Colombia talks peace
By Wilson Alexander | Contributor
This is the first entry in a bi-weekly news column on world events.
In a stunning upset that was reminiscent of the Brexit vote earlier this summer, citizens of Colombia rejected a peace treaty that would have ended the 52-year war between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Despite the fact that polls showed most Colombians favored the treaty, those against it prevailed in the October 2 referendum by the thinnest of margins with roughly 50.2 percent of the vote. About 54,000 of the 13 million total votes cast separated the two positions.
This conflict has taken over 220,000 lives and displaced more than five million. And the decision Colombians made was much more complicated than the binary “yes” and “no” options would indicate.
The FARC was formed in 1964, during one of the most intense periods of international battle between capitalism and communism: the Cold War. A group of Colombians, angered by their government’s anti-communist activities, and inspired by the revolution, which had recently taken place on the Island of Cuba, came together with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Colombian government and replacing it with a Marxist one.
The FARC began to expand, turning to kidnapping and drug trafficking for revenue sources in the 1970s. Peace talks began intermittently during the 1980s and 1990s but were unsuccessful.
In 2002, Alvaro Uribewas elected as President of Colombia and launched a successful offensive campaign against the FARC; its numbers and territory were significantly reduced and several of its leaders were killed. In 2012, the Colombian government, under President Juan Manuel Santos, began negotiations with the rebels. In 2015, the FARC announced a ceasefire, and the two sides reached an agreement this summer to end the fighting.
According to the deal, the Marxist militants would disarm themselves, stop all drug trafficking activities and become a political party with several guaranteed seats in the Colombian House and Senate. In exchange, the Colombian government agreed to invest in development and infrastructure in rural, FARC-controlled areas.
However, the deal also included controversial provisions for former guerillas. Some soldiers would have received amnesty, while the group’s leaders would’ve been able to avoid prison by doing community service and participating in a reconciliation process—if they admitted to all the crimes they had committed during the war.
In a politically risky move, President Santos chose to give let the people make the final decision to accept or reject the deal. Those who opposed it, led by former president Uribe, wanted harsher punishments for the rebels and were frustrated that a group dedicated to overthrowing Colombia would be given seats in the government.
The Santos administration and others in favor of the accord argued that even though it was imperfect, it was the country’s only chance for peace and a rejection of the deal would mean a return to war.
The treaty’s rejection shocked the international community that had largely supported the deal, but the voices calling for stricter punishments for the rebels ultimately prevailed. Colombians who have experienced the horrors of guerilla warfare first-hand were unsatisfied with what they viewed as a miscarriage of justice.
Despite saying that a rejection would mean an end to any chance at peace, both the Colombian government and FARC leaders have demonstrated a renewed willingness to return to negotiations. Last year’s ceasefire is still in effect (at least until Oct. 31), and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño affirmed the group’s commitment to peace
Even after the triumph of the “no” vote on Oct. 2, Colombians still want peace. The question remains: what will peace look like. It will be difficult to get the FARC to agree to harsher punishments for its members, and any future negotiations will likely have to include the input of the leaders of the “no” campaign, most notably former President Uribe.
It’s no secret that Colombia would benefit from an end to the war. Peace is expected to bring more foreign investment to the country, allowing Colombia to channel resources elsewhere. However, Colombians must first decide how to bring their nation back together and deal with those who have spent half a century dividing it.