By Emilie de la Chapelle
On October 2, Colombia woke up to a new reality. Many were shocked to hear the news that the referendum narrowly rejected the peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The agreement was yielded in Havana after four years of negotiations, and would have marked the end of 52 years of violence.
The margin was thin, with 50.2 percent of ballots opposed to the accord while 49.8 percent favored it- a difference of less than 60,000 votes out of a total of 13 million. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, the main promoter of the ‘yes’ side, extended a ceasefire with FARC until the end of the year in an effort to reach a final peace deal. Despite the result, Santos received the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize five days later for his efforts to end the decades of conflict with the FARC.
The outcome was unexpected as several opinion polls had shown a larger support for the ‘yes’ side. Santos had assembled an impressive set of supporters; national and international financial influencers, the United States and the United Nations, high commanders of the Colombian military, academics, experts, cultural producers, LGBTQs, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, rural producers’ movements, victims’ rights movements, and even former right-wing paramilitary commanders. And perhaps that is why proponents of the peace deal underestimated the strength of their opponents.
“I was absolutely shocked. I have to admit I cried, the disappointment was so big I couldn’t believe it” says Pablo, 32 years old in Medellin. Many young people and promoters of the yes side felt similar feelings to Pablo, resulting in protests in Bogota and Medellin directly after the referendum.
And the turnout did seem strange as an outsider. Arriving in Colombia a few days before the referendum, I was convinced that the Colombian people were going to vote yes, especially after reading international news and seeing excited yes campaigners on the streets. Five decades of violent conflict, four years of negotiations, wouldn’t it be obvious to vote yes to peace?
“I am very happy with the result. They (FARC) are criminals who should be punished for everything they have done. How can we just let them get what they want with no justice? Even seats in the parliament? The proposal was absolutely insane”, 64-year-old Alejandro from Santa Marta says. And I meet many people who share his opinion. Particularly older men do not seem to be ready to accept the FARC as a legitimate political actor or support the peace deal.
Alejandro’s comment echoes the message that the leader of the ‘no’ camp promoted. Influential former President Alvaro Uribe argued that rebels should pay for crimes in jail and never be given congressional seats. That peace was secured at the price of justice, and victims of the war would be left without reparation. Conservative Uribe further managed to successfully mobilize different parts of the population that were afraid the accord would drive leftist policies that accept alternative genders and sexualities- thus threatening the patriarchal family and Evangelist values.
A gender sub-commission was involved in the negotiations, addressing issues such as gender-based violence and ensuring political participation of women and LGBTI groups in the transition to peace. The approach was praised internationally, but was much less popular among certain segments of Colombia. Uribe supporters campaigned against what they saw as a “communist gender ideology” including decisions like same-sex marriage, the right to adoption by gay couples, the law of reparation of victims and the restitution of lands, and the fight against discrimination of young people due to ethnic or sexual circumstances, that threatens traditional family ideals.
On my last stop in Colombia I met a man who wasn’t surprised by the result, he even predicted it. Alvaro Sierra has been a journalist for more than 25 years and has worked for the past year as a senior editor and editorial adviser of the newspaper daily El Tiempo. Currently he is involved in the UN mission that is present in Colombia.
“No I wasn’t surprised. I traveled around the country, talking to people from all areas and I had a feeling the ‘no’ might win. Similar to the Brexit case. I had warned for it but my opinion was received with harsh critique because it opposed what the polls were saying and what people wanted. Colombia is a huge country, there are many divisions between people living in different regions” Alvaro explains.
There’s no sense of “I told you so” in Alvaro’s voice. He was right about the turnout, but he seems to wish he wouldn’t have been. Instead there is genuine concern in his voice, and a sense of exhaustion. When will this end? How bad can it get?
“It’s a critical time. The negotiations do not have an official deadline but time is limited. The ceasefire can’t and won’t last forever, the parties must come to an agreement of some sort, and it needs to happen very soon. An error or a provocation may blow everything up”
It seems like the people of Colombia did not vote ‘no’ to peace, but to the government and parts of the peace accord that they did not agree with. The divisions within the country are more complex than FARC versus the government, and the question is now how to find a way of middle ground in which a divided nation can come together.