Why was Colombia’s peace deal defeated?

October 12, 2016

In the wake of an agreement between the government and rebels that was rejected by a slim majority of voters, Tristin Adie asks what's next for Colombia's peace process?

ON OCTOBER 2, voters in Colombia rejected a peace deal negotiated between the government and the guerrilla organization known as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia).

The agreement was the culmination of four years of talks and follows more than 50 years of civil war. Carried out mostly in rural areas, the war has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people and displaced at least 6 million.

The peace agreement provided for a "transitional justice" process, whereby FARC leaders who confessed to war crimes would serve sentences of up to eight years of "restricted liberty," living in special compounds and performing community service.

Rank-and-file FARC guerrillas would be allowed to leave their remote bases and move into designated "concentration zones," where they would receive modest assistance in setting up farming or other enterprises.

The plan also allowed for the temporary allocation of 10 positions for FARC candidates in the 268-seat Colombian Congress, with the aim of enabling the organization to transition to a legal electoral party. This would have marked the first time that the FARC could have acted as an open political party since the 1980s, when between 4,000 and 6,000 of its candidates were murdered during their campaigns for office.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos

THE VOTE against the deal came as a shock to nearly everyone who had been following the process. Polls before the vote showed it passing easily. But by a margin of only 54,000 votes, the "no" vote beat out ratification by 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent.

Numerous explanations for the defeat have been offered by analysts. Voter turnout was surprisingly low: Only 37 percent of the 34 million eligible voters in Colombia participated. Areas along the Caribbean coast, where support for the FARC was strongest, were hit by Hurricane Matthew on the day of voting, dramatically affecting the numbers that cast a ballot in this crucial region.

As it was, voter participation was strongest in urban areas, which have been far less impacted by the war than rural areas.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who spearheaded the peace effort, was already widely unpopular going into the vote--he is derided as "arrogant" and out of touch by many voters.

But perhaps most important was the "No!" campaign led by the former hard-right President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez. In the months and weeks leading up to the referendum, Uribe organized a well-funded national campaign of television and radio ads, rallies and media pieces to spread fear and anger about the peace deal.

The manager of the campaign, former Senator Juan Carlos Vélez, publicly boasted after the vote that he and other leaders of the effort spread misinformation among workers and the poor about subsidies that would be paid to demobilized guerrillas.

In its message to wealthier sectors of society, the "No!" campaign mischaracterized the transitional justice process as granting "impunity for war criminals." In regions close to the border, Vélez and friends argued that allowing the FARC to run for office would mean Venezuelan-style socialism would take over the country.

The FARC and other sectors of the left did little to counter this campaign, since ratification of the peace deal was seen as a done deal.

URIBE AND his ilk demonstrated unbelievable hypocrisy in objecting to "impunity for war criminals."

Under Plan Colombia--a program sponsored by the U.S. as part of the "war on drugs" that Uribe helped to implement in the late 1990s--the Colombian military, assisted by paramilitary death squads carried out murder, torture, kidnapping, massive land grabs and displacement of civilians. Four million people fled their homes, and more than 3,500 civilians were murdered by the Colombian army, police and paramilitaries.

When efforts to demobilize paramilitary forces were initiated by human rights groups in the mid-2000s, the U.S. government extradited hundreds of them to the U.S. at Uribe's behest. A New York Times investigation found that "the [paramilitary] commanders themselves...firmly believed Mr. Uribe shipped them out to silence them. And many of their victims' leading advocates agreed."

The Times quoted Senator Ivan Cepeda, founder of the Movement for Victims of State Crimes, who noted that these paramilitary leaders "were, collectively, going to deliver testimony that directly implicated Uribe. [After they were extradited], the authorities entered the cells where they had their computers, their USBs, and they took it all. All the work they had been doing, all the proof they were going to present to Justice, disappeared."

Ultimately, the sentences handed down to those extradited to the U.S. were far more lenient than what they would have received in Colombian courts. Most will spend no more than 10 or 12 years in jail, less than Americans convicted of selling less than an ounce of crack cocaine on the street.

While Uribe and Co.'s efforts to dismantle the peace process are odious, the motives of President Santos in demobilizing the FARC are far from noble.

As Forrest Hylton and Aaron Tauss reported recently in NACLA Report on the Americas, the Colombian economy has been dramatically reshaped by neoliberal restructuring over the past 20 years. Petroleum, mining, agrobusiness and now tourism have been booming in many parts of the country.

Though the FARC was substantially weakened by the violence wrought under Plan Colombia, their control of large swaths of the country has meant that these were largely off-limits to development by these sectors. Demobilizing the FARC is another means of enabling capital to exploit these regions.

What happens next in Colombia is far from clear. The FARC and President Santos have agreed to an extension of a cease-fire, and demonstrations in favor of reviving the peace talks have drawn tens of thousands of people in many Colombian cities.

But true justice for those affected by the civil war as well as neoliberalism will require broad organizing among workers, the poor and rural people throughout the country. Many representatives of Indigenous, campesino and labor organizations have highlighted the importance of including their organizations in future peace talks. Santos and the FARC would do well to heed this call.

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