Colombians face tough choices Sunday as they vote on peace deal with guerrilla group

A man with a sign reading "Vote No" attends a rally in Bogota organized by supporters of the "no" vote for the Oct. 2 referendum on the peace deal signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
A man with a sign reading "Vote No" attends a rally in Bogota organized by supporters of the "no" vote for the Oct. 2 referendum on the peace deal signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. AP

For the last 17 years, Marta Cruz has been waiting for a call, a letter, any sign from her brother.

When her brother was just 16, a group of FARC guerrillas broke into the family home, accused him of being a right-wing paramilitary member and hauled him away.

On Sunday, Colombians are being asked to vote on a peace deal that will allow the FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — to lay down their weapons after 52 years and re-enter society.

For many who have been touched directly by the violence, the choice is a painful one.

“How are we going to reward these people who have done so much damage to the country?” Cruz asked, fighting back tears. “We don’t know if my brother is alive or dead. All we know is that we’ve been suffering for so long.”

READ MORE: Guerrilla leader says Cuba, Venezuela aren’t political models

Surveys show that most Colombians are willing to give peace a chance. According to a poll by Semana Magazine and RCN compiled during the last week of September, 66 percent support the deal and 34 percent are against it.

Sunday’s plebiscite has been an easy sell for the Juan Manuel Santos administration, which couches it as the decision between peace or resuming the half-century conflict that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and forced millions to flee from their homes.

This is not the way to create the conditions for reconciliation, it only creates more hatred

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe

But the “no” voters — led by former President Alvaro Uribe — say such simplifications are dangerous. Buried in the 297-page peace pact, they claim, are the seeds of more problems and the next conflict.

They worry that the deal is too lenient. Guerrillas who have committed serious crimes can avoid jail by telling the truth, making reparations and facing a yet-to-be-defined “confinement.” And the reparations might look more like community service than cash disbursements.

In addition, FARC members will be allowed to run for office.

No rally

When more than a dozen world leaders gathered in Cartagena on Sep. 26 to watch Santos and FARC Commander Rodrigo Londoño sign-off on the hard fought pact, opponents of the deal gathered just a few miles away.

“The biggest criminals in this organization aren’t going to jail, they won’t face extradition and they’re going to be allowed to run for office,” Uribe told the crowds. “This is not the way to create the conditions for reconciliation. It only creates more hatred.”

It’s not just Uribe’s followers who worry. Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco, a longtime Uribe critic, acknowledges the ex-president might have a point.

“Allowing confessed and convicted war criminals to be ‘punished’ by no more than orders for community service is grotesquely insufficient,” Vivanco said in a statement. “The international community should not turn a blind eye to this facade of justice in the name of peace.”

The FARC also have deep ties in the cocaine trade. And while the peace deal will require them to be players in crop eradication and substitution programs, critics worry the deal will allow them to keep their narco-cash.

Imperfect peace

The Santos administration has acknowledged that the deal isn’t perfect, but they say it was the best agreement possible under the circumstances. Negotiators insist the FARC would have never come to the table if it meant they had to go to jail.

Even so, Frank Pearl, one of the government’s point-men on the deal, says he understands the worries of the “no” crowd.

“Those of us on the negotiating team had the same fears, but the difference is we had 4 1/2 years to resolve them one by one and in detail,” he said of the prolonged negotiations. “Colombians haven’t had the chance to absorb the deal yet.”

And as much as he wants the plebiscite to pass, Pearl said he didn’t want it to be a blow-out for the “yes” vote.

“If we win, say, 90 percent to 10 percent, the FARC could interpret that as a blank check,” he explained. “That wouldn’t be good. Nobody here has a blank check. It’s important that citizens express their worries, doubts and reservations to transmit the message that everyone has to live up to their end of the deal.”

On a recent weekday, former presidential candidate and “no” campaigner Oscar Iván Zuluaga was greeting merchants in the southern town of San Vicente del Caguán. The agricultural town was in the center of a demilitarized zone from 1998 to 2002 during failed peace talks. Ever since then it’s been perceived as something of a guerrilla stronghold.

But Zuluaga said the streets tell a different story now. The town, weary of FARC extortion and economic control, elected an anti-guerrilla mayor in 2015, and supported Zuluaga in his 2014 presidential bid that revolved around a tougher peace deal.

“It’s in places like this where we can see what the FARC wants out of the deal — they’re trying to take political power by controlling key territories,” Zuluaga said.

He said the FARC control cattle ranches and dairy farms and have deep economic ties in the region built on the back of extortion and violence. And the deal, he says, will allow them to hide and maintain those riches.

“Colombia loses with this deal. It’s a leap into the void,” Zuluaga said. “The FARC have done so much damage to the country; we’re rewarding them and they are giving us nothing in return.”

Emotion vs. reason

Uribe and Zuluaga have also complained that the administration has pumped millions into the “yes” campaign, drowning out their message.

But for most Colombians the decision is more emotional than reasoned.

Jairo Ricardo, a 52-year-old candy vendor in Cartagena, said he had many reasons to vote against the deal. His family was forced to move to Cartagena decades ago by guerrilla violence. And he says he lost at least 20 relatives and close friends to the conflict.

“I hate this deal and I hate what the FARC have done to the country,” he said.

But he said his wife recently convinced him to vote “yes” by repeating three names: Juan Jose, Shakespeare Alexander and Luciana Sofía.

“They’re my grandchildren,” he explained. “We can’t leave them a country with these same problems.”