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Colombia’s two faces


Pederstrians walk under a banner supporting the 'Yes' vote in Bogotá, Colombia. © REUTERS/John Vizcaino

The day of 2 October will probably be remembered as the most unexpected plot-twist of Colombia’s history. In a referendum, Colombians voted to against the peace treaty between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Against all expectations, the NO side won by less than 54,000 votes and obtained a surprising 50.2 per cent majority, rejecting a deal that would have put an end to more than 52 years of internal conflict.

The outcome of the referendum has had three clear consequences. First, the agreements between President Santos and FARC Supreme Commander Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko, signed in Cartagena on 26 September, are now virtually suspended, and the peace deal is caught in a legal limbo.

FARC leaders Timoleon Jimenez, otherwise known as 'Timoshenko', and Ivan Marquez at the closing ceremony, where they announced that all fronts agree to the Peace Deal.© Kimberley Brown

The votes that Colombians cast on 2 October made clear that the terms of the deal must be renegotiated, but it is not at all obvious whether this will be done through a Constituent Assembly or a large national pact that will bring together government forces, NO supporters, FARC and civil society to discuss and modify the existing deal.

Second, the NO victory revamped the opposition led by former president and leader of the NO campaign Álvaro Uribe.

Uribe had premised much his political discourse on his opposition to the peace treaty and was sidelined from the negotiations table. Now, he will now have a key role in the forthcoming peace talks, whatever form these might take.

Third, and arguably most problematic of all, the vote left the country completely polarized. The referendum split Colombia’s electorate into two opposing fronts, and some of the narratives championed by YES and NO fronts seemingly contributed to exacerbate the division.

'No more kidnappings, no more terrorism, no more deaths, no more FARC' says a banner held during a past demonstration against FARC Guerrilla in Madrid and more than 130 cities around the world. © Camilo Rueda López

On the one hand, some of the discourses crafted by the YES campaign interpreted the NO vote as a vote for war. On the other, voting YES was portrayed by the NO front as a means to surrender the country to the myth of ‘Castro-Chavismo’ and shattering the founding values of Colombia’s society.

However unexpected the results of Colombia’s referendum might appear, they do provide some important lessons for the actors that will now take part in the new negotiations round.

To begin with, the failure of the peace deal does not meant Colombia voted for more war, nor that the 4.6 million Colombians who voted NO did so to reject peace altogether.

If Colombia is to achieve an inclusive, representative and just deal then the first task will be to dismantle the poisonous dichotomy whereby those who voted in favour of the treaty are hailed as friends of peace, while those who voted against the deal are blamed for being war supporters. A great number of those who voted NO did so because they did not believe the deal was truly fair to the victims the 52 year conflict. Some of the objections raised by the NO front that, once demobilized, the FARC guerrillas would not face serious punishment are legitimate fears which any new deal will have to provide a clearer answer to.

On the other hand, the long lasting and stable peace Colombia aspires to ultimately depends on its ability to put an end to the socioeconomic inequalities that gave birth to the conflict in the first place.

The myth of ‘Castro-Chavismo’ and the scaremongering of Uribe’s opposition – according to which the implementation of the peace treaty would have led Colombia to take the same path of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela – is a red herring. In fact, the agreement did give FARC the chanceto take part in Congress, and even assigned the guerrilla movement some special seats independently of their electoral performance in 2018 and 2022. But the real threat, which Uribe’s narrative problematically glossed over, was not whether or not Timochenko could become president, but that Colombia is still plagued by deep-seated inequalities that make the FARC’s discourse appealing to many in the first place.

And the most efficient way to tackle the prospect of a political takeover by FARC is not to shut the doors of Congress to them, but to end the inequalities that allowed FARC to present themselves as a desirable alternative to the existing parties.

And finally, the disagreement between the YES and NO camps begs the fundamental question: what scope exactly should the peace agreement have?

The most misguiding and irrational fear which Uribe managed to attach to his NO campaign was that the peace deal with FARC would have led to the imposition of a ‘gender ideology’ that could have destroyed the traditional, catholic family unit.

A female guerrilla sits smoking a cigarette in a caletta. Women apparently see little machismo within the FARC and share tasks ‘as a team’, they say. They also make up over 40 per cent of all FARC insurgents. © Kimberley Brown

While it is true that the treaty did mention gender, the latter was never expressed as an ideology that would have superimposed the will of a minority over the rest of society. Much to the contrary, gender was discussed as a framework whose ultimate goal was to ensure that everyone, including those whom the conflict hit hardest – precisely because of their gender and sexual orientation – would enjoy the same rights and opportunities that many hoped the post-conflict era would bring about.

The peace deal with FARC was never just about the need to put an end to a 52 year old war. It was also, and much more importantly, a means to open a new chapter of Colombia’s history, do away with five decades of war, and promote a more tolerant and accepting society. But the country has a long way to go.

If it is true that the government, Uribe’s opposition, and FARC are all equally ">committed to promote peace, then the first step is to dismantle the toxic narratives that exacerbated the polarization of the two sides.

Only then, regardless of the way in which the country will come out of the political quandary in which the peace deal is now stranded, Colombia will be able to enjoy the peace it so desperately longs for.

Look out for the November issue of New Internationalist magazine ‘Peace in Colombia: Hopes and Fears’, where we take an in-depth look at the country after the referendum.

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