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Voting Against Peace in Colombia

Those of us who study how to end wars rather than find new ways to prosecute them must be stunned, like many Colombians, by a popular vote there on October 2 that rejected the peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  No one predicted that after over five decades of fighting and more than 200,000 deaths, a peace agreement that took six years to conclude would be rejected.  It’s a lesson in how the power of emotion—vengefulness, specifically—and narrow self-interest can overcome good sense.  The general perception of observers is that voters who suffered from the civil war wanted to see the FARC rebels punished rather than “rewarded” with the opportunity to reenter civil society and even hold a guaranteed number of seats in the national congress.

Most civil wars end in much the same way as Colombia’s—with one side badly hurting and willing to disarm under a cease-fire, provided the government promises assistance so that the rebellious soldiers can reintegrate in civil society.  Negotiations to reach such an agreement typically are arduous and often seem to be on the brink of failure.  Long-held grievances come to life again and again, and it is a tribute to negotiators that they were able to come to any substantive agreement at all.  So it was with high expectations that an agreement was reached, and the decision of Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, to put it to a popular vote showed his confidence that citizens weary of war would accept it.  Five days after the vote, he was rewarded for his efforts with the Nobel Peace Prize.

That Colombians did not endorse the agreement evidently owes much to the politicians who campaigned for a “no” vote, including former president Àlvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC.  He argues that the peace agreement is too soft on FARC leaders, allowing them to avoid prison merely by confessing their crimes and promising to make restitution to victims.  According to one observer who opposes the peace accord, “Essentially, FARC members would have received the same legal power to prosecute Colombian government officials and vice versa. The rejected deal would also have shielded an unknown number of FARC guerillas from jail for drug trafficking, recruitment of child soldiers, and other crimes.” The many thousands of people whose families were directly impacted by FARC killings and kidnappings obviously agreed.

The razor-thin “no” vote (50.2 percent to 49.7 percent) also may be attributed to the bizarre fact that only 38 percent of eligible voters voted.  Perhaps this was a Brexit-like situation in which many people stayed away from the polls on the assumption a “yes” vote was fairly certain. But the “no” voters were well entrenched, including not only Uribe’s party but also “the majority of the churches, the ELN [the National Liberation Army, the second-largest guerrilla force], business sectors . . ., and the majority of landowners, who were all against the proposed changes.” The right-wing groups not only considered President Santos’ peace plan soft on FARC; they also objected to his support of gay rights, reforms of land policy, and investment in rural development.

It was under Uribe, not coincidentally, that the US became a major participant in Colombia’s civil war.  Under “Plan Colombia” the US provided the Colombian military with advanced weapons (such as Blackhawk helicopters) and intelligence (under a top-secret multi-billion dollar CIA program) that escalated the violence and decimated the FARC’s ranks.  A FARC leader is quoted as saying that it faced “an international intervention, and it took a toll.”  Civilian deaths and the displacement of about seven million people followed, caused in no small part by officially sanctioned right-wing death squads.

Some US officials believe that intervention “saved” Colombia from endless civil war by forcing FARC to the bargaining table.  That is hardly an argument for peacemaking; the “no” vote was actually a defeat for the US policy of peace through war.  Plan Colombia was to a great extent responsible for destroying, either through deaths or displacements, the lives of roughly 15 percent of the total population.  Now the US supports a negotiated settlement, but still keeps FARC on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations List.  The Santos government and FARC have agreed to continue a cease-fire until December 31.

We may hope the parties will be guided by the need for rehabilitation and reconstruction rather than vengeance—for peace rather than retributive justice.

As President Santos said, “Making peace is much more difficult than making war because you need to change sentiments of people, people who have suffered, to try to persuade them to forgive.”

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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