On October 2, 2016, Colombian voters narrowly rejected the government’s proposed peace agreement with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; FARC) in a stunning referendum vote that was supposed to end a fifty-two year old war. Instead, it has thrown the peace process into shambles.
The deal between the Colombian government and the rebel group occurred on August 25, 2016, after four years of negotiations. On September 26, 2016, it was signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timoleon “Timochenko” Jimenez. The last step in the process was for the Colombian people to approve it in a nationwide referendum vote. Most observers saw the vote as a mere formality that would officially bring an end to the 52-year war that left 220,000 people dead and displaced millions more.
Four leading Colombian pollsters projected the “SÍ” side would win…
Although there was significant public opposition to the deal, nearly every poll predicted that it would be approved with a comfortable margin. Four leading Colombian pollsters projected the “Sí” (Yes) side would win the referendum with support above 60 percent. Even two less optimistic polls showed the agreement being backed by well over 50 percent of voters, with a double-digit victory margin. The actual result? A 50.2 to 49.8 percent victory for the “No” side. Colombia’s polls were much further off base than the widely criticized polls taken in the United Kingdom before its vote to leave the European Union in June. One of those polls had the “Remain” side winning by 10 points, though most of the polls that erred did so by smaller margins. President Santos recently announced that the Colombian government and the FARC agreed to maintain a ceasefire until October 31. What will happen after that date is unknown.
Who is the FARC? And why are the Colombian people so reluctant to make peace with them? The FARC is a Marxist rebel group that since 1964 has waged a rebellion against the Colombian government. It is the longest-running armed insurgency in the Western Hemisphere. In the early 1960s, the FARC and other leftist guerrilla groups formed as a rural insurgency that claimed to represent the interests of Colombia’s poor against the elite. The elite responded by organizing private “self-defense” organizations to oppose the rebels, which transformed into right-wing paramilitary groups. This became the civil war that has continued for more than half a century, although at times in very different forms.
Many of their victims have been civilians, including children.
Since 1964, the FARC, fueled by revenue from the Colombian drug trade, engaged in a guerrilla war primarily against the Colombian security forces. FARC rebels attacked police stations and military posts, ambushed security patrols, hijacked airplanes, and carried out assassinations. They also targeted critical infrastructures such as oil pipelines and bridges, and even bombed social clubs. Many of their victims have been civilians, including children. FARC has kidnapped thousands of people, holding them for ransom. Child soldier recruitment and sexual violence are also common.
Starting in 2000, the United States began providing the Colombian government with billions of dollars, mostly in military aid, to help stop the country’s massive drug trade and fight the FARC. The U.S. and Colombian governments also hoped that social and economic conditions in Colombia’s historically marginalized rural areas, in which the rebel groups thrive, would also be improved. Under the agreement, called “Plan Colombia,” the US pledged nearly $10 billion in assistance. This was paired with a CIA covert action program that helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders.
As a result of the US efforts, the FARC suffered massive losses, including the deaths of several high-profile leaders, severely weakening the organization. In 2002, the group was estimated to have approximately 20,000 active fighters; current estimates put that number approximately between 6,000 and 7,000 active fighters, with another 8,500 civilians who make up the FARC’s support network. In response, the group entered into secret negotiations with the government starting in 2010, and two years later entered into formal negotiations. Finally, at the ceremony on September 26, Colombian President Santos and FARC leader Timochenko signed the historic peace agreement.
Under the 297-page agreement, the FARC fighters would have disarmed, handing over their weapons to the United Nations inspectors, and become a legal political party…
Under the 297-page agreement, the FARC fighters would have disarmed, handing over their weapons to United Nations inspectors, and become a legal political party with 10 guaranteed seats in the country’s Congress in the 2018 and 2022 elections. The deal would also have allowed rebels to avoid jail time if they confessed to their crimes. The agreement would have created “a special legal framework” intended to try those who committed crimes during the armed conflict, including FARC fighters, government soldiers, and members of right-wing paramilitary groups. Those who confessed to crimes would not serve prison sentences, rather they would take part in acts of “reparation,” including clearing land mines, repairing damaged infrastructure, and helping victims.
Fighters who demobilized would also receive financial aid from the Colombian government to help them reintegrate into civil society. Leading up to the vote, FARC leaders offered public apologies to their victims and pledged to publicly disclose all of their financial assets and pay reparations. “We will proceed to declare before the government all the monetary and non-monetary resources that have formed part of our war economy,” the FARC said. “We will proceed to the material reparations of victims.” The government pledged under the peace agreement to invest substantial resources in improving the country’s rural areas, something the rebels have long been fighting for.
Many Colombian families feel like the proposed agreement was not enough to justify the hardships they were forced to experience by the FARC.
The public’s main objection to the agreement was that it was far too lenient on the FARC fighters, whose war against the Colombian government has devastated the country for more than half a century. Many Colombian families feel like the proposed agreement was not enough to justify the hardships they were forced to experience by the FARC. For example, people like Laura Solano, a twenty five year old student, who could not get past a burning question: How could she allow the rebels who had terrorized her family when she was a child, to rejoin society without facing prosecution? Laura stated, “There were so many benefits for the people who hurt this country so much.” She joined nearly every voter in her fifty member family in rejecting the referendum. To many Colombians like Laura and her family, there was no sense of justice in the accords. Roosevelt Pulgarin, a thirty-two year old music teacher noted, “There’s no justice in this accord. If ‘no’ wins, we won’t have peace, but at least we won’t give the country away to the guerrillas. We need better negotiations.”
The leading voice of opposition to the peace deal is former President Alvaro Uribe, who is widely credited with having achieved the military gains that forced the rebels to negotiate in the first place. Uribe claims he is not opposed to peace in principle but that he wants to renegotiate the agreement, which he says needs “corrections.” These include barring those found guilty of having committed crimes from running for public office, making FARC leaders serve time in prison for crimes they committed, and forcing the FARC to pay compensation to victims. Opponents of the deal also feared that allowing former FARC members to participate in the country’s political process as a legitimate political party could open the door to left wing policies like those in Cuba and Venezuela. They have dubbed this threat “Castro-Chavismo.” Opponents also point to the fact that the Cuban government hosted the peace talks and Venezuela acted as a facilitator as evidence of the influence these two left wing governments had on the negotiations. They have accused President Santos of “selling the country out” and warn that with the rebels becoming political players, Colombia could soon resemble Cuba and Venezuela and suffer from the same shortages these countries are experiencing.
The rebels on the other hand, reject Uribe, in part because of his alleged ties to the right wing paramilitary groups that emerged in the 1980s to fight off guerrilla extortion of drug lords and large landowners, and targeted suspected rebel sympathizers in forced disappearances and massacres. President Santos recognized that any deal must now include Uribe, and on October 5, the two archrivals met for more than four hours to seek common ground and a way forward. At the conclusion of the meeting, Uribe repeated his earlier criticisms of the deal but did not suggest specific solutions and said it was up to the government to fix it.
The peace agreement as written cannot be implemented without an approval by referendum…
The peace agreement as written cannot be implemented without an approval by referendum, so it will have to be renegotiated. Timochenko said that his group remains committed to ending the conflict. The U.S. announced that they will be sending an envoy to Havana, to help salvage the peace accords. President Santos was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and during his acceptance speech stated, “I receive this recognition . . . as a mandate to continue to work without rest for peace for all Colombians. I accept it not on my behalf but on behalf of all Colombians, especially the millions of victims of this conflict that we have suffered for more than 50 years.”
Thousands of Colombians, both in Colombia and in the United States, maintain hope by leading marches pleading for peace. Millions more just hope that peace can be achieved in their lifetimes. Many have never known peace. This younger generation is doing its best to encourage the rest of their country to help them accomplish their dream of living in a peaceful Colombia. As Felipe Torres Medina stated, “This is the closest we’ve ever been in 52 years. People, especially young people who enthusiastically supported the deal, will not stand by for another generation and let this elusive chance at peace be wasted.”