On October 2, 2016, Colombia held a vote to determine whether or not President Juan Manuel Santos’ peace agreement with Marxist rebel group, FARC, would become official. Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year, in part due to this peace treaty, which was the result of four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba. Although most polls predicted that the people would vote in favor of the agreement, the results were divided and ended up being really close — 50.2 percent to 49.9 percent. Therefore, the treaty was not validated.
So after four years of official negotiations and nearly 60 years of violence, why did Colombia vote against this peace treaty?
Depending on who you ask, there are several reasons that the peace deal was voted down. In general, Colombians want peace, but not enough voters were convinced that this agreement was the correct path to that peace. The main objection was that the treaty was too lenient on FARC, it wasn’t going to deliver enough justice.
The deal would have required FARC to be disarmed by the United Nations, and it would allow for FARC members to avoid jail time if they confess to their crimes. Instead of serving time, the confessors would be required to perform “acts of reparation” — like clearing land mines and helping victims. In order to reintegrate themselves into Colombian society, these members would need to receive financial assistance from the Colombian government.
Most of the public who objected the treaty, still wanted peace, they just didn’t want FARC to get off so easily. Since 1964, FARC has fought a rebellion against the Colombian government. They’ve attacked police stations, hijacked airplanes, assassinated public figures, and benefitted from the drug trade. Today, FARC is well known for using kidnapping and ransom to attract attention and drum up funding.
Many of the Colombian voters, and their children, have been victims of FARC violence. Loved ones have been disfigured by land mines, kidnapped and held for ransom, children have been recruited to be soldiers, and sexual violence has been common.
Not only would FARC have avoided punishment, they would have been awarded representation in the current Colombian government.
Under the treaty, FARC would become a legally-recognized political party within Colombia, guarenteeing FARC members 10 seats in congress for the next two elections. If this had become the case, many Colombians feared a radical movement like those in Venezuela and Cuba.
But the Colombian government had also agreed to help improve the country’s rural areas with the treaty, placing a special interest on helping out farmers — which was also one of FARC’s main goals.
More than 63 percent of Colombians didn’t vote, partly because they hadn’t been educated about exactly what they were voting on.
Although nearly 13 million people voted, more than 63 percent of Colombia didn’t — partly due to a failure on the government’s part. There’s been a lot of confusion reported after the vote, over whether or not citizens had been coerced into voting a certain way, or whether the voter’s education or direct experiences with FARC played a major role in their decision. Voters have reported being confused over whether a ‘no’ vote was against the treay, or against peace itself.
What’s Next for Peace in Colombia?
After the Colombian population has voted against, the peace agreement can’t be used as is, and President Santos doesn’t seem to have a Plan B — although he has said that he will send representatives back to Cuba to meet with FARC learders and decide together on how to proceed. The good news is, after 30 years and multiple negotiations, neither school of thought is willing to give up on the idea of peace.
Moments after the approval, former President Alvaro Uribe and his party, the Democratic Center, condemned it as a “coup d’état against Colombian democracy” that would hand the country over to the FARC rebels.
The Democratic Center senator Alvaro Hernan Prada went as far as accusing Santos of being a member of the FARC, while admitting “it was very well camouflaged.”
However, as Santos paints it, the FARC have agreed to submit themselves to the constitution and its laws, but they needed the extra security of knowing that they would be protected from any U-turns by subsequent governments.
Santos is referring to the agreements made between Uribe’s government and the AUC prior to their demobilisation that were subsequently struck down by the Constitutional Court as being unconstitutional.
“What will happen is nothing other than the participation of all aspects and controls of our democracy. It will be the people, the Congress and the Constitutional Court who give it validity, substance and sustainability… That is why it is absurd to talk of a coup d’état, or how we are delivering the country to FARC when it is the opposite: FARC are submitting to our Constitution and our laws.”
Apart from the Democratic Center, Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez has also come out with a more considered argument against the legislative act.
According to the inspector general, the law in effect grants “the negotiation table in Havana unlimited power to change the constitution.”
“Timochenko and President Santos will be able to redact the constitution as they wish, by including the Final Accord – which in the strict sense still doesn’t exist – in the constitutional block.”
Ordoñez also noted that Santos’ argument for the legitimacy of this act rests on his assertion that the public will have the final say on the agreements of the peace treaty.
The inspector general argued that this is disingenuous, saying that once the treaty is signed and comes before the United Nations and the Swiss state the result of the plebiscite will have no effect.
“It is a shameless lie to say that the people will have the final word.”
Nonetheless, the act was passed on Wednesday with 91 votes for and 17 against.
After three and a half years of negotiations, the Santos administration and the FARC leadership are as close as they have ever been to ending a conflict that has lasted more than half a century, cost more than 260,000 lives and displaced more than 13% of Colombia’s total population.
The rejection of the FARC peace treaty does not mean there is no chance of peace. The country does not need international outrage to salvage the peace process, now more than ever, it needs help, says DW's Uta Thofern.
The majority of Colombians did not vote against peace, but instead, against the peace treaty. No one in Colombia wants to continue the war. That's the good news.
The bad news is that a large majority did not even vote, following an international trend that was last seen on this scale recently in the Brexit referendum. For this reason alone the international uproar over the "no" to the peace treaty is presumptuous. A more precise analysis of the referendum reveals many similarities to political developments in other countries – but also new opportunities.
A glance at the regional distribution of the results shows that advocates of the peace treaty won by a slight margin in Bogota but that in all other major cities, like Medellin, the opponents prevailed. Actually, it is where the decades of civil war were least perceptible. The peace treaty met with the greatest approval in the sparsely populated rural and remote regions of the country. It is a sign that the victims of the conflict were willing to forfeit justice for the sake of their safety, unlike the middle class citizens who, because of their sense of justice, could not accept the lenient transitional laws for the guerrillas.
Not a victory for populism
There was also a great show of support for the peace treaty in the Atlantic coast region where President Manuel Santos traditionally enjoys broad support and where voter turnout was extremely low apparently due to Hurricane Matthew. However, the city of Cucuta, located directly on the border with Venezuela, overwhelmingly voted "no." Ex-president Alvaro Uribe's excessive warnings of a communist takeover that would ensue from the peace treaty were taken very seriously in light of the depressing reality in Venezuela.
It would be too simple to conclude that populism has won in this referendum.
On one hand, the "si" camp did not refrain from making populist comments and calling opponents of the proposed deal war profiteers without having acknowledged their arguments. On the other hand, the low turnout helped the "no" camp win, contrary to all poll predictions - and the hurricane was not raging throughout the entire country.
Abstentionism means indifference and resignation and also a loss of faith in the political system. Angry people go out to vote as soon as they are offered a new alternative. It is sadly a familiar phenomenon in Europe and the USA.
Distrust towards the political elite
In Colombia, the irreconcilable political positions are reflected in the bad blood between the former friends Santos and Uribe. Both of them evoked the impression that ultimately, each of them wanted to reap the laurels of peace for himself. This suspicion stoked the already widespread distrust towards the political elite.
Furthermore, almost unanimous support for the peace agreement was expressed in national and international media. Many Colombians felt that it was no longer possible to have an unbiased discussion about their concerns. President Santos and supporters of the deal could have done more to convince their opponents. Thus, the cunning ex-president managed to benefit from his rival's certainty of triumph over the Uribists and also the president's inability to enter into dialogue.
"No hay mal que por bien no venga," is the Spanish expression for "every cloud has a silver lining." Try to look on the bright side. The unexpected defeat has compelled President Santos to open a dialogue with his opponents and Uribe seems more than pleased to oblige. Of course, he has ulterior motives, but it is a promising start – especially since the guerrillas announced that they will continue to observe the ceasefire. The civil war cannot come to an end without overcoming the divide within the country. Renegotiating peace will be tough and above all, lengthy. Despite the disappointment about the referendum's outcome, the international community must support Colombia on its arduous journey because there is still hope for peace.
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'No' side takes shock victory with just 50.24% of the vote
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The Colombian public has voted by a narrow margin to reject the government’s peace deal with Farc, near-complete results show, delaying an official end to the war with the Marxist guerilla group that has spanned the last six decades.
The referendum vote came less than a week after Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, signed a much-vaunted peace agreement with the Farc leader known as Timochenko, apparently resolving at last a conflict in which more than 200,000 people have been killed since 1964.
The signing ceremony, the culmination of four years of negotiations in Havana, was attended by world leaders including US Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Raul Castro, the President of Cuba.
The European Union announced it would remove Farc – whose full name is The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – from its blacklist of global terror groups. “We must end a 52-year war and open the way to peace,” Mr Santos said as he cast his vote. “Peace is the way to ensure our children and grandchildren have a better country.”
Polls had previously suggested the peace deal would pass easily, but with more than 99 per cent of the vote counted, the public appeared to have decided against an end to the western hemisphere’s longest-running war by the slimmest of margins. Just 50.24% voted against and 49.75 per cent voted for the peace, according to near-complete results.
The accord would have seen some 7,000 Farc fighters giving up their weapons and re-integrating into Colombian civil society, along with 17,000 non-combatants also affiliated with the group, which was set to form a legitimate political party.
Yet many Colombians expressed discontent with the peace, given the human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides during the conflict: the guerrillas sexually enslaved women and kidnapped civilians for ransom, right-wing paramilitaries affiliated with the army were responsible for multiple extrajudicial killings.
For more than 50 years, the Colombian government has been locked in a bloody war with the country's far-left guerrilla insurgents. The asymmetric conflict has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and has displaced millions. This August, the decades-long conflict looked like it might finally end when the Colombian government announced it had brokered a peace agreement with the guerrillas, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But in a surprise outcome, when the agreement was put to a vote this week in a national referendum, the Colombian people narrowly turned down the peace deal. In the wake of the rejection, the country’s president has now been awarded one of the political world’s highest honors.
This morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that out of a list of nearly 400 world leaders and organizations in the running for the prestigious award, the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize would go to Juan Manuel Santos, the current president of Colombia. Beating out runners-up like whistleblower Edward Snowden and the officials who helped negotiate the United States’ nuclear deal with Iran, Santos’ win was awarded for his years of efforts at negotiating a peace agreement with the guerillas.
The FARC has plagued the South American country for decades. Formed by members of the Colombian Communist Party in 1964 in an attempt to spark a revolution as a self-professed peasant army, the guerrillas have long relied on military tactics and terrorist actions in their fight against the government, often turning to drug trafficking, extortion and kidnappings to fund their activities, William Brangham reports for the PBS Newshour.
The government forces haven’t exactly been angels during the 52-year-long conflict, and Santos hasn’t always been a peacemaker. Before becoming president, he was appointed defense minister—a powerful position overseeing one of the world’s longest civil wars. During that time, Santos gave the go-ahead for the army to bomb FARC camps in Ecuador without warning the neighboring country, while evidence came to light that some soldiers had been killing civilians and passing them off as rebels to try and appear more effective in the fight, the BBC reports.
Though he came to power as a hawk, Santos’ presidential career has been defined by his attempts to forge a lasting peace with the FARC rebels. Not only did he prosecute several high-ranking government officials for their roles in the “False Positives” scandal, but he started making overtures to the rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, also known as “Timochenko,” Michael Birnbaum and Nick Miroff report for The Washington Post. For several years, the two men met in secret peace talks in Havana, with negotiations resulting in a cease fire last June and a peace deal put on the table.
The award’s timing can’t be overlooked. While the fact that FARC and Santos’ government have been talking is a major step forward in itself, the situation is particularly fragile. While the cease-fire is still in place, the momentum toward peace could quickly collapse. However, the Nobel Committee says it chose to award Santos the Peace Prize to show the Colombian people that hope for peace isn’t gone for good.
“It is the Norwegian Nobel Committee's firm belief that President Santos, despite the ‘No’ majority vote in the referendum, has brought the bloody conflict significantly closer to a peaceful solution, and that much of the groundwork has been laid for both the verifiable disarmament of the FARC guerrillas and a historic process of national fraternity and reconciliation,” the organization wrote in a statement.
With the cease-fire due to expire at the end of October, Colombia’s future is far from stable. Santos has pledged to continue working toward a peace agreement throughout the remainder of his term, and this award is an additional show of support as the country strives for peace.
Editor's note, October 10, 2016: This piece originally identified Colombia as part of Central America not South America. We regret the error.
Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.