Will FARC and Colombia Return to the Battlefield?

After a failed referendum, what comes next will determine whether war or peace breaks out.


On Sunday, by a razor-thin margin, Colombians rejected the peace agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which had been painstakingly hammered out over four years. The result, defying all the polls, sent shock waves throughout Colombia and the entire international community — including the United States — which had strongly backed Santos and the peace deal. By many accounts, even Colombians who voted “no” were surprised by the victory and unsure of what would happen next.

For Santos, who staked his presidency on trying to bring the continent’s only remaining armed conflict to an end and exhorted Colombians to embrace the accord, the defeat was stinging. Less than a week before, in a ceremony in Cartagena soaked in symbolism and attended by an impressive array of foreign dignitaries, Santos signed the agreement with FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, better known as Timochenko. The plan was that the dramatic signing ceremony would give a bounce for a big win in the plebiscite.

The opposition, however, had a different idea. Led by the widely popular former president and now senator Álvaro Uribe, the “no” campaign based its rejection on two key points: First, they denounced the leniency of the transitional justice system included in the accords, which would have allowed FARC leaders responsible for egregious crimes to avoid jail sentences. Second, they refused to accept the political participation of FARC leaders in government. This agreement, Uribe warned, was not only in violation of the constitution but would likely bring renewed violence and increased drug production.

Polls had consistently shown that while most Colombians shared a desire for peace, the majority took serious issue with these two significant, sensitive points. But from the outset, Santos’s bet was that despite the widespread skepticism, when having to decide on the overall agreement — which contained a number of popular provisions, including enhanced attention to the country’s rural development — most Colombians would pragmatically vote in favor of the deal, and thus avoid the uncertain alternative.

In the end, although the “yes” option won in areas most directly affected by the armed conflict, Uribe proved to be a better interpreter of popular sentiments than Santos. Going forward, Uribe and his party will play a critical role, and the 2018 presidential elections should be expected to shape their strategy. The constitution bans Uribe from running for the presidency again, but whomever he supports will benefit from his electoral appeal.

The stunning result can be attributed to several factors. First, it is hard to overstate how much Colombians despise the FARC. They have virtually no popular support, which sets Colombia apart from other civil wars, marked by battles of contending political forces. Whatever ideological appeal they might have had when they launched their insurgency in the 1960s had long faded, reflecting the FARC’s deep involvement in the drug trade, illegal mining, kidnapping, extortion, and other illicit activities. For the vast majority of Colombians, FARC members are merely criminals. Timochenko’s remarks at the Cartagena ceremony — especially “I ask for forgiveness for all the damage we have caused” — may have comforted the accord’s supporters, but were hardly enough to erase decades of ill will. Further, in recent interviews, FARC leaders appeared arrogant and unapologetic, which only increased opposition to them becoming players in Colombian politics.

A second key factor is the considerable difference in popularity of those leading the charge of the opposing camps. Santos has been struggling with low poll numbers, in part due to the country’s ongoing economic difficulties, but also — in no small measure — due to the frustration with a prolonged and secretive peace process. Uribe, in contrast, though a polarizing figure with a controversial record, is an effective communicator, indefatigable, and with a common touch — perceived as less elitist than Santos. Uribe successfully framed the agreement as “Santos’s peace,” contrasting it with a “real peace” that would become possible only if Colombians voted against the referendum. As the online Colombian publication La Silla Vacia headlined its lead story on Monday, “Uribe Is Still the King”.

There were also problems with within the “yes” campaign. Proponents of the deal should have put forth a more affirmative, clearer message about its merits and a realistic sense of the social and economic gains that could materialize. Instead, they stressed the negative consequences of a “no” victory, associating it with continued war, and then celebrated the inking of deal with the international community before the Colombian people actually had their say, which clearly has now backfired.

Meanwhile, the “no” campaign instilled fear by warning that a “yes” result — and FARC participation in politics — would mean the entrance of Bolivarian socialism in Colombia, using the collapse of neighboring Venezuela as a warning. Most striking is that both campaigns together managed to garner merely 37 percent of registered voters. That a substantial majority of Colombians did not even participate in such a crucial election reveals the wide chasm between politics and public opinion in Colombia.

In the end, most Colombians did not accept the binary choice the Santos government posed between the peace agreement and a return of the war. After all, a ceasefire with the FARC has been in place since July 2015 and, even before the vote, the guerrilla group confirmed that the violent conflict was definitely over and their demobilization irreversible. If that is the case, Colombians understandably asked, why not wait for a better agreement? What are the costs of voting “no”?

Looking ahead, although the rejection of the peace agreement has increased uncertainty in Colombia about what happens next, early reactions from the key players have been largely conciliatory and heartening. In remarks Sunday night, both Santos and Uribe were constructive, agreeing that the best approach would be to continue the pursuit for peace while attempting to renegotiate the most contentious issues in the deal. The core issues will be on greater justice for the FARC’s most heinous crimes, more restrictions on the group’s participation in the political system, and increased assurance that its fighters would not be a position to continue criminal activity.

Of course, the major question is whether the FARC, having reached agreement with the government on these fundamental issues, will be amenable to surrendering some of the concessions they have already received. Their options are limited. It is difficult to imagine that, having arrived at this point — with the government and the guerrillas talking about the benefits of the “post conflict” space and after over four years of intensive negotiations in Havana — the FARC would resume the war against the government. This, of course, will depend on whether FARC’s leaders are still capable of maintaining control over its fighters, which is by no means certain. Increased destabilization cannot be ruled out.

There is a risk that FARC members, sensing that an eventual renegotiated peace deal may be less beneficial for them, will opt to join other violent actors like the ELN and criminal groups, who will seek to take advantage of the uncertainty in the country. Encouragingly, after Sunday’s defeat Timochenko said that the FARC has “changed weapons into words,” and suggested he was open to continued dialogue. As always, however, the devil is in the details. The widely cited claim that the current deal was the only one that was politically possible will be put to a test.

Further, while political actors figure out how to proceed after the surprising result, the implementation of the agreement will be delayed, with two major negative implications. First, even though the guerrilla group will maintain its ceasefire, FARC members are not demobilizing anytime soon, which means that they will continue criminal activities, including drug-trafficking. Secondly, this uncertainty will likely worry foreign investors, delay plans for rural development, and prevent Colombia from enjoying any economic “peace dividend” that could come as a result of a definite deal.

Though the scenario of a return to war seems highly improbable, renegotiating some parts of the nearly 300-page agreement will be far from easy. Apart from the FARC’s unpredictability, it will undoubtedly be difficult for Santos and Uribe to join forces. There is a lot of bad blood between these two men and passions are intense. Santos, who served as Uribe’s defense minister and presided over some of the most important victories against the FARC, believes the former president has undermined him at every turn and has put his political ambitions ahead of the country’s interests. Uribe, for his part, is convinced that Santos betrayed him — and the country — by undertaking a peace initiative that ended up giving far too much to the FARC.

The silver lining in Sunday’s vote is that it forces both sides of a nation that has become bitterly polarized over this peace process to come together and try and work out a solution. Indeed, the most promising note of all was that Colombians across the spectrum have reacted with admirable equanimity and without rancor to Sunday’s surprising vote.

The citizens of Colombia certainly don’t want war and — based on their initial reaction to the results — neither does the FARC. But are they ready to give peace another chance?

Photo Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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