Unravelling the Unexpected in Colombia

The Colombian Flag. Photo by Krosseel (CC BY 2.0)

The Colombian Flag. Photo by Krosseel (

By Jason Bowles Conover

A week ago, on Monday, September 26th, 2016, the people of Colombia bore witness to the conclusion of a 52-year-old civil war. The signing of the historic peace agreement, 4 years in the making, marked the end of the last major conflict in the Americas. The agreement was signed with a pen fashioned out of the spent casing of a rifle bullet – meant to symbolize the last bullet to be spent in this bloody conflict.

The signatories, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) Commander Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño, spoke afterward about the momentous occasion. “What we sign today is a declaration from the Colombian people before the world that we are tired of war,” stated the Colombian president, going on to quote his nation’s anthem in saying “The horrible night has ceased.” Rodrigo Londoño expressed regret for the death and destruction the decades-old war had caused, and asked for clemency: “In the name of the FARC I ask sincere forgiveness to all the victims of the conflict and for all the pain we may have caused in this war.” Before the dusk-framed walls of the ancient city of Cartagena, Londoño promised: “Our only weapons will be our words.”

600 kilometres away, in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, Bolivar Square erupted in a cacophony of celebration. On-the-pulse journalists jumped to their keyboards to type articles with titles like “Che Guevara era closes as Latin America’s oldest guerrilla army calls it a day.” John Kerry was scheduling his flight back to Washington. The end was nigh, the future looked bright. All that remained was a national referendum on the treaty that was expected to reaffirm what we were already celebrating, in a landslide to boot.

A lot can happen in a week.

On Sunday, the Colombian people voted against the terms of the treaty, rejecting the agreement drawn up by the negotiators and sending both parties back to the drawing board. Except it wasn’t a landslide rejection. The results came back as 50.2% “No” to 49.8% “Yes.” In a plebiscite where 13 million ballots were cast, 63 000 votes made the margin. The country is completely split. Except it isn’t complete. The turnout to the vote was only 40%, which is frighteningly low. Only one fifth of the Colombian people can say that they voted against the treaty. But, this is fine, right? This is just another ‘Brexit’ situation – the result was unexpected but workable. Except this is not like Brexit.

Where the United Kingdom was dealing with political strife, Colombia has something far more sinister on their hands. Whilst British people had pens of reasonable discourse to respond to their results, Colombians have weapons of unreasonable bloodshed. The chasm separating Brexiters and Remainers does not have bodies piled at the bottom of it. This is a civil conflict that has lasted longer than the Cold War.

This is not a dire spin of these results either, rather it is a frank presentation of the cracked and shaken ground that the people of Colombia stand on right now. If we were to draw a similarity between this referendum and Brexit, it would be with the immediate aftermath, where uncertainty shrouds everyone. Those who voted “yes” will feel cheated, as if the peace they were so craving was wrenched from their grasps in the twilight hour. The rebels were planning on demobilizing and surrendering their weapons to UN officials in the next few weeks. FARC was to be a political party within six months. Now the country is plunged into a suffocating quagmire of uncertainty. This was supposed to be another Good Friday – instead it is a Crippling Sunday.

Both sides wanted peace, it was only the details of that peace that split the country asunder. Those who voted “No” will tell you that the immunity and amnesty offered by the government to the rebels was unacceptable. The creation of a legitimate political party on the ashes of a terrorist organization would be a blight on the face of democracy. Those who voted “Yes” will say that any peace is a good peace. The rift is not so much wide as deep, with no clue as to what lies at the bottom. The conflict in Colombia is long and complex, and it is not for me to analyze who is right and who is wrong. So, instead, take a look at these two visualizations:

Source: National Civil Registry

Source: National Civil Registry

Source: Las 2 Orillas

Source: Las 2 Orillas

On the left is the map showing zones that voted “Yes,” in green, versus zones that voted “No,” in orange. On the right is a map showing the zones most affected my FARC, with red zones being most affected, and white zones being least/not affected.

Colombians who were most affected by the war voted for peace. Those living in the cities in the centre of Colombia who were untouched by the conflict voted against the peace. Pretty damning stuff. How can those who are insulated from the conflict in their metropolitan bunkers be expected to understand the plight of those who have seen the death firsthand? They don’t know that any misstep may result in this war being taken off pause. For all intents and purposes, the “no” voters chose blind. The unsettling part of all of this is how unrepresentative the whole thing was. Only 40% of the country participated in the vote, which is troubling no matter how you spin it. Those Colombians who did not participate might come to regret it.

To us here in Canada, communist guerrillas warring in the jungles against their government for five decades is incredibly alien. It is the sort of problem that we in developed countries cannot even begin to comprehend. So, why should we care? It’s a good question. And a tough one to answer. We should not care just to care, so permit this rationale. It is said that history repeats itself, and the mistakes made 50 years ago in Colombia could be made again somewhere far closer to home. It would be foolish not to pay attention to this unique event happening in our time, for the lessons learned may be distinctly useful to us in the future.

President Santos was elected on a promise to bring an end to the conflict, and his standing suffered a debilitating blow with this result. At the very least, Santos’s government has been embarrassed by premature celebrations. By virtue of its own loss of momentum, the negotiations will be more arduous this time around – and failure, or even stagnation, may result in an even worse time for Santos. The president is standing on thin ice where he needs solid ground. The fact that he just won the Nobel Peace Prize (a bittersweet consolation prize) for his work in ending the war will only serve to further increase the international scrutiny Colombia is facing. The eyes of the world are watching Santos. As they should. If only for the uniqueness of the occasion, Canadians should pay attention. This is the chance to observe a historical turning point, although the direction of the turn is still unknown.

What now, you ask? That’s where the uncertainty comes in. Santos had previously forewarned that there was no plan B to resolving the war. So it looks like it’s plan A, the sequel. In a televised statement made immediately following the vote, Santos announced that he had ordered negotiators to meet in Cuba where both sides will decide on a course of action. Santos stressed that this was not quitting time, and that he was still motivated to achieve peace in his time: “I won’t give up. I’ll continue the search for peace until the last moment of my mandate because that’s the way to leave a better country to our children.” In a promising statement, the FARC leadership maintained that they remain committed to securing an end to the war. Alignment is what the country of Colombia needs right now, and the immediate response to the vote has indicated that alignment is achievable. For now, all we can do is hope. And, if we are John Kerry – cancel our plane tickets.

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