October 2016 was bittersweet for Colombia. At the beginning of the month, voters narrowly rejected a peace agreement that the government had negotiated with the guerrilla group known as FARC. The “No” vote won by less than a half a percentage point, 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent. All the polls in the run-up to the referendum had predicted an easy victory for the “Yes” camp – some predicted it would win by more than 10 percent. The international community, for its part, had voiced virtually unanimous support for the agreement. Then, just a few days after the vote, President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the nearly 50-year war with FARC.
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What happened? And, how can the peace process be saved?
As to the first question, the answer appears to be the effectiveness of the loud, insistent opposition to the accord led by former President Alvaro Uribe. The “No” campaign focused intensely on the provision that would allow guerrilla fighters to go free without serving time in prison if their wrongdoing did not amount to crimes against humanity. Many voters who otherwise favored the peace process opposed this level of impunity for people who had caused harm to millions throughout the country.
This suggests that if some correction to this provision were made in future negotiations with FARC, a revised deal would win popular approval. A poll following the referendum found that nearly three-quarters of Colombians favored the effort to end the conflict.
Former President Uribe appeared to be the biggest winner of the referendum results
In the aftermath of the referendum, the FARC leadership has shown itself capable of controlling its cadre. Still, the risk remains that the guerrilla movements could fragment, lending strength to a smaller group, the ELN. The ELN did not participate in the peace talks but recently agreed to begin discussions with the government. This, in turn, could lead to violent episodes scattered throughout the country.
At first, former President Uribe appeared to be the biggest winner of the referendum results. However, he has also put himself in the vulnerable position of being opposed to peace when a growing majority of Colombians favor an agreement if it eliminates impunity for fighters.
It is disturbing that Mr. Uribe succeeded in focusing opposition to impunity on FARC. At the same time, he obscured the need to prosecute criminals in the paramilitary groups that were created by the military in cooperation with large landowners in rural parts of the country. This occurred mainly during Uribe’s first term as president, between 2002 and 2006.
Over the past two decades, these paramilitaries have morphed into organized criminal gangs known in Spanish as BACRIM (from bandas criminales). They have taken over the drug trade in huge portions of the country and have been responsible for most of the violence over the past decade. According to the National Center for Historical Memory, the paramilitaries were responsible for nearly 60 percent of all the massacres recorded since 1980. The Center also found that the paramilitary killed twice as many people as the guerrillas during the decade from 1995 to 2005. Many of Mr. Uribe’s ultraconservative allies among the large landowners actually benefited from the widespread expulsion of smallholders, a tactic practiced both by the FARC and the paramilitary.
The paramilitaries were responsible for nearly 60 percent of all the massacres recorded since 1980
Mr. Uribe also pandered to this conservative base by associating the peace process with the Santos government’s “ungodly” social progressive measures, such as ending the restriction on same-sex marriage, and improving the legal status of the LGBT community. The collateral damage that came from this approach was the resignation of the minister of education, the only openly gay member of President Santos’ cabinet. Colombia is among the most socially conservative countries in Latin America and one of the most unequal. Part of the damage done by Mr. Uribe’s campaign against the peace agreement was to stir up opposition to any kind of social progress.
To achieve peace now, President Santos must negotiate changes in the accord and make sure that his supporters in the international community, especially in South America, maintain the pressure on former President Uribe and FARC to accept a viable, reasonable agreement.