Colombian People Reject Peace Agreement in Shocking Vote

Raeesa Ashique - 2B Electrical
Posted on: October 9, 2016

In a shocking result akin to the Brexit vote, the Colombian people rejected the peace accord which would have ended half a century of war in a referendum on Sunday, October 2. The peace accord was a deal negotiated between President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC (the Marxist rebel group) leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, better known by his alias, Timochenko. It took four years to negotiate the settlement, and was signed using a pen made from a bullet to “illustrate the transition of bullets into education and future”. The ceremony took place on Monday, September 26, in Cartagena, and was attended by several dignitaries including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Cuban president Raul Castro.

The deal had the world’s support but, apparently, not the Colombian people’s.

A referendum was held to ask the Colombian people a simple question: did they endorse the accord? Popular support was needed in order to ratify the agreement. However, the surprising outcome has exposed a deep division in Colombian society. Pre-vote polls had indicated a two-to-one “yes” vote, but “no” won by a slim margin of 0.4%, which is only 54,000 votes out of a total of 13 million cast ballots.

This was also a low voter turnout, at only 38% of the voting population.

The agreement offers a plan to achieve the following: combatants must be disarmed, landmines must be cleared, special courts must be created to try crimes, rebels should be protected—any who confessed would be given lenient sentences and could avoid serving time—and a real government must be established in areas currently occupied by the guerrilla group.

President Santos and other politicians from within and outside of the country supported “yes,” while influential former president Alvaro Uribe led the “no” campaign. Although he was open to peace, “with these agreements, there is neither justice nor truth for the victims” and therefore the deal should be renegotiated. His “corrections” included, but were not limited to, the following: those found guilty can’t run for public office, FARC leaders must serve time in prison, the rebel group should use their illegal gains to pay compensation to families of victims, and the Colombian constitution must not be altered. Despite backing “no,” even Uribe had predicted a “yes” vote.

So, which factors swayed the vote?

Most of those living in areas hit hardest by conflict and violence, such as Choco, Bojaya, Vaupes, and the capital, Bogota, voted yes for obvious reasons. Those voting no had a variety of reasons, although it is always difficult to know exactly what people are thinking. Angelika Rettberg, a political science professor at the University of Los Andes, said this outcome was the result of a “profound dislike for President Santos.” In general, people were angry with the leniency in the terms of the agreement. Others said they just didn’t trust the FARC to lay down their weapons.

This was definitely not the expected result, but President Santos said in a televised address that, while accepting the result, “I won’t give up. I’ll continue to search for peace until the last moment of my mandate.” He also said that the ceasefire “is still in effect and should continue to be in effect”. FARC leader Timochenko shared this sentiment, saying, “The FARC reiterates its disposition to use only words as a weapon to build towards the future” and reassuring the people that “peace will triumph.” In an effort to reach out to the people, FARC leaders have traveled to areas of the country hit hardest by violence to apologize for massacres and discuss possible compensation. This sounds almost comical, thinking they can just apologize for massacres and all will be forgiven.

Currently, they are not able to move ahead with the agreement. Even before the vote, President Santos said that there was no “Plan B.”

Despite the referendum’s outcome, the president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for his efforts to resolve the 52-year conflict. In his address, he dedicated the prize to the people of Colombia, in particular those who “have suffered in this war that we are on the verge of ending.”

This will hopefully revive hope in the accord although, considering the polarization within society, it may not be enough to sway voters. Juan Cristóbal, who researches public opinion and political campaigns at Javeriana University, says it will lift supporters’ morale. “It gives more legitimacy to continue this process whose results have left the government exhausted. It says to the government: ‘Yes, continue your work.’” Timochenko congratulated the president on Twitter.

Who are the FARC?

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC, using the Spanish acronym) began as a peasant revolt in 1964. A group of small farmers and land owners banded together to fight inequality in a country where the elite minority owned the vast majority of the land. The movement was inspired by the Cuban revolution in the 1950s and follows a Marxist-Leninist ideology. It is still a primarily rural guerrilla group. At its largest, they had 20,000 members; today, they have between 6000 and 7000 active fighters. They primarily fight security forces, including the police and military, although many civilians have been caught in the conflict. A quarter-million have lost their lives during Latin America’s longest running conflict.

This accord is definitely a step in the right direction and both parties appear to want peace. Here’s to hoping that a compromise can be reached before more lives are lost and that, in the meantime, the ceasefire will stay in place.