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A lost opportunity

unexpected result: “Gloom prevails across Colombia.” People react on hearing the result of the referendum, in Cali, Colombia.

unexpected result: “Gloom prevails across Colombia.” People react on hearing the result of the referendum, in Cali, Colombia.  

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No one wants war anymore, but the referendum rejecting the landmark agreement between the government and the FARC could push Colombia towards a fractious peace

Years of negotiation in Havana, Cuba, brought the government of Colombia to a peace deal with the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). A 52-year civil war tore through this northernmost country of South America, taking at least a quarter of a million lives and displacing over six million people. No one was immune from the violence. Families had someone who had either been killed in the fighting or who wore the colours of the army, the FARC, or the right-wing paramilitaries. “In this house everything is ruin,” wrote the poet María Mercedes Carranza. “In this house we are burned alive.”

On September 26, the government and the FARC rebels signed an agreement based on the negotiations in Havana to end the war. The landmark accord would bring the FARC fighters out of the forest and into the political process. Crimes committed during the war — by all sides — would be forgiven in the name of peace. The government promised to set aside three million hectares to distribute to landless peasants and small landholders. The FARC would receive funds to help it become a political party, and the government promised to reserve seats in the Congress for it.

To ratify this agreement, the government agreed to hold a referendum on October 2. Few expected the turnout to be as low as it was — under 40 per cent, fewer than the percentage that came to the polls in 2014 to elect Colombia’s current President, Juan Manuel Santos — and for the vote to go against the peace agreement. The outcome was very close: 50.23 per cent voted no, and 49.76 per cent voted yes.

Split wide open

Polls showed that the ‘yes’ vote would win easily. The government, the FARC, the Catholic church and most civil society organisations backed the ‘yes’ vote. President Santos said he had bargained for the best deal possible.

The President had been the Defence Minister under the previous President, Álvaro Uribe, and had helped prosecute the war against the FARC and other guerrilla groups. Both Mr. Santos and Mr. Uribe knew about the crimes committed by their military. In 2008, Mr. Uribe dismissed 25 military officers, including three generals, for the assassination of young people who had been recruited in Bogotá’s slums. These officers had been trained at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, and the troops had been armed under the U.S. programme called Plan Colombia. Hundreds of extrajudicial killings had been admitted by Mr. Santos when he was Defence Minister. Reports emerged that the government had dispossessed, often at the barrel of a gun, mainly Afro-Colombians from the interior in order to facilitate the palm oil sector. This ‘ethnic cleansing’ had become normal from the government’s side.

In the lead-up to the referendum, the FARC leadership travelled across the country to apologise for crimes that their fighters had committed, massacres that they agreed had been unnecessary on political and military grounds. For instance, the FARC commander Ivan Marquez pointed to the 2002 Bojaya massacre of 119 civilians (48 of them children) and offered “an infinite apology”. This was one of many such incidents.

Mr. Uribe, now a Senator, campaigned viciously against the deal. He argued against allowing the FARC impunity for such massacres and mused about dealing a death blow by military means against the guerrilla group. His party and his allies suggested that the peace deal would deliver Colombia to the communists and to those who supported a progressive social agenda, including gay rights.

In Mr. Uribe’s hometown of Medellin, the leader of the ‘no’ campaign was Jhon Jairo Velásquez, the hit man of the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. These were the kinds of people who canvassed against the deal. It was a dirty campaign, vilifying President Santos for his ‘betrayal’ and calling the FARC “narco-terrorists” who needed to be eliminated. Anger that the deal had been negotiated seemingly without democratic oversight was fodder for some who instinctively would have recoiled against bringing the FARC above ground. Human Rights Watch’s Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco suggested that the deal should be disregarded because it gave immunity to the FARC rebels. This was context that moved the slim majority to vote against the accord.

Colombian activists who supported the deal say that the turnout was low for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most significant reason is the lack of enthusiasm about the peace agreement in the first place. Hurricane Matthew’s rush to the Colombian coastline certainly played a role in dampening turnout on the coast, where the ‘yes’ vote would have been strengthened. Places which had experienced the worst of the war — in the interior of the country — voted heavily for the agreement, while Medellin voted ‘no’. The town of Bojaya voted overwhelmingly (95.76 per cent) for the agreement. They knew what the vote would mean.

Peace or war?

When the referendum’s result broke, Mr. Uribe took to the airwaves with a more conciliatory tone. He knew that he had found a seat at the table. No longer was his tone towards the FARC harsh. “We ask that there is no violence,” said the Senator, “that the FARC are protected and that they cease all crime, including drug trafficking and extortion.” It was important for Mr. Uribe to make the point that the vote was not against peace or for war, but that it was for a different kind of peace. He appears statesmanlike, even though his agenda is narrow.

Both President Santos and the FARC signalled quickly that the vote would not lead them back to war. The FARC’s leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, aka Timochenko, said that “peace would triumph”. He pledged that the FARC would “maintain its desire for peace” and would use “words as arms to build the future”. Mr. Santos called for an all-party discussion towards restarting the negotiation.

Mr. Uribe will play an oversize role in the new deliberations. He will seek to get more concessions from the FARC. Fighters of the FARC have been eager for the peace process to come into play. They are exhausted by the fighting and had wanted to return home. The morale of the FARC is low, but that does not mean that it would be willing to concede on questions of prosecution for its leadership and fighters.

Gloom prevails across the country. If the vote had gone the other way, Colombia might have shown the world that even intractable civil wars can come to an end. It would have been a message to Syria and to the Congo, a message of the power of negotiation towards a new civic compact. But this did not come to pass. Even as President Santos and the FARC leadership try to maintain their optimism of a deal, the return of Mr. Uribe suggests that Colombia might turn its back on a real peace.

Vijay Prashad teaches International Studies at Trinity College. He is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books.

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