Change from Below: Constituent Assemblies Offer Democratic Route to Peace in Colombia

At the end of May, negotiators from the Colombian government stood side by side with representatives of the FARC guerrillas to announce they had reached a historic agreement in the country’s peace process.

The statement marked the end of months of arduous and occasionally tense talks over agrarian reform – the first of five points on the agenda at the negotiating table in Havana. In the joint press release, both sides promised “radical transformations of Colombia’s rural and agrarian reality with equality and democracy.”

However, for many of those who have been at the heart of Colombia’s conflict and the country’s search for peace, if those lofty dreams are to become the reality both the peace process and the implementation of any final agreement need to move beyond the closed doors of Havana and into the cities, towns and villages of Colombia.

Former guerrilla fighter Alirio Arroyave is one of those people, and he believes the answer to how Colombia can turn the high-minded rhetoric of Havana into a Colombian reality lies with the unrealized promise of true democracy, a dream that persuaded him to lay down his arms twenty years ago.

Arroyave joined the insurgency after suffering persecution for his involvement in a rural land rights movement in the 1970s, eventually finding his way into the ranks of the National Liberation Army (ELN) – still today Colombia’s second biggest guerrilla group.

However, in the early 90s, he was inspired by the country’s new constitution, which was drafted as part of a peace process with the guerrillas of the 19th of April Movement (M-19) and Popular Liberation Army (EPL). He joined an ELN breakaway group and abandoned the armed struggle, confident that the rights he had fought for were being enshrined in a document that was internationally lauded as a paragon of progressive values and human rights.

Twenty years later, while Colombia’s constitution still receives international praise, the country’s conflict still rumbles on. For Arroyave, the reason for this contradiction lies with the unfulfilled promises of that constitution. “This constitution was the reason for saying, enough, there is new way, now we can start a social project within the framework of the new Colombian constitution,” he said, “but this constitution has stalled in the air.”

Arroyave’s answer to how to bring the constitution down to the ground and construct a genuine and lasting peace this time around is through ensuring the participation of civil society, both during the peace process and after. “If there isn’t a social movement that backs the peace process [the conflict] is going to go on and on,” he said.

To create a medium for civil society involvement in the Havana talks, Arroyave has been working to resurrect a process he began in the years after his demobilization – Constituent Assemblies.  A form of direct democracy, the assemblies allowed citizens to participate in decisions on issues such as social security, the environment, democracy and human rights and duties. “The Constituent Assemblies are an alternative construction of society because they are spaces of citizen participation that allow public consultation,” he said.

At its peak, there were about 300 municipal assemblies, the majority in the violence ridden department of Antioquia. However, the project faltered after an incoming governor withdrew support and funding because organizers incorrectly answered the question: are you with the participants or are you with the administration?

In reviving the process, Arroyave believes assemblies such as these can now act as a conduit for civil society involvement in the peace process. “If we manage to connect communities to this process, to say – this is ours, it is collective, it is communal – and this is the arena in which we build peace, this is the way to build true democracy, to build justice and peace, then all the arguments for war in Colombia would end,” he said.

So far, the renewed process has seen 125 new assemblies spring up around Antioquia. The new assemblies not only allow citizens a direct say on issues such as collective economic development, the municipal budget, and local democracy and autonomy, they also discuss how they would build peace in Colombia, and have already sent a series of  proposals drafted by participants to the negotiators in Havana.

However, Arroyave believes citizen participation is not just critical during negotiations but also after, when whatever agreement the guerrillas and the government strike must be implemented. He has little confidence in the Colombian government to act alone in this process. “I don’t believe [it will make social changes] because there is a great conflict of interests and we are talking about a government and a state that today represents the interests of the grand capitalists, the big multinationals – the state has not recognized that it is a public state.”

Instead, Arroyave believes, it is down to the country’s citizens to ensure that talk of development and equality goes beyond a document signed by the government and guerrilla leadership. “They make the agreements but it is us that have to make them a reality,” he said. For this to happen, he says, citizens need a mechanism to participate – not vicariously through Colombia’s notoriously corrupt political class, but directly. “I’m sure that the route to peace is through democracy,” he said.

In Havana, the FARC and the government have now begun negotiations on the second point on the agenda – political participation. The focus of talks will be on how the FARC can safely take part in politics after demobilization.

For Arroyave, though, the key to lasting peace will not be about the opportunities offered to the aspiring politicians among the guerrilla leadership, but instead about how the people the rebels claim to represent will be able to participate in the political process and national life.

“The transformations that have to be done have to come from below, I don’t believe in the possibility of change from above,” he said. “It is moving from a vertical state, as we have today, to a horizontal state and being able to build a national project where we are all recognized as social actors and as human beings.”

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See