In August, Colombian President Manuel Santos and Timochenko, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), signed a peace accord.
The agreement that had taken four years to negotiate would begin the voluntary disarmament of FARC guerillas by UN forces. On 2 October, voters in the referendum rejected the accord by a margin of 0.4% on a 30% turnout. The result was a shock to peace accord supporters. Santos and the FARC leaders have promised to honour the ceasefire to the end of the year, and to return to negotiations. The FARC twitter feed names companies who funded the “no” campaign as war profiteers and accuses the right of forcing the closure of FARC’s English-language website to silence them during the referendum campaign.
The leader of the “no” campaign is Santos’ predecessor Álvaro Uribe, the neo-liberal president who attempted to change the Colombian constitution to enable him to stand for a third term. His administration was responsible for strengthening the military to tackle both AUC drug-cartel paramilitary groups and peasant militias that critically weakened FARC forces, and is partially responsible for bringing the guerillas to the negotiation table.
Uribe also demobilised many of the AUC paramilitaries; armed groups funded by drug cartels and agriculturalists defending themselves from FARC attacks and kidnappings. The peasant militias were pushing back against attempts to encroach on their territory, the jungle and mountainous areas ideal for cultivating opium poppies and coca. However although key figures of the AUC were disarmed and jailed, many militants signed up to government militias and killed indiscriminately, dressing the bodies up as FARC guerillas.
The false guerilla executions, known as “false positives”, were used to bulk up government statistics; many trade union leaders were extra-judicially executed in this way. The Justice for Colombia Campaign British NGO, funded by the British labour movement, claims that Colombia is the most dangerous state in the world for trade unionists, with 2,500 recorded deaths in the last 20 years.
FARC have responded in kind by executing civilians suspected of collaboration with paramilitaries. They have also executed indigenous leaders hostile to guerilla presence on their land. To fund themselves, FARC have relied on voluntary or forced taxation of the peasants in outlying regions alongside ransom money from kidnappings. Human rights campaigners also accuse FARC of recruiting child soldiers and sexual abuse.
Despite the violence and oppression, it is those regions where the conflict is at its worst that voted strongly to accept the peace accord. Those most affected by violence seem most anxious to end it.
In the regions where FARC has its support-base, guerilla groups stand in for a lack of government infrastructure and voters may be less perturbed at seeing FARC take seats in parliament. As part of the peace accord FARC would have been offered seats in legislature and senate, and permitted to become a political party. Disarmed rebels were to be given an allowance for a number of years to assist with reintegration into civilian life, as well as security to protect them against recriminations.
FARC leaders responsible for atrocities would be required to declare them in special tribunals and pay community service — but serve no prison sentences. Then there is the huge task of building infrastructure, providing welfare and education to those 30 regions previously provided for by peasant militias. To recover from the war, it is necessary for the government to invest heavily in its poorest rural communities, and the right are fighting this hard.
The “no” campaign described the accord as “peace over justice” and its supporters want to see FARC combatants jailed, not taking seats in parliament. The peace ceremonies have placed Timochenko and Santos centre stage, and some in the “no” camp didn’t want to cast a vote that could be interpreted as support for Santos.
“No” votes were cast in traditionally conservative areas such as Uribe’s city stronghold Medellin,home to the largest drug cartel families and their beneficiaries. Conservatives have also objected to the peace accord’s focus on the impact of the war on women and LGBT Colombians, which evangelical Christians have called a “gender ideology”. There were 110 homophobic killings in Colombia in 2015, with attacks and threats to LGBT people coming from the public and the police.
The low turnout in the referendum could be due to a number of factors; a hurricane prevented many Colombians in outlying regions from accessing ballot boxes, but the voting deadline was not extended. Peasant militias also have a history of boycotting parliamentary elections to avoid giving legitimacy to a heavily corrupt government system. This stands to reason; the left launched an electoral challenge in 1991 through the UP (Patriotic Union) and its legislative candidates and supporters were assassinated.
The peace accord in its current form now cannot legally be carried out, but both sides have announced that the amnesty will hold until the end of 2016. The government has also announced peace talks with Colombia’s second largest guerilla group, the ELN (National Liberation Army). “The March of the Flowers” mass protests have taken place in the capital Bogotá, organised by the National Indigenous Organisation (ONIC) calling for the peace accord to be enacted. If these protests continue to grow, perhaps the decision can be overturned or a second referendum held.