Despite referendum failure, Colombia can still reach peace

Following four years of talks, a peace agreement was reached between government and Farc negotiators in Colombia and formally ratified in September. But, in a referendum on Sunday, Colombian people narrowly rejected the deal. Colombian researcher Felipe Roa-Clavijo, a doctoral candidate in international development at the University of Oxford, says progress has still been made

As a Colombian in the UK in the past few days, I have received more messages saying “sorry about the peace agreement” than I was sent well wishes on my birthday. The photos in the media of people crying and others enthusiastically celebrating the referendum result capture what the country is going through: sadness and laughter. Many can’t believe that after four years of negotiations, the peace agreement has been rejected. Others think that a better peace agreement can be reached. Beyond these emotions, it is important to understand that first, Colombian leaders from all parties have to rise up to the challenge of a new political puzzle in the long road to peace. Second, despite the frustrating outcome of the referendum, progress has been made in light of history.

The margin between the winning 50.2 per cent ‘no’ vote and the 49.7 per cent ‘yes’ vote was a difference of just 53,894 – the number of people, more or less, that would fit into a football stadium. A total of 13 million people voted in the referendum. But there were shocking differences in many areas of the country. For example, Bojayá is a small town on the pacific coast sadly known for having suffered the most civilian casualties as a result of conflict between guerrilla and paramilitary forces. [The massacre there in 2002 left 110 civilians dead]. The town voted 95 per cent in favour of the peace agreement. In contrast, in Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia, 62 per cent of people voted against the agreement. While the final outcome was close, there were significant regional differences. All in all, the country is divided in its support of this peace process.

The opportunity to approve or reject the agreement stirred some of the deepest feelings in Colombian people, to an extent that it has caused problems between groups of friends and families. Because I didn’t want to see more senseless cycles of violence, innocent people dying or refugees fleeing from the countryside to the cities, I voted to support the peace agreement. However, I also know family and friends who voted ‘no’. Many of them were not happy with the idea of guerrilla fighters receiving ‘soft’ transitional justice and alternative penalties. Others just could not forgive the great damage Farc has done to innocent people and the country as a whole, and couldn’t imagine its members in congress.

The post-referendum remarks by President Santos – who was awarded the Nobel peace prize on 7 October 2016 – and Farc leader Rodrigo Londoño were reassuring in that they ratified, at least at this stage, the continuation of the ceasefire agreement and efforts to seek peace. Former president Álvaro Uribe, leader of the ‘no’ campaign, claimed victory by inviting all parties to a national pact in which the conditions for peace of the no-voters would be heard.

Democracy is democracy. The no win means that the peace agreement’s 297 pages, negotiated over the past four years, are today completely ineffectual. None of the agreements in it can come to effect, and the president will not be able to begin its implementation.

What is needed now, ideally, is a three-party negotiation: government, Farc and the no-vote leaders as the new stakeholders at the table. It is therefore imperative that parties don’t walk away from the negotiation. Instead they must start redefining the negotiation terms as soon as possible to achieve a new peace agreement. Will they renegotiate the current agreement? Will they start a new negotiation from scratch? This questions are still open.  Time is crucial and every minute counts.

Looking back

This shock must be also understood in light of history, looking back 30 years. The last time that Farc were stopped from going into politics was during the 1980s. This time, they also received a ‘no’, but through extreme violence. Thousands of them, already in politics, were killed by extreme right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels. The state’s complicity in this was recently acknowledged.

As a result of the peace negotiation with President Belisario Betancur in the 1980s, Farc created the Patriotic Union, a political party that would represent their interests. Through a political participation agreement, they were allowed to run for public office and they gained positions including congress, state senators and municipal councils. Sadly, the following years were marked by bloodshed. More than 3,000 leaders of the Patriotic Union were assassinated, among them presidential candidates Bernardo Jaramillo and Jaime Pardo Leal. This unleashed new waves of violence in the country.

Some 30 years after this failed peace process, Farc’s breakthrough into politics has been stopped once more, but this time through votes, not bullets. While the outcome is frustrating for those of us who were supporting the peace agreement, the fact that it was reached not through extremist violence, but through democratic means, represents real progress.

The country currently sits on the verge of uncertainty, at a crossroads. Peace with Farc remains a priority for all the parties, yet this is not an easy path in the new political scenario. President Santos has announced that the ceasefire will be extended until 31 October while Farc leaders have instructed their troops to take safe positions. It is a scenario that opens up opportunities for consensus, but certainly one with high risks of relapsing into violent conflict.

Let’s not forget that the peace process with Farc following conflict in the 1980s came only 10 years later, with President Pastrana in 1999. For many reasons, this also failed. Whenever a peace process has been broken, it has been followed by waves of violence. People’s pledge to political leaders now is simple: let’s not let that happen again.


Felipe Roa-Clavijo is a doctoral candidate in international development at the University of Oxford

Main image: Reuters/Jaime Saldarriaga