World View: Back to the drawing board in Colombia

Most Colombians want peace but many could not bring themselves to vote for it

A voter casts her ballot in the referendum on a peace accord  between the Farc and the Colombian state last Sunday. The  referendum was defeated by a narrow margin. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A voter casts her ballot in the referendum on a peace accord between the Farc and the Colombian state last Sunday. The referendum was defeated by a narrow margin. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images


That only one in three (37 per cent) should turn out to vote in Colombia’s “peace” referendum last weekend is almost as shocking as the narrow No vote. There was a bare half percentage point in the difference.

At stake was an end to a 52-year war that has touched every family, hobbled the economy, cost 220,000 dead and 45,000 disappeared, and seen some six million displaced from their homes. And yet they stayed home.

The explanations seem lame: appalling weather in the coastal regions most likely to support the deal; complacency and a failure to campaign in the government Yes camp.

Ultimately, however, what tipped it was probably a sense that although most people wanted peace, and even bought in reluctantly to the uncomfortable logic of a deal that would rehabilitate and forgive the rebel Farc group, many voters, assured by pollsters – a two-to-one Yes predicted up to the day of the vote – that others would give it a majority, simply could not bring themselves to go out and vote it through. Someone else could do that.

But the belief that there is in reality an unexpressed majority for the peace deal is cold comfort to those who have laboured for six years in Havana to reach an agreement. There is no plan B.

Ceasefire extension

CubaColombiaJuan Manuel Santos

Any prospect for a new deal – clearly it will have to be based on the same broad framework – will depend to a great extent on the willingness of the architect of the No vote, former president Alvaro Uribe, to engage formally or informally with the renegotiation. His campaign slogan was the vague – “We want peace, but not this peace” – and he, no more than the government, did not expect this result and has not made clear where they go now, beyond demanding more concessions from Farc.

A populist hard-right politician whose father died in a botched Farc kidnapping attempt, Uribe governed Colombia from 2002 to 2010 – he was constitutionally denied a third term. He is likened to Donald Trump, but perhaps more appropriately Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ new president who boasts of extrajudicial killings of over 1,500 drug dealers. Uribe – in whose cabinet Santos served prior to their falling out – waged an extremely brutal war against Farc and the rural poor using the army, and unofficially condoned anti-communist right-wing militias.

During a previous attempt to bring Farc in from the cold, its militants faced an assassination campaign from the militias in which thousands died. Not surprisingly they view a new reintegration process with apprehension.

For most “Uribistas”, the big grievances with the peace deal were the idea that guerrillas would be “rewarded” for their violence with modest government stipends to help resettle them , and the deal’s transitional-justice package. Mid-level and senior officers responsible for crimes, from both sides of the war, were to receive “restorative” sentences, rather than prison, in exchange for full confessions.

Punishment terms

The logic of the deal, which owes a great deal to the North’s Belfast Agreement and its provisions for both independent supervision of weapons decommissioning and the release of “terrorists”, is ultimately based on the conviction held by leaders on both sides that the war is unwinnable and an accommodation in which there were to be no winners or losers is the best outcome.

It’s a difficult message to sell, although the war-weary regions most afflicted by Farc violence and kidnappings supported the agreement by a majority. However, in the department of Antioquia, where Uribe got his political start as a champion of paramilitary death squads, 62 per cent of voters cast a No vote.

Importantly for the prospects of new talks, Uribe has in the past accepted the principle of amnesty-for-disarmament. During his presidency tens of thousands of the right-wing paramilitaries, many linked to his own party, accepted his offer. Most were allowed to return to civilian life without any punishment, although many are believed to be back in the cocaine trade.

What is sauce for the goose . . . The only hope is that Uribe’s pragmatism and ambition for another term will see him want take part ownership of new talks to forge a way back from this disastrous No vote.