Fury and shock as Colombians deal with voter rejection of peace deal

Fighters from Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are seen during the closing ceremony of a rebel congress near El Diamante in Yari Plains, Colombia, September 23, 2016. (Credit: REUTERS /John Vizcaino)

Colombians voted to reject a peace agreement with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) that would have brought an end to the country’s long-running civil war, prompting shock and criticism that voters’ desperation to see justice served has prevented the country from achieving peace.

The process of reaching a formal peace agreement has, like the 52-year war itself, been drawn out and complex. The Colombian government has been engaged in formal peace talks with the FARC since November 2012, when the two sides agreed to a fixed agenda for moving through the negotiations. This year has shown marked progress in negotiations. In May, the FARC agreed to release child soldiers from their ranks; the following month, the two sides agreed to a bilateral ceasefire.

This Sunday, Colombians were asked to endorse or reject the peace agreement in a popular vote. Polls conducted ahead of Sunday’s vote suggested a comfortable win for the “yes” campaign, but in a surprise result, 50.2 percent of voters rejected the agreement compared with 49.8 percent who voted for it.

A vote of approval would have allowed thousands of rebel soldiers of the FARC to reintegrate into mainstream Colombian politics and society. Now, the country is left uncertain over the fate of the peace deal and of the rebel soldiers who are already in the process of being disarmed by the U.N.

“I did not expect this result,” said Carlos Alberto Vargas, a business ethics professor at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellín who voted “no” for the deal, in an email to Humanosphere. He explained that many Colombians did not express disagreement with the peace process because the government was campaigning so strongly to support the deal, even “bullying” those who opposed it.

“However, the government and those supporting the process advertised through traditional means, while the ‘no’ [campaign]advertised especially through social networks: This made the difference,” he added.

Many are furious with the result of the referendum, criticizing “no” voters for prioritizing justice over peace. Critics of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s far-right former president who more or less led a campaign against the peace deal, say he manipulated a vote that was supposed to be on peace into a vote on the FARC. A scathing piece by the progressive magazine The Nation argues that Human Rights Watch – which strongly advocated against the justice provisions of the peace agreement – “wanted to send human-rights violators to prison more than it wanted to end the war.”

Supporters of the peace agreement have also noted that because the war lasted so long, it might have been difficult for many Colombians to forgive the FARC.

“The adults that were born before the war now number very few,” Juan Gabriel Vásquez, a novelist who voted for the deal, told the New York Times. “As a society, we are a massive case of post-traumatic stress, because we have grown up in the midst of fear, of anxiety, of the noise of war.”

Still, it appears a slight majority of Colombians sympathize with Uribe’s argument that the peace agreement would have wrongly allowed the FARC rebels to get away with their crimes, since under the agreement, rebel soldiers would be tried for their wartime crimes by special courts and be given more lenient prison sentences if they confessed. Many of these voters were also skeptical that the rebels would keep their promise to lay down their arms and are unwilling to support the government’s plan to pay FARC rebels a monthly stipend while other citizens struggle financially.

The victory of the “no” vote emphasized just how strongly Colombians distrust the rebel group which, until very recently, still practiced kidnapping, forced recruitment, extortion and drug trafficking.

For Alberto and millions of other Colombians, the referendum was viewed as a choice between the current deal and a better one that they believed was possible.

“I voted ‘no’ because the peace agreement lacked legitimacy,” said Alberto. “The government showed the international community something that the people had not yet approved. … I voted ‘no’ to the FARC, because with this I think I voted ‘yes’ for peace.”

The outcome of the referendum means that, after four years of intense negotiations, the 297-page Final Accord with FARC cannot be implemented. Both groups have repeatedly maintained that the deal was the best they could achieve and that a renegotiation would not be possible. The likelihood of another peace negotiation remains uncertain and seems contingent on how much the guerrillas are willing to give up for a rewritten accord.

For now, President Juan Manuel Santos said the cease-fire the government had signed with the FARC would remain in effect. He would soon “convene all political groups,” he said in a television statement Sunday, “to open spaces for dialogue and determine how we will go ahead.” The leader of the FARC, Rodrigo Londoño, has also vowed not go back to fighting.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com