Colombia should vote ‘Yes’ in its referendum on FARC

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 20, 2016


With less than two weeks before the Referendum on the “Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace,” Colombians seem bitterly divided over Juan Manuel Santos’ peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. Though the president has made some concessions that many find hard to accept, like letting many human rights violations go unpunished, Colombians should still support the effort to bring peace after 50 years of violent conflict in the country.


There is no doubt that the FARC have caused great pain to Colombians. The revolutionary group that fought for profound political and social transformations in the 1960s became a criminal organization in the 1990s. The FARC outlasted the end of revolutionary guerrillas elsewhere in Latin America because of its ties to organized crime and drug-trafficking. Though the FARC continues to have supporters scattered across the world, its reputation in Colombia is bad. Besides, there is little justification for a guerilla movement in the country today. Despite lasting problems of inequality and injustice, Colombia is a vibrant democracy. Many people who share the ideals that initially inspired the FARC have advanced their causes, while following democratic rules.


To be sure, the FARC are not the only human rights violators in Colombia. As often times happens in wars, human rights have been violated by all the parties involved. Paramilitary organizations formed in different parts of the country to fight the FARC have also carried out atrocities and have links with criminal organizations. The paramilitary forces have received protection from regional and national authorities. The Colombian Armed Forces have been accused of using a soft hand when dealing with human rights violations committed by paramilitaries. In the war against the guerrillas and drug-trafficking, soldiers have also committed excesses and human rights violations.


After coming into power in 2010, President Santos surprisingly promoted peace talks with the guerrillas. Having served as Minister of Defence to president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), Santos embraced his leader’s heavy handed approach against the FARC guerrillas. Under Uribe, the government successfully weakened the FARC and killed some of its most important leaders. While Uribe was determined to exterminate the FARC, Santos was willing to negotiate the end of the conflict. For him, winning peace was more important than just winning the war.


Unease at concessions

Although a majority want to end the war, many Colombians are uneasy about the concessions made to the FARC. Letting human rights violators go unpunished is a bitter pill that many Colombians do not want to swallow. In the peace talks with the FARC, Santos gave ground to help the FARC admit defeat and agree to end the conflict. Those concessions include a mechanism for the FARC to become a political party and a broad agreement that is seen by many as an amnesty law for human rights violations. The details of the agreement have led many to believe that human rights abuses committed by the rebels will be less severely punished than those committed by the Colombian Armed Forces.


President Santos, who is betting his political capital on the peace process, has called for a plebiscite on Sunday, October 2. The Constitutional Tribunal has ruled that for the plebiscite to be valid, the “Yes” vote must defeat the “No” vote and, in addition, must be cast by at least 13 percent of the 34.9 million eligible voters (4.5 million).


Given the relatively low turnout threshold, the opposition to the peace negotiations has campaigned for the “No” vote. Since polling companies cannot accurately predict turnout for such an important vote in a country where electoral participation has been historically low, nobody knows how many people will turn out to cast ballots. As a result, pollsters are making contradictory predictions about what will happen on October 2.


Without a doubt, the peace agreement signed between the Santos government and the FARC guerrillas is hard to accept for those committed to bringing human rights violators to justice. Yet, the alternative offered by former president Uribe, the most vocal opponent of the peace process, and his allies would also be costly. A military defeat of the FARC would take years and would only delay the peace-building process. A “Yes” vote in the plebiscite will give the government a six-month period to fast track constitutional reforms to begin the implementation of the peace accord.


Colombians are about to make a momentous decision. After five decades of violence and suffering, they will decide between two options, rejecting President Santos’s peace agreement with the FARC or giving peace a chance. If they choose the former, Santos will become a lame duck and the 2018 presidential election campaign will start almost immediately, with a clear advantage for the hardliners who want a military defeat of the FARC. If they choose the latter, the road ahead will not be easy but it will be an opportunity for Colombia to show the world that they are ready to make the sacrifices required to begin building peace.