Questions swirl around Colombian peace deal after voter rejection

People react to the rejection of a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) following a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Bogota, Colombia, on Oct. 2, 2016.
People react to the rejection of a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) following a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Bogota, Colombia, on Oct. 2, 2016. Bloomberg

In the days leading up to Sunday’s vote on a historic peace deal with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the administration cast the decision in stark terms.

If the deal failed, President Juan Manuel Santos warned, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, would have no choice but to resume their 52-year war. And he said there was no chance of renegotiating the 297-page peace deal, which had been almost four years in the making.

On Monday, Santos was put in the unlikely position of trying to prove himself a liar, after Colombians narrowly defeated the proposal at the polls.

The good news for this long-troubled nation is that no one is talking about resuming the bloodletting. All the political actors, including the guerrillas, the government and the promoters of the “no” vote insist peace is the only way forward.

“Colombians who voted for ‘yes’, those who abstained and... those of us who voted for ‘no’ all share a common element,” said ex-President Alvaro Uribe, who campaigned against the deal. “We all want peace. Nobody wants violence.”

The bad news is there’s no clear path forward.

Santos sent his negotiators back to Cuba Monday to confer with the FARC and said he looked forward to meeting with members of Uribe’s Centro Democrático party in hopes of finding a “happy ending for the peace process.”

“We have to work fast and establish time limits,” he warned. “Uncertainty and the lack of clarity about what comes next risk everything we have built up until now.”

Bitter pill?

At the heart of the discontent is the sense that the government gave away too much at the bargaining table. Uribe and his followers are demanding deep reforms, including stiffer penalties for guerrilla leaders and a prohibitions on them running for office.

The Santos agreement offered those accused of serious crimes alternative sentences to prison as long as they confessed and provided reparations. The FARC were also guaranteed at least five seats in the House and Senate for two election cycles.

Those two points — transitional justice and political participation — were some of the most hard-fought issues at the bargaining table.

“After 60 years of conflict, the FARC did not sit down to negotiate only to be told that they have to go to jail,” said Sandra Borda, the dean of political sciences as Bogotá’s Jorge Tadeo University.

What Uribe and his followers are asking is tantamount to a FARC surrender, she said, “and that’s simply not going to happen.”

And yet, the FARC may have to bend if negotiations are to be salvaged.

Nobody was expecting [Sunday’s] results so nobody has a plan

Sandra Borda, political analyst

“The ball is really in the FARC’s court,” said Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It really depends on whether these four years of negotiations, and all the military blows of the previous decades, have genuinely changed the FARC’s outlook. Do they feel there is more to be gained by participating politically?”

So far the answer seems to be yes. FARC Commander Rodrigo Londoño says his group is committed to a peaceful solution and will abide by a bilateral ceasefire in place since June.

On Monday, the group issued a communiqué asking Colombians to march and take other peaceful actions in support of the deal.

“Peace in Colombia is a constitutional right and an obligatory duty that should be above hate and violence,” the group wrote.

But new negotiations could undermine that peaceful resolve. The ceasefire made sense as both parties had the finish-line in sight. Now it’s unclear if the finish line still exists.

United States Senator from Florida Marco Rubio and U.S. representative Carlos Curbelo speak to reporters about the vote by Colombian citizens to reject a peace deal with the FARC.


“The security outlook is uncertain even if an immediate return to war is unlikely,” wrote Maria Luisa Puig, an analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group. Because the guerrillas are unlikely to hand over their weapons anytime soon, and there’s no short-term obligation to give up criminal activities — their economic lifeblood — security is likely to suffer, Puig said. 

Sunday’s vote was almost evenly split, with the ‘no’ camp winning 50.2 percent versus the 49.8 percent. But as few were expecting the outcome, it registered as a landslide. Everyone seemed caught off guard.

The United Nations was already starting to set up a peace verification office, and the guerrillas had started to demobilize and destroy stocks of explosives.

“The FARC had tipped its hand....and infused their own side with a sense that peace was possible,” said Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. “Once that mental shift occurs, it’s awfully hard to get people to go back to the jungle and start fighting again. Of course, I think that’s a good thing.”

Even Uribe had to scramble to write a last-minute victory speech.

“Nobody was expecting [Sunday’s] results so nobody has a plan,” Borda said. “The Uribe faction had a platform that was against the deal...but they don’t have the slightest idea of how to move forward from here.”

If negotiations turn out to be a dead end, there might be other solutions. There’s talk about calling an assembly to rewrite the Constitution with hope of building consensus around peace. But that avenue is also fraught with problems: How to give the FARC a role in the process if it is still an armed group facing criminal charges and a terrorist designation?

FARC chief negotiator Iván Márquez wrote on Twitter that the plebiscite was not binding and the deal still could legally be put into effect. Analysts said that wasn’t politically feasible given Sunday’s results.

Add to the mix that presidential elections are coming in 2018, giving the Uribe camp incentives to stall for time as they turn the limping negotiations into political fodder.

“The next two years are going to be incredibly complicated for the country,” Borda said. “We’re stuck with a lame-duck president and an opposition that’s going to want to flex its muscles.”

Misleading polls?

One of the reasons the results were such a jolt was the battery of polls that gave the “yes” vote a healthy lead. Gallup, Ipsos Napoleón Franco and Cifras y Conceptos all gave the ‘yes’ vote a 24-30 point advantage. Datexco had the narrowest spread, predicting ‘yes’ would win 55 percent to 37 percent.

The administration was behaving like the deal was already done. On Sept. 26, Santos and guerrilla commander Londoño signed the peace pact at a high-profile event in Cartagena attended by a dozen presidents, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the heads of the U.N., the International Monetary Fund and the Organization of American States.

Some saw the ceremony as savvy politics — the administration showing skeptical voters that the deal had broad international support. But in hindsight it looks like a gaffe fit for a blooper reel, a cyclist pumping his fists in victory only to wipe out inches from the finish line.

Analysts said the polls likely lulled ‘yes’ voters into a sense of complacency. In addition, bad weather brought on by Hurricane Matthew kept all but the most determined at home, particularly in hard-hit coastal areas. Only 37 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, compared to 48 percent during the last presidential election in 2014.

In many ways the vote mirrored the last presidential election, with the ‘no’ vote dominating in the center of the country where Uribe’s candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga had won. But there were also surprises. Some of the areas considered FARC strongholds, like Meta and Caqueta, voted against the deal. While areas hardest hit by the conflict, like Chocó and Putumayo, voted in favor.

Colombians living in the United States voted 62 percent against the deal versus 38 percent for it.

Rosa Jattin, 74, voted at the Colombian consulate in Coral Gables clad in a “no” baseball cap.

“I didn’t think we were going to win,” she said Monday. “In Colombia they had silenced the ‘no’ campaign.”

Jattin, who left Colombia 19 years ago, said she opposed the deal because it would have given former guerrillas too much access too quickly to the political process.

“I don’t agree that someone could be a senator without fighting for it,” she said. Even so, she wants a peace deal.

“I hope they can accept other terms, because I know it’s not easy,” she said. “I want peace — but real peace. Lasting peace.”

In Colombia, results also point to an alienated electorate little swayed by international opinion.

“I think there was a disconnect from the very beginning between the closed door [negotiation] sessions in Havana and the public, which was skeptical about a process where it didn’t feel included,” said Virginia Bouvier, a Colombia expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The fact that the country is so deeply divided — and clearly divided in half — means that it’s important to find a solution that can bring more people on board.”

Colombia has seen a handful of peace talks falter in the past, but never before had a deal been so close and tangible. And that’s what makes this latest obstacle so painful, said Arnson, of the Woodrow Wilson center.

“If this moment is lost,” she said, “it’s hard to imagine negotiations ever taking place in Colombia again.”

Miami Herald Political Writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report