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Colombia in Its Horrible Night



Making peace in Colombia was always a risky bet, but any risk was better than the certainty of a three-generation long war.


The plebiscite results are fatal for the Santos administration, who lost the bet, and for the political elites and institutions of the hemisphere, who had supported it. Worse, they are a sentence of death for thousands of impoverished youth, the ones who bleed in the battlefield.


The confusion, the recrimination, the euphoria of the extreme Right, make reflection difficult. Yet reflect we must, in at least three ways: knowing what was negotiated, understanding the causes of its rejection, and envisioning new scenarios.


The Agreement


The Havana agreement was extremely comprehensive in its contents. It included five components: land reform, alternatives to drug trafficking, political participation for the FARC, disarmament, and transitional justice. A traditional, less ambitious, deal would have been limited to power-sharing and disarmament. The Colombian pact, instead, intended to address the root causes of the conflict, chief among them, the problem of land.


Ambition in the contents should not be thought of as extreme. In many ways, it was inevitable: Colombia already has an enormous experience in peace policies, some of which, like an ongoing reparations program serving millions of victims, provided a solid “first floor” to the peace process. The country also has ample judicial and political precedent in the treatment of victims’ rights, and peace negotiations. Any process would have been ambitious.


The agreement was also bold in its process. The parties recognized early on that, on top of the legal authority enjoyed by the State to negotiate, they needed democratic legitimacy. That is why they invited sixty victims’ organizations to present their views in Havana, and sponsored truth-seeking studies and reconciliation activities in some regions of the country. In this light, the decision to submit the agreement to a plebiscite, instead of a vote in Congress, was not unsound. It was a precondition for a conservative government seeking to create a social, and not just political coalition, for peace. President Santos was consistent in the promise of a plebiscite, and probably thought that comparable processes, like Northern Ireland’s, showed the desirability of democratic confirmation.


Compare this to the demobilization of the paramilitary United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) under Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Trust among the parties and the AUC’s acceptance of the state authority helped dealmaking. The focus was narrow: a solution to the judicial problems of the bosses and aid to the demobilized rank-and-file. There was no space for public intervention.


Uribe’s demobilization was never ratified by the people. Congress passed a law intended to provide a sweet deal to the paramilitary who cooperated, albeit partially, with justice. That was it. Absent any chance to contest the process in the urns, Colombian civil society took the law to the courts. There, lawyers successfully imposed heavy obligations on the paramilitary who wanted to reintegrate in society.


Such a process was impossible for Santos and the FARC. They were not brought to the table due to any sort of mutual sympathy, or by the rebels’ desire to surrender. Both civil and political society would have rejected a peace process lacking scrutiny.



Yes and No: Strategies and Reasons


The peace coalition went from Conservatives to Left-wingers, irreconcilable in all other areas of politics. Surprisingly, they were able to keep unity of purpose during a long negotiation, often interrupted by military developments, or intractable issues. Such a wide alliance found international echo in a similarly extended set of supporters: historical rivals Cuba and the US, Progressive and Conservative governments, the Vatican, the UN.


Political will was consistent, and the government jumped several legal hurdles to facilitate the negotiation. It secured a constitutional amendment to give maximum authority to the peace initiative; it argued before the courts to obtain legal interpretations that would ease the obligation to prosecute; it set a threshold that would make the plebiscite valid even if a low percentage of citizens decided to vote. Critically, the government was also able to set the question of the plebiscite and the method of voting the agreement in bloc, rather than separately, in its five components.


But the “Yes” message was paradoxical. On the one hand, it was lofty and utopian: peace would deepen democracy, ensure development, and provide moral redemption to a nation used to fratricide. On the other hand, the campaign was defensive and appealed to low expectations: the pact was the best possible after a negotiation of undefeated enemies. It sold an imperfect, yet realistic compromise. Between radical idealism and resigned realism, something went missing.


The “No” message did not have such nuances. The handbook of the modern Right-wing demagogue served Uribe well: keep it simple, be immune to the facts, appeal to fear. The pact was pure treason, and Santos was little less than a lackey of the FARC, ready to forgive terror, and hand over the country to chavismo in order to destroy it, just like neighboring Venezuela.


On top of being paranoid, the message was dishonest. The real objection to the deal, for many in the business elite, had little to do with fear that an impopular fringe were ever able to win national elections. The key for some economic sectors was to resist reforms that would correct the massive land concentration resulting from decades of peasant displacement and dispossession. And, in view of the paramilitary demobilization under Uribe, concerns about impunity were simply hypocritical.


The Future


The immediate effect of the plebiscite is the destruction of Santos’ political capital. Already unpopular in other fronts, his main bet failed, and the President simply does not have the necessary credibility to go back to the negotiation table. His defeat affects the entire region, shuddering just as Europe did after Brexit.


The winners are still difficult to read, but now they have space to be bold. The “No” campaigners—who had put their followers in a bellicose frenzy—now say they actually do not intend to go to war, and promise to iron out a few details in the agreement. Some may see this as confusion, but a different reading is possible. Uribe may propose an attractive offer to the FARC: reintegration, some form of amnesty, and a Constituent Assembly. The hubristic guerrilla may bite, and participate in a process where the electorate would empower Uribe to dismantle the current progressive Constitution.


While the FARC are also defeated, they made significant gains, chief among them international recognition and a unique opportunity to participate in public discourse. They gained their new capital with hard work: recognizing the impossibility of military victory and convincing their rank-and-file. Now, they are probably discussing whether they forced their hand, and need to renegotiate down; or whether they keep a strong position and can brave the complexities of a face-to-face process with their nemesis, Uribe. At any rate, their immediate challenge will be to keep morale and unity, avoiding both desertions and radicalization.


The three players may conclude that, in spite of the results of the plebiscite, there are advantages in the current status quo. Critically, extending the ceasefire can provide dividends to all, while new terms are explored.


The “No” won the day for now. With it, a certain form of understanding and living Colombia triumphed: a country, and a state, built in and for war. A mentality that normalizes binary thinking, enemy-focused politics, militarization. But it won by a razor-thin difference, against an entirely different conception of politics, based in the progressive 1991 Constitution and the institutions it has developed over a generation.


The paradox of Colombian life is that both realities exist in unstable balance: a brutal state and economy which finds its form of reproduction in war; and sophisticated institutions that take rights seriously. Inenarrable atrocity in the battlefields, impeccable legalism in the political superstructure. Institutions created for war and for peace, constituencies mobilized to fight and to build peace. And both, struggling to convince most Colombians, for whom positions are a risky luxury and who prefer the safety of abstention.


The Colombian anthem speaks of a “horrible night” vanquished by liberty. Such darkness persists for now. However, the radical experiment of peace demonstrated potential and stubborn determination. War has an inertia to it, but also some obsolescence.

(Photo: Getty Images. BBC Mundo. Oct 4, 2016)