By Lauren Withey
It has been a mixed week here in Colombia, including hopeful highs and disheartening lows. On September 26, enemies of more than 50 years, standing in front of leaders from around the world, committed to ending the longest war the Western Hemisphere has seen. Victims of some of the most horrific violence pardoned the perpetrators. Innocent children whose parents’ greatest hope is for them to grow up in a peaceful country sang as the FARC’s leader, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño Echeverri, and Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, signed an accord more than four years in the making. Santos guaranteed the right of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to have their voices heard in the political arena; Timochenko guaranteed that he and his followers would take that responsibility seriously and hinted at ways they hoped to contribute to the country in peacetime.
On the evening of October 2, the positive feelings of this moment were dramatically tempered by citizens’ rejection of the accord by a slim margin in a national plebiscite. Voter turnout was low: some 13 million made the decision for the nearly 50 million Colombian citizens. Some analysts have blamed the polls for the result, which consistently indicated that the “Sí” vote approving of the accord was likely to win by a generous portion. The plebiscite would serve (the narrative had promised) as a helpful mandate for lawmakers to work under while passing the legislation necessary for the accord to take effect. Though some had warned Santos early on that the plebiscite was a gamble, given the concessions he would surely have to make, many observers in Colombia and around the world were shocked when “No” eked out a win. Few seemed to know immediately what this would mean for the country and the peace process.
Populist former president Álvaro Uribe and his Central Democratic party led the “No” campaign, after opposing the peace talks throughout the process. Uribe and his party have accused President Santos of agreeing to “impunity” for the FARC and have convinced their followers that the accord would lead the country into a state of “Castro-Chavísmo” by (among other things) giving the FARC guaranteed political seats for the first two elections after the accord was passed. Uribe has traveled around the country, hosting town halls to convince people that, as he put it, “We want peace, but not this peace.”
In the vote, the center of the country (with the exceptions of Bogotá and the state of Boyaca) fell to the “No” side, while the peripheries voted overwhelmingly for “Sí.” It was not lost on anyone that citizens in the peripheries are indeed those who have suffered most over the last 20 years of this conflict and those who understand better than anyone that this accord is just one step along a much longer road to peace. It was a stated mission of many of them to lead the country toward forgiveness with their example, with the peace deal as a crucial step. They fulfilled their end of the bargain, but like many of their “Sí”-supporting compatriots, were horrified as results were finalized just over an hour after the polls closed.
“I couldn’t sleep. I feel like we and all those who have been working for so long toward peace have been dealt a low blow,” one community leader from an Afro-Colombian community told me a day after the vote. She is one of the many community leaders who have received death threats as a result of their efforts to protect their communities from violence over the years. Other leaders, like the one I accompanied to the polls on Sunday, were left only to contemplate the vagaries of democracy and hope that out of this crisis, a more perfect union might emerge.
As I return to my field sites along Colombia’s Pacific coast this week, many key questions remain unanswered. President Santos has called on all political parties to meet and come up with a plan for designing a new agreement that everyone can live with and that will pass into law. Then, he and his negotiating team must take this new accord to the FARC to consider. Some have suggested that the moment calls for a more dramatic reckoning, perhaps in the form of a new constitutional assembly.
What all in Colombia recognize, though, is that even with an accord passed, there are many issues that will continue to challenge those living in the periphery. The so-called “paracos” (neoparamilitary narcotrafficking gangs who control drug routes and illegal gold mines and seek land and power through violence) pose a greater threat to rural people in many parts of the country than any other group. The ELN, a separate guerrilla army, has not yet reached a lasting ceasefire with the government, nor have they agreed on the terms of their own peace process. Public services do not reach many regions of the country, or they are of very poor quality, and massive wealth gaps remain. Official statistics suggest a third of the country lives in poverty. No crop is as lucrative for farmers as coca, and difficult transportation routes and poor support for cash and commodity crops make these products even less valuable in comparison. Latent fear and mistrust are hard to overcome after so many years of trauma instilled by all parties to the conflict.
The moment, then, could not be more important to move forward ambitiously with this peace with the FARC. The agreement as signed last week not only aimed to put an end to that fighting, but also sought to begin to address some of these grander challenges of uniting the “Two Colombias.” It is with great hope for the future of all in the country — and particularly of those I work with in the Pacific — that I will be watching closely as leaders work toward a “National Pact” in the coming days. This country is sick of war. The next few days and weeks will indicate whether its polarized parties are capable of coming together to advance an agenda that recognizes this exhaustion and helps the country toward a more inclusive and peaceful future.
Lauren Withey is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She is currently based in Cali, Colombia, where she researches forest conservation programs along Colombia’s tropical Pacific coast.