BOGOTÁ, Colombia – In a shocking development, the peace deal between government forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has suffered a setback after the public, heavily influenced by political manipulation, voter turnout and outright lies by former leaders, voted against it by a razor-thin margin.
By a count of 50.21 percent to 49.78 percent, or 6,431,376 to 6,377,482 votes in bulk, ‘No’ defeated ‘Yes’ in the public referendum on ratifying the peace agreement.
Overwhelmingly, the areas most affected by decades of brutal violence (along with the less-affected capital Bogotá) voted in favor of peace, while interior regions rejected the agreement. Perhaps the result would have been different if more individuals had voted; the turnout nationwide was only 37.44 percent.
According to Colombia’s National Civil Registry, the agency charged with carrying out the referendum, the abstention rate was highest in those affected regions.
For example, several regions that were ravaged that are located away from the interior had incredibly high abstention rates: La Guajira (80.61 percent), Bolívar (76.67 percent), Atlántico (75.90 percent) and Magdalena (75.56 percent), just to name a few. It was also thought that the abstention rates of several northeastern Departments near the Caribbean, who were clearly in favor of the peace agreement, was raised even further by high winds and torrential downpours due to Hurricane Matthew.
In fact, of the 19 Departments where the turnout rate was lower than the national average, the ‘No’ vote emerged victorious in only two and even then, it was internally divided by geography. On the other hand, the ‘No’ vote won in 11 of the 15 Departments where the turnout rate was higher than the national average.
The single largest source of ‘No’ votes came from the Department (State) of Antioquia in the northwestern region of the country. The capital city of Antioquia, Medellín, is the second-largest city in the nation and is the home of Álvaro Uribe, the former Colombian leader (2002-2010) who used his political influence to sway Colombians to vote against the peace agreement.
In fact, just the four Departments of Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Norte de Santander and Santander, all of which have large urban areas, contributed more than 2.3 million of the total 6.4 milion ‘No’ votes.
The result was a shock for many Colombians and international observers alike as polls had shown for weeks that the ‘Yes’ vote held a comfortable lead.
The blow to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who less than a week ago shook hands with Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri ‘Timochenko,’ the leader of the FARC as the two men signed the definitive peace agreement, was palpable as an air of uncertainty has now prevailed in Colombia.
Last weekend, the FARC wrapped up its X Conference, a congress of sorts for the guerrillas, where days of internal debate and vote resulted in the ratification of the peace agreement with the government. With the decision, the FARC has officially ceased to function as an armed rebel group and now starts the process of converting into a political party.
Thus, on a stage in Yarí, a small town in the green and lush forests of Colombia’s southern region of Caquetá, Timochenko proclaimed that members of the FARC “finally have a second chance on Earth” to cheers and applause from over 200 blocks (units) of the group’s members that came from all across the nation.
Just days later in the northern coastal city of Cartagena, Londoño and Santos signed the agreement during a solemn but hopeful ceremony attended by 2,400 people dressed in white, among which were 400 war victims, 17 heads of state (and several former leaders), 27 foreign ministers and leaders of international organizations including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor Kofi Annan.
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.
“In the name of the FARC, I offer a sincere apology to all of the victims of the conflict,” said Timochenko, and in the interest of leaving aside his nom de guerre and presenting his civil side, he presented himself as Rodrigo Londoño, his birth name.
“This liberation of the individual and group as a whole is what allows the permission for forgiveness. The forgiveness not only then emotionally liberates the people accepting that forgiveness but, even more so, the person asking for that forgiveness,” added President Santos.
Fast forward to this week, however, and the peace process is in jeopardy. In an attempt to keep the calm, Santos and Londoño said that the bilateral ceasefire still remains in effect. In more gestures, the FARC said they would still hand over their finances to victims’ groups as planned and that they had already destroyed more than 600 kilograms (1,325 pounds) of explosives.
“I will continue to seek peace until the very last minute of my presidential term,” said Santos, who made the peace agreement one of his primary concerns and platforms when he was re-elected to a four-year term in 2014.
While a period of confusion concerning the conflict has now been ushered in, there was one clear winner in the referendum and that was Uribe himself.
By using baseless evidence, hearsay and his own theories, Uribe has sought to undermine the talks since the beginning 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 and keeps dropping.
A recently passed law prevents Uribe, a former leader, from running for President again. As he himself has made it clear, however, he does not have “followers” but “the faithful,” civilians that will essentially do and vote as he says. This ensures that Uribe will choose and present candidates on behalf of his party and not-so-subtly pull strings from behind the scenes.
The ‘Yes’ campaign had the support of most 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. Uribe’s Democratic Center, whose growth is owed only to its founder, was essentially the only steadfast and staunch opposition to the peace agreement and that in and of itself shows how much influence Uribe yields.
Through a tactic of fearmongering and outright lies, Uribe said that the agreement would “legitimize and generate impunity,” despite the fact that a section of the document clearly outlined the punishments of those involved in the war, and alleged that the plan was being pushed by certain globalist sectors and even by the Cuban and Venezuelan governments.
Uribe’s party printed large posters that digitally altered an image of Londoño to show him wearing the presidential sash with the words “this could happen” in large text beneath the image. In addition, the fact that the FARC political party would automatically receive 5 seats in the 102-seat Senate, an entirely insignificant number, was used to scare the populace with the thought that the FARC could seize control.
This baseless scare tactic was carried out despite the fact that the vast majority of Colombians (nearly 95 percent) have a negative view of the FARC and would not vote for one of their candidates.
Finally, in a nation that still has some of the highest indicators of economic inequality in the Americas, Uribe was able to convince wealthy landowners that the agreement would put their “private property ownership” in danger and in response, these individuals used their money and influence to further spread Uribe’s urge to vote ‘No.’
Following the narrow victory of the ‘No’ campaign, Santos has called for a meeting between his government and all the political parties in Colombia to see what changes could be made to the agreement in order to successfully redirect the peace process. Uribe and his Democratic Center, unsurprisingly, said that they would not attend the meeting and requested that their party meet solely with Santos for a “broad discussion” before they would attend any national summits.