A Dark Day in Colombia

To the shock of Colombians and international observers, Colombia’s historic peace process has been stopped in its tracks after 50.2% of voters rejected a plebiscite Sunday.

Winifred Tate
10/04/2016

Alejandro Cortés / Flickr

Colombia’s peace process has been stopped in its tracks after the ‘No’ vote won a referendum by 53,000 votes, 50.2% of the more than 12,800,000 ballots cast. The agreement would have ended the longest running war in the hemisphere that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. The result has stunned Colombians on both sides as well as international observers, and left the outcomes of the signed agreements between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the air. While the talks could still be salvaged by a renegotiated agreement, a quick resolution is unlikely.

The Agreement and the Vote

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was elected on a platform of achieving peace between the FARC and the Colombian government in 2010, and has spent all of his political capital to shore up the talks. Over the past four years, government and FARC negotiators hammered out a 297-page agreement. Given deep concerns about impunity for both FARC members and Colombian military members who had committed atrocities during the conflict, the issue of transitional justice turned out to be of the most complex and challenging aspects of the accords, requiring 18 months of negotiations.

After confessing their crimes, FARC leaders would not have been required to serve prison terms but would face eight-year terms of “restricted liberty” in undefined conditions. And the FARC would be guaranteed five seats in the House of Representatives and five seats in the Senate for two election cycles beginning in 2018. Colombian military officers would be also subject to these lenient terms. Like the FARC, they would have to confess to their crimes and be subjects of investigation, but would serve no jail time.

According to Gimena Sánchez, the Senior Associate on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the agreement was the result of the persistent lobbying of victims’ groups. “The priority of victims’ organizations was to know the whole truth,” Sánchez said, “and they accepted that over jail time…the agreement was not an amnesty for war crimes, but [was a way] to incentivize the FARC to demobilize.”

This analysis echoes the demographics of the vote itself: the places with the highest rate of ongoing conflict, which might have seemed most likely to vote against a peace deal that offered such incentives over harsh justice, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the deal. The department of Putumayo, for example, voted 65% in favor. According to Fatima Muriel, president of the Women’s Association of Putumayo: Weavers of Life, which campaigned in favor of the ‘Yes’ vote, “It was the cities that defined [the vote].” “We continue being vulnerable, and this is the reality that must change,” Muriel wrote in an email to the author after the final results of the vote had been announced. “It represents a form of discrimination and impedes the outer regions from strengthening themselves on their own terms. In Putumayo [the vote] went well, and I know that it is due to the hard work of the women… in the plebiscite. What has occurred is a national tragedy. It is much worse than the people imagine."

Although the referendum was not required by the terms of the accord, Santos pledged to hold a vote to cement popular support for the agreement. Polling indicated that the measures would easily pass—as the New York Times wrote just days before the vote, ‘Yes’ was expected to “coast to victory by a wide double-digit margin.”

The agreement, signed on August 26, 2016, was announced in an emotional international ceremony in Cartagena on September 26, with the FARC ratifying the agreement with their base in the 10th Conference in Colombia’s southern plains. To some, these events made it seem that peace was a done deal, perhaps contributing to the high abstention rates on the day of the vote.

More than 62% of the population stayed home on Sunday, reflecting the highest level of abstention yet in a country with historically low voting patterns. Heavy rains along the coast from Hurricane Matthew likely depressed voter turnout in the northern and Caribbean regions of the country. Given higher than average support for the accord in those regions, better weather might even have reversed the outcome.

The opposition effectively transformed the vote into a referendum on Santos himself, who holds a very low approval rating of less than 15%. General discontent has been compounded by other crises beyond the controversial nature of the peace talks: a fall in international oil prices has resulted in low oil revenues and government austerity programs; a truckers’ strike led to a spike in food prices over the past few months, and increasing unemployment has meant that those isolated from the ongoing rural conflict have been less likely to see demobilization and reintegration programs as a positive step or priority for the country. City-dwellers and the business class—many of whom were influenced by Álvaro Uribe, the right-wing former president who preceded Santos and is a vocal opponent to the peace negotiations—largely determined the fate of the peace vote.

The ‘No’ Campaign

Indeed, much of the credit for the results of the campaign may be due to efforts by the Colombian right-wing and Uribe himself. In Colombia, the right-wing dominates social media. While the FARC’s social media campaigning is a generic mash, spouting ideals of national reconciliation, peace with social justice, and advanced democracy, Uribe, on the other hand, is a master of Twitter and of pithy sound bites. According to the former president, the peace deal was akin to Colombia “handing over the country” to “castrochavistas”—Marxists who support Fidel Castro and Chavismo. Reconciliation with the FARC, Uribe declared ad nauseum, would lead Colombia on a sure-fire path towards becoming the next Cuba or Venezuela. Inflated claims of FARC benefits and the impending dangers spread through social media without any means to counter them.

Despite having extradited paramilitary leaders to the U.S., many believe that in order to prevent them from revealing the complicity of civilian officials with their crimes, Uribe campaigned heavily against “peace with impunity,” arguing that FARC commanders should serve jail time. The ‘No’ campaign found an unexpected ally in Human Rights Watch, who labeled the agreement “an impunity piñata” and remained a fierce critic of the accord. (HRW Executive Director Ken Roth reaffirmed this position with a caustic tweet after the results were announced.)

The ‘No’ campaign was also able to mobilize homophobia and fear of expanded LGBT rights by linking their cause to a wide debate in August over new gender education materials for high schools produced by Colombia’s Ministry of Education. In April, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, and the highly publicized suicide of a gay high school student led to a court ruling outlawing discrimination against gay students. Openly lesbian Minister of Education Gina Parody’s effort to respond became a lightning rod for conservative backlash, led by the country’s inspector general Alejandro Ordoñez. Uribe frequently spoke of the need to defend the “traditional family,” and the pamphlets promoting the ‘No’ vote featured ominous language about “gender ideology.”  One such flyer posted on Facebook read: “Colombia is in danger! Of falling under the control of a communist dictatorship and the imminent passage of a gender ideology.” In short, a compromise between the Colombian government and the FARC would lead to the Marxist group’s imminent takeover and destruction of “family values” and public order.

The success of the ‘No’ vote reflects a widespread rejection of the guerrillas as legitimate actors, said Alex Fattal, the author of a forthcoming study of guerrilla demobilization and counterinsurgency media campaigns. “The ‘No’ vote appealed to an emotional hatred of the FARC, the notion that the FARC are responsible for all the country’s ills,” he said. “60-70 years of propaganda can’t be undone in a few weeks. The FARC has a YouTube channel, they can release a few videos, but that is inconsequential in the face of a whole cultural apparatus mobilized against them.” This includes U.S. advisors who were part of Plan Colombia, the $9 billion military aid program, and were instrumental in developing Colombian military propaganda campaigns. The U.S. diplomatic corps invented the phrase “narcoguerrilla,” widely used by Uribe and others to undermine the talks. It was not until quite recently that Washington came out in support of peace negotiations.

The Path Forward

The rejection of the peace accord stunned observers and Colombian officials, including apparently both Santos and Uribe, as evidenced by their lack of ready ‘Plan B’ options.

On Monday afternoon, FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (Timochenko) issued a public statement that “peace is here to stay.” He went on to say that the vote has only a political impact but that the accords remain in place. Both the FARC and the government have pledged to maintain the bilateral ceasefire, which has reduced the violence from the conflict to levels not seen since the 1960s.

However, FARC fighters have no legal guarantees; arrest warrants could be issued at any time, and they remain exposed to the possibility of retaliatory violence. As WOLA Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy, Adam Isacson, told me, “One serious issue is how the FARC leadership will maintain their command and control, as well as their lines of communication. There are now thousands of fighters sitting in encampments, wondering what is going to happen next.” The FARC was poised to move into the first phase of demobilization, by moving into a series of camps. But now more than 200 UN officials, mostly military personnel—ready in eight regions to verify disarmament and concentration—have been left without a mandate.

“Another option that could eventually come into play, if a political agreement proves impossible, is a national constitutional assembly, which has long been a dream of the FARC’s and also a proposal from Uribe, although for very different reasons,” former peace commissioner and National University professor Daniel Garcia Peña wrote in an email yesterday. “This option would be complicated because of the timing and how to resolve the issue of the FARC’s participation—in some ways, it could open a Pandora’s box," Garcia Peña said. “The government has to date been reluctant, but it could be a way out.” 

Santos has appointed a team to negotiate now with the spokespeople for the Centro Democrático, Uribe’s party, but Uribe’s own endgame remains unclear. Dr. Alex Fattal believes that Uribe could come back to the table to continue the negotiations. “This is his possibility of redemption. He can rewrite his legacy, now becoming the man who strong armed the FARC on the battlefield and can strong arm them at the negotiating table.”

Others are more circumspect about Uribe’s actual willingness to talk, arguing that the focus of the Centro Democrático is positioning themselves for the 2018 presidential race. Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince, on the other hand, argues that Uribe’s primary concern is continuing to block any truth-telling efforts that might emerge from an agreement.

In Putumayo, Fatima and other members of the Women’s Alliance in Putumayo promised they would continue to tirelessly work for peace, because of their personal experiences with FARC, paramilitary, and state violence. “The result demonstrates a difficult reality: our pain continues to be invisible to much of Colombian society. And this indifference grieves us. But no one is going to take away our capacity to dream and fight for a better Putumayo for future generations. Because of this, once more, we will repair what has been broken and we will continue to defend with dignity what we began to build: a tranquil night, a path without danger, children who do not face the risks of war, a safe return home.”


Winifred Tate is the author of Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia, Drugs Thugs and Diplomats: US Policymaking in Colombia, and Imagining Peace in Colombia.

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