BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Following two marathon sessions in the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, the Colombian Congress has ratified the revised peace agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after the initial attempt was rejected through a public plebiscite by a razor-thin margin.
Earlier this week, President Santos shook hands yet again with Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri ‘Timochenko,’ the leader of the FARC, at the Teatro Colón in the capital Bogotá as the two men signed the agreement.
The official act in the grandiose theater evoked feelings of déjà vu for both men and any observers alike as the same act took place in late September in the coastal city of Cartagena, albeit with much more pomp and ceremony.
Shortly following the first signing, however, an air of uncertainty hung over Colombia after the public, heavily influenced by political manipulation, low voter turnout and outright lies by former leaders, voted to reject 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 and urban metropolises rejected the agreement.
The result certainly would have been different if more individuals had voted; the turnout nationwide was only 37.44 percent. This was in part due to to inclement weather conditions in pro-agreement regions on the day of the vote. The main reason, however, for the poor turnout according to observers and political scientists was due to the poll-led national perception that the ‘Yes’ vote would easily win.
As such, those who were against the measure still came out in force to show their displeasure with the agreement while most of the ‘Yes’ crowd thought that the plebiscite was already secured and found no need to cast their vote.
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. 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.
In reaction to the vote, Santos and Londoño went back to the drawing board: the talks between the two sides took into consideration many of the concerns raised by the most outspoken opponents of the agreement during 10 bilateral discussions.
Although certain changes were made, the ‘No’ politicians and groups said that passages concerning several issues with which they disagree, like the political participation of the FARC and aspects of post-conflict justice, remain intact.
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.
Uribe was upset by the fact that Santos chose to ratify the new agreement congressionally and not put it through a public referendum again. Santos responded by pointing out that a referendum was not necessary or a lawful requisite. Furthermore, the sitting leader noted that his center-to-center-right coalition has a majority in both houses and that Uribe pushed through several reforms and laws through decrees during his administrations.
“The majority of the sectors of civil society, including many politicians and political parties, youth and student associations and the Catholic Church, have voiced their concerns about holding another plebiscite,” Santos said. “A renewed campaign would dangerously polarize the nation and this is an important moment in our country’s history for unity and not division.”
While he did admit that there was some progress made in the new agreement given that many of the 400 propositions presented by the opposition were included, Uribe said that it is still “mostly a retouched text of the version rejected by the voters” last month.
Indeed, Congress passed the measure and in both the Chamber and Senate, the representatives of Uribe’s right-wing Democratic Center, the party he founded upon his return to politics, abstained from the vote by walking out.
Santos was glad that the vote went accordingly and defended his methods: “Unfortunately, I regret the position that some of the most radical ‘no’ sectors continue to hold in opposing the new agreement despite the clearly obvious fact that important changes and adjustments were made.”
“In five days, the transition to peace will begin with the FARC’s move to the Transition Zones where the guerrillas will congregate until December 30. At that point, the process of disarmament begins. In 150 days, all of the FARC’s arms will be in the hands of the United Nations observers and the FARC will cease to exist as an outlawed and armed group. In six months, the conflict will be completely and definitively over,” Santos said after the ratification.
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.
Agreements on land reform have 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.
After the ‘no’ vote won, Santos and Londoño said that the bilateral ceasefire still remains in effect in an attempt to keep the calm. In addition, 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.