March 14, 2017 at 10:23 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Colombia LGBT group opens four ‘Houses of Peace’

Casa de Paz, Caribe Afirmativo, Colombia, gay news, Washington Blade

Caribe Afirmativo’s “House of Peace” (“Casa de Paz” in Spanish) in Soledad, Colombia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SOLEDAD, Colombia — A Colombian LGBT advocacy group has opened four “Houses of Peace” (“Casas de Paz” in Spanish) in support of the implementation of a peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Caribe Afirmativo announced last September that it would open four “Houses of Peace” in Soledad, a city that is located adjacent to Barranquilla, Ciénega in Magdalena Department, Carmen de Bolívar in Bolívar Department and Maicao, a town in La Guajira Department that is less than 10 miles from the Venezuelan border.

The announcement took place less than three weeks before Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño signed a peace agreement in the city of Cartagena that specifically acknowledged LGBT Colombians as victims of the conflict and called for their participation in the country’s political process. Caribe Afirmativo Director Wilson Castañeda, who is one of three Colombian LGBT rights advocates who participated in the peace talks that took place in Havana, was among the more than 2,500 people who attended the ceremony.

Colombian voters on Oct. 2, 2016, narrowly rejected the agreement against the backdrop of anti-LGBT rhetoric from religious and conservative groups that opposed it. Santos and Londoño on Nov. 24, 2016, signed a second peace agreement — which also contains LGBT-specific references — in the Colombian capital of Bogotá.

Lawmakers late last year passed a controversial law that provides amnesty to FARC rebels who carried out minor crimes during the conflict.

The guerrillas have moved into resettlement areas the Colombian government created under the agreement, although the FARC has criticized them because of a lack of food and water and basic infrastructure. The guerrillas also began to disarm earlier this month under U.N. supervision.

The “Houses of Peace” opened in late November.

Each house has a regular schedule of events, workshops and meetings at which LGBT groups, trans women and local residents can discuss preventing violence, fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic and other issues.

Caribe Afirmativo Director Wilson Castañeda told the Washington Blade the project will last four years.

He said each of the four houses costs 7 million Colombian pesos ($2,333.73) a month in terms of rent, the salaries of those who manage them and event facilitators and basic materials. Castañeda told the Blade that Caribe Afirmativo uses some of this money to pay for transportation and food for visitors who are poor.

“It is LGBT people’s contribution to the construction of peace,” Saul Castellar of Caribe Afirmativo told the Blade on Monday during an interview at his office in the city of Barranquilla.

Ludwin Cabas, a business owner who manages the “House of Peace” in Soledad, agreed.

“The ‘House of Peace’ is a space to help to those people who, in one form or another, had problems during the armed conflict in Colombia,” he told the Blade on Tuesday during an interview in Soledad as Castellar listened.

“It is not only for the LGBT community, but also for the affected population,” added Cabas.

FARC, paramilitaries targeted LGBT Colombians

More than 200,000 people died in the war between the Colombian government and the FARC that began in 1962.

Members of the FARC, paramilitary groups and the Colombian army targeted, displaced or even killed people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Luis Bernardo Vélez, director of the city of Medellín’s Office of Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights, told the Blade last week during an interview at his office that LGBT and intersex people were among those who the FARC displaced from their homes. Mauricio Albarracín, a gay lawyer who also took part in the peace talks when he was the executive director of Colombia Diversa, another Colombian LGBT rights advocacy group, noted in an interview at his Bogotá apartment the FARC commander who controlled the town of Vista Hermosa in 1998 ordered gay men and hairdressers to undergo compulsory HIV tests.

Saul Castellar of Caribe Afirmativo, left, speaks with Ludwin Cabas, manager of a “House of Peace” (“Casa de Paz” in Spanish) in Soledad, Colombia, on March 13, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)​

Castellar told the Blade that Caribe Afirmativo chose to open its ‘Houses of Peace’ in Soledad, Ciénega, Maicao and Carmen de Bolívar because they are “historically areas with conflict” and high rates of anti-LGBT violence.

“There are some zones that have been highly affected by the conflict,” added his colleague, Enith Bula.

Bula further noted that paramilitary groups had a strong presence in northern Colombia during the conflict.

Many people — LGBT and intersex and other marginalized groups — who were displaced fled to Soledad. An increasing number of Venezuelans who have left their country because of its growing economic and political crisis have also resettled in the area.

The paramilitary groups formally disarmed in 2005. Bula said gangs in Barranquilla and other cities in northern Colombia that traffic drugs through Central America to the U.S. and Europe are now responsible for most of the violence.

“We are very conscious of the fact that all of the area’s inhabitants have been indirect victims of the conflict,” said Castellar.

A sign inside Caribe Afirmativo Director Wilson Castañeda’s office in Barranquilla, Colombia reads, “LGBTI people are builders of peace.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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