What the Hell Just Happened in Colombia?

The government’s peace deal with the FARC rebel group just met a Brexit-style demise. Here’s why it went off the rails.


Half of Colombia went to sleep still in shock Sunday night, after voters narrowly rejected a peace agreement many considered a done deal. Four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba, had yielded a 300-page accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist rebel group. The two parties signed the deal to great fanfare on Sept. 26 in the coastal Colombian city of Cartagena, complete with military jet flyovers and heads of state and government bearing witness.

The deal was feted internationally as the end of a half-century-long conflict — one of the few bright spots in a world increasingly marred by war. Back home in Colombia, however, most people were lukewarm toward the deal at best. On the day the negotiations were completed, one civil society leader in Antioquia province told me there were more celebrations in Europe than in Colombia. Still, polling numbers consistently showed the “yes” vote would win. In the end, it lost by 0.42 percent, or just under 54,000 votes.

So what happened? It seems the disconnect between the powers in Bogota (and their legions of international supporters) and the people on the ground was just too jarring. The government never properly communicated what the peace deal would mean in practice, preferring to rely on platitudes like “the end of war” and “lasting and durable peace.” Authorities were dismissive of concerns about the deal’s sections on justice and political reform, choosing to let international applause overshadow protests at home. Signing the agreement and declaring the conflict over well before the plebiscite was the highest insult. “Wait a minute,” voters seemed to be saying at the polls, “it’s we who decide.”

What voters decided is that this deal wasn’t good enough. President Juan Manuel Santos failed to convince the tens of millions of Colombians who have been victims — in one way or another — of this conflict. Six million remain internally displaced, and tens of thousands more are on a list to receive reparations. It has never ceased to amaze me how closely the conflict affected everyone I have met in the decade I have spent traveling to and living in Colombia. Half a dozen close friends were either kidnapped or had an immediate family member who was. Many lost relatives and friends to one faction or another. Although it’s 52 years old, the conflict is still fresh — and, in fact, ongoing. Throughout the negotiations, an average of 1,500 people continued to be displaced by violence each month, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In such a fragile environment, the government failed to provide even the most basic information to many communities. Yes, the agreement was posted online, with fancy videos and explainer graphics. But the elites who clicked on the presidential website already knew what was in the accord. It was the communities on the coast, along the borders, in the Amazon, deep in the rural areas that never had a chance to examine the agreement in detail.

Take for example the demobilization camps meant to accommodate rebels as they laid down their arms. Many of those areas are populated, and communities hadn’t been told how the process would unfold. Would the FARC come in for good or leave after disarming? Who was going to feed them? Could civil society be protected? Nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups working on the ground in these areas told me throughout the summer that although press conferences had pronounced the outlines of the plan, communities themselves were left guessing.

That lack of transparency and clarity extended to the negotiations themselves — a double-edged sword for the government. Talks in Havana worked in part because everyone was mum; there were remarkably few leaks throughout the negotiations on the cease-fire and peace deal. That fostered trust and a productive negotiating atmosphere in Havana. But it also fostered skepticism, conspiracy theories, and resentment among some at home.

Of course, the government included the voices of victims in the peace negotiations, of women leaders, and of civil society. But only to a point. Although a few select individuals were asked to speak with negotiators about their experiences in the conflict and ideas for peace, they weren’t involved in the discussions, nor were those they represented. The grassroots engagement for peace was half-hearted — even though the deal’s successful implementation would require local leaders, citizens, and communities to take an active role.

Then there were the many Colombians who knew exactly what was in the deal and didn’t like it. The “no” campaign premised its message on the idea that they, too, wanted peace — but not like this, with concessions to a rebel group that had tormented their country for decades. The FARC has had a disapproval rating hovering near or above 90 percent since 2000, according to Gallup polls. The group’s promise to give up arms boosted its favorability up to a mere 12 percent.

Into that boiling discontent jumped former President Álvaro Uribe, whose zealous disgust for the FARC has only grown since he left power in 2010. As the man who beat the rebels back into their jungle camps, all but pulling Colombia from the edge of chaos, Uribe’s voice carries enormous public weight. He told voters the deal was bad, that it would hand the country to the rebels and treat victims with callous disregard. Some of what Uribe said about the text of the deal was true; much of it was blatant exaggeration.

The lightning bolt that the “no” campaign rallied around was punishment — or lack thereof — for the FARC. Under the deal, lower-ranking rebels would largely be granted amnesty. Perpetrators of war crimes could testify before a truth commission and receive sentences of “restricted liberty,” a broad term that likely could have included punishments as varied as house arrest and probation. Those who didn’t confess could have been sentenced for up to 20 years.

But what irked many even more was the fact that FARC members would be allowed to contest democratic office, even if they were serving restricted liberty sentences. The deal also guaranteed some seats in the Colombian Congress during the peace deal’s implementation, a bizarre change of rules for a country that disqualifies all other candidates with even the most minor criminal convictions.

President Santos admitted that the trade-off of justice and peace wasn’t ideal, but he insisted it was the best possible compromise. Uribe disagreed; he has argued from the start of the campaign that the deal must be renegotiated to grant less concessions to the FARC.

Believing Uribe was easy when the government appeared so disinterested in any suggestion that its deal wouldn’t stand. When I profiled the former president in 2011, I saw firsthand how Uribe could capture a crowd’s attention, remember every personal detail of an encounter years later, and deliver a perfectly honed political message. By contrast, when I traveled with one of the presidential agencies responsible for peace construction this summer, it seemed at times that its people were tone-deaf. At a rally in the rural municipality of San Carlos — which has benefitted enormously from peace programs — speakers from Bogota screamed “Si, a la Paz!” (Yes, for peace!) over and over, when all attendees really wanted was information about how they could apply for government assistance.

On the sidelines of that public forum, I met Maria Hiraldo, a grandmother whose son was disappeared in 2002. She had spent years sending letters to the government and, more recently, applying for restitution; that’s why she had come to the government forum — to seek help. Instead, she felt humiliated and forced to beg. “All I’m looking for is some amount of justice from the government,” she told me in tears. “There is so much injustice and nothing. They don’t listen. They have never told me anything. I am just here waiting.”

So now the voters have spoken, and the country is divided. If the “yes” vote had won by an equally razor-thin margin, the deal would have gone forward with enormous caveats. This may be a national agreement, but its success would have been decided in every small city and town where local leaders could choose to act with or against it. The conflict itself likely wouldn’t have ended; it just would have changed.

Instead, Colombians find themselves needing the Plan B that the government never bothered to articulate, assuming that confidence in the proposed plan would somehow ensure that an alternative course of events would never come to be. Both sides have said for now that the cease-fire will hold and that they will return to Havana to talk. But then what? Is the FARC really prepared to negotiate with Uribe’s supporters and vice versa?

In the trenches of the drug trade, the illegal mining business, and the other economies the FARC has dominated, the scenario is even less certain. The FARC had been building alliances with smaller groups known colloquially as Bacrim for several months to ensure a stake in the trafficking, assuming it would nominally have to give up its involvement. Whether those agreements will hold is something we’ll know only by the civilian toll they will undoubtedly exact.

It’s unfair to say that this was a plebiscite lost by the government, however; it never really contested it. “In a time of armed conflict in many places, the peace in Colombia sends a powerful message of hope to the world,” Santos told the U.N. General Assembly late last month, declaring the agreement to be the “best news” for Colombia, Latin America, and the world.

The first and most important of those groups — the people of Colombia — was not convinced. So, Mr. President, now what?

Photo Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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