The outcome of Sunday’s vote in Colombia—where a slim majority of voters rejected a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas—was definitely a stunner. No one saw it coming, not even the most enthusiastic opponent of the deal. But a closer inspection of the peace negotiations reveals that the writing was on the wall.
The main reason why nobody expected the NO campaign to win was the entirely one-sided coverage of the peace deal by the local media, something that was largely echoed by their international peers. For many years, the most important domestic outlets in Colombia have been under the government’s sway, downplaying the hardline adopted by the FARC during the negotiations and portraying the opponents of the deal as “far-right” or “enemies of peace.” There was little coverage of the real grievances that a significant number of Colombians had with the concessions given to the FARC and the low popularity of President Juan Manuel Santos.
On top of the biased media coverage, the government spent millions of dollars in publicity and in what Colombians commonly call “mermelada” (the outright use of public funds to get votes through pork and political patronage)—a practice that Santos is very fond of. Moreover, the YES campaign had the strong support of international actors, from the Cuban and the U.S. governments to the United Nations. Even Pope Francis promised to visit Colombia if the deal was backed by voters.
Despite all the odds, when faced with the biased question “Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and to construct a stable and lasting peace?” 50.24% of those who went to the polls said NO. Why?
Since negotiations began in Havana in 2012, poll after poll showed that even though a majority of Colombians wanted a successful peace process, they weren’t willing to grant the FARC significant concessions. You can’t blame them. For over 50 years the Marxist guerrilla terrorized the Colombian people, engaging in crimes against humanity, as well as hideous acts that not only targeted the government, but also innocent civilians: from massacres of peasants, car bombings, kidnappings and extortion, child recruitment, forceful abortions performed on female soldiers, to prolonged imprisonment and inhumane treatment of hostages, some of whom were held for over a decade.
During the four years of the negotiations, the FARC leadership showed little remorse for its crimes. When its Commander in Chief “Timochenko” formally “apologized” to the Colombian people during the signing ceremony of the peace deal, he said that his organization was sorry for all the pain it “may have caused” to the victims of the conflict. The half-apology didn’t go unnoticed by many Colombians.
Colombians were also suspicious of President Santos. A poll in March showed that his popularity stood at only 13%, the lowest point of any president in the history of Colombia. Many believed that Santos was mostly driven by his vanity and desire to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Thus, he was willing to compromise beyond what was palatable to many of his countrymen. The FARC seemed to have realized this. What was supposedly going to be a negotiation “of months, not years,” dragged on in Havana for almost 4 years. The FARC leadership played its hand well, knowing that the clock was ticking for a president whose only legacy depended on signing a deal.
Sensing the fine line he had to walk, Santos repeatedly said that in order to reach a successful agreement with the FARC, the Colombian people would have to swallow several bitter pills. These bitter pills were seldom reported by the foreign media, but many Colombians were very aware of them:
The day that the peace deal was signed in Cartagena, The Economist’s Michael Reid tweeted that in 2001, Alfonso Cano, back then one of the FARC top commanders, told him that the guerrilla wouldn’t give up arms in exchange for “houses, cars, scholarships and seats in Congress.” Reid added, “This is what they’re doing now.” However, in 2001 the FARC was a mighty military force with approximately 16.000 troops. It controlled large swathes of the country and surrounded Colombia’s main cities, Bogotá included. By 2012, when the peace process began, the FARC had been decimated and demoralized. Most of its historic leadership, Cano included, had been killed. The latest official tally of the number of FARC troops stood at less than 5,700. Many Colombians believed that the costly concessions given to the FARC in terms of impunity, political power and economic support didn’t reflect the relative strength of the guerrilla when it decided to enter peace negotiations.
Instead of blaming those who voted NO as war-mongers, foreign analysts should make an effort to understand the reasons why a majority of Colombians rejected this peace deal. It’s not that they don’t want to live in a peaceful country. They do. But they also aspire to live in a nation with justice and rule of law.