Sunday, October 02, 2016

Colombia's rejection of FARC deal a crying shame

I am absolutely gob-smacked at the news, within just the last hour, that Colombians have voted to reject a peace deal with FARC rebels which could have potentially ended half a century of war and strife. The deal, struck by President Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - better known by the Spanish acronym FARC - was the result of four hard years of negotiations (and another two years of secret negotiations before that).
The Marxist-Leninist FARC has been waging a guerilla war against the Colombian government and security forces since 1964, fighting against the massive inequality in the country, where vast swathes of land are owned by a very small elite, and against the historically brutal and repressive Colombian army and police force. An estimated 260,000 people have died in the struggle to date, and as many as eight million have been displaced from their homes. More recently, the FARC has lost some of its top leaders, largely as a result of millions of dollars in US government funding and training of the Colombian army and security forces. Its fighting force has also diminished greatly through deaths and demobilizations.
Just last week, a peace deal was signed by President Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (known by his nom de guerre Timoléon Jiménez or Timochenko). As part of the agreement, after 52 years of guerrilla warfare, the FARC rebels had agreed to lay down their weapons and to join the political process by becoming a political party within six months. True, the treaty still needed to be ratified by a popular vote, but this was expected to be a relatively easy task, despite the deeply divisive nature of the deal, and pills suggested a "yes" win by a safe margin of around 2 to 1.
That is not how it turned out. The deal has been unexpectedly rejected by the Colombian people, albeit by a tiniest of margins - 50.2% to 49.8%, or just 63,000 votes out of 13 million ballots - as decades of mistrust, fear and anger won out over hope. Voter turnout was abysmally low, especially for such an important and historic vote, at less than 40%. Interestingly, those areas of Colombia most badly affected by the war voted overwhelmingly for the deal, while the big cities, much less affected by guerrilla activity, largely rejected the deal.
Many in the country still detest the FARC, and many of those opposed to the deal - led by ex-President Alvaro Uribe, who has argued strongly that that the government was treating the FARC too leniently - were particularly angry that it would have spared the rebels time in prison when they were responsible for so many deaths and displacements.
As President Santos says, there is no Plan B, and it seems likely that the bilateral ceasefire will now be lifted, and the war will resume in earnest. The leaders of both sides warned during the referendum campaign that there would be no return to the negotiating table, although it is now thought that negotiations will in fact start again, albeit with some reduced aspirations.
Having lived in Colombia for a few years during the 1990s, a time when the FARC was very active, I have been following the negotiations with interest, and this outcome seems a crying shame to me. I understand that some people, much closer to the war than me, may be upset at what they see as government soft-heartedness. But, like it or not, a peace deal is the only way forward for the country, country's best last chance to avoid more bloodshed in the future, a chance that has now been squandered, perhaps never to reappear.

About 5 weeks later, on November 12th, a new, revised accord was signed in Havana by the FARC and the Colombian government. The new deal claims to address 56 of the 57 concerns raised by the "no" camp in the last referendum, although the contentious issue of allowing FARC officers to run for political office remains.
But Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is unlikely to make the mistake of putting this agreement to a referendum again (the last referendum was not a requirement, but Santos was overly confident of public support, much like British PM David Cameron and the Brexit referendum). Santos can easily push the deal through with his parliamentary majority, despite continued opposition from Alvaro Uribe and the "no" camp, although it may then run the risk of lacking legitimacy, and the possibility that it may be cancelled after a future change of government.
The fact that so many new sweeteners were found for the new deal makes a bit of a mockery of Santos' claims that the original agreement was "the best possible deal", and his reputation may have been irredeemably sullied by the continued negotiations.

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