Why did Colombia choose more war instead of giving peace a chance?

The roots of the ballot-box defeat of the Colombian peace deal lie in the enmity between the country’s president and his predecessor, Kapil Komireddi explains.

Columbia is heading towards a dangerous new chapter in its decades-long battle with Farc rebels. Raul Arboleda / AFP Photo

‘I have come to the United Nations to announce with my full voice and heart”, said Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, in New York on September 21, “that the war in Colombia is over.” This was a characteristically cocksure claim by a president who over the years has come to be regarded by some of his less charitable compatriots as an overbearing patrician quarantined from reality.

The peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or Farc), which Mr Santos had laboured so hard to broker, would be worthless if a majority of Colombians refused to ratify it in a plebiscite. And on October 2 – the day designated by the United Nations as the “international day of non-violence” in honour of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary – that is what they did, voting by the narrowest of margins to defeat the deal: 50.2 per cent to 49.8 per cent.

The rest of the world found the result as unfathomable as Mr Santos. Colombia has endured conflict for more than half a century, nearly twice as long as half of its citizens have been alive. Why, given the opportunity to choose peace, did they elect to perpetuate war?

One of the answers advanced by supporters of the deal is that Yes voters, concentrated on the Caribbean coast, were immobilised by Hurricane Matthew. Another reason, spoken sotto voce, is that the No camp used the vote as a referendum against Mr Santos. In the climate of confusion, Yes voters have held mournful rallies, No voters have been vilified, and Alvaro Uribe, Mr Santos’s predecessor, has been cast as the chief villain of the story.

Mr Uribe, not long ago a firm favourite of Washington, is now an internationally despised figure for his energetic campaign against the peace deal. His animus against Farc is in part personal: his father was murdered by them.

As president, he sought to crush Farc militarily. Three of Farc’s top leaders were killed. Suddenly, an organisation whose ambition had once been nothing less than the overthrow of the Colombian state was ready to crawl to the negotiating table and surrender to the state. Mr Uribe, prevented by Colombia’s powerful constitutional court from seeking a third term, left the presidency with high approval ratings. There are few people outside Colombia willing to give him a sympathetic hearing, but it’s scarcely surprising that, having dealt a near-fatal blow to the Farc, he viewed the peace deal hammered out by Mr Santos – who, as defence minister from 2006 to 2009, executed Mr Uribe’s military policy – as much too lenient to the insurgents.

Farc’s chief negotiator began the talks with Bogota’s representatives by proclaiming that he had come to secure a deal that would “put neoliberalism in the dock as the hangman of peoples and the manufacturer of death”. It is a measure of Mr Santos’s desire for peace that he tolerated such sanctimonious rhetoric from an organisation that has forcibly conscripted children into its militia, massacred civilians, coerced women into sexual slavery and amassed fortunes from the drug trade.

The accord that crystallised from the talks, running to almost 300 pages, is complex.

Farc originated in a struggle for land rights, and the agreement binds the government to investment in rural Colombia. In turn, it commits the Farc to ending the drug trade. It grants amnesties to the foot soldiers while creating a special tribunal with jurisdiction over the top brass. Admission of crimes – ranging from kidnapping to murder – will result in lenient house arrests. Finally, it allows Farc to reinvent itself as a political party and compete in elections.

This deal may yield peace, but can it yield justice?

There are many victims of the Farc who made internal peace with the prospect of never finding justice.

But it is difficult to fault those who chose to reject an accord that not only conferred amnesties on their tormentors but enabled them, after serving cosmetic punishments, to enter parliament and become lawmakers.

At the same time, it is not to deny the legitimacy of the grievances of the Farc’s victims to question the motives of Mr Uribe’s drive to oppose the deal. After all, the agreement negotiated by Mr Santos is not very different from the deal offered by Mr Uribe to the right-wing paramilitary organisation United Self-Defence Forces, known as the AUC in Spanish, during his own presidency.

The AUC, which drew its support from landholders opposed to the Farc, was just as brutal. Washington repeatedly demanded extradition of its leaders to the United States. But because they were useful to the government in Bogota in its fight against the Farc, they were spared and rewarded. The AUC seized the agricultural lands of nearly a million farmers. Their objective was to transform Colombia into a paradise for the landholding class.

Mr Uribe didn’t think the victims of the AUC worthy of justice – even though the programme which allowed the AUC to re-enter society was called the Justice and Peace process. The AUC laid down its arms in return for immunity from extradition. Mr Uribe hailed himself as a peacemaker. Then details of the AUC’s collusion with Mr Uribe’s allies began to seep out.

In 2008, Mr Uribe’s cousin was arrested on charges of colluding with the AUC. Soon after that, Mr Uribe, having vowed to protect the AUC’s leaders from extradition, handed them over to the US. This year, Mr Uribe’s brother was also arrested on charges of collusion.Mr Uribe’s belief that Colombia can achieve better terms with the Farc is probably not entirely insincere. But his dogged opposition to Mr Santos’s peace deal is intended primarily to prolong his position at the top of Colombian politics.

His envy and contempt for Mr Santos, the underling who overtook him to become a global statesman, is barely concealed. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr Santos – given in the apparent hope that it might “encourage … all the parties” to rescue the peace deal – will only intensify Mr Uribe’s anger.

Since October 2, Mr Uribe has been talking about a revised deal that withdraws many of the concessions given to the Farc and tries them in normal courts.

He wants the Farc to surrender and go to jail. Mr Santos has extended the ceasefire between his government and Farc. He has met Mr Uribe and formed a new commission to work on revisions to the deal. He has never seemed more grounded, more humble.

Meanwhile, in their former strongholds, Farc’s foot soldiers while away the days playing football. Teams of international observers, dispatched by the United Nations to monitor the surrender of weapons, sit idly in Bogota.

Decades of violence have exhausted both sides and no one questions the sincerity of either. And yet everywhere there is fear that, if peace is not quickly secured, people will relapse into the old habit of war.

Kapil Komireddi is a frequent contributor to The National