colombian peace treaty

Courtesy of La Silla Vacia

A Broader Consensus Possible After Colombian Peace Deal Rejected

On Sunday, Colombians voted to reject a peace treaty aimed at ending the 52-year conflict, despite an expected landslide victory.

On Oct. 2, Colombians went to bed in shock. By a margin of less than 1 percent, the country’s voters rejected a peace deal to end the 52-year armed conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The plebiscite’s negative outcome took all of us by surprise. Everyone, from the general public to the government — even the opposition — expected a landslide victory in support of the peace agreement. There was no contingency plan. The rejection of the peace deal cast a shadow of uncertainty upon the country. Yet, having followed the negotiations since they began in 2012, and paying close attention to last week’s events, I think last Sunday’s outcome set the course for a more legitimate agreement, and ultimately increased the odds of achieving long-lasting peace in Colombia.
One of the most notable effects of the vote was the almost immediate de-escalation of discourse between those who supported and those who rejected the agreement. The ongoing peace talks and the specifics of the agreements have been perhaps the most divisive issues in Colombian politics and public opinion over the last eight years. Support for the negotiations with FARC is said to have determined the outcome of the 2014 presidential election. Similarly, distrust for the president and the rebels — as well as wariness of the presumed consequences of a successful agreement — crystallized into a disciplined opposition movement led by ex-president and current senator Álvaro Uribe and his party Democratic Center.
The antagonism between the government and the fierce opposition movement led by Uribe goes beyond electoral politics and permeates discourse at all levels. In fact, social media channels from Twitter to WhatsApp became the main arena for claims both for and against the peace negotiations. The resulting polarization has fractured public opinion, if not the entire Colombian society.
Up to the Oct. 2 vote, it was not surprising to come across ill-intentioned, misinformed characterizations of the peace deal. For example, it was claimed that a peace agreement that opened an avenue for demobilized FARC members to participate in politics would inevitably lead to the country’s adoption of Venezuelan- or Cuban-style socialism. Or, from the other end of the political spectrum, that everyone who opposed the ongoing negotiations was an ignorant enemy of peace and a sympathizer of now demobilized right-wing paramilitary groups.
After the results of the vote were announced last Sunday night, all relevant actors vowed not to let the negotiations go under. FARC rebels issued a statement where they pledged to maintain the current ceasefire and continue negotiating with the government, as did President Juan Manuel Santos. Perhaps most importantly, Uribe, regarded by most as the big winner after the failure of the peace deal, said, “we all want peace, nobody wants violence,” and declared that he and his party were willing to be a part of a “national pact” for peace that would add “corrections” to the agreement. Later this week, he and other members of his party met with President Santos and his negotiating team to discuss their reservations about the deal. These statements and the meetings that followed have focused discussions on the merits and downsides of the current peace deal instead of on vacuous, malicious forecasts about a Colombia under socialist rule or accusations of allegiance to reactionary, conservative forces. Having come so close, nobody — the government, the opposition, citizens for and against the deal or FARC rebels — want to be remembered in history as the people responsible for the failure of the peace process.
The second consequence of the vote’s outcome is the extent to which it managed to engage civil society. Many citizens realized that, if left to politicians primarily concerned with the electoral currency of their actions, the negotiations might succumb to failure. This triggered demonstrations around the country. On Oct. 5, students from 26 universities and members of the public marched to Bolívar Square to demand that the government and the opposition waste no time in pursuing another peace deal. The same occurred in other cities, including Medellín, one of the opposition’s strongholds.
Besides the risk of the negotiations turning into a partisan tug of war, for many citizens the breakdown of the Oct. 2 vote highlighted the moral imperative of ending the armed conflict. Although inconclusive, evidence suggests that most of the areas historically affected by the war voted to support the agreement, while many cities that have been largely spared of high-intensity combat voted to reject it. In Bojayá, where in 2002 at least 108 died in the crossfire between FARC rebels and paramilitary groups, 95.78 percent of voters endorsed the peace deal. Similarly in Mitú, a city stormed by FARC in 1998 leaving a death toll of 37 and 61 members of the police and the army as war prisoners, 75.62 percent of voters supported the agreement. Yet, because the war has been fought most intensely in sparsely populated areas, the vote of the victims that backed the agreement was not enough to counter the skepticism that prevailed in many larger cities like Medellín and Bucaramanga.
To many, this contrast in voting behavior sparked the feeling that the urban population failed to sympathize with the victims’ suffering. This, in turn, fueled many of the demonstrations to pressure the government and the opposition to break their lockdown and move forward with the negotiations. Voter turnout added to the perception of a crisis of indifference. Only 37.43 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot. The idea that less than 20 percent of eligible voters decided on an issue of such tremendous national importance forced many to snap out of their apathy.
The deal signed on Sept. 26 became, from a legal standpoint, impossible to implement, but this doesn’t mean that the time spent negotiating was lost. At least rhetorically, both the government and the opposition are working toward the same goal, and the existing agreement provides a solid base upon which to work toward a broader consensus for peace. Civil society now feels more compelled to organize and mount pressure on decision makers to strike a deal soon, and urbanites have realized the debt of empathy they hold toward those most affected by the war. President Santos, emboldened by a Nobel Peace Prize, now has enough legitimacy to carry on in his efforts to end the armed conflict. As paradoxical as it sounds, the negative outcome of last week’s vote thrust Colombia into a new political reality in which stable peace is a more tangible possibility. Most importantly, for the first time in decades, Colombians of all political currents are close to understanding that peace will never come about if they continue to ignore the other half of the country.
Sebastian Rojas Cabal is a contributing writer. Email him at
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