By Cristina Bustillo
It’s been a week since the unthinkable occurred. Colombia—a country that has suffered over 50 years of civil war, that has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, and that has undergone numerous peace deals with multiple armed groups—voted against a comprehensive peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The deal was negotiated and closely examined for four years, and was backed by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the International Criminal Court.
With a difference of 53,894 votes, less than half a percentage point, the referendum expressed more than just a strong opposition to the peace deal—it showed a deeply polarized and fractured country. The regions that have been historically most deeply affected by the conflict, enduring massacres, kidnappings, and economic hardships, voted vastly in favor of the agreement—most notably Bojayá, Choco, with 96 percent and Toribío, Cauca with 84.8 percent in favor of the agreement.
Notably, 86,243 ballots were left unmarked and 170,946 ballots were deemed invalid, totaling four times the difference between the number of “Yes” and “No” votes. The result also revealed that Colombia has strong electoral and democratic institutions that respect popular opinion, even when it comes at great political cost.
The campaign against the peace deal was primarily led by the Centro Democrático party and its founder Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the former president and a current senator. The “No” campaign was largely based on an argument for renegotiation, claiming the deal granted impunity, provided excessive economic support for demobilized guerrillas, and paved the way for adoption of the “Castro-Chavista” economic model. In an interview with La República, one of the nation’s leading newspapers, Juan Carlos Vélez Uribe, the manager of the “No” campaign and senior member of the Centro Democrático party, admitted to purposefully misrepresenting or omitting certain details of the agreement in order to motivate people to vote “No.”
Following the vote, massive public demonstrations in favor of the peace deal have taken place in many of Colombia’s major cities. Their main message is #AcuerdosYa, which translates to “agreements now.” These rallies and marches include a permanent peace camp, where citizens have set up tents in front of the presidential palace and have stated their willingness to stay until a peace agreement is reached; a letter signed by 400 industry and business leaders urging the government to expedite the peace agreement; and the mobilization of more than 7,000 indigenous people Bogotá to demand a peace agreement.
A week after the vote, Uribe presented the first concrete proposal from the opposition since emerging victorious. He laid out eight points, many of which are already included in some form in the peace agreements, and are regarded as surprisingly similar to what has already been negotiated. With the Nobel Committee’s accolade to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, presenting him the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, and the mild nature of the proposals presented by the opposition, the ball is now in the government’s court to pursue a deal.
The country must face forward. A new timetable must be agreed on for the renegotiation phase. Yes, a renegotiation phase—the new proposals presented by the opposition can’t be simply added without deliberation, as has been suggested by opposition leaders. The real work will now begin. In order to maintain momentum, the viability of these proposals must be analyzed in the shortest possible time, followed by negotiations. Concessions from all sides will have to be made in order to reach our real goal—a final agreement that will bring about a new era of peace and rebuilding for Colombia.
This negotiation might be hard for a country with a recent history of a government operating by imposition, such as the secretly negotiated peace process with the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary group that bartered with Uribe during his presidency. No referendum was held during that process. However, it seems to be the dawn of a new era—one with a government that recognizes its shortcomings and faces them head on. The government must be willing to go back to the drawing board and aim to reach consensus. It must respect democratic values beyond personal or party interests, acknowledging electoral outcomes and including all stakeholders in the negotiations.
Cristina Bustillo is a Sustainability Management graduate student at Columbia University and was selected as a Global Shaper, an initiative of the World Economic Forum. She was part of a team that created a 20-year strategic development plan for her hometown, Cartagena, and has worked for multiple NGOs dedicated to socioeconomic development.
[Photo courtesy of Gobierno de Chile]