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Colombia hopes for peace, reforms under new president

August 23, 2022

Gustavo Petro's new government has big plans; peace is said to be the key to reforms. On a visit to Bogota, Germany's Development Minister Svenja Schulze promised to support the peace process.

Lawyer Yaneth Bautista, German Development Minister Svenja Schulze, peace activist Luango Rodriguez, and German Ambassador-designate Marian Schuegraf (left to right) hold images of war victims at an exhibition in Bogota
Svenja Schulze (second from the left) met with women activists in BogotaImage: Leon Kuegeler

Eulalia Luango is one of the many victims of Colombia's brutal civil war: She can't stop her tears when she talks about her two missing sons. Wilmer was 14 at the time, and Robinson was a year older. "Since 2009 I have been on a path of suffering because I didn't know why and how they took them," says Luango. "A mother's deepest wish is to hold the remains of her children in her hands and to give them a dignified burial." Visibly moved, Germany's Development Minister Svenja Schulze asks Luango how she finds the strength to get through it all and keep fighting.

Bogota is the development chief's first stop on her trip to Latin America. She takes a lot of time to speak with and listen to the victims, in order to understand where Colombia is in the peace process.

A bloody civil war lasting more than half a century lies behind Colombia. The crimes committed are nearly unimaginable: over 450,000 dead, another 121,000 disappeared, almost eight million displaced, and thousands more child soldiers were forcibly recruited.

Can reconciliation succeed?

"The most important thing for Colombia now is reconciliation," Francisco de Roux tells Svenja Schulze. The 79-year-old Jesuit priest is a figurehead for peace. Many people in Colombia see him as a saint, because of the attention he has paid to the war's victims. As President of the Truth Commission, de Roux processed the facts of the armed conflict and presented the horrific results to Colombians.

He rides up to his early-morning appointment with the German minister on a small bike. For four long years, the Truth Commission has spoken to victims and perpetrators, conducting more than 30,000 interviews across the country.

Francisco de Roux (right) and another member of the Truth Commission at a press conference
De Roux and the Truth Commission presented their findings at a June press conference in BogotaImage: Sebastian Barros/NurPhoto/picture alliance

"Germany was one of the most important international supporters of the truth commission," says de Roux. "It stands for a system of trust, peace, and justice." Now he hopes that Germany will continue to support the reconciliation process. Even though Colombian society is divided, the vast majority of Colombians support peace, says the Jesuit: "Colombia is in a moment of hope."

Petro government has ambitious goals

That hope is also shared by Colombia's newly sworn-in president. Gustavo Petro is the first left-wing president of the traditionally conservative country. He has promised the Colombians peace and wants to implement the recommendations for structural reforms presented by Father de Roux's Truth Commission.

Colombia's first leftist president sworn in

Petro has promised reforms in almost every political area: land reform, tax reform, health care reform, ecological restructuring of the economy, and reform of the police and military. The president also wants to take up the fight against poverty in a country where 40% of the population lives below the poverty line and where incomes are extremely unequally distributed.

"This government came into office with a vision and raised great expectations. Noticeable improvements must now be made quickly," says Stefan Peters, director of Capaz, a German-Colombian peace institute based in Bogota. If the promised reforms stall, he says, there is a risk that there will be violent protests from the disappointed electorate.

Germany to continue support

"Development policy is an essential part of security policy," said Schulze after her talks. She underlined that development police must prioritize human security and peaceful society in the truest sense of the word, and said that the new Petro government marks a turning point in Colombian history.

And yet: the bloody conflict smolders on and on, despite the historic 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrillas. "Social activists, human rights activists, trade unionists, and journalists still live very dangerous lives. The drug economy is flourishing, entire regions are in the hands of armed actors and are out of state control," says Peters.

Eulalia Luango holds up images of missing Colombian children
Luango continues to lobby for those who went missing during Colombia's decades of conflict, including her own two sonsImage: Katharina Kroll/DW

The women who search for their missing relatives also report experiencing violence and attempts at intimidation when they fight for their rights and against being forgotten. "Don't forget us fighting women!" Eulalia Luango told the development minister. Svenja Schulze promises: "Germany will continue to support Colombia in the peace process. We will not leave you alone."

This article was originally written in German.

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