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Colombian Referendum - No to peace?

October 5, 2016

Full disclaimer, I am not Colombian, but I have spend time there this year working on the peace process. 


On Sunday 2nd October 2016, Colombians took to the polls to ratify a peace deal with the FARC. 50.2% of people voted against it. But in order to understand this fully, we need to start at the beginning. 


Who are the FARC, and what is the conflict?


The fighting officially began in what’s called La Violencia, the civil war between the Conservative and Liberal parties from 1948-1958. During this period, right-wing paramilitaries were introduced to Colombia by the US military to tackle the rise of rural communist groups. The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), are a communist guerrilla group who claim to represent the rural poor against the urban elite. However, they formed in 1966 in response to pressure from both the military and the paramilitary. And a year before the FARC formed, the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) a left-wing group was founded by students, Catholic radicals and intellectuals, inspired by the Cuban revolution.

As time progressed, the FARC would grow through revenue from narco-trafficking. The Paramilitaries and ELN also began to enter the drug trade and profit immensely. In the 90s, the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) an umbrella organisation bringing together many paramilitary groups and backed by economic elites and some politicians was formed. Although the AUC demobilised in 2006, the paramilitary are still active to this day, something the government does not acknowledge, instead referring to criminal gangs or Bandas Criminales (Bacrim). The UN High Commission for Refugees has stated this lack of recognition of the paramilitary activity is a failure on behalf of the government, as it is overlooking a key actor in the conflict. 

To say that the fighting in Colombia is between the government and the FARC is a huge oversimplification. Numerous armed groups, official and unofficial, with differing ideologies and motivations, and the government itself are still involved in what is one of the world’s longest running civil wars. It is important to remember this latest peace deal and referendum only involved two of the parties, the FARC and the government. To understand why this was such an important and divisive issue for Colombians, we need to understand more about the conflict. 



Conflict in Colombia 


The conflict has killed over 220,000 people, and displaced millions. In a country of 48 million people, the total number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) is over 6 million, with the average victim displaced three or four times. This places Colombia second only to Syria in terms of the number displaced people (7 million). Armed groups forcibly remove people for land to grow coca plants (used to make cocaine) and extract other resources. Sometimes the armed groups act as mercenaries for large mining companies, who want to secure the land for extraction. Forcible removal combined with the fear of violence, kidnappings, extortion, land mines, gender-based and sexual violence and forced youth recruitment results in 200,000 people being newly displaced every year - most IDPs moving to urban areas to avoid further violence. The conflict disproportionately affects women and children, and those whom are already poor and vulnerable, resulting in a poverty cycle where the poor become poorer. The majority of those displaced are from afro-Caribbean and indigenous communities.


Peace Deal


Most governments since the 1980s have tried and failed to end the conflict. The current President, Juan Manuel Santos, reopened previously failed peace talks in 2012 in Havana, and a peace agreement was signed in 2016 between the government and FARC. For this to be ratified, the population needed to agree, hence the referendum. However there remained strong opposition to the peace deal, led by ex-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez. When he was in office (2002-2010), he was determined to end the conflict through force, and was strongly opposed to reconciliation. At the height of his offensive against the FARC in 2008, President Uribe aided by the US, ordered an airstrike on a guerrilla base located over the border in Ecuador. This lead to Ecuador and Venezuela moving troops to their Colombian borders, and diplomats being recalled.


From time spent in Colombia just before the referendum, interviewing people working on the peace process, there was skepticism of a deal being done for three main reasons:


  1. Misinformation. Most people we interviewed who were working on the peace deal were convinced it would fail due to the misinformation out there. The narrative was ‘we shouldn’t let these criminals off.’ Uribe was a driving force behind this. 

  2. The deal only included the FARC. Although ELN also agreed to begin peace talks in 2016,  there was no mention of the Paramilitaries, who were the main agent behind the displacement. 

  3. Power vacuum. Even if the FARC deal was agreed, and an ELN peace deal were to follow, and the Paramilitaries were later included in a deal, what would happen to the land that was previously controlled by them? In political theory, there is no absence of power. The concern was new incarnations of the old groups would form, and the conflict would continue.




Less than 38% of the eligible voters turned out. The ‘no’ vote won by 50.2% to 49.8%, a difference of less than 54,000 votes out of almost 13 million that were cast. What’s more, the areas which had experienced the most violence - the pacific coast, the south-west, and the Venezuelan border - were the ones to vote yes to a deal, and those that had experienced the least violence voted no.




Moving forward


It’s important to stress there is no right or wrong here.  This is a highly complex and emotional issue. Many of those who voted no claim the government were too soft on the guerrillas, and that they were being rewarded and not punished for their crimes. 

For those from the areas most affected who voted yes, this deal was seen as a compromise on behalf of both parties, that would bring about the end of decades of conflict. It was seen as a chance for unity, and a chance to start the healing process. There is now a renewed fear of a return to the days of bombs and open violence. 

The government’s negotiators have flown back to Havana to resume talks, and negotiators have also been sent to Uribe’s party to salvage the process. Uribe was strongly opposed to stipulations in the deal that meant FARC leaders would avoid jail time if they confessed their crimes, and allowing them to run for public office. Both the FARC and Santos have said they will maintain a cease-fire. In terms of renegotiation however, the FARC leader Timochenko has indicated the FARC ‘will remain faithful to what has already been agreed’.


Perhaps the most significant issue in all of this is a voter turnout of 37.41%. For such an important and divisive issue, this lack of engagement with the electorate is worrying. A yes vote would not have brought peace overnight; would ex-combatants have been accepted in society? What happens to the other armed groups involved? What happens if new ones emerge?  


My personal opinion is this referendum was not about answering all those questions, but making a positive step towards peace. As an outsider, I fear that a no vote is a step backwards. 

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