Inside Colombia’s Failed Referendum on Peace

On October 2, Colombia shocked the entire world by rejecting the peace accords that President Juan Manuel Santos and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) agreed on to end the country’s 52-year-long conflict. The accords, which took four years to negotiate, were signed by both parties on September 26 in a momentous ceremony attended by dozens of world leaders and high-level officials, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Cuban President Raul Castro, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The voting results were strikingly close: the “No” camp won with just 50.21 percent of the vote, while the “Yes” earned 49.78 percent. The outcome took a heavy toll on Santos’ already diminished political capital, and also put at risk the entire peace process; the president had heavily emphasized there was no “Plan B” if the accords were rejected in the weeks leading to the referendum.

While both President Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo “Timonchenko” Londoño initially tried to reassure the public they will continue working for peace, Colombia’s future remains uncertain.

The threat of returning to violence looms over Colombia. And while yet another falling out would affect all Colombians, it is necessary to point out that those living in areas that have seen the most violence will be disproportionately affected if the war resumes.

The victims of the conflict had the biggest stake in the referendum. The “No” win was a huge loss for them—both because of their past and their now uncertain future.

A closer look at the voting demographics shows that the rural areas that have lived through the deadliest clashes of the conflict overwhelmingly voted in favor of the peace accords. By contrast, almost all the metropolitan centers in the middle of the country—those where the conflict’s violence was more subdued—voted “No.”

Essentially, those who experienced first-hand the brutal consequences of the war were the most eager to accept an accord that many believe was too lenient on the FARC.

Most likely, Colombians living in these dangerous areas recognized that an imperfect peace would be preferable to continuing the war. After all, the human costs of the conflict have been devastating. Over 220,000 people—over 80 percent of them civilians—have lost their lives in the crossfire between the guerrillas, the military, and paramilitary forces. More than six million Colombians have been forcibly displaced, around 45,000 have disappeared, and countless women have suffered sexual violence.

Furthermore, marginalized groups—including indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples, women, and the families of the disappeared—fought long and hard to get a seat at the peace table, and had succeeded in including reparations, concessions, and safeguards for their communities in the accords. The outcome of the referendum nullified these groups’ efforts to uplift their communities and severely hindered their struggle for truth and justice.

Now that the agreement has been officially rejected, those living in impoverished and historically violent areas fear what might happen next. President Santos already announced that the ceasefire that has been in place since the peace talks began will end on October 31. The FARC have responded by ordering all their units to move toward “secure positions” in their rural territories.

Other illegal armed groups—including paramilitary successor groups and the ELN—also present a serious risk, as they might take advantage of the current chaos to seize FARC-controlled territories, thus exacerbating the violence in those places.

The “No” triumph has been attributed to various factors. For one, there was a lot of misinformation regarding the actual content and implications of the 297-page agreement.

Ex-president Álvaro Uribe rallied support for the “No” vote by criticizing the accord’s impunity clauses and declaring that if the “Yes” camp won, Colombia would be “given over to the FARC” and “become like Venezuela or Cuba.” Another campaign encouraged conservatives to vote against the accord because it contained a “secret gender ideology” that promoted an LGBT agenda and sought to destroy the country’s family values. In fact, the vast majority of the “No” camp’s allegations were founded on either misinterpretations of the actual agreement or complete fallacies.

The “Yes” camp, on the other hand, didn’t promote any arguments at all. President Santos’ rhetoric focused solely on the idea of peace and didn’t engage with the actual content of the accord.

Therefore, like in most referendums, the majority of Colombians voted based on what their preferred authority figure told them.

Voter apathy also played a notable role in the referendum’s shocking result. Only 37.4 percent of the voting population participated in the referendum. Some have attributed the low turnout to a false sense of victory—between the early signing of the agreement and the positive polls, some “Yes” supporters might have opted to stay at home thinking that they were bound to win.

Moreover, other voters might have not voted because of the poor weather conditions, which would have made the journey to the polls difficult, especially in the coastal region (where Santos had strong political support). Had the weather been better, perhaps more marginalized communities could have cast their votes in favor of the accords.

Presently, there is no clear path ahead. However, the Colombian government needs to move quickly if it wants to salvage the peace process. Otherwise, the return to war, or “a disintegration of the FARC into structures that would be impossible to demobilize,” could be imminent.

All parties—the Santos administration, the FARC leaders, Uribe and his followers—need to think beyond themselves. The real victims of the conflict need peace desperately, and that can only be achieved by putting their needs first.

Image: Millions of Colombians march for the freedom of people kidnapped by the FARC and the ELN. “We want peace.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Andrea Fernández Aponte is a Program Assistant at the Latin America Working Group. She graduated from Georgetown University with a B.A. in political economy focused on Latin America and the region’s history and institutions. In the past, Andrea has worked for the State Department and the women-led grassroots peace group, CODEPINK. She’s particularly interested in gender issues, peacebuilding and diplomatic processes, and the empowerment of marginalized communities. Follow her on Twitter.

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