The approval of the Colombian peace deal in Sunday’s referendum was expected to be a foregone conclusion. This was supposed to be the most successful attempt at peace in 52 years of armed conflict: four years of intense study and debate had produced a 297-page document outlining a comprehensive proposal for restorative justice that emphasized truth, reconciliation, and reparation, which was renowned as an exemplary model of an integral peace agreement. Polls had predicted an easy win for the “Yes” camp at 66 percent of the votes.
But what the results in fact conveyed was a highly polarized society: at 50.21% to 49.78% — a difference of 54,000 votes — the “no” vote won out. Rather than simply rubber-stamping the deal, the outcome revealed to the world the longstanding crisis of Colombia’s archaic political system, which for decades has served to alienate the majority of the population from mainstream politics. With a turnout of 37 percent, the abstention rate was the highest in 22 years — a sign of indifference of the electorate to four years of intense debates in Havana.
The biggest losers of this outcome are the rural communities at the center stage of the armed conflict. It was these marginalized areas, home to most of the victims of the conflict, that voted overwhelmingly in favor of peace: in Bojayá, Chocó the “yes” vote reached 96 percent, in Caloto, Cauca, 73 percent, in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, 63 percent and in Miraflores, Guaviare, 85 percent. Meanwhile, it was urban centers where far-right groups have their main base of support such as Medellin and Bucaramanga, that provided the strongest force behind the “no” vote. In other words, the further the voter from the epicenters of conflict, the more likely they were to vote against its resolution.
The voting demographics are reflective of the longstanding rural bias in the Colombian conflict. The war has always been fought on the periphery, marginal to the central axes of economic growth and mainstream politics in the cities. Throughout the history of the conflict, the ruling classes preferred to leave the task of fighting the war to a military which enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy, while they took care of more important issues like economic growth and modernization. The referendum results are yet another sign of disregard of the cities for the problems of the countryside.
For its part, the position of the Left was one of critical support. Movements like the Patriotic March and the People’s Congress have always insisted that building “stable and lasting peace” meant addressing the social conflict in rural areas in a much deeper way than was ever included in the peace deal. Their modest hope in supporting the peace accords had been to open up greater democratic space for popular participation in politics. The social base of these groups, which largely originates in marginalized rural areas, nonetheless provided a solid support base for the peace accords.
But the proposals from the Left were absent from the mainstream debate. Instead, the referendum played out in Colombian media and commentary as a competition between two competing sectors of the establishment, “Uribism” and “Santism”. Roughly speaking, the former represented the sectors of the conservative, religious, and paramilitary far-right opposing the accords, and the latter the modernizing, neoliberal elite linked to international capital.
By calling a referendum, President Juan Manuel Santos had hoped to gain a public mandate for the peace accords, demonstrating to the world that Colombian politics was moving out of the battlefield into the democratic sphere. But this illusion failed to take into account the fact that this is a country where electoral politics are inherently exclusionary, dominated by clientelism and corruption. In this context, calling a referendum on the peace deal meant subordinating the hopes and futures of poor rural communities and victims of the conflict to the powerful electoral machinery that is popularly known in Colombia as politiquería (politicking).
On one level, the outcome of the referendum was a direct result of the failure of the elite bloc supporting the deal to put their clientelistic voting machinery into action. The usual charade of providing free lunches and transport to mobilize public opinion through networks of local political bosses never arrived. As one regional congressperson put it, “Santos’ mistake was in thinking he could win on opinion alone. If he had used us, we could have brought out another 20 percent of the votes.” High opinion polls, together with support from the United States and major transnational institutions, had lulled Santos’ “Yes” camp into a state of complacency.
The elite supporters of the “yes” vote had overlooked a number of key factors. Santos is the most unpopular president of recent times, and his allies in the “Yes” camp such as Ernesto Samper and César Gaviria are seen as opportunistic and cynical, bringing them little sympathy among voters. With the slump in commodity prices, Colombia’s resource-based economic growth model is shrouded in uncertainty. Despite strong support from the international community, there was a lack of effort to educate and explain the accords and their consequences to the rest of the country, meaning that the implications and impact of the deal were misunderstood.
In contrast, the far-right Uribistas linked to paramilitary forces and media conglomerates demonstrated a significant campaigning capacity, galvanizing a solid voting bloc opposed to the accords. In a campaign predicated on manipulation, lies, and fear-mongering, they took advantage of public misunderstanding of the peace deal, raising fears about everything from impunity for war crimes to attacks on private property or even a dictatorship of Chavista-Castrista communists in the event of a peace deal. Rather than a question of war or peace, they turned the referendum into a vote on whether or not to support the FARC. They ultimately achieved success because the campaign was better able to mobilize voters to turn out.
Unlike Santos, the Uribistas have an extensive social base throughout the country, a far-right populism led by an extensive network of new paramilitary groups, descendants of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC). In recent months groups such as the self-titled “Autodefensas Gaitanistas” have led armed civic strikes in forty municipalities throughout the North of the country. They now threaten to move into territories formerly occupied by the FARC and reopen the political turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s which saw the extermination of left-wing political movements such as the Patriotic Union.
Santos’ Faustian Gamble
The competition between the Santos and Uribe blocs over the peace deal is the latest chapter in a long history of pacts and power struggles between factions of the Colombian elite. On the one side stands a reactionary class configuration consisting of conservative politicians, sectors of the military, the religious right, landlords, agribusiness, narcotraffickers, and paramilitaries that allied to form a significant political force in the 1980s and 1990s. Represented by President Álvaro Uribe, this bloc sees the termination of the conflict as a direct threat to their interests.
On the other is the section of the elite linked to transnational capital, consisting in economic conglomerates linked to finance, the media, and services. Represented in the state by President Santos this faction of the elite hopes an end to the armed conflict will boost profits, ensure stability in contracts, attract foreign investment, and promote economic growth, and they have generally supported a negotiated peace deal for some time.
The last attempt at a negotiated peace deal was in the late 1990s, when President Andrés Pastrana negotiated the Caguán deal with a guerrilla insurgency far stronger in military terms than that of today. Unlike the current peace deal, in these negotiations the insurgency was able to propose a more serious challenge the country’s economic growth model and property relations. But the negotiations failed, partly due to US support for an armed solution to the conflict, but mainly as a result of resistance from the rural far-right bloc of landlords, military, and paramilitary forces.
Despite their initial support for a negotiated peace settlement, following the collapse of the Caguán negotiations the transnational elite threw their weight behind a military solution. Uribe was elected in 2002 on the promise of a “scorched earth” strategy for defeating the guerrillas.
This militarized solution initially enjoyed the backing of both the far right and the transnational elite, together with massive funding from the US in the form of Plan Colombia. The transnational elite also funded the war through a “war tax” on big business, as well as using their media outlets to support the government’s military strategy by portraying a unidimensional image of the guerrillas as terrorists and narcotraffickers, with no critical interrogation of the complexities of the conflict.
Santos himself was appointed to Minister of National Defense in Uribe’s cabinet, and was a leading figure in Uribe’s Democratic Security strategy. Santos oversaw the militarization of Colombian society and thousands of assassinations by state forces in the False Positives scandal.
Yet following his 2010 election, Santos attempted a rupture from the far right. He initiated the peace negotiations in 2012, discussing agrarian reform without the consent or participation of landlords and cattle ranchers, and even threatened to investigate war crimes related to Uribe. This sparked a permanent dispute with the far right, provoking Uribe into a rage of furious tweets and press releases. Uribe resigned from the Santos-led Party of National Unity, and with his allies formed an oppositional movement, the “Front Against Terrorism,” which put forward a presidential candidate challenging Santos in the 2014 elections.
The strategy of Santos and the transnational elite was to make use of the far-right forces when there were political gains to be made, before ditching them to usher in the stability needed to expand their investments. In the 1990s and 2000s, paramilitary forces had paved the way for the neoliberal growth model by supporting repressive labor practices and clearing territories of peasant farmers to facilitate the entrance of extractive industry. Now that the country was sufficiently “pacified,” the international elite sought to return the country to a level of stability that would allow for expanded capital accumulation free from the clutches of the far right.
The results of the referendum reveal the flaw in this plan. These elite pacts supporting the militarization of society and its mobilization to the right have set in motion a war machine they are now unable to stop. Santos embarked on a Faustian gamble on war and peace, and he lost.
Despite the rhetoric, Santos’ peace deal was never designed to challenge Colombia’s exclusionary economic and political structures. In contrast to previous negotiation attempts, property relations and the economic growth strategy were not seriously challenged. Issues such as trade agreements and control of national resources were not included in the peace agenda, and previous discussion of major agrarian reform was replaced by the vaguely defined policy of “integral rural development.”
Critics described Santos’ proposal as “neoliberal peace,” designed to pave the way for another round of pro-market policies including privatization, labor reform, and an expansion of natural resource extraction. Santos ignored calls from the Left for nationwide assemblies to open democratic spaces for popular discussion of the peace deal, instead allowing the peace deal to become another scenario of pacts and power struggles between elite factions. In this context it is little wonder his proposal was met with apathy from the bulk of the electorate.
Even if the “no” vote only won by a tiny minority, there is no doubt this is a major victory for the far right. Santos has now entered into dialogue with Uribe, calling for a Great National Agreement (Gran Acuerdo Nacional) between the two elite factions of Uribismo and Santismo — supposedly to “consolidate peace.” This deal, reminiscent of the 1958 National Front power sharing agreement between elite factions, promises further political exclusion of popular classes. In all likelihood the agreement will attempt to weaken the FARC’s position and remove essential components of the peace deal from the negotiating table.
Despite this bleak picture, the Left continues to offer constructive alternatives. They had always campaigned for an understanding of peace as part of a broader social commitment extending beyond a pact between elite sectors. Now, the Patriotic March and the People’s Congress are calling for mass social mobilization in order to defend the peace deal and maintain the ceasefire, but also for a new strategy for building peace from the bottom up, based on greater democratic participation of peasant, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities and workers most affected by the conflict and marginalized from mainstream politics.