No Colombian, likely no citizen anywhere, would reject peace in preference to war.

Though the vote has largely been compared to producing a ‘Brexit’ level surprise by the international press, I would argue that the (almost) 50/50 vote may effectively represent just how conflicted Colombians are as they decide the terms that would end the 50-year war.

screenshot-2016-10-06-22-36-56Referendum result. Courtesy of El Tiempo.

Why would a Colombian vote ‘no’?

A few reasons…

  • Close to 6 million people were displaced from their homes as a result of the FARC. They likely voted.
  • Over 220,000 people have died – their grieving family members were also voting.
  • Almost every Colombian has a personal story of somebody who was kidnapped, extorted, or who simply disappeared at the hands of the FARC. These people voted.

The New York Times may have explained the ‘no’ vote best:

The war has lasted so long that it might have been difficult for many Colombians to forgive the FARC. “The adults that were born before the war now number very few,” said Juan Gabriel Vásquez, a novelist who voted for the deal. “As a society, we are a massive case of post-traumatic stress, because we have grown up in the midst of fear, of anxiety, of the noise of war.”

That may create the impression that Colombians may be bitter and unwilling to forgive the FARC for the damage they have done. But that is clearly not the case as 48.8% of Colombians voted for peace.

Accepting peace, at what cost?

The official question on the referendum ballot was “Do you support the final accord that concludes the conflict and constructs a sustainable and durable peace?”


Referendum ballot. Photo courtesy of The Bogotá Post.

To many Colombians it may have read as “Do you find that the terms of peace offer justice for the atrocities the FARC has committed?” or perhaps “Does this agreement offer justice with the group that [kidnapped / killed / tortured] your [cousin / friend / parent]?”

The 50/50 vote represents just how difficult it may have been for Colombians to answer this question – both as a personal resolution and a political strategy for their country.

To answer, citizens should have looked to the 297-page agreement that details the FARC’s reintegration into civic society.  But in most every case, that did not happen.

The New York Times explains that “voters face a problem in any referendum: They need to distil difficult policy choices down to a simple yes or no…voters typically solve this problem by finding what the political scientists…have termed ‘short cuts’. The voters follow the guidance of trusted authority figures or fit the choice within a familiar narrative.”

Colombia’s referendum was no exception.  A major point of tension is the misinformation that was shared by the ‘No’ campaign led by former president Alvaro Uribe. The campaign’s scare tactics may have swayed the vote in the end.

Nonetheless, it’s worth examining a few of the highlights of the agreement and how they have been received:

  • Expected and widely accepted:
    • The FARC’s fighters would disarm handing over weapons to the United Nations
    • The FARC would declare all the monetary and non-monetary resources that have formed part of their war economy and will use those resources towards reparations
    • The government pledged under the peace agreement to invest substantial resources in improving the country’s rural areas.
  • Slightly Controversial
    • Demobilized fighters would also receive financial aid from the Colombian government to help them reintegrate
    • The accord creates 16 seats in areas battered by the conflict where only locals (in areas where the FARC are likely favored) will be able to run.
  • Very Controversial
    • The rebels would automatically attain legal political representation via a political party with 10 guaranteed seats in the country’s Congress. 5 in the 166-seat house of representatives and 5 in the 102-seat senate.
    • The deal would allow rebels to avoid jail time if they confessed to their crimes. Those who confess to crimes would not serve any prison sentences.

A FARC member explained that by accepting the accord they would get “rid of the arms and become politicians…. but would not lose [their] structure. [They would] be at the ballot boxes [next] time.”

The sentiment among some was that by offering automatic political representation to a rebel group who has undermined democracy, Colombians would be giving the country away and perhaps also giving into the FARC. A voter in opposition to these terms felt that “There’s no justice in this accord…if ‘no’ wins, we won’t have peace, but at least we won’t give the country away to the guerrillas. We need better negotiations.”


“It is…hard to accept that FARC leaders who were responsible for holding hostages in chains for years on end, or for terrorist bombs against a Bogotá club and defenseless villagers, should end up in congress rather than in jail” – The Economist

But still, Colombians want peace.

So, who is to blame for this ordeal?

Colombians have taken to social media to blame each other for the outcome. They should be looking at the leaders of government instead.

President Santos and his negotiators had the responsibility to offer an accord that would satisfy the majority of Colombians. It did not.

santosSantos accepts defeat. Photo courtesy of NYT.

Even if the referendum passed by a small margin, it could still have been a failure.  To attain a final, sustainable peace, Colombians must be genuinely convinced and ready to participate in the reintegration of ex-guerrillas.

A 51% win is hardly a legitimate basis on which to build peace, especially an inclusive one. As former director of the National Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation, Eduardo Pizarro stated, “we can’t make peace with only half the country”. If nothing else, the plebiscite has shown that a more inclusive pact needs to be sought, and although this seems like a daunting task, it could also constitute an opportunity for a rapprochement between the divided political sectors of the country. – The Bogota Post

It will be important to understand the objections and concerns of the ‘No’ voters and to incorporate them into the dialogue of peace. This should have happened years ago.

Adam Isacson from the Washington Office on Latin America explains that “if poor or botched reintegration programs fail to offer opportunities to former child combatants, Colombia’s powerful paramilitaries and trafficking groups may offer them a tempting alternative”.

Isacson reminds us that signing a peace accord will be the easiest part of any peace process. Offering reintegration programs, retraining projects, education scholarships and fulfilling law-abiding lifestyles to ex-guerrillas whose skills are best suited for organized crime would take years, perhaps decades. Peace can only succeed if effective systems are in place to support complete reintegration into a law-abiding civic life.

If Colombians are not content with the terms that would bring guerrillas into cities – it might be best not to bring them at all. A hostile welcome would certainly discourage ex-guerillas to effectively reintegrate.

Better negotiations are in need.

It is widely understood that Colombians who voted against the accord were largely voting for better, more just terms. Not against peace.

How to do that will be a major challenge for the president who has announced that the unilateral ceasefire expires October 31st. Thankfully, neither the FARC nor the government are prepared to return to war.

“I will not give up,” declared Mr Santos in a televised address. The FARC’s top commander, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, known as Timochenko, said the guerrillas would “use only words as a weapon to build toward the future”. – New York Times

Critically, President Santos will need the help of the man who led the campaign against the accord: former President Alvaro Uribe. Some analysts speculate that a “weakened Santos can only rescue the accord by inviting Uribe to directly negotiate a solution to the impasse with the FARC”.

Santos must work with the opposition to produce the terms he should have offered in the first place. His failure to meaningfully integrate critics into four years of negotiations have put him in this situation, hopefully, his ability to engage detractors can produce a different result.

Santos must find a platform to share new terms with the Colombian people and re-engage peace with more popular terms.

What’s the Silver Lining?

Colombian leaders have the opportunity to create a final, just, and persuasive peace accord that offers Colombians terms they will feel compelled to live with.

The international community dreads that Colombia’s peace process was unsuccessful because it is a failed model for peace to share in other areas. That should not be the takeaway.

This ‘no’ should be interpreted as democracy at its best. Politics, peace, and justice are complex. We should celebrate iteration on this process as representing an opportunity to execute peace within the framework of an inclusive dialogue and with sustainability in mind.

Colombians have returned to the streets to show their peaceful support of continued negotiations.

A peaceful demonstration in favor of continued peace talks after the referendum. Photo courtesy of El Tiempo

We may not have gotten “Peace at Last” in the headlines this time around – but the opportunity for peace may still be around the corner. We must work towards peace in unity every day until the opportunity ceases to exist.

Time is running out. Still, we stand strong, we stand with hope.

screenshot-2016-10-07-15-28-01Photo courtesy of El Tiempo.


Why Referendums Aren’t as Democratic as They Seem http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/05/world/americas/colombia-brexit-referendum-farc-cameron-santos.html?ref=americas

Colombia and Its Rebels Want Peace, but How Has Never Been Less Clear http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/05/world/americas/colombia-farc-rebels-peace.html?ref=americas

Deep Scars and Complacency Defeated Colombia’s Peace Deal http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/04/world/americas/colombia-rebels-farc-santos-uribe.html?ref=americas

Colombia Peace Deal Is Defeated, Leaving a Nation in Shock http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/03/world/colombia-peace-deal-defeat.html?src=me

Aching for Peace, but Also Justice, Colombians Weigh Deal With FARC http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/26/world/americas/colombia-farc-peace-deal.html?mtrref=www.nytimes.com

Colombia’s ‘No’ to Peace Deal Could Hit U.S. Aid http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2016/10/04/world/americas/04reuters-colombia-peace-usa-aid.html?ref=americas&mtrref=www.nytimes.com&mtrref=www.nytimes.com

A chance to clean up http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21707921-all-its-imperfections-and-complexities-agreement-between-government-and-farc

Saving Colombia’s peace agreement http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21708156-no-one-wants-return-war-voters-have-blocked-path-peace-saving-colombias-peace

A messy but necessary peace http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21707930-colombians-should-vote-approve-peace-deal-farc-messy-necessary-peace

Colombia war victim denounces lack of ‘solidarity’ after peace deal rejected http://colombiareports.com/colombia-war-victim-denounces-lack-solidarity-peace-deal-rejected/

What next? Post-plebiscite questions and possibilities http://thebogotapost.com/2016/10/04/next-post-plebiscite-questions-possibilities/

Colombian President Meeting Rival Uribe in Bid to Save Peace http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/10/04/world/americas/ap-lt-colombia-peace.html?ref=americas&mtrref=www.nytimes.com

Why Referendums Aren’t as Democratic as They Seem