Colombia’s “Brexit”

CARTAGENA – Peacemaking is always a divisive enterprise – so divisive, in fact, that it is often thwarted by politics within the antagonists’ own camps. That is precisely what happened in Colombia recently, when voters narrowly rejected a laboriously negotiated peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Plebiscites and referenda may seem like the purest manifestation of democracy; in fact, they are a favorite tool of leaders who rely on deceit and mendacity. There is a reason why dictators and autocrats so often embrace them.

Unsurprisingly, Colombia’s plebiscite – like the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum in June – was far from a triumph of democracy. With Hurricane Matthew preventing hundreds of thousands of people from voting in areas where polls indicated support for the deal, only 37% of Colombia’s 34 million eligible voters turned out. In that context, the “No” camp’s razor-thin margin of victory – just 0.4% – is even less compelling.

Yet the deal’s opponents, led by former President Álvaro Uribe, expect to force President Juan Manuel Santos to head back to the negotiating table and produce a radically different kind of peace agreement with the FARC. Considering that the deal overseen by Santos emerged from a highly complex four-year-long process, that expectation is totally unreasonable.

No peace plan is perfect, and the Colombian accord was no exception. But, if a deal is negotiated well, the end result brings significantly more benefits than costs. And that would have been the case with the Colombian accord, which addresses a vast array of social and economic issues, including problems affecting indigenous communities, gender equality, gay rights, and the millions of people displaced by more than a half-century of fighting. The deal also included an historic land-reform program.

For Uribe and his opposition allies, the main objection to the deal concerns how it addresses the question of transitional justice. Negotiators decided that the unconditional application of justice would not be possible. The opposition decided that this was tantamount to impunity – and thus unacceptable.

But the government had made the right call. After all, it was a negotiation, not a surrender. In the transition from war to peace with an undefeated insurgent group, it is unreasonable to expect to be able to treat justice as a strictly legal matter; the political context must be taken into account.

Unfazed by reality, the opposition continues to demand that the guerillas be prosecuted for their crimes, while members of the Colombian armed forces who committed war crimes should be offered “judicial relief.” They want the Special Tribunal for Transitional Justice to be dissolved, and the FARC leadership to be banned from participating in politics. They also demand that the interests of big landowners in the agreed rural reform be safeguarded, and argue that implementation of the agreement should be subordinate to the government’s fiscal constraints.

To win support for their unreasonable demands, the No campaign focused unremittingly on the antipathy that Colombians (quite legitimately) feel toward the FARC. Uribe warned, dramatically, that the peace agreement would deliver Colombia to terrorism and “Castro-Chavismo.”

Of course, opposition to supposed impunity is not the only reason Colombians voted against the peace deal. Some took issue with the socially progressive elements of the agreement. One key member of the No campaign, former Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, insisted that the word “gender” be removed from the text. After the vote, he touted it as a victory for “the Colombia of the believers.”

But opposition to impunity was probably not even the real motivation driving Uribe and other No campaign leaders. After all, some of those who are decrying impunity today, Uribe included, supported impunity for the M-19 left-wing guerrilla group in the 1980s. The difference today is that a presidential election will be held in 2018, and the campaign has already begun.

More than a drive for a different peace, the No campaign was a struggle for power. The Uribistas cannot possibly believe their preposterous claims about the peace deal, or think that there is any chance that the FARC will agree to the terms they have set out. But they do not want Santos to be able to claim credit for bringing peace to Colombia. If nothing else, this would mean that politicians could no longer use the excuse of armed conflict to justify their failure to address the country’s colossal social and economic problems.

The consequences of these political machinations may be far-reaching. If peace becomes a matter of electoral politics, so will pretty much everything else – throwing Colombian democracy into a long period of political instability.

But time to secure a new deal is running out. When Santos made his peace overture, the FARC was still a cohesive organization with a unified leadership. Since the plebiscite, confusion has crept into its ranks, possibly presaging a breakup into uncontrollable rural militias and criminal gangs.

To pull Colombia’s peace prospects out of limbo, the government should engage in intense negotiations with the FARC on points raised by the opposition. The result would, no doubt, fall short of the Uribistas’ demands, but there are plenty of No voters who would be convinced. Indeed, the revised text might be enough to win approval – either in a new plebiscite or, preferably, in Congress. Such an approach could deliver peace, though it would not quell the opposition’s obsessive challenge to Santos’ legacy on the subject.

The peace deal negotiated by Santos would not have been possible without Uribe’s record as president. By vigorously prosecuting the war against the FARC, he changed its course. The question he must now ask himself is whether he wants to go down in history for denying Colombia the peace it deserves.