Much as when Britons rebuffed the pleadings of international busybodies with their votes for Brexit, the Colombian people defied international expectations by voting to reject a “peace” plan with a narco-guerrilla conspiracy that has ravaged their country for five decades. The margin of victory was slim — less than a percentage point — but, coming after pre-referendum polls suggested an easy, double-digit win for the Yes camp, the result stunned proponents of the accord, leaving them dumbfounded and thrashing about.
Indeed, just as with Brexit, the irony of the Colombian peace deal is that it was always more popular abroad than it was at home, and, similarly, that hell hath no fury like international busybodies scorned. As a result of the vote, Colombians are being castigated for not knowing what is best for them, for the temerity of standing up for their perceived interests, and for rejecting “peace” in favor of “war.”
That is ridiculous. The Colombian people didn’t reject “peace”; they rejected a deal that they believed would never bring them genuine peace. Former Colombian minister and presidential candidate Marta Lucia Ramirez put it best when she wrote prior to the vote,
It is evident that after 50 years of killings, massacres, kidnappings, recruitment of minors, terrorism, drug trafficking, and millions displaced, the Colombian people long for peace. We are all for peace, but not all are in favor of an agreement that, to end the conflict with the FARC [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, i.e., the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], weakens our institutions and the rule of law, and permits crimes against humanity to remain without adequate sentences and those responsible to enter politics, with risks for the future of our democracy.
Four years in the making, the peace plan was Colombian president Manuel Santos’s shot at political immortality, succeeding where his predecessors failed in pacifying a country that had known only violence and criminality for several generations. However, much like the Alec Guinness character in the World War II–epic Bridge on the River Kwai, President Santos, in his zeal to achieve his objective, lost touch with the political realities of his country.
At issue for the many Colombians was the particularly lenient terms agreed to as regards justice and accountability for FARC leaders. Those guilty of human-rights abuses or crimes against humanity could avoid jail time by simply admitting guilt and making restitution to victims. Those involved in lesser crimes such as drug trafficking would be included in a general amnesty.
As far as political participation, the deal would have guaranteed the FARC a minimum of five seats in the lower house of the Colombian congress and five in the senate for two legislative periods, with guarantees of government protection and access to media. The deal would also lay the financial burden of reintegrating FARC foot-soldiers on the Colombian taxpayer, even as the FARC leadership sits on billions of dollars in ill-gotten cash stashed away in foreign bank accounts.
Clearly, those provisions were a bridge too far for the Colombian people, who don’t see the FARC as misunderstood agrarian reformers, but, rather, as cold-blooded killers who have raped and pillaged their way across the Colombian landscape for decades. Under Santos’s peace plan, they saw the FARC as simply picking a new means to wage their war against the state.
The biggest loser from Sunday’s vote is the beleaguered President Santos, who already was suffering from low popularity numbers as Colombians believe his all-or-nothing pursuit of a peace deal made him inattentive to pressing economic difficulties, such as the ramifications of the drop in the price of crude oil price on the country’s nascent energy industry. Also losing, obviously, was the FARC (and their coat-holders in Cuba and Venezuela), whose greed in demanding concession after concession while displaying no true remorse for their war on Colombia society backfired in their repudiation at the voting booth.
The Colombian people have judged that the Santos government gave up too much in the negotiations.
The big winner was former president Alvaro Uribe, who single-handedly led the opposition to the Yes vote. Wildly popular in Colombia already, Uribe is known for his hardline policies against the FARC during his presidency. That approach radically changed the military balance in Colombia, from a country under siege in the late 1990s to one where the state regained the decisive upper hand and drove the FARC back into the jungle. He was vehemently against the terms of the signed deal and, just as he did when president, peripatetically crisscrossed the country making his opinion known. Uribe’s support is thus crucial to any future deal.
So where does Colombia go from here? Contrary to what the international busybody Cassandras are saying, the rejection of the peace deal doesn’t automatically presage a return to war. What it does mean is that the Colombian people have judged that the Santos government gave up too much in the negotiations — and the FARC not enough. And they have the right to demand better terms. This is not the first time the Colombian government has tried to strike a bargain with the FARC, with past attempts done in by the FARC’s duplicity and treachery.
All Colombians want peace; just not at any price. Now, the decision to return to the negotiating table rests with the FARC. The burden is on them, not the state, to prove their interest in peace. If they truly are sincere in their commitment to disarm and demobilize — as they have been saying these past four years — then they need to realize that amnesty and guaranteed political participation are non-starters with the Colombian people. It’s not supposed to be that easy, and the Colombian people just demonstrated that even if their president is willing to hold down the cost to their crimes, they are not.