The question voters were asked was simple: “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and construct a stable and enduring peace? Yes or No”. Now, how to answer such a question when most voters do in fact want stable and lasting peace in Colombia, yet they were uncertain of certain aspects of the agreement and used their vote to express their disagreement under the given terms. Meanwhile, a great other majority of the ‘No’ voters were simply immersed in the polarization of the political agenda of the country.
The fact that such a narrow margin divided the vote, with 50.2 percent of Colombians rejecting the peace agreement and 49.8 percent voting in favor, was a major surprise, even for those who voted against the agreement. At the polls, 62.6 percent of Colombians eligible to vote did not vote, meaning that only a small margin of voters had the power to decide the future of the country, leaving the fate of a 52 year war in deep uncertainty. In summary, neither the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’ was representative of Colombia’s desire.
But what motivated those who voted ‘no’ to not support the peace agreement? Several reasons emerge.
Lack of information.
On August 26, 2016, after three years and nine months of negotiation of the peace agreement, the Government published the final text of the agreement signed by the FARC rebels and the Government. The timing provided the government with less than ninety days to present the contents of the agreement to the public in enough detail for them to understand the power of their vote at the polls.
Once the agreement was published, a great number of young and educated supporters, activists, politicians, among other progressive leaders, began campaigning to support the passing of the agreement. The agreement was welcomed by foreign governments and international organizations, including, most prominently, the United Nations, that expressed political support by agreeing to deploy 450 observers to certify the implementation of the agreement within 150 days of the peace deal coming into force. Yet, other major organizations such as Human Rights Watch, strongly criticized the agreement for allowing “a facade of justice that guarantees impunity for atrocities in Colombia.”
Polarization of the country between those who supported the agreement, those against it, but no space for those in between.
Given the broad scope of the question introduced by President Santos in the plebiscite, media outlets and the government polarized the country into two groups, “those who wanted peace in the country” and those who were “against it.” Such polarized positions left no space for critical discussion on the aspects of the agreement that required further improvement.
Those who dreamt of a country in peace, but lacked access to accurate summary information that addressed the contents of the agreement in-depth, were profoundly immersed in the polarization of the situation. The Government and mainstream news outlets promoted the dangerous notion of a post-conflict country, as if the war on drugs throughout the country would immediately vanish once the agreement passed. One where rebels could easily reintegrate in society, violence would drop, and victims were going to be repaired and return to their land.
Few organizations, including Dejusticia, created massive communication campaigns aimed at educating people about the contents of the agreement. Yet, as their main targeted public remained the educated elite, citizens were left without much information on what they were actually voting for.
Like in Europe and the U.S., Colombia’s demagogues managed to rule Colombia’s vote.
Average citizens who did not read the 297 pages of the agreement had two choices: believe in the romantic notion of a country in peace, promoted by the Government and its supporters, or support the opposition to the agreement, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, the most prominent critic of the agreement and the current government, responsible for grave human rights violations under his administration (2002-2010). Uribe’s leadership also represented Centro Democratico, an extreme right-wing political party with a dangerous conservative and anti-rights political agenda. Centro Democratico mischaracterized the totality of the agreement to the public by promoting fear that Colombia was going to go through the same adversities of our neighbor, Venezuela, if the agreement passed.
As a result, citizens were not given the chance to know enough to make an educated vote on what could have been the implementation of the world’s highest standards on transitional justice, and the hope that it brought to Colombian society. While some aspects of the agreement required further improvement, such as FARC rebels seats in Congress, the agrarian reform and the amnesties for leaders that commitment grave crimes, the winning for the ‘no’ in the vote has relatively closed any political doors for future negotiations, and for the rest, the possibility of change in the country.
The lack of credibility of both the FARC rebels and the current government remains in place. For those who lack trust in international cooperation, the U.N. has a proven record to be ineffective in managing peace-keeping operations. Yet, the problems go beyond these two narrow issues. Now, Colombia is a polarized country. As new proponents talk about re-negotiations of specific aspects of the agreement and a new constituent assembly, many others, including myself, fear Uribe’s legacy of disregarding the rule of law and promoting war will turn into the future of our country.
The vote also shows a rural-urban divide in the country. For those who have been most affected the conflict, those living in remote towns who survived massacres, those whose family members have been killed or kidnapped, those voted in favor of the peace agreement, - my question is, what do we have to tell them now?
Hopefully, those who voted ‘no’ last Sunday will become more politically active and provide solid arguments and alternative avenues to end Colombia’s 52-year armed conflict. Until then, Colombia will remain in great uncertainty, which may lead to more violence.