BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Álvaro Uribe, the two-term former leader (2002-2010) of Colombia that now leads the opposition, has urged his followers to vote against President Juan Manuel Santos’ plebiscite on the implementation of a peace deal that would end 52 years of war between government forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Last month, Santos announced that Colombian Army would finally join the FARC in their months-long ceasefire, which has cleared the way for the definitive signing of the peace agreement in the coming weeks.
Indeed, peace negotiations came to an end on July 20, the same day that Colombia celebrated the 206th anniversary of its independence day. Now, the only action that remains to be taken is the vote on the unanimous approval of the peace deal at the next internal FARC conference, which is expected to take place sometime this month and where the vote is expected to easily pass.
The earliest announcement of a deal came in September of 2015 when Santos, along with the FARC’s top leader Timoleón Jiménez “Timochenko” (whose real name is Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri), said that an agreement would be coming six months from then (March of 2016).
This meant that the two sides had just 180 days to agree upon how the final points of the peace talks (end of the conflict, surrender of weapons and demobilization) would be defined. Bumps in the road, mostly due to wording and the subsequent re-working of texts, presented themselves and the deadline was postponed.
The peace talks in question between the FARC, Latin America’s oldest insurgency group, and the Colombian government, started in October of 2012 initially in Oslo, Norway and then continued in Havana, Cuba with the hopes of ending a conflict that has lasted over half a century.
In reaction to a ultraviolent crackdown on peasant organizations, the FARC militarized in 1964. As the primary guerrilla force, the FARC rebels have been engaged in war with the Colombian government since then, a war that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced nearly seven million more.
So far, an agreement on land reform has been achieved during the peace talks, along with the group’s future political participation and the topic of the illicit drug trade. The last point that was agreed upon, which was transitional justice, carried with it the sub-point of suspect and victim recognition and reparation, the most sensitive subject given that it concerned all those affected by the conflict. As such, it was also the longest point as negotiations about the victims lasted 18 months.
When the final agreement is eventually signed as expected, the Colombian public will have to ultimately approve it via public referendum which will likely take place in September. Poll numbers indicate that the public will certainly approve and pave the way for the peace agreement to be signed into law.
The delays never put the peace process in jeopardy, but they did make some Colombians skeptical about the outcome. One of the voices that sought to capitalize on this skepticism was the most outspoken opponent of the peace talks, Uribe, the former Colombian leader (2002-2010) and Santos’ predecessor.
By using baseless evidence, hearsay and his own theories, Uribe has sought to undermine the talks and has continued with the same rhetoric since returning to politics as a Senator with his right-wing Democratic Center party in July of 2014.
Prior to forming the Democratic Center in 2013, Uribe belonged to the Social Party of National Unity (La U), a party founded in 2005 by a group of right-leaning dissidents led by Uribe of the centrist Colombian Liberal Party (to which Santos still belongs). Santos, Uribe’s understudy and Defense Minister, then succeeded Uribe as President but after a clash over ideology, Uribe has repeatedly criticized Santos and formed the said Democratic Center which has become the biggest opposition party in the Senate.
Thus, Uribe, a man with links to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups and sectors of the Armed Forces, and his party wield a great deal of public influence and have made their feelings on the process known, even comparing the Islamic State to the FARC and saying that there is no difference between what the former has done in Paris and Brussels and what the FARC did in Colombia. This is despite the fact that during the ongoing peace talks, the level of violence has fallen to the lowest point ever observed since the beginning of the conflict.
Unable to stop the progress of the peace talks, Uribe has now focused his attention on the upcoming plebiscite, the future holding of which was recently approved by the Colombian Constitutional Court.
“The only option we have left is to vote ‘no’ on the plebiscite,” Uribe said this week during a rally for his Democratic Center followers. In addition, he took to Twitter as he usually does and urged Colombians to “learn how to say no” and to spread their opinions to family members, friends co-workers and across their social networks.
“This courageous reaction to reject this half-baked proposal comes from those that have been left without options, and this reaction is to vote ‘no’ on the illegitimate plebiscite. It is illegitimate because it only asks a question and lowers the threshold to only 13 percent with the excuse that it is a one-time act,” Uribe said.
Uribe’s colleagues in the Democratic Center used a softer tone, saying that their ‘no’ votes are not in favor of war but “a wish for the correction of the serious errors committed in Havana by the government negotiators in the wording and structuralization of the peace agreement.”
The reason for the rejection of the peace talks, according to opponents, is because it “promotes a culture of impunity and sets a precedent for other illegal groups.” The reason they say this is because of their disagreement with the judicial aspect of the segment dealing with transitional justice, which outlines the creation of a new jurisdiction for peace.
The special jurisdiction will have the power to oversee cases concerning crimes committed within the context of the war against former guerrillas and guerrilla leaders along with agents of the State from any regional and national security agency. The courts will also be split into two parts: one segment would deal with individuals that “recognize truth and responsibility” and turn themselves in while the other segment would deal with fugitive suspects, and it was made known that the State would give the broadest possible amnesty for political crimes and related offenses, and drug trafficking crimes could possibly fall under that category.
However, it was outlined that there would be no amnesty for crimes that are outlined in international legislation like crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes including kidnapping, hostage-taking, forced displacement, torture, sexual violence, forced disappearance and extrajudicial execution.
The sentences for those accused of crimes against humanity who turn themselves in will be somewhere between five and eight years, and those sentences, depending on gravity and enrollment in re-socialization programs, could be served in an environment ranging from house arrest to general prison. On the other hand, those that do not recognize their crimes and are captured and investigated face sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
“We accept that some of the rank-and-file guerrillas will not be imprisoned, but to reduce possible sentences for those most responsible is to give rise to more future violence and to destabilize our national judicial system,” Uribe said.
In relation to the plebiscite, Uribe and other opponents have criticized the fact that a low level of approval is needed. In Colombia, Article 7 of Law 134 of 1994 outlines that a plebiscite, or a public vote, is the voice of the nation’s people that approves or rejects a decision made by the Executive.
In this case, Colombians will respond with either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the text that has already been overseen and approved by the Constitutional Court. This plebiscite would only need to receive more than 13 percent of the electorate’s votes, which is just under 4.5 million votes. If the ‘no’ votes outnumber the ‘yes’ votes, or if the ‘yes’ votes simply do not add up to the aforementioned number, the agreement will be negated.
In response to the critics, President Santos has admitted that the peace process “certainly is not perfect,” but it is still “much better than an all-out war.”
“Peace is not perfect and nobody is going to be one hundred percent satisfied, nor will we solve all of our problems the day we sign the agreement, but I say once again that this is definitively better than war,” he said in an interview with Colombian daily ‘El Espectador.’
In reaction to what he said was the “deliberate proliferation of misinformation,” Santos reminded that there is full transparency: the full text of the plebiscite and peace agreement will be made available to the public and it will be explained to the people through a mass media campaign that will last at least a month, including in the printed press, national radio and television outlets (public and private), web pages, social networks and a rural outreach campaign.
Furthermore, Santos reiterated that his government will not be able to divert any funds toward campaign finances. Likewise, no politician or statesman will be able to use public money to campaign either for or against the implementation of the peace agreement.
While no public funds can be used in swaying people to vote ‘yes,’ ‘no’ or to abstain, political parties, movements and social and civic organizations can make their opinions on the topic clearly and officially known if they register their campaigns with the National Electoral Council, which will also place monetary limits on those campaigns in the interest of fairness and transparency.
Regardless of the dissenting opinions of Uribe and his Democratic Center colleagues, however, polls have shown that Colombians will strongly support the plebiscite and subsequent peace deal, even if some are still skeptical of an eventual agreement altogether.
Furthermore, the ‘yes’ campaign also has the support of most other political parties, labor and trade unions, religious institutions and the rural and peasant associations whose regions have been most affected by the violence, not to mention the firm support of the world’s governments and international bodies like the United Nations (UN) and many others. In fact, the UN has already eagerly committed to oversee the ceasefire and the handover of weapons by the FARC.