Why Colombians rejected peace deal with the Farc

Country’s long history of violence and its tortured politics offer possible explanations

Top commanders of the 'Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia' (Farc) react as a referendum on a peace deal with the Colombian government is rejected by 50.24% of voters. Video: Ruptly


It could not have been closer: by a margin of one-half of 1 per cent, the people of Colombia rejected a peace agreement that would have brought a formal end to 52 years of civil war and allowed the last 7,000 fighters of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) to reintegrate into the nation’s life and politics.

With their votes, Colombians have highlighted the country’s profound geographic and political divisions – and left their country, once again, on the edge of the unknown.

What President Juan Manuel Santos presented to the voters as a historic opportunity has turned into a political nightmare. It was a deal supported by everyone from Barack Obama to Pope Francis – although conservative church leaders in Colombia had maintained a notable silence on the subject.

Perhaps reassured by polls that predicted a comfortable win, the president’s administration, as one insider remarked last week, had no plan B.

Peace offer

Colombia’s long history of violence and its tortured politics offer possible explanations.

One is that Santos is not personally popular. By putting himself and Farc commander-in-chief Timochenko front and centre of the agreement, and the lavish signing ceremony organised a week before the referendum, he alienated as many voters as he attracted.

Former far-right president Álvaro Uribe argued that Colombia would end up with a left-wing dictatorship once the ex-guerrillas entered politics.

Repeated hints from supporters of the president that he and Timochenko were in line for a Nobel Peace Prize did not help. Why should a guerrilla leader with so much blood on his hands, people complained, be honoured with such a prize?

Uribe campaigned for “no” for reasons of ideology as well as self-interest. Under his presidency (2002-2010), killings by the army and far-right militia escalated to new heights, as did the land grabs that fuelled much of the violence in that phase of the war.

A survey last year found that nearly half of Colombia’s land is owned by 0.4 per cent of the population. Even had the agreement passed, few of those who gained land through paramilitary violence were ready to hand it back.

In the days before the referendum, prospective voters the Uribe stronghold of Medellín offered a range of reasons to vote No: that Farc would be allowed to keep its ill-gotten gains; that once the ex-guerrillas entered politics, Colombia would end up with a left-wing dictatorship; that ordinary people would have to pay for the deal while the men of violence reaped the gains of the peace; and that those with blood on their hands would not be punished for past crimes.

It remains to be seen whether Farc will finally put down their guns and accept less favourable terms: Colombia’s capacity for violence of both the far left and the far right, is undiminished, and Timochenko’s authority has been shaken by this shock result.

Reach peace

Few Colombians will have been moved by this declaration of love from a movement with the Farc’s record of kidnapping and violence.

And, gigantic love aside, it would be no surprise if many of the Farc rank and file were to reach nervously for their weapons and return to their bases.