Colombia’s Referendum: Has the Best Chance for Peace Gone?

Colombians narrowly reject a peace deal with the FARC. A way forward is now hard to imagine.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia gives a speech in Soacha, September 30
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia gives a speech in Soacha, September 30 (SIG/Juan David Tena)

On Sunday, the people of Colombia unexpectedly rejected what had been dubbed an historic peace deal between their government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). 50.2 percent voted down the proposed accord in a referendum. The peace deal is off.

The 297-page agreement, signed last week after four years of negotiation, was meant to end a conflict that spans back to 1964 and has claimed an estimated 260,000 lives.

In speech after speech, President Juan Manuel Santos has extolled the peace accord’s historic nature. Confident of the referendum’s outcome, he staked his presidency on it. His future is now in doubt as well.

The rejected deal

Six issues had been successfully negotiated with the FARC:

  1. FARC disarmament and reintegration;
  2. Transitional justice that rewarded truth and allowed for reflection (those who were not forthcoming about their crimes would have been imprisoned for up to twenty years);
  3. Land reform that aimed to tackle the huge chasm between urban and rural Colombia, with investment and greater opportunities for the poorest;
  4. Joint action against drug trafficking with cocoa growers afforded the opportunity to grow alternative crops;
  5. Political participation for rebels, which would have included a guaranteed 3 percent of the seats in both houses of Congress regardless of the election results in 2018 and 2022; and
  6. The all-important manner of implementation.

It is now unclear if any of this will happen.

The arguments

As with Britain’s EU referendum in June, the correct outcome may have appeared obvious to many outsiders but this — as was the case in the United Kingdom — has been an emotionally charged, deeply polarizing and closely fought contest.

After publicly celebrating agreement at every stage of the process with different international leaders offering their financial and moral support, the “yes” vote had only recently taken a noticeable lead in fluctuating polls, having trailed for several months.

President Santos put forward a strong case for change: 52 years of war has achieved little and while the many that died are beyond rescue it was within his government’s and the FARC’s power to stop future suffering. Certainly in the last two years there had been a marked reduction in violence, now at its lowest since 1975, much to the appreciation of those living in conflict zones. The FARC had agreed to pay reparations to victims. Santos recognized that the accord was far from ideal, but maintained that the FARC exchanging bullets for ideas was progress and that sacrifices had to be made for the benefit of future generations.

Had the deal been approved and the FARC reintegrated into society, there would have been more hope of defeating the still-flourishing illicit drugs trade in Colombia, which is the largest single supplier of cocaine in the world. The focus could have been on a more liberal approach that goes beyond enforcement and criminalization.

Although the FARC agreed to the peace deal, other groups did not. Talks with Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the oil-financed National Liberation Army (ELN), have been postponed since March with no headway made on the issue of kidnapping. Elements too remain active of the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), supposedly disbanded in 2003 and adjudged to be responsible for up to 80 percent of civilian casualties. This type of environment is not conducive to the spreading of peace and only serves to increase the probability of relapse. In other Latin American countries, such as Guatemala and El Salvador, where civil wars have apparently been concluded violence still prevails. So there was no guarantee that the promised peace would be achieved.

The successful “no” camp was led by the popular former president and Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Having taken a hardline approach against the FARC as president, he was not against peace per se but against the terms of the deal. He treated the agreement on transitional justice with the rebels as “getting away with murder.” An either-or referendum, he argued, oversimplified the situation: the agreement, with its lack of penalties, set a precedent of impunity.

A majority of voting Colombians agreed.

Uribe’s supporters, largely from his native Antioquia region and consisting of security forces, conflict victims and those of an older generation who have seen unsuccessful negotiations before, retain a deep-seated distrust of the FARC and ventured that, in spite of the attorney general’s assertions to the contrary, illicit money would have been used to fund political campaigns. They also had doubts as to the rebels’ real motives and the lengths to which Santos would go to keep the peace.

What might have been

A “yes” vote would have triggered a six-month period during which the agreement would have been written into law, so as to make it more difficult for a next government to go back on its commitments.

The 7,000 FARC members would have been supervised by 450 demobilization and disarmament monitors and gather for that purpose over 180 days in 32 rural camps. This was meant to have stopped any FARC members from being recruited or attacked by the drug-financed remnant of the AUC, known as the Bacrim, or by the ELN.

Financial aid, at 90 percent of the minimum wage, would have been offered over two years with extra financial incentives for entrepreneurial activities. Reconstruction, de-mining and infrastructure projects would have been undertaken in areas affected by the conflict. The government’s plan was to create a more inclusive society, which would have allowed indigenous groups and minorities to play their part.

What’s next?

There has been no explicit discussion of a “Plan B”. Santos has said he will meet with all parties to discuss what happens next. His political career seems precarious at this point. His approval rating had already sunk to 21 percent in May.

Uribe has said that a better agreement must now be sought and he will be expected to put forward positive solutions.

FARC leaders have, like Santos, reiterated their commitment to peace and said the bilateral ceasefire signed in August will continue. Having apologized to their victims and recognized the state’s legitimacy for the first time, their cause could now be questioned and divisions may follow. A resumption of violence cannot be ruled out.

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