Colombians say No to referendum and Yes to democracy

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On Sunday 3 October, Colombians went to the polls to decide whether to ratify a peace deal that would have brought an end to Latin America’s longest running armed conflict. After four years of talks, the agreement signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of the FARC, was supposed to end half a century of fighting which has killed a quarter of a million people.

The head of the government’s negotiating team Humberto de la Calle told some days earlier: “Those who vote YES will not only end the FARC as an armed organization, but open new convenient and useful roads for Colombia. People have a right to vote NO, but it is important that they know the consequences of their vote. I hope that all of us as Colombians decide the country’s future”.

Announcing the accord, FARC’s chief negotiator Rodrigo Londono, so-called “Timochenko” said: “We have agreed unanimously to end the conflict and to build a stable and lasting peace with the firm conviction that within it lies the seeds of transformation that the vast majority of people and the whole country are striving for.” FARC leaders and the Colombian government started peace talks in Cuba in November 2012, and since then, they have discussed about the conditions for peace, which concerned the concessions to make to the rebels and what kind of justice they should face. The government’s agreement with the FARC won the support of the United States, the United Nations and Pope Francis. Ringo Starr even recorded a song for it, which shows the need for peace shared throughout the world. But, as we all well know, voters rejected the landmark deal as too lenient on the rebels. The Sunday’s results were a shock to the Santos government and the peace deal’s supporters, as well as to the country that plunged into uncertainty.

We shall now try briefly to explain the reasons why there was a NO vote.

First of all, we’re talking about a quite complex agreement, of more than 290 pages, in which the most critical point is the transitional justice talks, which means what would happen to FARC guerrillas, such as those who have killed almost 260,000 Colombians, 80% of which were civilians. “Would they be imprisoned or not?” was the big question, the most critical discussions which lasted several months. Under the terms of the deal, the FARC would have been able to transform from guerilla army to political party with 10 unelected congressional seats, guaranteed until 2026, 5 seats of which in the Senate and 5 in the Lower House, to compete in the 2018 presidential and legislative elections.

The estimated 7000 FARC fighters were supposed to hand over their weapons and move into 28 disarmament zones set up by the UN. FARC members would have received a 2-year pension and a one-off payment of 610 euros. Furthermore, in order to combat drug crime, FARC agreed to stop cocaine production in its strongholds. In return, the government would have helped farmers earn a new living. However, nevertheless the group publicly admitted for the first time it trafficked drugs, recruited minors and committed human rights violations, including massacres, amnesty would have been granted for political crimes. However, voters were worried the rebels would fail to turn over assets from drugs and illegal mining, which would potentially give them a formidable opportunity to outstrip the coffers of traditional political parties.

On the other hand, once the government announces the referendum results, the agreement would have been implemented progressively according to its timeline, that’s why it would have taken anyway a long term for Colombia to achieve real stability.

The angered “No” campaigners argued in fact that the rebels should serve jail terms and not be allowed to enter politics. The former President, Alvaro Uribe, said that a better agreement could be negotiated. “We – the No voters – say in solidarity to those for Yes that we want peace too. Our concern is with the fear of seeing a weakening of democracy in our constitution in the face of terrorism”.

President Juan Manuel Santos said there is no Plan B for the failure of the plebiscite vote. In the meantime, Timochenko stated on Monday that the peace accord is legally binding because it was signed by Santos. With the deal at risk of collapse, a half-century war that has killed more than 220,000 and displaced eight million, could easily flare up again, a scenario that seemed unimaginable before Sunday. The Colombian government and the FARC have no choice but to renegotiate, to rework the deal and make it more appealing to the voters.

 Roberta Ciampo

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