Why war-torn Colombia didn't vote for peace
By NICK MIROFF | The Washington Post | Published: October 3, 2016
BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia's president moved quickly Monday to try to keep alive a peace bid with Marxist rebels after voters issued a shocking rejection of the pact - throwing into doubt efforts to end five decades of conflict and leaving both sides scrambling to plot their next moves.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who had warned there was no Plan B, ordered the cease-fire with Marxist rebels to remain in effect and dispatched envoys for emergency talks with rebel commanders in the wake of Sunday's referendum outcome on the carefully constructed 297-page peace deal.
The deal with the rebels, known as the Revolutionary Army Forces of Colombia (FARC) became a hard sell with voters because of the terms. They included what many critics called a wrist-slap for FARC commanders whose guerrilla tactics included bombings, kidnappings, murders, drug trafficking and the forced recruitment of minors.
As the fallout widened, Colombia's peso currency fell sharply against the dollar in early trading Monday.
Like the Britons who chose to break with Europe, Colombians opted for uncertainty over the assurances of their leaders, panning the heavily promoted peace accord Santos had signed with FARC leaders in a lofty ceremony less than a week earlier.
The narrow, unexpected defeat of the deal is the latest example of a popular backlash that has bucked polling data and defied elite opinion. The government's agreement with FARC had taken nearly six years to negotiate, winning the support of the United States, the United Nations and Pope Francis. Ringo Starr even recorded a song for it.
It didn't matter.
"If Colombians were dinosaurs, we would vote for the meteorite," read one meme circulating on social media among crestfallen supporters of the peace deal, unable Monday to fathom why their compatriots hadn't gone along with what seemed to them to be an obvious, rational choice.
But this country's half-century conflict is an unconventional one, a Cold War hangover stumbling through the 21st century in a haze of drugs, land disputes and the quirks of Colombian politics. That a modernizing, middle-income nation of 50 million would still have thousands of heavily-armed guerrillas living in the jungles and fighting for Marxist-Leninist revolution in 2016 says more about the fragmentation of Colombia's rugged geography and culture of political violence than it does about ideology.
"Every Colombian wants peace," the cliché here goes.
Only most Colombians have been living with this war all their lives, and Sunday they showed they are willing to risk a little more belligerence to achieve a more satisfying way to end it.
Since 1964, when government troops attacked a hamlet of rebellious communist peasants who went on to form the FARC, more than 220,000 Colombians have been killed and at least 7 million driven from their homes.
Santos's attempt to negotiate an armistice was the fourth try at a negotiated peace deal, and no other has come nearly as far. But it was also his idea to hold a final referendum on the accord, to fortify it with a democratic mandate.
He framed the choice as a matter of war or peace, life or death, all or nothing. The majority of Colombian voters didn't see it that way.
Nor, apparently, did the 62 percent of eligible voters who didn't show up on Sunday, despite the president's insistence that Colombians were facing the most important political decision of their lifetimes.
That Santos and the rebels had already signed the deal in an official ceremony, one of several in which they publicly declared "the war is over," also may have sapped turnout by giving Colombians the impression that it was true.
Sunday's peace vote won in many of the areas where the war has taken the heaviest toll: in the country's Amazonian lowlands and along its Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and among poorer communities of indigenous and Afro Colombians. It won here in the globalized, left-leaning capital, Bogota.
But across Colombia's more traditional, high-altitude conservative heartland, the peace deal went down in flames.
"We insist that corrections need to be made to respect the Constitution, not replace it," former president and senator Álvaro Uribe, who led the opposition to the accord, said in a statement late Sunday calling for a "national pact" to rework the deal.
The "transitional justice" element of the peace accord would have allowed FARC leaders to avoid prison if they fully confessed their crimes and made reparations to victims.
Uribe likened this to "total impunity" that undermined the rule of law in Colombia, predicting it would be "the mother of new violence." He also opposed provisions that would have granted the FARC 10 seats in Colombia's congress through 2026.
Now the fate of the peace accord - and any possible attempt to salvage it - is in Uribe's hands.
The son of a cattle rancher killed by the FARC, he is the guerrillas' archenemy, and the animosity between them is the deepest and most bitter of the Colombian conflict.
Yet Sunday's outcome means it may be impossible to produce a viable 2.0 peace accord unless Uribe and his political supporters get behind it.
FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (guerrilla alias: "Timochenko") said in Havana on Sunday night that the rebels remain committed to ending the war, and that "peace will triumph."
But he now faces a major crisis and test of leadership. Uribe may offer a form of amnesty to the rank-and-file troops of FARC's nearly 5,800 fighters, but he will almost certainly insist on a peace deal with far tougher terms for the FARC commanders who have long insisted that they are not willing to go to prison.
Santos ordered his negotiating team to fly Monday to Havana, where the negotiations have taken place, for emergency meetings with FARC commanders. He said he also wants to meet with opposition leaders to seek their support for a new peace deal.
One U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate state of Colombian politics, said a national unity coalition that could transcend Uribe's rivalry with Santos and produce a new, broadly supported peace accord could be a better outcome.
But the country is deeply polarized. Until it's clear how much of the peace accord will have to be rewritten to appease its opponents, there's no guarantee that Colombia's war won't flare up again.