Colombia after the Referendum – Crossroad, Blind Alley or Dead End for the Peace Process?

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Colombia after the Referendum – Crossroad, Blind Alley or Dead End for the Peace Process?

Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront

The rejection of the final Peace Accord signed by the National Government and the FARC-EP by a narrow majority of Colombians in the referendum held on the 2nd of October 2016 was big a surprise to almost everyone. The result has thrown the peace process between the Government and the FARC into limbo, nullifying the legal validity and effect of the Final Accord until a new agreement is concluded and delaying and complicating the disarmament and demobilization of the approximately 5,765 combatants of the FARC and the deployment of the UN monitoring group, which was to take place over the following six months. Notwithstanding the rejection of the Final Accord, all sectors of the political spectrum, interest groups and social movements have reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process, those who campaigned against the Final Accord stating that they do not oppose the peace process as such, but that they are opposed to some of the provisions and measures contained in the Final Accord.

The question put to the Colombian people was: ¿Apoya usted el Acuerdo Final para la terminación del conflicto y la construcción de una paz estable y duradera? (Do you support the Final Accord for the termination of the conflict and the construction of a stable and durable peace?) The opinion polls conducted in the week prior to the vote suggested a substantial majority of Colombians (around 60%) intended to vote in favour of the Final Accord. In the end approximately 37% of those eligible to vote participated, with 50.2% (6,419,759) voting against and 49.8% (6,359,643) voting to approve the Final Accord, a margin of around 60,000 out of 13 million voters.

Thus the overall ‘winner’, accounting for 63% of voters, were those not inclined to interrupt their Sunday activities to participate in the referendum (only the second to be held in Colombia’s history – the first was held in 1957). In the final result, one significant trend was that a substantial proportion of the people that voted in the regions most affected by the armed and social conflict voted in favour of the Final Accord, while a majority in many of the regions not directly affected by the conflict voted against.

The Government of President Juan Manuel Santos immediately sought to initiate negotiations with representatives of the main political groups and social sectors that have taken an active role in the peace process and assured the main groups and sectors that opposed the Final Accord that their objections and concerns will be addressed, with the objective of concluding a new agreement before the end of the year.

A key topic in procedural terms is whether a new agreement will be approved by referendum or by a legislative package formulated and approved by the Congress once negotiations over a new agreement are concluded. The Government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the coalition of political parties in the Congress that support his Government seem to prefer proceeding without another referendum, though they are reluctant to say this outright and are keeping open the possibility of another referendum.

Irrespective of which method is chosen, the Congress has a determining role in how any new agreement will be approved and implemented, having ultimate constitutional authority for the elaboration of all constitutional reforms and associated legislative arrangements. All political parties in the Congress have declared their commitment to the peace process generally, as well as to facilitating the conclusion and implementation of a new peace agreement with the FARC as soon as possible. While a referendum is in theory the best way to try to ensure that most Colombians actively support the new peace agreement, even apart from the extra expense and lengthy delays that convening a new referendum would involve, the fact that only one third of eligible voters participated in the last referendum tends to legitimize the Government’s apparent preference to approve a new agreement in the Congress rather than by referendum.

The campaigns of both sides, those supporting the Final Accord and those opposed, were made up of a large diversity of interest groups, political parties, social movements and sectors of society, complicating the renegotiation of the Final Accord considerably. Those supporting the Accord included the political parties of a coalition in the Congress that generally supports the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos (which are generally at the centre-right portion of the political spectrum), as well as several smaller leftist political parties and a wide range of social movements (such as trade unions, students, and organizations representing a large proportion of Colombia’s small and medium scale farmers, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples) that supported the Final Accord but are otherwise implacably opposed to many political and economic policies and objectives of the National Government.

Although the Colombian Government can count on the support of these groups and sectors with respect to defending the peace process, relations between the Government and many of these actors continue to be conflictive in terms of many other topics crucial to the implementation of the peace process more generally. Such underlying tensions are immediately apparent in an open letter to the President by the Cumbre Agraria, Étnica y Popular (the Agrarian, Ethnic and Popular Summit) on the 20th of October 2016, announcing the suspension of negotiations with the Government “due to the continuous legal and economic delays and the lack of political will to implement the accords signed since 2014… Equally, we are concerned and put on alert by the fact that they are talking about a ‘complete peace’ when in the various territories around the country they are waging a policy of warfare against social protest that includes threats, persecution and assassinations targeted against defenders of human rights and social leaders who are fighting tirelessly for life and the defence of their territories…”

The letter continues: “We don’t understand the eagerness of the Government to open negotiations with the detractors of peace while, in terms of the social movement, which has repeatedly manifested its willingness to construct a stable and durable peace, the Government continues to deny us recognition as a political actor and ignore the clear proposals that we have presented to address the actual economic model in terms of specific territories and their distinct economies, the cultivation of illicit crops, mining, social and political rights, relations between the countryside and the cities, as well as topics such as mass communications and social participation in activities supporting and strengthening the conditions and elements necessary for peace.”

Apart from demonstrating once again the fragility of the peace process and the gravity of the obstacles to be overcome, this latest declaration of the Agrarian, Ethnic and Popular Summit (an alliance comprising many predominantly rural grassroots social movements and organizations) also emphasizes the risks involved in trying to reach agreement on such a diverse range of inherently complicated and deeply contested topics such as agricultural development and agrarian reform, aggravated in this instance by all parties to the negotiations (including the FARC-EP) excluding the Agrarian, Ethnic and Popular Summit, a social movement which has enormous support in many rural and remote areas of Colombia, from negotiations entirely. If a viable agreement is to be reached within a reasonable timeframe, it will probably be necessary to focus on the central elements necessary to complete and implement the Peace Accord with the FARC-EP, rather than trying to solve all disputes and problems at the same time in agreements concluded between a necessarily limited range of political and social sectors and groups.

The most prominent coalition of groups that assumed responsibility for the campaign against the Final Accord was based around the far (to extreme) right Centro Democrático, led by former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez. The coalition of groups that supported the ‘No’ campaign is also comprised of a very diverse range of interest groups and sectors of society that included several major business associations and the owners of some of Colombia’s largest conglomerates (including the owners of several of Colombia’s largest and most influential television, radio and newspaper outlets), supported by significant segments from most sectors of society ranging from the ‘upper classes’ and the middle classes to Colombia’s poorest communities and groups, all of which have their own particular interests and objectives (not always compatible) but are either inimically hostile to the FARC-EP or were opposed to the Final Accord for other reasons.

Some of the most widely propagated arguments of those opposed to the Final Accord included that it granted impunity to the FARC guerrillas, and that it would result in Colombia being ruled by ‘castrochavismo’ (the Governments of Cuba and Venezuela are constantly denounced and disparaged in all mainstream sectors of the mass media in Colombia, which are just as dedicated and monotonous in ignoring the devastating effects that extremely hostile and interventionist US policies and actions have had on those countries).

The campaign coordinator of the largest coalition of groups and sectors that campaigned against the Accord (Juan Carlos Vélez) subsequently stated in an interview with the Colombian newspaper La República (5th October, “El ‘No’ ha sido la campaña más barata y más efectiva de la historia” – “The ‘No’ [campaign against the Final Accord] has been the least expensive and most effective campaign in history”) that the campaign elaborated a variety of arguments and claims, each specifically tailored to target the interests, opinions and fears of specific sectors of society. The interview also revealed the largest corporate donors to the campaign, among them some of Colombia’s largest and most politically and economically powerful conglomerates including Ardila Lulle, Grupo Bolivar, Grupo Uribe, Corbeta, Codiscos and Colombia de Comercio.

According to Juan Carlos Vélez, a central element of the campaign was based on capitalizing on (or fomenting) indignation against the Final Accord rather than explaining and critiquing its main elements. Additionally: “In broadcasts favoured by the upper and middle classes we emphasized saying no to impunity [of demobilized FARC-EP members], rejection of their eligibility for political offices, and elements of associated tax reforms, while in broadcasts favoured by the lower classes we emphasized the social welfare subsidies [that demobilized FARC-EP members would receive during a transition period]. With respect to distinct regions we utilized their respective interests and opinions. In the coastal region we individualized the message that we were going to become another Venezuela. And there the ‘No’ campaign won without spending a cent…” The information revealed in the interview caused a major controversy in Colombian politics, and all prominent members and supporters of the ‘No’ campaign subsequently hastened to distance themselves from the statements.

Many of the criticisms made by Uribe and others that campaigned against the Final Accord could be considered somewhat ingenuous or hypocritical, as they are precisely the criticisms that were made about the agreement that the Uribe administration signed with the paramilitary groups that terrorized the country during the 1990s until (at least) 2005, when the agreement was formally approved and implemented. In particular, Uribe’s sudden enthusiasm for a second referendum could be interpreted as a delaying tactic (ideally from this perspective until the next presidential and congressional elections in 2018), as it contrasts completely with the secretive, exclusive and hasty manner in which the agreement with the paramilitary groups was conducted and implemented.

Such an interpretation is corroborated by a senior figure associated with the main political parties promoting the campaign against the Final Accord, Francisco Santos, who has been quoted in the press as stating that there are some voices within the collectivity of ‘uribismo’ who want to prolong the discussions so that a new Accord isn’t signed in the short term: “There are some who want to start from zero, which would throw away all progress made so far and prevent further advances, and there are others who are saying ‘Let´s sign the Accord now’.” As with the public statements made by Juan Carlos Vélez concerning the strategies and conduct of the ‘No’ campaign, the declarations made by Francisco Santos were subsequently denied or repudiated by other prominent figures of the political party Centro Democrático and its allies.

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