In Multipolarity

By Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, Oct 4, 2016

Colombians forlornly watch Oct 2, 2016 peace referendum results (photo by Col Prensa)

Colombians forlornly watch Oct 2, 2016 peace referendum results (photo by Col Prensa)

People everywhere may well be confused by the news coming out of Colombia. Last Monday, September 26th, in an elaborately staged treaty-signing ceremony in Cartagena de Indias, a colonial-era Caribbean city, President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias Timochenko, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, declared that the country’s fifty-two-year civil war was over. Dozens of V.I.P. guests, including John Kerry, King Juan Carlos of Spain (the former monarch, who abdicated in favor of his son), the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cuba’s Raúl Castro, and other heads of state, were in attendance. Then, in a plebiscite held on Sunday in Colombia, a majority of voters rejected the peace deal, by a margin of sixty-three thousand ballots out of thirteen million cast. The victory of the “No” side has triggered a political crisis of unforeseeable proportions in Colombia. Nobody knows what will happen next.

Every element in last week’s event was designed to symbolize the moment at which Colombia’s political battles would cease to be fought with weapons. Everyone wore white; groups of women and children sang songs of peace; the atmosphere was emotive and jubilant; and Santos and Timochenko gave rousing, sentimental speeches that seemed commensurate with the occasion. The pen the men used to sign the accord had been fashioned out of bullets. For most Colombians, it was their first opportunity to witness the FARC’s leaders, who are widely regarded with a mixture of fear and loathing, taking part in a public event in Colombia. When Timochenko, toward the end of a long speech in which he restated the FARC’s intentions to adhere to its political goals, asked for the “forgiveness of the Colombian people” for the deaths and other miseries his organization had caused, the audience went truly wild, cheering and clapping. People around me broke into tears. It was this request for forgiveness, more than anything else, that every Colombian I know had told me was the missing ingredient in the FARC’s public pronouncements thus far. Such a gesture was needed, they said, in order to overcome skepticism and help heal the country’s wounds.

A few seconds later, a gigantic roar drowned out Timochenko’s voice. First one and then two more Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets roared close overhead, in all their lethal import. The look on Timochenko’s face—openmouthed, staring upward—made it clear he had not been aware that such a flyover was planned. He wasn’t the only one who looked perplexed. Raúl Castro gestured emphatically and mouthed words to Timochenko. When the jets were gone, Timochenko seemed to recover his equilibrium, quipping that “this time, at least the planes didn’t come to drop bombs.” The remark elicited laughs and lightened the mood. But the flyover dampened the euphoria and lingered on forebodingly. An earlier, more distant flyover of planes streaming smoke in the joyful colors of the Colombian flag had already taken place, so why the Kfirs?

A few hours later, a Colombian who is close to President Santos suggested that the jets had been a nod by Santos to the country’s armed forces, but that the timing had gone wrong because Timochenko “went on too long.” The explanation didn’t seem entirely plausible, however, and it seemed equally possible that Santos had agreed to the flyover in an ill-considered show of force to reduce the impact of Timochenko’s public appearance. By then, Internet memes were already circulating that depicted former President Álvaro Uribe, a bitter opponent of Santos and his peace deal, as the gleeful pilot of one of the jets.

Uribe skipped the ceremony. Instead, he’d spent part of the day at a rally across town for the No campaign, which he had launched some months ago. Its slogan was “We want peace, but not this peace.” Uribe, who governed Colombia from 2002 to 2010, is a very different man from Santos. Santos is the worldly scion of a patrician family from Bogotá, while Uribe is a right-wing Catholic from a provincial cattle-ranching family. The two were once close allies: Santos founded Uribe’s party and served as his defense minister, heading a U.S.-assisted military campaign that, in the late two-thousands, seriously weakened the FARC on the battlefield. Their falling-out came after Uribe was thwarted in his bid to change Colombia’s constitution and obtain a third term in office, whereupon Santos succeeded him. When Santos revealed that he had begun peace discussions with the FARC, Uribe accused him of betrayal, and launched a sustained campaign of opposition, rallying supporters across the country and online. Indeed, Uribe may be the first former head of state to have taken up Twitter to undermine a fellow head of state. Uribe uses Twitter like a general uses artillery, often many times a day, in order to react to news, quarrel with other politicians and with journalists, and generally make his presence felt. Most of all, he uses it to attack Santos and the FARC, often lumping them together, and to warn about the dangers of the peace deal. He argued that its terms amounted to a surrender to the FARC and would enable the leftist political phenomenon he calls “Castrochavismo” to take over Colombia. In Uribe’s deployment of social media, in his reactionary populism, and in the angry slogans and feelings on display at his noisy rallies, there are uncanny parallels to Donald Trump—and, for that matter, to the anti-E.U., anti-immigrant demonstrations that were held across United Kingdom in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, last June.  And, as with Brexit, the No campaign had no realistic alternative at the ready—no better peace deal.

For many Uribistas, as Uribe’s followers are called, the greatest sources of discontent were the idea that guerrillas would be “rewarded” for their violence with modest government stipends to help resettle themselves, and the deal’s transitional-justice package. Mid-level and senior officers responsible for crimes, from both sides of the war, were to receive “restorative” sentences, rather than prison, in exchange for full confessions. Those who did not acknowledge war crimes but were found guilty of such offenses could receive harsh prison sentences of as long as twenty years. Those liable included not only former FARC guerrillas but also military men, paramilitaries, and civilians. (It’s probably worth noting that Uribe was closely associated with the paramilitaries, hyperviolent anticommunist militias that often worked in close coördination with Colombia’s Army and carried out numerous massacres of civilians in their campaign against the FARC. Uribe gave thousands of paramilitaries a sweeping amnesty deal back in the early two-thousands.)

After the signing of the Cartagena accords, festive parties went on late into the night in a number of private homes and hotels around the walled old city. Norwegian and Cuban diplomats, peace negotiators and senior military men—they were all celebrating with whisky or rum, and the atmosphere was one of elation. For security reasons, the FARC’s leaders were in closely guarded seclusion at a Jesuit seminary on the outskirts of the city, and unseen, but everyone else raised a glass. There were invariably two toasts: one for the peace deal just signed, and another, optimistic one for the Yes side in the plebiscite, which President Santos had promised Colombians in order to gain support for the deal. As with Brexit, the polls were close, and yet most assumed that Yes would prevail.

That plebiscite was the vote held Sunday, after which everything that was celebrated in Cartagena was thrown into an anxious limbo, including the major question of whether the current ceasefire, which has been in place since late July, will hold, or if the war will resume. During the talks, both sides had sought to reduce the fighting, and the death toll had fallen to its lowest level by far in years. In a country where seven million people have been displaced and at least a quarter of a million killed, possibly many more, this had been the main reward of the peace talks thus far. The plan had been for thousands of FARC guerrillas, who remain armed, to gather in twenty mustering points and demobilize in the coming months under the auspices of U.N. peacekeepers; thanks to the No vote, there is now no legal authority for that to happen.

Timochenko is, for now, back in Havana. After the final votes were tallied, he and Santos issued separate statements in which they expressed their determination to continue working for peace. In his remarks, however, Santos said he had “heard” the No vote—another echo of David Cameron and Brexit. Uribe spoke as well, calling upon the government to “protect” the FARC, which, he advised, should stop committing crimes while under that protection. On Monday, Uribe’s lieutenants made it clear that he intends to insist upon punishment terms for the FARC as part of any deal: prison sentences, financial compensation for victims, a ban on their participation in politics. From Havana, the FARC issued a communiqué that pointed out that the terms of the deal could not be changed and described the current impasse as “disconcerting.”

A friend of mine from the coastal city of Barranquilla, Jaime Abello Banfi, the head of the Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Foundation, wrote in an e-mail, “The most important thing is to try and rescue the advances made in the pacification of the country during the four years of negotiation with the FARC. We don’t want them to go back to the bush.” But a couple of days ago, in Uribe’s stronghold city of Medellín, a local man told me that he planned to vote No because that was precisely where he wanted the guerrillas to remain: “We don’t want them in the city. Let them stay in the bush.” Another Colombian man e-mailed an appeal for me to understand why he had voted No: “It’s hard to forgive.”

Shortly after the vote count came in, a young Colombian woman, crushed to tears by the No win, told me, “Uribe is like Colombia’s Voldemort.” She and some of her friends were also dismayed by the low voter turnout, of around thirty-seven per cent, and talked about leaving the country. “First Brexit, now this,” she said. “This means Trump is going to win in the United States. What will you do?”

Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer, began contributing to The New Yorker in 1998.

Colombians narrowly reject peace accord to end 52-year war with FARC rebels, compilation of news and analysis on New Cold, Oct 4, 2016


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