by Andrés Carranza Betancourt
The warm and picturesque scene in the Caribbean city of Cartagena depicted world leaders in their white guayaberas celebrating the signing of a historic peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, seemed to be part of another one of the well-known novels of the region, rather than of the reality facing this South American country. On Oct. 2, Colombians rejected this land of magical realism in a plebiscite with 50.2% of the vote, nullifying the peace agreement that had been highly praised internationally. To many western leaders, scholars, critics and media, the news – a blowing defeat for incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos – was shocking.
Judging by the content of the deal, the political individuals and entities involved and the region’s geopolitical history, Santos’ peace was doomed to fail.
The politics of idealism that western governments and international agencies constantly preach was emblazoned on the peace talks in Havana. As Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal explains, compromising in the name of peace, with the enemies of liberty for over half a century might be acceptable in the international community. However, for many Colombians and Latin Americans in general, it was outrageous to say the least. In a region where leaders have historically promised the moon and stars and have brought misery instead, such level of idealism just resembles a new bag of empty promises. Hence, citizens refused to give Santos’ treaty the benefit of the doubt and replaced it with a dose of realism. Colombians rejected what seemed to be a distant and detached peace, negotiated by a political elite on a globalist platform. The President exercised his constitutional right when starting the negotiations, but as the newspaper El Espectador claims, such negotiations were done in a manner that excluded and ignored the vast majority of Colombians. The political class appeared condescending and the peace process itself seemed foreign and dictated. The absence of the Colombian people in the process and the noticeable presence of foreign entities damaged the agreement’s identity and ergo, its symbolic, conciliatory nature.
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The terms of the peace agreement were for many the main reason of voting “no”, although they were depicted as the single best deal that could have been achieved by both parties. President Santos sold the terms as the only way of achieving peace. He claimed that if the “no” camp won, the government would “not go back to the negotiating table”. As a result, the terms were portrayed as final in a rather compulsory way, something that a constituency within the Colombian electorate resented. Every negotiation entails compromise, but for many, the areas of agreement jeopardized the very essence and core elements of a modern, democratic and pluralistic state. Terms involving the creation of “special tribunals” to adjudicate war crimes and the idea of an alternative and “restorative” justice with symbolic sentences of five to eight years, to those responsible, without any chance of proper criminal prosecution outraged many Colombians.
It appeared that the FARC’s history of terrorism, murder, kidnapping and drug trade was above the rule of law.
Key opposition leaders emphasized this argument, including former President and leader of the “no” Campaign Álvaro Uribe, who claimed that the accords “reward[s] criminals”, “reward[s] terrorism”, “reward[s] the world’s largest cocaine cartel” and turns a blind eye on Colombia’s justice system and constitution. Likewise, according to Uribe, the country’s Attorney General repeatedly reminded President Santos that the Havana negotiations were breaching Colombian legal standards, hinting that some aspects of the intended peace deal might have been unconstitutional. It is possible that Colombia will follow a similar path to El Salvador regarding the constitutionality of peace accords. In 1992 a peace agreement was signed between government forces and Marxist guerillas, ending twelve years of civil war. An amnesty law was passed in 1993, as part of the agreement, protecting all those involved in crimes against humanity and other war crimes. Nonetheless, such law was recently ruled unconstitutional, due to the fact that the crimes protected by the law are imprescriptible according to international law. This means that no legislative measure can impede the investigation of such crimes and the application of justice. Similarly, Human Rights Watch expressed that the “justice provided by the accords is insufficient” and José Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas of this international NGO claimed that “punishing war criminals with community service is grotesquely disproportionate”.
The FARC expressed interest in becoming a political movement and a political party. This was reflected in the peace agreement which established that the group was to receive a minimum of five seats in Colombia’s Senate and five seats in its Lower House for two legislative terms with no vote but with voice and representation. Additionally, the FARC was going to be given dozens of radio stations through which it could disseminate its propaganda. These are privileges that neither other political party nor movement has. Likewise, the agreement did not require the group to pay financial compensation to its victims and will not contribute to the financial reparations that the agreement is expected to pay. Law-abiding tax-payers will be responsible for that. This seems far too unfair to the average Colombian. Demanding an upper hand in the political process of a nation undermines its fairness and the role and responsibility that the individual plays in choosing his/her future through the ballot box.
President Santos was perhaps the most active and prominent individual in the negotiations and the campaign leading to the referendum. Having served as former President Uribe’s Minister of Defense and been responsible for various Colombian Military offensives against the FARC, it was rather surprising that he chose the peace approach to solve the armed conflict. He successfully bonded such approach to his tenure in office.
The Colombian peace became Santos’ peace; a career-defining event and a matter of legacy.
His recent Nobel Peace Prize epitomizes this fact. Pressure mounted on the Colombian leader; a pressure that forged the “sí” campaign’s message and the connotation of the type of peace they wished to achieve. Santos portrayed the referendum as a vote in favor of peace rather than a vote approving or disavowing the peace accords. “I would rather have an imperfect accord that saves lives than a perfect war” he famously claimed, placing the burden of the resolution of a half-a-century conflict on the voter’s back. But voters were dissatisfied with the way in which the negotiations took place and did not give-in to Santos’ pressure. The Colombian opposition outplayed the leader’s peace-or-war campaign, and instead clarified. As Senator Paloma Valencia claimed, that the referendum entailed a specific question about a specific deal, not whether or not the people wanted peace. Moreover the “no” campaign embraced peace as a solution to the armed conflict. Uribe, for instance, promised a “re-orientation” of the accords and the maintenance of the negotiating table. Such a stance eased the pressure on voters, giving them an alternative that did not imply more death and destruction.
The Colombian peace process added fuel to a deeply polarized country and region. The results of the plebiscite became a matter of legitimacy for the FARC; a test to see whether or not they would be welcomed in the political arena. Founded in 1964 as a Marxist-Leninist armed wing of the Communist Party, the guerilla group has historically practiced terrorism, murder, kidnapping and drug trade. Their actions have undoubtedly left fresh wounds on many Colombians. Moreover the group has had rather friendly links with leftist regimes, including those of Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela. Opposition leaders believe that the FARC’s terrorist actions have been widely protected by the latter regimes, which are also sponsors of the Chavez’s so-called Socialism of the 21st Century; Colombia’s main ideological enemy for years, particularly during Uribe’s presidency. Consequently, and given the recent developments in neighboring Venezuela, Uribe has described the agreements as a door through which Castro-Chavism can start entrenching itself in the Colombian political scene, whilst being the world’s “largest cocaine cartel” and not paying for their crimes. The FARC’s ideological and alleged economic ties with Chavez and Cuba, ultimately added uncertainty and fear on Colombians witnessing the hunger, poverty and suffering of their neighbors; a result of the same ideas that the FARC is hoping to preach once they become a political movement.
The Colombian experience proves that peace accords will rarely be perfect. The actors involved, the circumstances present and the context of such negotiations play a defining role in their outcomes. President Santos took a massive gamble and lost. On the other hand, Uribe proved that he still holds political power in Colombia. The FARC realized that they are not as popular as they wished and the international community experienced the reality facing a region that is becoming less taken by idealism.
It is clear that the “no” campaign should be invited to the negotiation table to revisit the terms that caused major debate.
The hope of a peaceful settlement is not lost and the window towards a more comprehensive deal is open. It is up to those in their respective positions of power to honor the decision of the Colombian people and start building a new future.
Andrés Carranza Betancourt is a passionate learner in an exuberant world. He was born and raised in El Salvador and attends Bates College where he Double Majors in Politics and Economics and is part of the institution’s debate team. He has written various political articles in his home country for nationally acclaimed newspapers and is an avid football fan (and refuses to call the sport soccer). Andrés enjoys a good time with family and friends and is committed to his country’s progress.