Colombians in New York Keep an Eye on Developments at Home

Supporters of the peace deal across the street from PS69 in Jackson Heights.

Supporters of the peace deal across the street from PS69 in Jackson Heights.

By Hillary Ojeda

Since Colombians voted against their government’s peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group last weekend, New York’s Colombians are coming to terms with a divided population that must move forward to renegotiate a new agreement.  

Victory was narrowly claimed by the opponents of the deal after they earned 50.2 percent of the votes, according to the National Register of Colombia. This came as a surprise to all Colombians as President Juan Manuel Santos had already publicly signed the agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia just days before. In the United States, 62.48 percent of Colombians voted against the deal and 37.51 percent voted in favor of it. In New York, Colombians voting against the agreement outnumbered those in support of it. Although they saw the deal on different terms, Colombians in New York are united in their cause to end the 52-year-old conflict.

“That the government and the guerrilla are working to improve the agreement, and that there exists the possibility that a sector of Colombians will now be heard by the government is a good thing,” Mercado, who voted no, said in Spanish. Although the agreement divided Colombians, they were determined to end the war, said Mercado, who left Cartagena, Colombia 18 years ago and now lives in Great Neck working as an administrative assistant.

Mercado said the peace deal failed to provide justice for the victims of the conflict because as a result of the government offering the rebel group 10 seats in Congress,  the guerrillas would not be punished for their crimes. “[The rebels] have not been sincere and they haven’t asked for a sincere apology for the victims,” he said, the day after the vote.

The conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the rebel group also known as FARC, is said to have displaced more than 6.8 million Colombians, according to the Human Rights Watch. While the violence caused more than 260,000 deaths, according to Amnesty International.

President Santos spoke after the results were announced and said that he would not give up in working with the rebels to reach a deal and establish peace for the country. He and supporters of the deal saw it as the best and only option to end the conflict, but they will now have to work on a better Plan B.

The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation in Bogota also supported the deal, David Hernández Torres, chief of communications, said via email. And to move forward the biggest struggles the country faces is the challenge to get over “egos in favor of peace construction,” he said. “The final deal was rejected, the challenge is restarting a new negotiation, not adding or eliminating one or two points.”

The divided view of over the peace deal played out in Jackson Heights on Sunday in front of a public school that served as one of the polling stations for Colombians to vote on whether they supported the agreement or not.  

Dressed in matching white t-shirts and holding signs reading, “vote yes, with peace in your heart,” in Spanish, a group of volunteers stood across the street from PS69 on 78th Street.

The volunteers showed the police a permit proving they were allowed to be there. Across the street from them, people from the “no” side gathered randomly.

Opponents of the peace deal shouting across the street from supporters of the agreement.

Opponents of the peace deal shouting across the street from supporters of the agreement.

The members from the opponent’s side were handed signs and they suddenly looked like a stronger force. The police escorted them to the other side of 37th Avenue in order to help clear the way for pedestrians and traffic. The opponents shouted at the supporters of the peace deal in Spanish: “assassins,” “violators,” and “delinquents.” While the supporters, set up with a microphone and speakers, shouted back, “Peace continues.”

For many Colombians, the vote not only represented a rejection of the peace deal that could have ended the conflict for good, but it demonstrated the enthusiastic participation of Colombians to have a say in the political sphere.

In Queens, 1,232 people voted in support of the agreement, while 1,602 voted against the agreement, according to figures confirmed by the Colombian Consulate. In total in New York, 2,649 voted for the agreement, while 2,759 voted against it–a close call.

“I’m sad because we lost, but I applaud democracy,” said Eduardo Giraldo, who voted yes and led the supporting campaign in Queens. “And that’s what Colombians voted for. In order to have peace we all have to be included.” Giraldo, an insurance broker, moved to Jackson Heights from Colombia 33 years ago and he’s lived and worked there ever since.

Giraldo is looking forward to a more inclusive agreement now that it has been made clear that many Colombians disagreed with the deal. However, as the country acknowledges major differences, the path to a new agreement will take sacrifices from both sides.

“We have become an egotistical society. If it’s not our way, then no way,” Giraldo said.

Editor’s note: This has been updated. At publication, the figures from the Columbian Consulate involving the vote in New York City had been provided to NYCity Lens second hand.  Since, the Columbian Consulate has confirmed the voting figures and the story now reflects that.