The setback in Bogota also dealt a blow to Washington, which had been banking on a settlement after spending more than $10 billion over 16 years to combat the FARC.
Just a week ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stood triumphantly in the Caribbean resort town of Cartagena and heralded the signing of a landmark peace accord between Bogota and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a “big moment” and a “historic day for Colombia.”
But that was before voters defied nearly every pollster, pundit, and politician in a razor-thin referendum that rejected the deal Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez signed after almost four years of negotiations.
The surprise vote marked a staggering setback for Santos, who gambled his political career on winning the referendum and ending the half-century war with the leftist separatists. But the decision also dealt a blow to the United States, which spent years aiding a military offensive against the FARC rebels and then backed painstaking talks that led to the historic agreement.
Privately, U.S. diplomats blamed Santos’s failed messaging campaign and overconfidence for the massive setback. Publicly, the State Department sought to maintain hope for Santos as he tries to salvage the elusive peace agreement.
“Colombia can count on the continued support of the United States as it continues to seek democratic peace and prosperity for all Colombians,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday.
Santos is vowing to keep a cease-fire in place, and on Monday dispatched his top negotiators to Cuba to continue talks with FARC leaders. He also launched a listening tour to engage with political opponents and strengthen a deal that Colombians rejected as amnesty for an armed rebel group that hijacked planes, enlisted child soldiers, and terrorized the population through decades of murders and kidnappings.
Kirby said the United States supports Santos’s efforts for “a broad dialogue as the next step towards achieving a just and lasting peace.”
Needless to say, this is not how Washington envisioned the end of Latin America’s longest-running conflict.
One U.S. diplomat involved in Latin America said Santos didn’t do enough to promote the deal to Colombian voters in layman’s terms. The diplomat added that Santos became too complacent after polls predicted an almost 2-to-1 margin of victory for the peace agreement, which allowed 7,000 FARC militants to reintegrate into society and establish a political party. Rebels also agreed to provide “material compensation for victims,” among other concessions. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that “heavy rains” in pro-Santos districts probably depressed voter turnout.
Many also credited Santos’s former boss and current political rival, former President Álvaro Uribe, with leading a grassroots effort to discredit the deal as an injustice for the FARC’s victims. Seizing on a provision in the 297-page agreement that allotted 10 seats in Congress for the FARC and protected many rebels from jail time if they confessed to their crimes, the former president stoked a wave of opposition to the accord through social media without a fraction of the government’s resources.
“This is a big victory for Uribe and his Centro Democratico Party,” one congressional aide said Monday. “Santos obviously underestimated the hatred that exists for the FARC and the anger at the notion that they would not face all that much justice.”
Experts accused Uribe of exploiting voters’ ignorance and exaggerating the government’s concessions to the FARC.
“Disinformation, particularly within the social media networks, was pervasive, and misrepresentations of what the accords did or didn’t say were virtually impossible to correct,” said Virginia Bouvier, senior advisor for Latin American Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Though both the government and the FARC vowed to avoid a return to armed conflict, it remains unclear how a deal can be repaired. And that’s a problem for the United States, which isn’t merely an observer to the 52-year-old conflict.
In the past 16 years, the United States has poured $10 billion into Colombia, much of which was earmarked for helping Colombian authorities defeat the rebels and eradicate their lucrative and illicit drug trade.
In a sign of America’s often-fraught involvement in the conflict, last week’s signing ceremony in Cartagena was originally slated to take place in New York during the U.N. General Assembly. With scores of world leaders standing by, the goal was to project a sense of international euphoria over the agreement days before the referendum. But the plan was scrapped at the last minute due to logistical problems, including the Justice Department’s opposition to allowing the FARC leaders, who are wanted on charges of terrorism and drug dealing, to enter the country.
The Obama administration has long viewed a peace agreement as a major legacy-building opportunity. In February 2015, President Barack Obama appointed Bernie Aronson as special envoy to the conflict to help mediate between both sides. Aronson, whose claim to fame is helping to broker an end to El Salvador’s 12-year war in the early ’90s, has been credited with helping Bogota and the FARC overcome a number of obstacles, and in particular the issue of what to do with FARC rebels who committed gross human rights violations.
In confronting the thorny issue, Aronson tapped Notre Dame law professor Douglass Cassel, an expert in international humanitarian law, who helped devise a deal exempting rebels from prison time if they confessed to their crimes. While that has been cited as instrumental in forging an agreement with the FARC, it is also a key source of the deal’s unpopularity with voters.
Juan Carlos Garzón, a Wilson Center expert, said one way to break the impasse is to renegotiate the deal with the inclusion of Uribe’s Centro Democratico Party. In the past, the CD proposed refashioning the deal to include stiffer punishments for the FARC and limiting the participation of the guerrillas in official government politics. While concessions of that nature could be possible, it’s unclear how long the negotiations will take.
“The revision of the accords can take several weeks or continue for months, even years,” Garzón said.
For advocates of a peace deal, time is not on their side, he noted.
“With the current political atmosphere, the peace deal can be salvaged, but with substantive modifications,” he said. “In the meantime, there is a lot of uncertainty that can affect the capacity of the FARC to maintain the cohesion of the group, the governance of President Santos, and the support of the international community.”
Asked Monday if Aronson would attend this week’s talks in Havana to hash out a new peace settlement, a U.S. official declined to discuss future travel plans.
“We’ll stand by the government and the people of Colombia as they work through this,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told reporters Monday. She noted that “difficult decisions will need to be taken in the days ahead.”