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Colombian voters say no to peace deal: WTF? (What’s The Future?)

October 6, 2016

Oct 5, 2016

I was born on the same year the FARC guerrillas were formed in Colombia, marking the beginning of a new period of violence that has lasted 52 years. I don’t know the country without war, and I was thrilled about the peace agreement reached earlier this year between the government and the insurgents. It was not a perfect deal, but after four years of negotiations, it accomplished a lot: 1) comprehensive rural reform for development of remote regions of the country; 2) new forms of political participation, including a FARC political party; 3) cease fire and security guarantees for former combatants; 4) economic and social alternatives to illicit drugs; 5) transitional justice and reparations to victims of the conflict; and 6) clear implementation and verification mechanisms.  This was a far more comprehensive and in-depth peace agreement than other recent ones around the world (notably, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Africa). Most salient is item 5: it is a peace deal centered on the victims. Recognizing the loss, pain and suffering of the victims (more than 220,000 people killed and over 6 million displaced, not to name the victims of rape, torture, kidnapping, etc), the agreement was centered on forgiveness and reparations in order to build a peaceful future. The transitional justice courts would offer reduced sentences and mostly community service to perpetrators who confessed their crimes (some heinous crimes excepted).

On Sunday Oct 2 the country voted NO to this peace deal by the slimmest of margins (less than 0.5%), and over 60% abstention. The result shocked many, since polls had been forecasting ample advantage to the Yes side. I was getting ready to celebrate the results at home with friends, and we spent the evening speculating “how could this happen” and “what comes next?”

Results in the capital, Bogota, were amply in favor, but in many other urban areas where war is mostly watched on TV the No won. Rural areas, especially those most affected by violence, mostly voted Yes. It is heartening to see the victims reaffirm they can forgive, even if they cannot forget. Peacebuilding is a complex process.

A few days after the shock of the referendum result, the picture is still not clear. Former president Uribe was a champion of the campaign against the peace deal, and his role in the next steps is still to be determined. A victory with such a slim margin and high abstention rates would not have been very solid support to the deal anyway. Both the government and FARC quickly confirmed their willingness to continue finding paths for peace, but the cease-fire was already given a deadline of Oct 31 by the government, and it is not clear who will need to be around the table to resume negotiations.

Several scenarios are emerging: 1) Renegotiate a new deal, 2) convene a constitutional assembly, 3) congress going on with the deal anyway, 4) wait and see, or 5) return to war. They are all worse alternatives than the approval of the peace agreement, but the plebiscite results are the expression of democracy at work. Some argue that plebiscites and referendums are imperfect vehicles for democracy, or that the error margin is greater than the slim margin of the winning side.  Like Brexit, the results were surprising to many, not just in Colombia but around the world (see The Economist, for example). The initial speechlessness of the Yes campaign has turned to humor and soul-searching, and the cockiness of the victorious No campaign will need to result in concrete proposals on the table. As I write, the Nobel peace prize has not been announced yet: it may still be President Santos, with or without the FARC leader. Or maybe not. Regardless, the country needs to find a way forward that is not a return to war and violence, something different from the 52 year of war, which started when I was born.

Ricardo Gomez

Ricardo Gomez
Associate Professor, University of Washington Information School; Latin American & Caribbean Studies Executive Committee member