The unexpected defeat of the referendum on the Colombian peace agreement, by a wafer-thin majority of sixty thousand votes, is a disaster for the people of Colombia; how great a disaster will only become clear over the weeks and months to come. There will no doubt be many articles written analyzing the result and its implications in detail; the points below are an immediate reaction to the vote that will be rapidly superseded by such analysis.
1. “No” won by slim margins.
Opinion polls had shown a clear lead for the “Yes” camp in the weeks leading up to the vote, with support for the agreement ranging between 54 and 72 percent. How did the “No” side win? Their greatest friend was abstention, which reached 63 percent — a remarkably high figure, even in a country where turnout at elections is usually below 50 percent. It cannot be emphasized enough that “Colombians” have not rejected the peace deal: less than one-fifth of the electorate has voted against it.
The 2014 presidential election, which was a de facto referendum on the peace process between the Santos government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, is a useful benchmark for comparison. Then, turnout was 48 percent, and the incumbent Juan Manuel Santos defeated his far-right challenger Óscar Iván Zuluaga by a comfortable majority in the second round. Santos won 7.8 million votes in 2014, while Zuluaga received 6.9 million.
This time, the Yes camp had 6,377,482 votes, while the No side squeezed just ahead with 6,431,376; in other words, one side lost about 1,500,000 votes in the space of two years, while the other dropped just 500,000. Results from major cities like Bogotá and Medellín mapped very closely onto the 2014 split between Santos and Zuluaga. If the Yes camp had been able to mobilize just one in fifteen of those who voted for Santos two years ago but apparently stayed away from the polls this time, they would have carried the vote.
2. Turnout was critically low.
There will have to be serious research done into why the turnout was so low. It is already clear that turnout was depressed by a hurricane in the Caribbean coastal region where support for Yes was strong; this alone would have been enough to hand victory to the No camp. Was there a more sinister reason for low turnout elsewhere in the country? With far-right paramilitary groups that have murdered countless people still very much active, the question of intimidation will have to be investigated very thoroughly. On the other hand, insofar as abstention was voluntary, it is a real indictment of Juan Manuel Santos that he failed to inspire more people to go to the polls on a matter of such importance for Colombia’s future.
3. The No bloc is small but powerful.
The 2014 presidential poll had already demonstrated that there was a solid bloc of opinion in Colombia, organized behind former president Álvaro Uribe, which rejected the option of peace through negotiation in favor of “peace through war” (or to be precise, “peace through extermination”).
This had nothing to do with qualms about “impunity for terrorists.” Colombia already has systematic impunity for war crimes: otherwise Uribe himself would be in a jail cell, as would many officers in the Colombian army. The vast majority of those killed in Colombia’s conflict were victims of the army and its intimate allies, the right-wing death squads; the abuses of the FARC, though real, pale in comparison to those of the Colombian state.
The Uribista bloc does not care about those victims, since they were overwhelmingly poor, and lived in the countryside or the urban slums. The strongest backing for the peace agreement came from areas that have borne the brunt of conflict. The No vote is essentially a frivolous one, cast by those who would rather see people they neither know nor care about continue to die than allow a modest opening to the left in the Colombian political system.
4. Washington has handled the Colombian right with kid gloves.
The big winner from the vote is Álvaro Uribe, a cynical, bloodthirsty opportunist who openly stated that he feared being held to account for his many crimes if the agreement was passed. Newspaper reports from Colombia often cite Uribe’s perspective as if he was a normal democratic politician, while giving at most a sanitized picture of his gruesome record in office.
I visited Colombia in 2005 as part of a solidarity delegation, when Uribismo was at its peak, and I will never forget the pervasive sense of fear among social-movement activists, who knew that they could be murdered at any time by Uribe’s death-squad allies. In Barrancabermeja, an oil town on the Magdalena river where the paramilitaries ruled the roost, we were brought to see a dozen social centers in a couple of hours; our hosts apologized and explained that they knew it must be quite boring for us, but if the paramilitaries saw foreigners going in and out of the building, it might cause them to think twice about killing local activists for fear of attracting unwelcome attention.
The Colombian state had always worked in partnership with the death squads, but that complicity reached unprecedented heights under Uribe’s regime. Under his watch, thousands of civilians were murdered by the army and then dressed up in guerrilla uniforms so they could be presented as battlefield casualties (the so-called “false positives” scandal).
At a time when left-wing governments in Latin America were being obsessively scrutinized for every infraction, real or imagined, Uribe was the recipient of soft-focus profiles in the Western media and lavish support from the US government. The ultimate responsibility for Uribe’s crimes and the standing he currently enjoys in Colombia lies in Washington.
5. The South American right is praising the result.
Although there was wide international support for the peace agreement, with everyone from John Kerry to the Pope giving it their blessing, not everyone is unhappy with the result. The speaker of Venezuela’s national assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, rushed to celebrate the outcome as a defeat for Santos, Raúl Castro, and “narco-terrorist guerrillas.” Allup is one of the main figureheads of Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, which now has a majority in the Assembly and is seeking to depose President Nicolás Maduro.
His intervention is a reminder that for all the many problems with the current Venezuelan government, its principal opponents remain as destructive and fanatical as ever, and hell-bent on revenge for their exclusion from power. (Allup, it may be noted in passing, is a vice president of the Socialist International — the body which has previously welcomed such luminaries as the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.)
6. The result will hurt human rights.
Disgracefully, Allup was joined in his celebrations by Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. HRW had campaigned against the peace agreement, and Roth gloated when the results came in, claiming that the No vote showed that “Colombians aren’t so eager to premise ‘peace’ on effective impunity for FARC’s and military’s war crimes.”
Roth is many things, but he is not a fool, and he must know perfectly well that those who campaigned against the agreement were not in the least bit concerned about impunity for the Colombian army, which is something they have loudly insisted upon for years, and done their best to secure. HRW is now a thoroughly discredited organization, and Greg Grandin was right to brand Roth a “useful idiot” of Uribismo. If there is a return to war in Colombia, Roth and HRW must share in the responsibility for having given legitimacy to a morally bankrupt cause.
7. What comes next?
Santos had warned in advance that there was no Plan B, and he was right. The peace agreement was the product of four years of negotiations, in the course of which the FARC had made huge concessions. The guerrilla leadership had effectively abandoned the idea of securing wide-ranging social reforms under the terms of the deal; their modest hope was that an end to the war would make it easier for the popular classes to organize and challenge the dominant economic model in Colombia.
The final outcome was the bare minimum that they could have reasonably accepted. Uribe and his allies claim to believe that the agreement can be “renegotiated,” but what they are demanding is unconditional surrender — a victory that the Colombian army was unable to achieve on the battlefield, and which will not be handed to them on a plate as a favor to Uribe’s toxic, bloodstained coalition.
Whatever lies they may have told themselves to salve their conscience, the No camp were not voting for a more congenial peace agreement, but for indefinite war. Either a way must be found to salvage the substance of the deal concluded last week, or Colombia will face a bleak, uncertain future.