Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Colombia's would-be peace deal

by Nicolas Montaño

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published October 21, 2016

On September 26, media attention shifted to the city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. There, 15 heads of state, along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, converged to witness the signing of a historic peace deal between the Colombian government and the Marxist guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known commonly by their Spanish acronym FARC), effectively ending 52 years of war. Every participant was dressed in white and both parties signed the accords with pens made from bullet casings. Many international news sources declared that the Western Hemisphere’s last war was over, and marked the event as the end of Latin America’s Cold War insurgencies. 

All that was needed for the accords to take effect and become legally binding was popular approval in a plebiscite, something that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had personally insisted upon since the peace process was made public four years ago. Because President Santos had dedicated the vast majority of his two terms in office to garnering domestic and international support for the peace deal, gaining the backing of most of Colombia’s political parties as well as the US, the EU, and the UN, many considered the plebiscite to be a formality. This belief was reinforced with opinion polls signaling that the deal would be approved with almost 75% of the population voting in favor. President Santos even stated that, should the deal be nixed, there was no plan B.    

On the rainy Sunday morning of October 2, Colombians headed out to vote. They were confronted with a prompt that read, “Do you support the final accord for the cessation of the conflict and the construction of a stable and lasting peace?” Politicians made speeches at polling stations. The first lady even got a dove tattooed preemptively on her wrist. In Havana, where members of the FARC’s ruling body were awaiting results, celebratory drinks and cigars were ordered in anticipation of a ‘yes’ landslide. And yet, in what has been likened many times to a Latin American ‘Brexit,’ when the results came in in the early evening, the seemingly unthinkable happened. With a majority of 50.22% (meaning that the margin of victory was less than 54,000 votes), Colombians had rejected the deal. With the ‘no’ side’s victory, the accords, which had taken six years of constant negotiation to be finalized, legally no longer existed. 




To an international audience, it may seem difficult to understand why, after more than a half-century of civil war, Colombians would decide to vote against a peace deal. While many abroad painted the accords and their acceptance as a straightforward choice between peace and war, domestically, things were never so black and white. First of all, the FARC’s unpopularity was a major factor in helping do the deal in. With an approval rating of 10%, the Marxist group—despite self-branding as “the people’s army”—is loathed by large swaths of the population because of its violent tactics. The group, which sought to finance its insurrection via drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion, and kidnapping, has left deep scars in Colombia’s collective consciousness. Many of those who fell into the FARC’s hands over the course of the war were forcibly disappeared, and even those that managed to be ransomed out or rescued by the army were often subjected to decades-long imprisonment in the Amazon. Many former FARC combatants also came forward throughout the process to describe abuses they endured as members of the insurgency’s rank and file. They described practices such as the recruitment of child soldiers and a pervasive culture of sexual violence against female fighters. This, coupled with the guerilla’s reluctance to apologize for its human rights abuses, made the peace talks an easy target for the ‘no’ campaign. Similarly, the group, which has financed itself via cocaine production and has estimated revenues of 100 million USD a year, was adamant throughout the vast majority of the process that they had no money. The FARC maintained that they would not contribute any reparations to victims of the five-decades-long conflict—causing massive indignation amongst the Colombian population. For many citizens, the thought that members of the FARC would soon be able to hold elected offices, be amnestied for certain crimes, and be guaranteed political representation in congress—all of which were key points in the accord—was too much to handle. 

President Santos, whose approval rating fell to 21% this May, also hurt the deal through his involvement. He was criticized throughout the process by many undecided voters and victims of the conflict for alienating those with reservations about the talks, and for framing the political discourse in an ‘us versus them’ rhetoric that labeled opponents to the peace deal as ‘warmongers.’ In a speech he gave to the Colombian Liberal Party earlier this year, the President stated about his opponents, “There are those who cannot stand this advancement, those who are desperate because their oxygen, which is fear, which is war, is running out.” Assuming that the Colombian people would accept any peace deal, the administration made little effort to explain the reasoning behind different points of the accord, especially more sensitive ones—such as the establishment of special judicial processes that amnestied certain ‘political’ crimes for members of the FARC, or the payment of a base salary to demobilized guerrilla fighters (meant to prevent their return to illicit activities). Instead, Santos simply stated that the Colombian public would just have to swallow these bitter pills in order to convince the FARC to hand in their weapons. He gained notoriety for stating several times that peace required “swallowing very large toads,” a Spanish expression akin to ‘biting the bullet.’

The prominent former President and current Senator Alvaro Uribe, a vocal critic of the peace talks, also helped to sway public opinion. Uribe has become an advocate for a military solution to the conflict, broke with Santos (who was his defense minister and protegé), and became his main political rival over the peace process. Governing from 2002 until 2010, Uribe is a tremendously polarizing figure in Colombia. He oversaw the implementation of the US-funded Plan Colombia, which served as a military offensive against the FARC when they were on the verge of toppling the Colombian state after they launched an aggressive offensive campaign in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His two terms were marked by many successful campaigns against armed groups in the country and a reduction in the levels of kidnappings and homicides nationwide. As such, he left office with a comfortable 80% approval rating, and earned the adoration of residents of many in Colombia’s once-besieged urban centers. However, his time in office was also marked by accusations of human rights abuses, including the “false-positives” scandal in which civilians were killed by the army and reported as FARC members in order to receive monetary compensation. He was also accused of numerous accounts of wiretapping and of having ties with right-wing paramilitary groups—leading to his vilification by the Colombian left. Over the summer, Uribe mobilized his large support base and his political party, the Centro Democratico, in successful opposition to the accords. By labeling the accords as a deal that offered impunity for crimes while ignoring victims of the conflict, and focusing on the widespread discontent with the Santos administration, Uribe was able to tap into a large voter pool of those dissatisfied with Colombia’s current state of affairs.




After the vote, the political climate in Colombia shifted immediately, with the government suddenly finding itself much weaker. All sides were tense and uncertain as to how the rest of the night would play out because, as Santos had warned, there was no contingency plan in the event that the referendum be rejected. Uribe, who had steadily been losing support politically, was staking his legacy on the results of this referendum. Many of his critics hoped that the passage of the deal would render him irrelevant and firmly place his government in the realm of the past. However, with the vote swaying his way, Uribe emerged once again as the man of the hour and his political party alone claimed electoral victory. The results seemed to surprise even him, as he had left Bogotá after casting his ballot and retired to his ranch in the Antioquia region in anticipation of the results. Santos, on the other hand, was dealt a crippling blow. Many speculated that he would step down as the executive by the end of the evening, as he had insinuated in a BBC interview last year that a defeat in the plebiscite would seriously compromise his ability to govern. The FARC had yet to comment on their electoral loss, and as there was previously little doubt as to the referendum outcome, there was much speculation as to what their next move would be. After some time, President Santos addressed the nation in a speech that lasted little more than four minutes, conceding defeat, ensuring his continuation as commander in chief, inviting Uribe and his supporters to a dialogue with the government, and maintaining the bilateral ceasefire with the insurgent group. The FARC, on their part, reiterated their commitment to “use words as their only weapons.”      

As more detailed breakdowns of the results came through, it became evident how close the vote actually was. Domestic and international media outlets (such as the New York Times) blamed Hurricane Matthew for preventing voters from casting their ballots on the coast of the country, which was projected to vote overwhelmingly for the ‘yes’ option. Geographical discrepancies were also evident, with central provinces voting against the deal, while almost all of the border departments, which had seen higher levels of active combat in recent years, had voted in favor of it. Most notably, however, there was an overwhelming amount of voter absenteeism. In what both sides described as one of the most important votes in the nation’s history, little more than one third of the eligible population actually showed up to make their voices heard. While this level is normal for presidential and congressional elections in Colombia, which has had historically low voter turnout, election-watchers were expecting more people to head to the polls due to the importance of the event. César Valderrama, the director of Datexo (a polling agency that predicted a wide margin of victory of the ‘yes’ side), speculated that many who were for the accords, so assured of their electoral victory, were less pressured to get to the polls than their ‘no’ counterparts. 




In Colombia now, little is certain. Uribe and his party must come up with propositions on how to make the accords more palatable to the Colombian people. Uribe will likely seek to increase the penalties to FARC leaders and insist they serve jail time, cut down on the benefits given to demobilized FARC fighters, and remove gender-inclusive language in the peace deal as a nod to evangelical communities that backed the ‘no’ campaign. Meanwhile, the FARC, which had already begun to concentrate in certain zones in preparation for demobilization, has stated that it has no intention of renegotiating. President Santos, severely weakened, has extended the bilateral ceasefire until December 31 of this year, and reiterated his commitment to working with all Colombians in order to salvage the peace deal. Meanwhile, there have been numerous demonstrations and marches—from both opponents and supporters—pushing all parties to produce a workable deal. Those who voted ‘no’ have repeatedly stated that they too want peace, but through a peace deal that is harsher to the FARC. Even Uribe has reiterated his will to work with the government and make changes to the existing accords, instead of scrapping the entirety of the document. Less than a week after voters rejected the peace deal, President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a show of solidarity from the international community for his efforts to continue the negotiations. Many international groups were hoping that the prestige of the prize would help move the talks from their impasse. Similarly, the fact that it was given exclusively to the president, and not shared with the FARC as was expected, was seen as a concession to those who wanted to see the FARC punished, and were skeptical of its role in future Colombian politics. With the plebiscite having been held only weeks ago, and the political situation still very nebulous, there will inevitably be more developments regarding the peace accords and the FARC. With millions in loans from the international community, and the possibility of re-starting a bitter civil war, there is a lot at stake. 


NICOLAS MONTAÑO B’17 asks that you please not spell it Columbia.