In Multipolarity

By Stephanie Nolen, Latin America Bureau Chief, The Globe and Mail, Oct 3, 2016  (with extensive related readings further below)

Colombians rejected a peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia by a tiny margin on Sunday night, as decades of mistrust, fear and anger proved stronger than the sense of optimism that has bloomed in recent weeks.

A supporter of the peace accord signed between the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, reacts to referendum defeat of the proposal on Oct 2, 2016 (Ariana Cubillos, AP)

A supporter of the peace accord signed between the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, reacts to referendum defeat of the proposal on Oct 2, 2016 (Ariana Cubillos, AP)

With more than 99 per cent of voting stations reporting, the No side led with 50.2 per cent, compared with 49.8 per cent for those in favour of the deal – a difference of less than 59,000 votes out of 13 million counted. Polls had suggested that Yes would win by as much as a 2-to-1 margin. Voter turnout was low, barely above the required 25 per cent.

Even those who opposed the deal were so sure it would pass that the prevailing reaction in Colombia on Sunday night was shock: No one seems certain what happens next.

In a sombre address, President Juan Manuel Santos said a ceasefire with the FARC rebels remains in place. He said he would meet with leaders of the No side (which was championed by his onetime ally, former president Alvaro Uribe) to discuss next steps, and he would dispatch his chief negotiator and his high commissioner for peace to Havana on Monday to meet with FARC leaders. “I will continue to search for peace until the last moment of my mandate,” he said.

The FARC indicated in its first response to the result that it remains committed to peace. Supreme commander Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, told reporters in Cuba that he regrets “that the destructive power of those who sow hatred and rancour have influenced the opinion of the Colombian population.” But, he said, “peace will triumph” and he referred to his organization as a political movement and not a guerrilla force.

The accord between the government and the FARC was signed just a week ago in Cartagena, with much pomp and celebration, in front of world leaders and a jubilant crowd.

But it was always clear that key points of the deal were deeply unpopular with many Colombians – in particular, the fact that FARC leaders guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity were unlikely to go to jail; and that the organization was guaranteed seats in Congress through the next two elections.

The Havana Accord was built on principles of restorative justice, which said that FARC leaders who testified the complete truth about their crimes, asked for forgiveness and performed “reparative acts,” would not be jailed, but instead undergo a period of restriction on their movements. For Colombians whose loved ones were killed in FARC massacres, kidnapped for ransom, or injured by land mines, or whose children were taken by the guerrillas as fighters, this was an untenable proposition. After more than 52 years of war, 220,000 dead, and multiple failed peace processes, a great many Colombians said they did not trust the FARC to live up to its commitments.

And yet the areas of Colombia most badly affected by the war voted overwhelmingly in favour of the accord; while voters in big cities, where the guerrillas have not been an active presence for a decade, rejected the deal.

The FARC in recent weeks started a public-relations campaign designed to win Colombians over, but it appears to have been too little, too late. The rebels began to apologize to victims of select attacks, and announced just the day before the vote that they would direct their financial resources – much of which were acquired through narco-trafficking – to funding reparations.

Weather may have played a key role in the result: in Caribbean coastal communities where the deal had strong support, torrential rain from Hurricane Matthew prevented some polling stations from opening, and voter turnout was particularly low.

The Havana Accord was the product of almost six years of negotiation, and the leaders of both sides had warned during the referendum campaign that there would be no return to the negotiating table.

Supporters of the Yes side see a bitter irony in the fact that the referendum was not even necessary: the law did not require Mr. Santos to submit the peace pact to public approval. But he had pledged to do so, and in fact his government rewrote the legislation so that the bar for approval was somewhat higher than the previous referendum law required, arguing that something this momentous must have full public endorsement – apparently confident he would get it.

Mr. Santos has made securing peace with the FARC the focus of his presidency, and he has seen his popularity steadily erode through the process. He was overtly confident going into the referendum. But he appears to have underestimated the effectiveness of the No sides advertising campaign, which warned voters that opening the door to the FARC’s participation in politics would make Colombia “the next Venezuela” and that it would only be a matter of time before the Marxist-Leninist FARC had been swept into government.

Mr. Uribe, the former president who lead the No side, is a charismatic politician, loved and loathed in equal measure by Colombians. It was he who first initiated secret talks with the FARC (and Frank Pearl, a key government negotiator who began those talks at Mr. Uribe’s request, said he has “no doubt” Mr. Uribe would have signed it had he been president.)

Instead, this referendum became as much about the unpopular Mr. Santos as it was about the actual contents of the deal, and it is not clear how much of a real mandate the President has to govern going forward.

Similarly, the fate of the FARC is unclear: the rebels had begun to gather their fighters at points around the country, planning to begin from Monday to move them to United Nations-run demobilization camps. It’s also not certain how the FARC will fund itself now: the organization was to end its involvement with drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion as part of the deal.

Read also:
Colombian voters reject peace deal in referendum, by Joshua Goodman and Andrea Rodriguez, The Associated Press, Oct 2, 2016

FARC and Colombian government announce final peace accord, report on Telesur, Aug 25, 2016

Colombia’s elusive peace, extensive dossier on Telesur

Latin America is the most unequal continent in the world, interview on with Foreign Minister Guillaume Long of Ecuador, Oct 3, 2016


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