The Colombian Peace Referendum

In the summer, a certain referendum was the talk of the world; media outlets worldwide extensively covered the United Kingdom’s (UK) historic vote on whether to leave the European Union. But another significant referendum took place on October 2, and barring Latin American media outlets, it had not received a shred of comparable coverage. Colombians voted on whether they want to ratify a peace agreement the government had made with FARC (Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia) guerrillas, a far-left wing insurgency group. Like ‘Brexit’, the result was equally shocking: 50.24 per cent of voters rejected the deal, while 49.8 per cent supported it. A difference of 63,000 votes might have prevented the conclusion of Latin America’s last serious insurgency.

But first, it is important to consider the context of this referendum.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) were formed in 1964 as the armed wing of the Communist Party. In Colombia, much of the land is owned by a small elite, a result of the government’s sale of land to private owners to pay off debt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The result was high rural poverty and income inequality, which culminated in FARC taking up arms.

At its peak in 2002, the group controlled roughly one-third of Colombian territory. At least 260,000 people were killed as a result of the conflict between the rebels and the government, and more than 5 million were displaced. In 2012, after an aggressive effort by the government to defeat the rebels (aided by millions of American dollars) resulted in the deaths of many important FARC leaders, negotiations between the government and FARC began. This year, an agreement was tentatively agreed upon in June, was signed on September 26, and awaited its biggest test: a vote by the Colombian people.

Image courtesy of medea_material, © 2008, some rights reserved.

The referendum, much like the UK’s vote, was an all-or-nothing choice: The Colombian people could have ratified the agreement, or rejected it completely. The President, Juan Manuel Santos, who is suffering from very low approval ratings, led the Yes campaign. A peace deal, affirmed by the public, might have brought up his lagging numbers. Current Senator and former President Alvaro Uribe, who as President failed to negotiate a peace with FARC, led the No Campaign. His new political party, the Democratic Centre, was formed in 2014 in opposition to President Santos’ peace initiative.

Ratifying a pact concluding a 52-year war that took hundreds of thousands of lives seemed like a foregone conclusion. But the No campaign raised legitimate concerns about the pact’s terms. The first was legal immunity for rank-and-file soldiers of FARC, responsible for crimes such as murder, kidnapping, and rape committed against innocent civilians. The leaders of FARC were to be tried in a tribunal; the details of which were never clearly defined. They could have received reduced sentences for early confessions, even amnesty. The system proposed by the agreement was an alternative to the justice system; the kind of truth and reconciliation commission that emerged around former authoritarian states during the 1990s. It was also unclear how justice will be served to government soldiers who committed crimes on their own people. As a result of this controversy, two former Colombian Presidents had criticised the deal proposed by the Yes campaign. The aforementioned Alvaro Uribe had said that the deal would promote ‘impunity’ and doubted that the rebels would face charges for trafficking cocaine, their main source of funding. Andres Pastrana, who failed to reach a deal when in power, called the agreement, ‘a coup d’état against justice.’ A particularly troubling provision for many was one guaranteeing FARC 10 seats in the Colombian Congress (5 in each chamber) for two full terms after the 2018 elections. Until 2018, they were to have 10 non-voting seats.

The economic relief promised to the rebels by the Yes campaign was also a tough pill to swallow for the Colombian people. The government was to provide the rebels with a monthly stipend for two years nearly equal to Colombia’s minimum wage in order to bring peace to this conflict. Individual rebels were to be eligible for a cash payment of $2,500 for the purpose of starting a business. The irony was inescapable: communist guerrillas negotiating to secure funding for entrepreneurship.

The government’s concessions in the legal, political, and economic systems of the country caused many to disagree with such a peace agreement.

But criticism of ‘too many’ concessions is the archetypal reproach towards any peace agreement. The agreement’s focus was not just to end a war but to forge a united future for the country. Due to the fact that the rebels are Colombian citizens, making them comfortable within the legal system was of vital importance. Colombia was no stranger to conflict from non-state actors: communist guerrillas, far-right paramilitary, and drug traffickers have impacted generations of Colombians.

Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia, had said ‘FARC has arguably given up more in the negotiations, since it scratched much of its wish list items, including land reform, full amnesty, and an end to forcible coca eradication.’ The government might have scored its biggest goal: peace for Colombia. Even though the rebels might have had 10 seats, they still had little political leverage. By securing seats in Congress, former rebels were joining the legal process. They were conceding their movement to take up arms did not result in political change. That was the ultimate victory for the Colombian government: the rebels were to now fight on the ballot, not deep inside the forests.

Major stakeholders seemed to be all in on the agreement. Indeed, FARC voted unanimously to approve the agreement. President Santos had deployed his cabinet on a campaign across the country to convince the people to vote Yes in this referendum, supported by the left-wing opposition. The results seemed visible: polls conducted in September showed a 67.6 per cent to 32.4 per cent and 54 per cent to 34 per cent advantage for Yes. The international community was already celebrating the agreement. At the agreement’s signing ceremony on 26 September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Cuban President Raul Castro were among those who attended. Norwegian diplomats helped facilitate the negotiations, from the beginning of secret talks six years ago until the agreement’s conclusion. If the referendum went through, the UN was to help enforce that FARC followed up on the agreement and disarmed. The signing of the agreement however, needed to be ratified by Colombian voters.

On the international day of non-violence, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, Colombian voters rejected a peace deal that was to end more than 50 years of conflict. At 37.4 per cent, voter turnout was abysmal for such an important referendum. Clouds of uncertainty now loom over Colombia. President Santos, who suffered another political setback, had made it clear that there was no Plan B to end the war if the deal was rejected.

The deal had stipulated that the rebels were to move to ‘concentration zones’ across the country and begin handing over their weapons to UN officials over the next six months. Uncertainty shrouds the future of the rebels as well. They are certainly not demobilising at the moment.

Former President Uribe, leader of the No campaign, had said the government should go back to the negotiating table in case the referendum rejects the deal. That is what both FARC and the government intend to do. President Santos, who spent significant political capital to negotiate the deal, vowed to fight for a peace deal for the remainder of his term. Fortunately, it means clashes between the two sides will not resume for now. The coming months will tell us what lies next for Colombia. One only hopes that peace will be the final outcome.

Leave a Reply