On October 2nd, Colombians voted by a narrow margin (50.2 to 49.8 percent) to reject the peace agreement negotiated by the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. This war has raged for 52 years, caused an estimated 220,000 deaths, and displaced millions. While the population is clearly polarized over the agreement, it is also widely believed that many who voted for the agreement, voted for it more out of war weariness than enthusiastic endorsement. Most recent analyses of the “no” victory point to public (mainly urban) concern about the aspects of the agreement that appear to provide overly generous provisions for the rebels, such as the guarantee that FARC members would be able to avoid long prison terms for brutal human rights violations. The agreement would also provide the FARC with a guaranteed 10 seats in Congress.
Various accounts have attempted to explain the failed “yes” vote, which public opinion polls had predicted would win. Only 37 percent of those Colombians eligible, voted in the referendum and voter turnout was particularly low in those regions of the country where the “yes” voted was expected to be the highest--poor coastal areas hard hit by inclement weather that discouraged turnout. However, even had voter turnout been higher, it is certain that the outcome would have shown Colombian society to be heavily polarized on the peace agreement. This polarization has long and deep historical roots. The concessions made to the FARC and the deep and vitriolic opposition to those concessions on the part of the country’s political right is at the very root of the difficult and now stalled process towards peace.
The Historical Roots of Civil War
Colombia has a long history of economic, social, and political exclusion, along with almost incessant and high levels of political violence. Colombia is a highly stratified society, one that includes economic and political control in the hands of the descendants of Spanish conquerors, a large mixed blood population forming the ranks of the middle and working poor, and, at the bottom, a mixture of African, African/indigenous, and indigenous groups constituting the poorest and most destitute. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, in a region known for its high level of inequality. Sharp conflicts within the elite resulted in a sustained period of upheaval between 1946 and 1958, known as “La Violencia” during which an estimated 200,000 lost their lives, at a time when the country’s population was only 10 million. The elite truce that finally ended this period, the National Front, provided for an alteration in power between the country’s two elite-controlled political parties. Left parties, which would have represented the interests of peasants (for land reform) and workers, were not allowed to participate. It was this reality of political exclusion and elite intransigence that gave rise to the emergence of guerrilla organizations, including the FARC, in the 1960s. These organizations had strong bases in the rural poor. This was the era of the guerrilla-priest Camillo Torres, who fought for social justice in the Colombian countryside and was killed for his trouble. For the most part, the strategy of the Colombian elite was not to negotiate with the guerrillas but to defeat them militarily. This strategy involved substantial human rights violations carried out by the military, paramilitary groups linked to the military, and the security forces. The guerrillas also engaged in escalating human rights abuses. Given the guerrillas’ access to drug money, military defeat proved impossible.
In the mid-1980s, the FARC attempted the political route to achieving change as part of the peace negotiations and ceasefire agreed upon with the then Betancur government. The FARC formed a political arm, the Patriotic Union, which had immediate political success with the election of members to the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. However, by the early 1990s, anti-guerrilla paramilitary groups, renegade military groups, and government security forces had killed over 1,000 party politicians, including two presidential candidates and eight congressmen—these events formed the context of the escalating violence. The FARC, convinced now more than ever that the only path was armed insurrection, returned the countryside. The Patriotic Front disappeared in 2002, reappearing as a political party only in 2013.
The Current Dilemma
In 2002, Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's hardline president took power. President until 2010, Uribe belongs to the country’s landowning class and, according to human rights groups, researchers, has links to right-wing paramilitary groups—organizations responsible for the killing of peasant activists and other members of social movements. Rural paramilitary groups have been responsible for tens of thousands of murders. It was Uribe who led the campaign to defeat the “yes” vote in the recent peace agreement referendum, arguing that the agreement would give immunity to human rights violators and drug traffickers (the FARC). His position ignored the state’s and the elite’s historical role in the ongoing conflict and the plight of the civil war’s millions of innocent victims.
The Colombian civil war has a long, protracted, and complicated history. Peace will not be achieved without a recognition that there is plenty of blame to go around. The FARC may currently be the most violent and reprehensible organization on the Colombian political landscape, but its unhappy direction has been mightily shaped by the historical context of elite and state resistance to broader political inclusion. There will be no peace without a concerted effort to ensure that the political left has a secure place in Colombian politics.