What Next After A 'No' Vote For Peace In Colombia?

What does this say about Colombian democracy?


As the results from Colombia’s “peace plebiscite” trickled in on October 2nd, it quickly became apparent the earlier optimistic predictions that the “Yes” vote would prevail were premature at best. Colombians were voting on the basic question: “Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?” Opinion polls leading up to the plebiscite showed wide support for an approval of the historic peace deal between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.

The enthusiasm was short-lived, however.

Earlier in the day I was in Jackson Heights, in the heart of Queens, as a couple hundred Colombian expats gathered to cast their vote in a local public school. On one side of the barricaded street, supporters of the “yes” vote chanted “Peace yes, War No,” while supporters of the “no” vote screamed “guerillas,” “ignorants,” “you’ve been bought by communism.” The divisions – and the level of discourse – could not have been more apparent.

Within a few hours of the closing of the polls, the disappointment began to set in within Colombia’s pro-peace circles. The “No” vote had eked out a narrow victory, with 50.2 percent of Colombians rejecting the peace deal and 49.8 percent voting in favor. Despite the high levels of abstention that is characteristic of Colombian elections – only about 37% of the electorate turned out for the plebiscite - the opponents of the peace accord proclaimed victory, stating that this was Colombian democracy at work, and that the will of the people had spoken.

But what does this say about Colombian democracy?

Along with the widespread lack of participation in what some observers called the most important election in Colombia’s history, the regional disparities in the vote demonstrate how divided Colombia continues to be, not only politically, but more importantly in terms of those who live the war daily, and those who have witnessed it from afar on the national news media from the comforts of their urban dwellings. In all the regions of the country where the armed conflict has been most acute in terms of political violence, forced displacement, and attacks on the civilian population, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the peace accord with FARC, what was seen as an important step in ending the 52-year armed conflict. On the contrary, with exception to Bogotá and Cali, the “no” vote ruled the day in most urban areas of the country, where the war has not been waged at such a brutal level.

Should this wide regional discrepancy have been anticipated?

The disappointing results for the supporters of the peace agreement also serve as a stark reminder that at the end of the day, fear and insecurity are much easier to sell than reconciliation and tolerance in a country grappling with a half century of collective national trauma. And in Colombia, the right has done a much more effective job of promoting that fear to the public, using every tool at its disposal.

As was the case with earlier peace agreements in Colombia with other armed insurgent groups like the M-19, under the terms of this latest accord, FARC, whose origins go back to a peasant revolt in 1964, would have been allowed to compete in the 2018 presidential and legislative elections. In an effort to allow FARC time to participate in the legal political process, they would be given 10 unelected congressional seats, guaranteed through the 2026 election cycle, at which time they would be expected to compete directly for those seats. These provisions, as well as those related to potential amnesty for those fighters who admitted to committing crimes during their role as armed insurgents, angered opponents of the accords.

Among them was the media savvy former two-term President Alvaro Uribe Vélez, a Senator representing the rightist Democratic Center Party. Uribe argued vehemently throughout the four years the government and FARC negotiated in Havana that the rebels should serve jail terms and never be permitted to enter politics.

Uribe is the chief spokesperson of an almost fanatical anti-FARC discourse in Colombian political circles that combines an unapologetic quest for vengeance (Uribe’s father was killed by FARC in 1983 during a botched kidnapping attempt), with a self-righteous political conservatism characterized by iron-fisted security policies that leave no room for nuance, or debate.

During his eight years in office, Uribe openly rejected the notion that there was an internal political conflict in Colombia, insisting that he was waging a war on criminality and terrorism that had no political roots. And with the multi-billion-dollar strategic support of Washington under Plan Colombia, Uribe’s government dealt considerable blows to FARC, reducing their numbers from roughly 17,000 fighters when he took office in 2002 to about 8,000 by the end of his second term. The Uribe camp is still convinced that they can continue fighting indefinitely until the FARC are completely liquidated on the battlefield, without ever having to grant any political concessions at the negotiating table. Any critics of this approach have become Uribe’s political enemies, branded publicly as sympathizers if not direct collaborators of what he describes as the narco-terrorist FARC.

Uribe and his followers campaigned relentlessly for the “no” vote against the peace accord, despite the fact that the conflict has killed over 220,000 Colombians, most of them poor civilians and non-combatants in the countryside. The former President insisted that it wasn’t peace he was against, but this specific accord, which he said was too lenient on FARC members implicated in crimes against humanity.

They had a compliant platform to make the case in the major corporate media, particularly on television. For several decades, the Colombian news media has emphasized FARC’s role as the primary culprits of these and many other transgressions, even as right-wing paramilitaries and their close allies in the state security forces could and should have taken a good deal, if not, more of the blame for Colombia’s decades-long humanitarian crisis. In the lead-up to the plebiscite, the “FARC-as-evil” narrative was amplified at rallies, press conferences and social media by opponents of the peace accord, making it look like the only true victims of the war came at the hands of the guerillas.

In the process, a good part of Colombia’s recent history of extreme violence by right wing forces was completely erased. The end result was that easily verifiable untruths and ridiculous pronouncements were treated as if they were the foundation of legitimate arguments. “We will become another Cuba or Venezuela,” the Uribistas proclaimed, “we cannot surrender our nation to communism.”

Lost in the extremist declarations is the fact that during his term, Uribe carried out a controversial peace deal with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, the umbrella organization of the 30,000-strong paramilitary armies that waged a dirty war in the countryside for over 20 years. Critics of Uribe’s opposition to the peace deal with FARC point to the contradiction in his rhetoric about “negotiating with terrorists” and letting FARC off the hook with “complete impunity,” given the relatively few number of its former combatants who have been held accountable subsequent to the demobilization agreement with Uribe.

And despite a long trail of embarrassing yet concrete evidence connecting Uribe to the criminality of the paramilitaries, a trail that what would have discredited a political leader in any other rational setting, somehow, he continues to represent a powerful political force in the country.

And now, he has the political upper hand in the wake of the unexpected results of the plebiscite.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Government and FARC leaders are expected to meet again in Havana over the next few days to discuss what steps might be taken to resuscitate a peace process that has been four years in the making. There is concern as to whether or not the bilateral cease-fire will remain in effect.

Furthermore, and perhaps more troubling, will FARC combatants preparing to demobilize be the subject of a right wing backlash, sparking a new wave of violence that can get out of control rather quickly? One hopes not.

But the bottom line is the right-wing in Colombia – from the new paramilitary groups to their backers in the political and economic establishment - has rarely ceded political space to the left without a brutal fight.

Already this year we’ve seen an increase in politically-motivated attacks against social movement and human rights activists. According to the human rights group Somos Defensores, in the first half of 2016, at least 35 human rights and social justice activists around the country have been killed, and dozens have been arbitrarily detained. Semana magazine reported that since the announcement of the peace deal in early September, at least 13 local activists working in the concentration zones where FARC rebels were to demobilize have been killed. Although still early, it is eerily reminiscent of the massacre of 3,500 militants of the left-leaning political party Patriotic Union in the 1980s, one of many examples of Colombia’s dirty war.

It is part and parcel of the tragic history of Colombia.

We can only hope this doesn’t repeat itself in the coming weeks and months.

*Mario A. Murillo is a Colombian activist who has reported about Colombia for over 25 years. He is professor of Radio, Television, Film at Hofstra University, and author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization (Seven Stories, 2004).