Russia and Ukraine; in Western Sahara; between Turkey and Armenia. In all these cases, the SI and its member parties are working towards action and political dialogue, inspired by our ideals and values, he added. He also mentioned the crisis on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, at its height during the Committee’s meeting, expressing the SI’s dismay about the situation and the solidarity of the organisation with the Colombian families on the border between the two nations whose dignity and rights have been affected.

Luis Ayala considered the economic situation affecting the countries of the region to be a challenge for the member parties from Latin America and the Caribbean, and he urged them to face forthcoming electoral commitments, in a current atmosphere of diminishing popularity of governments and politics, maintaining ambitious objectives for the people and holding fast to the ideals and principles of the social democratic movement. At the same time, he emphasised the current importance of transparency and closeness to the people and called for a continuing clear position on the fight against corruption and the rejection of improper relations that can arise between money and politics. Lastly, he expressed his belief that the SI has been, and continues to be, a presence in the great challenges facing the world today, that are also challenges for the region. Amongst others, he recalled the work of the SI on climate change, that will continue with the SI presence at the COP21 Conference in Paris. Luis Ayala concluded by noting that a central issue for Latin America and the Caribbean was to make progress in the overcoming of inequality, and to this end the SI will, in the second semester of this year, begin the work of the SI's Commission on this issue with people from this and every region.

Horacio Serpa welcomed the Committee on behalf of the PLC and expressed thanks for the SI’s presence in Colombia at a moment that was especially important for the advance of the peace process. He explained that currently the PLC is the second most important Colombian political party, with 17 senators and 42 deputies, and holds such important political positions as the presidency of the Senate, the Ministry of the Interior and the mayoralty of the city of Cartagena itself. In the elections this coming October, he continued, the PLC hopes to position itself as the leading political force in Colombia, looking to have a member of the party elected as president of the Republic in 2018. In addition, he indicated to those present that given the present situation on the border with Venezuela, the country was united in its indignant rejection of the decisions that Nicolás Maduro has made.

Referring to the peace process, Horacio Serpa recalled that after independence from Spain, Colombia experienced two hundred years of conflict. He described the various confrontations of the 20th century as a real humanitarian tragedy. Since 1954 the country has witnessed the rise of various subversive groups. After the signing of the peace accord with M19, four out of seven presidential candidates were assassinated during 1990, among them Carlos Pizarro León-Gómez and the Liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galán, a situation of violence that generated a powerful social movement and set in motion the constituent process, with the creation of a National Constituent Assembly, and, in the end, the adoption of a new Constitution in 1991. Referring to the peace process currently taking place between the FARC and the Colombian government, Horacio Serpa expressed his hope that this might come to a satisfactory end in the near future, in a further four to six months, and expressed his desire that the SI would continue to support Colombia in the construction of peace after the signing of the accords.

The chair of the Committee, Miguel Vargas Maldonado, also thanked the PLC for their fraternal welcome. He recalled that during the Committee’s last meeting at the headquarters of the Organisation of American States in Washington on December 1st and 2nd, 2014, one of the challenges for the region that had already been sketched out was how to enact public policies to confront economic slowdown to make what he called ‘better growth’ possible: to reduce inequality and poverty in our countries. At the same time, he maintained, governments and parties faced the challenge of becoming more transparent, moving closer to people, and involving citizens in political participation.  The democracies of the region must be preserved and freedoms strengthened, he noted. In this regard, he mentioned the SI’s commitment to democracy in Venezuela, recalling the work of the SI Special Envoy to Caracas last November and the report that he presented to the SI Council in Geneva at the end of 2014. Again today, he indicated, the crisis on the border between Colombia and Venezuela and the state of emergency promulgated in the zone by the government of President Maduro, can be seen as a threat to democracy in that country. Lastly, the chair reminded those present of the issues for discussion and opened the meeting.

In relation to the first item on the agenda ‘Peace in Colombia – a common objective for people throughout the region and a necessity for everyone’s progress’, the members of the Committee heard contributions from leaders of the PLC Eduardo Verano de la Rosa, Fabio Raúl Amin, and Héctor Olimpo Espinosa. Delegates from other countries of the region Francisco Rosales (FSLN, Nicaragua), Marcelo Stubrin (UCR, Argentina), Rafael Michelini (NE, Uruguay, Vice-President of the SI), Rafael Tejeda (PRD, Dominican Republic), Henry Ramos (AD, Venezuela, Vice-President of the SI), Elsa Espinosa (PRI, Mexico, Vice-Chair of the Committee), Ricardo Navarrete (PRSD, Chile) and Margarita Zapata (FSLN, Nicaragua), also made contributions to the debate, offering reflections on the basis of the peace processes in their own nations, as in the case of the contributions of the Nicaraguan delegates, and formulating analyses and commentaries on the opportunities, challenges and threats that they observe in the experience underway in Colombia.

The Colombian Minister of the Interior, Juan Fernando Cristo Bustos, in a contribution on the background of the issue, gave the Committee an account of the origin and progress of the negotiations underway in Havana.  In his judgment, Colombia today has the chance to put an end to a conflict that has already lasted for more than half a century, something that is key to the development of the country. Peace is a long-standing desire and now seems to be a real possibility in the near future. He recognised the progress seen in the recent period has been made possible thanks to the government’s commitment to the peace process. At present, he recalled, concrete negotiations are going forward in Havana, whilst in Colombia discussion has already begun about the way in which the citizenry will have a chance to endorse what has been agreed and about the instruments that could guarantee the FARC giving up the armed struggle and re-integrating itself into the society and politics of the country.  He held that the progress made in the negotiations can be explained by a number of factors: the decision of President Santos to create an international framework conducive to peace in relations with Ecuador, Venezuela and other countries of the area; the passing of laws that recognise the victims of the conflict and grant them reparation and the restitution of their lands, not leaving the discussion and implementation of these matters until after the conflict; and the military-strategic superiority of the State vis à vis the subversive groups. To these should be added: the fact that the peace process has victims at the centre of its concerns; there is a commitment to seek endorsement by the citizens of the country; and there are public opponents, among others a sector of the opposition to the government. All of these aspects represent something new when compared with previous frustrating experiences. Between January 1st 2012 and now, the Minister of the Interior informed, more than half a million victims of agents of the State, the FARC and the ELN and paramilitary groups have received compensation. It is this backdrop that allows the rights of the victims to be at the centre of the discussions between the government and the FARC. In his opinion, this novel focus is what explains the progress in the peace process. What is currently under discussion in Havana is the fourth of five points on the agenda, and has to do with the rights of victims: for many it is certainly the most complex of all the issues being addressed, and will require Truth Commissions to be set up and questions of transitional justice to be confronted. On the question of economic compensation and land restitution: during the long period of confrontation, around two million hectares were taken and another four million were abandoned. At present it has already been possible to hand back one hundred thousand hectares and this is expected to rise to a million in 2016.

Minister Cristo ended his contribution by emphasising that today Colombia is breathing the air of democracy and its society is increasingly more civilised and respectful of human rights, which allows the future after the conclusion of the agreements with the FARC to be faced with confidence. However, he reminded the Committee that these agreements represent a beginning to the construction of peace in the country, not an end. Meetings like this one and the repeated commitment of the SI to Colombia after the conflict are important for all Colombians and particularly for the seven million victims of the fifty years of conflict and their relatives, he said.

For the second item on the agenda, concerning the forthcoming electoral processes in the countries of the region, the Committee received a report sent by the Assistant National Secretary of its member party in Guatemala, Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity of Hope, UNE), Haroldo Rodas. The document gave an analysis of the current crisis in the country, its possible effects on the next general elections fixed for September 6th, and the chances of their candidate Sandra Torres, a Vice-President of the SI, going through to the second round. The representatives of the member parties from Argentina Gabriela Troiano (PS) and Jesús Rodríguez (UCR) gave a report to the Committee on the results of the primary elections (or paso the Spanish acronym derived from ‘open, simultaneous and compulsory primaries’) that took place in the country on August 9th  2015, and gave their predictions as to what might lie in store in the elections in October for candidates for the presidential and parliamentary elections and the other posts allocated by popular vote. Jorge del Castillo, the delegate from the Peruvian party APRA, reminded the Committee that although the general elections in Peru will take place next year on April 10th and therefore seem some way off, the campaigns are already underway, with the polls indicating that the candidates for the Fuerza Popular (Popular Power) party, Keiko Fujimori, and the movement Peruanos por el Kambio (Peruvians for Change, PPK) Pedro Pablo Kuczynski are currently frontrunners. However the electoral scene eight months from the elections is completely open and APRA is in a process of refining its participation in them.

Lastly, delegates from the member parties in Venezuela Henry Ramos (AD), Manuel Rosales (UNT), Carlos Vecchio (VP) and Jorge Mirabal (MAS) informed the Committee that the social, economic and political crisis in Venezuela was rapidly getting worse. In the face of predictably adverse consequences for the governing party in the forthcoming parliamentary elections set for December 6th, the government of President Maduro has intensified the restrictions on freedom of expression and the communication media, disqualified more political candidates on administrative and judicial grounds, and continued to impose restrictions on the human rights of Venezuelans.  The Committee was brought up to date on the situation of Leopoldo López the leader of Voluntad Popular by one of his lawyers Roberto Marrero (VP, Venezuela), confirming that López remains under arbitrary arrest, with his human rights violated. In the judgment of the Venezuelan delegates, the crisis on the Colombia-Venezuela border could turn out to be a strategy by the ruling party to obstruct the elections. The Venezuelan delegates insisted on the absolute necessity of fair elections taking place on December 6th and repeated their call for the SI to be present in the country alongside Venezuelan democrats during the process.

In relation to the various national situations, the Committee was also able to hear the reports of the member parties in Argentina (Jesús Rodríguez and Gabriela Troiano, UCR and PS respectively), Brazil (Marcio Bins, PDT, vice-chair of the Committee), Chile (Patricio Tombolini and Pedro Neira, PRSD), Mexico (Elsa Espinosa, vice-chair of the Committee, PRI), Nicaragua (Francisco Rosales, FSLN), Panama (Humberto López Tirone, PRD), Peru (Jorge del Castillo, APRA), Puerto Rico (Rubén Berríos, PIP, Honorary President of the SI), Uruguay (Rafael Michelini, NE, Vice-President of the SI) and Venezuela (Timoteo Zambrano, UNT).

Advancing with the agenda of the meeting, the Committee unanimously adopted a resolution of support for peace in Colombia, by which it was agreed that a Commission of the Socialist International would be set up to help further the peace process in Colombia. Similarly, a resolution was agreed on the situation in Venezuela and the crisis on the border between that country and Colombia.

In closing the meeting, the Secretary General of the International, Luis Ayala, again thanked Horacio Serpa and the PLC for their hospitality and applauded the high level of discussions and the agreements reached at the meeting.  He recalled the presence at the Council in Geneva last December of Marina Adamovich, the wife of the Byelorussian leader Mikalai Statkevich, recently freed after four years of unjust political imprisonment; he expressed his hope that Lilian Tintori, who had also spoken at Geneva, might soon be reunited with her husband, Leopoldo López, in freedom. As long as human rights and democracy are not fully respected in Venezuela, Luis Ayala reiterated, the SI will remain committed and will be alongside its member parties in the elections on December 6th.

Lastly, given some of the topics addressed during these debates, and reflecting our commitment to the integrity and to the improvement of the quality of our democracies, he proposed that the agenda of the next meeting could include the issues of public financing of political parties and the transparency of electoral campaigns, along with a discussion and analysis of electoral processes and systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. This was agreed.

 

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