Colombia: What Happened to Peace

Bolivar Square after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos cast his ballot there in the referendum on a peace accord, Bogotá, Colombia, October 2, 2016

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Bolivar Square after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos cast his ballot there in the referendum on a peace accord, Bogotá, Colombia, October 2, 2016

On Monday, September 26, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias Timochenko, leader of the Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia, or FARC, signed a peace accord in the photogenic coastal city of Cartagena. I was in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, that afternoon, packed into the central Plaza de Bolivar along with several thousand celebrants. Giant screens had been set up in public parks and squares, and in the Plaza de Bolivar three of Colombia’s top musical groups were announced as warmup acts to the peace-signing itself. It was a gorgeous afternoon, the best this Andean city can offer, with clear skies and a high breeze. In the golden sunset a parade of euphoric neighborhood delegations marched in, dancing on stilts, leaping about or drumming ecstatically while the watching crowd danced and cheered.

After four years of exhausting negotiations held mainly in Havana, the accord had put an end to a confrontation between state and rebels that neither side had been able to win for more than half a century. In the course of those decades of useless violence some 220,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed. Another 92,000 disappeared, and an estimated six million Colombians, mostly peasant farmers, fled their place of birth or, in the case of so many who had already left their native communities because of violence, were forced to abandon their new homes.

Under the terms of the agreement the FARC agreed to hand over their weapons in exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution and full political rights. Their ambition was to transition into a political party, much as another guerrilla group did, quite successfully, in 1985. In the peace talks, they demanded, and got, the right to run for public office and an initial ten guaranteed slots in Congress. It was these two points, immunity and political participation, that would prove the peace accord’s undoing, but they were not yet a concern at the highly choreographed signing ceremony in Cartagena.

Twelve Latin American presidents, Ban Ki-moon, Christine Lagarde, and any number of other national and international dignitaries attended what was in fact, and confusingly, merely a prologue to the actual implementation of the accords. In order to take effect, the treaty had to be ratified in a national plebiscite, which was set for six days later. It was expected that the vast network of international support generated for the accord and made public at the signing ceremony, plus the benefits of a bilateral cease-fire, in effect now for over a year, would guarantee a victory for Yes when it came to a vote in the plebiscite on October 2.

In the end, a third of the electorate cast their vote, apathy and torrential rains kept many potential Yes voters away from the voting booths, the No vote won by less than half a percent, and it was Brexit all over again.

The government might have seen it coming at the Plaza de Bolivar in Bogotá on the day of the signing. After the first two bands had played it became clear that, with five minutes left to go before the start of the peace ceremony, the revered rock group Aterciopelados would not be appearing. Standing on the cathedral steps with a clear view of the crowd, I realized that the plaza was emptying out before the giant screens even blinked on to show the ceremony in Cartagena.

Many years ago in Nicaragua I was witness to a similar moment, at a closing rally for the candidate of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front in the 1990 presidential elections. The plaza in Managua was packed to overflowing; according to all the polls, the clear winner was expected to be the Sandinista candidate, Daniel Ortega (the current President of Nicaragua since 2007). But long before Ortega began his speech, huge numbers of people began to stream out. Startled, I asked people why they were leaving. “We’ve already signed in,” they explained. Two days later voters handed the leftist Ortega a crushing defeat in that all-important election.

The people at the plaza last week in Bogotá had not been required to attend in the way that Nicaraguans had; no one had checked their names off a list. They were there on their own, and no doubt those who left early would have said that they were in favor of peace if asked, but they were there for the music. Most polls showed that Colombians favored the accord by a two-to-one margin, but when it came to it, not enough of them took the trouble to vote on Sunday, six days after the peace ceremony, whereas those against the peace accord made every effort to go out to register their protest.


In a masochistic effort to measure the spilt milk,, a prominent political website, calculated how many votes were lost in each departamento, or state, either because of the torrential rains brought by Hurricane Matthew, or by the lack of mermelada that is ordinarily distributed to local politicians at election time. The marmalade, or under-the-table money, is used to buy baseball caps or construction materials for voters—and to hire the buses needed to transport rural voters to the booths. The difference between the votes cast on Sunday and the usual number of votes produced by Santos’s Liberal Party operators in any major coastal city would have produced a victory for Yes.

Even though Timochenko, the FARC leader, promptly declared that the guerrillas would not take up arms again, the No victory struck most observers as a brutal all-around defeat for Colombia: there is the very real risk that, given the circumstances, many FARC fighters will refuse to follow their leadership on the road to civilian life (many have already abandoned the ranks of the FARC for a rival, though considerably smaller, rebel group). In expectation of renewed violence the country’s investment rating could be downgraded, with a consequent effect on desperately-needed inflows of foreign capital. A lion’s share of the national budget will now continue to go to the military rather than to education or sorely needed infrastructure. And the likelihood is that a population grown mistrustful, isolated and cynical after generations of senseless war will once again find justification for internecine hatred. 

But there is a clear winner, too, and that is former president Álvaro Uribe, a fervent tweeter who combines a passion for extermination with an unsettling priestly demeanor. In private he has been recorded threatening disobedient associates (“I’ll hit you in the face, you faggot!”). In public he has lectured piously and without pause against the peace accord, for guaranteeing that even the known assassins and drug traffickers of the FARC would not serve jail sentences for their crimes. The truth of this injustice was so evident—the FARC did commit countless murders, and it has long been a major participant in Colombia’s drug trade—that it obscured a greater reality: even under Uribe’s energetic prosecution of the war effort when he was president (2002-2010) the FARC remained diminished but undefeated.

In 2003, following an agreement with Uribe, the guerrillas’ bloodthirsty paramilitary enemies laid down their arms. A formal structure for the disarmament was put in place in 2006: paramilitaries who confessed to an unspecified number of crimes—by no means all—would receive maximum jail sentences of five to eight years. It was understood that there would be no extradition to the United States, where most paramilitaries were wanted on drug trafficking charges. In 2008 fourteen prominent paramilitary prisoners were rounded up overnight and secretly extradited to the United States. In an article published in The New York Times last month, Deborah Sontag cites evidence that the extraditions may have been an emergency effort to keep the prisoners from telling what they knew not only about the long involvement of Uribe’s friends and relatives with the drug-trafficking paramilitaries, but of Uribe himself.

Uribe’s hatred of the FARC is personal; his father was killed at the family finca by guerrillas, and with Juan Manuel Santos as his Defense Minister and generous funding from the United States he led the military’s often dirty campaign against the guerrillas. Without it the FARC would never have sat down to talks, but rebel groups do not generally agree to what Uribe has blasted the Santos deal for lacking—provisions for criminal trials for themselves on the grounds of drug-trafficking or crimes against humanity.

As president, Uribe wangled a constitutional amendment allowing presidents to stand for a second term in office, and he was headed for a certain second reelection in 2010 when the country’s constitutional court ruled against a referendum to approve the possibility of three-term presidencies. Something about his capacity for rage strikes a deep chord in the Colombian electorate, not unlike what Uribe’s archenemy Hugo Chávez provoked in Venezuela, and even today Uribe’s popularity hovers in the mid-fifties, whereas only the FARC’s Timochenko rivals president Santos’s appalling ratings, which in recent months have dipped as low as 13 percent. (Go figure the citizenry; Colombians rate liberal Barack Obama far higher than Uribe, at close to 80 percent, and the head of the government negotiating team at a respectable 45 percent.)

Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe after casting his vote in the referendum, Bolivar Square, Bogotá, Colombia, October 2, 2016

John Vizcaino/Reuters

Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe after casting his vote in the referendum, Bolivar Square, Bogotá, Colombia, October 2, 2016

Some years ago the Colombian senator Antonio Navarro Wolff, a canny analyst, told me that the minute a peace accord was signed Uribe would stop campaigning against it, because it would no longer be politically profitable for him to do so. But the former president turned out to be even smarter than that. Having fought the accord in a campaign that featured the imaginary threat of something called castro-chavismo and the unlikely possibility of a “President Timochenko,” he took command of what remained of the peace process within hours of the final vote tally on Sunday.


In a restrained five-minute speech, Uribe said that talks should begin again—now to be carried out on his terms—and prison sentences for the FARC leadership must be included. (“Señores of the FARC: it will contribute greatly to the unity of Colombians if you, duly protected, permit the enjoyment of tranquility.”) Then he moved on to the real purpose of his address, and of the No campaign: the unveiling of  the political platform for his surrogates in the 2018 presidential election. No tax increases, he demanded. (A major and much-needed tax reform hangs in the balance now.) Social welfare, he said, should not “put honorable private enterprise at risk.” (This is code against the peace accord’s proposed redistribution of land to campesinos expelled from it during the war.) Uribe called for financial austerity; “solidarity” with the armed forces, among whose members the peace accord has proved a particularly hard sell; quality education for all; and, finally, family values, because many of the No voters were as much against legal abortion and gay marriage as they were against the peace accord.  

The fatal idea of holding a plebiscite to ratify the agreement between the guerrillas and the government was President Santos’s alone, and according to participants in the peace talks, he stuck to it against strenuous opposition from his advisers. The risks, after all, were great. But faced with strident opposition by Uribe and his surrogates, Santos was trying to guarantee that the 297 pages of the accord’s terms would hold even if a subsequent president—an Uribe clone, for example—were determined to overthrow the agreement. There are precedents for such reversals, notably in Argentina, where generals responsible for the atrocities committed during the Dirty War were first condemned, then pardoned, then condemned again by successive administrations. Perhaps Santos was being prudent, perhaps he was merely stubborn. In either case, the referendum he designed to guarantee the peace agreement’s permanence proved its undoing and he lost. The question is what comes now.

Though the president’s extreme unpopularity is hard to explain—to me at least—it may owe something to his arrogance, which appears considerable. He had stated earlier that there was no plan B to the peace deal, and we now learn that he wasn’t kidding. As I write, he is holding meetings with the members of the accord’s negotiating team, with his cabinet, and with members of the opposition. A meeting with Uribe has been scheduled for Wednesday to figure out what, if anything, can be done about Sunday’s results. The head of his negotiating team, considered until the vote a likely front-runner in the 2018 presidential elections, tendered his resignation, but Santos has sent him instead to deal with Uribe and his surrogates. Timochenko is back in Havana, conferring with the other members of the FARC directorate and insisting, irrelevantly, that the results of the plebiscite are politically significant but not legally binding. The FARC troops, who were supposed to begin gathering in twenty-eight designated ‘concentration areas’ as of this week are in freeze position and looking very much like sitting ducks. 

The idea that large sectors of the Colombian electorate would actually want to continue the war with the FARC seems baffling, but not everyone who voted No in the plebiscite is a warmonger. Although it is true that the areas of the country where the No vote won are among those least affected by the nightmarish war, there are also many people who voted No because a relative of theirs was kidnapped, or a co-worker was trapped in one of the FARC’s mass highway muggings, or they were simply revolted by the idea of the FARC leaders going scot free. After the peace ceremony began last week a friend and I decided to head to one of the little traditional cafés around the Plaza de Bolivar, where we could watch the event more quietly on a television screen. There were a number of us crowded into an upstairs gallery at one such place, but my attention was caught by one of the waiters, a sweet boy—I think he told me he was nineteen—who watched raptly, I thought, as Timochenko, the FARC leader, droned on about his group’s respect for life and children and butterflies. (There are a lot of FARC songs about butterflies too.) It was all a bit much, particularly considering that the FARC had made a systematic practice of recruiting fifteen and even twelve-year-olds into their fighting ranks, but I was not expecting the waiter’s answer when I asked him how he would vote. “I’m voting No,” he said softly. It turned out that his mother had received his father’s body, kidnapped by the FARC, cut to pieces in a black plastic bag.

Hazarding a guess, one might conclude that residents of areas where entire communities were subjected to the war’s atrocities were more able to see how necessary it is to bring the war to an end, whereas isolated individuals who suffered kidnappings or violence at the hands of the guerrillas were left alone with their pain and voted No. Nor were the No voters necessarily in favor of more war. They, too want peace, but many people I spoke to over the course of the last few months feel terrified of the profound changes in their world, one in which FARC killers could run for public office, people with threateningly different forms of sexuality can feel free to hold hands in public and even marry, as they now can in Colombia, and long-haired potheads are the legal equal of law-abiding, hard-working citizens. Still others, friends of mine, were willing to vote No because they despise a president they see as a fatuous toff. A proviso in the legal framework for the plebiscite stipulates that in case of a No majority, a renegotiation of peace terms can take place, followed by a second plebiscite to approve whatever accord is eventually agreed to by all parties. At the moment, restarting negotiations and getting current No voters to approve a peace treaty acceptable to the FARC looks like a fantastically difficult task, but erasing all the effort, achievements, and great expectations of the last four years would be a disaster.  

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