On the surface, it seemed like a clean cut deal – after decades of fighting, the Colombian government and guerrilla group FARC had negotiated the terms of peace. All that was left was a nationwide referendum. When the results came in, Colombia and the rest of the global community were stunned. Despite predictions that the peace deal would be approved with comfortable margin, 50.2 percent of people voted against it and in effect nullified the agreement. How and why did this October 2 referendum end in a rejection of the deal? Where does the Colombian government and FARC go from here? Can peace persist? These are the questions this article seeks to answer.
The conflict between FARC and the Colombian government began at the tail end of another conflict: a bloody civil war that lasted from 1946-1958. During this period, communists created their own enclaves to escape the violence and formed independent republics. In 1964, the Colombian government sought to reconnect the country and began to move in on these republics. FARC formed as an armed offshoot of the Communist Party in the “Marquetalia Republic” and the struggle to control the countryside began.
This conflict between FARC and the central government of Colombia has spanned 52 years, affecting millions within the country. At its 2002 peak, FARC controlled 1/3 of the country and had a membership of almost 20,000 people. FARC fought for improved rural living conditions and their control over the land, but often resorted to ill means in achieving its goals. The group mainly financed themselves through kidnappings (eight per day at the height) and trafficking cocaine. They attacked police stations, military posts, and destroyed infrastructure. It was not only the fighters on either side who suffered – as a result of this bloody conflict, nearly every person living in Colombia has faced killings, kidnappings, bombings, and displacements or knows someone who has.
FARC and the Colombian government attempted to reach a peace deal once before and the two held peace talks from 1999-2002 before the negotiations eventually fell apart. The president at the time, Andrés Pastrana, began the talks as FARC forces were advancing and the government looked like it was about to crumble. These talks never halted the conflict and, negotiating from a point of weakness, the Colombian government was forced to make huge concessions, such as a large FARC safe area that the Colombian military would not be able to enter. As time went on, support for the peace talks waned and a short cease-fire in 2002 gave way to greater conflict and a new president took power, Álvaro Uribe. President Uribe increased military pressure and managed to substantially weaken FARC, setting the stage for current President Juan Manuel Santos’s peace negotiations.
This brings us back to today. The government’s peace deal with FARC was the result of four years of negotiations and concessions from both sides. FARC would have been disbanded as an armed group and given status as a legal party. Rebel leaders would have been able to avoid jail if they confessed to their crimes in a tribunal-like fashion. Both the Colombian government and FARC have publically said that this deal represents the best possible end to the conflict.
President Santos has been advocating extensively for peace while former President Uribe is one of the head figures promoting the ‘no’ vote, believing that a better peace is possible. While the peace-hungry public wanted an end to the conflict, many blamed FARC for the decades of fear and bloodshed they had lived through and felt that the terms of the deal were not good enough.
Going forward, it remains to be seen how Colombia will react to this failure to accept the terms of the peace deal. While President Santos has said that there is no Plan B, both the government and FARC have reasserted that they do not wish to once more take up arms against each other. Facing an unknown future, Colombians remain split over whether the referendum results will benefit or hurt the country. While the immediate reaction to the referendum was shock, only time can tell how it will affect the war-worn nation.