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Reflections on Colombia’s “No” vote to the peace referendum

Patricio Estevez-Soto3 October 2016

By Enrique Gutierrez*

Sunday’s Colombian peace referendum results reflect a deep distrust of the FARC guerrillas and highlights the unpopularity of Juan Manuel Santos’s government among the local population. On the one hand, it showed that over six million four hundred voters are not willing to forgive the FARC so easily and are reluctant at the idea of “rewarding” them with political participation without paying for their crimes in jail first. This, of course, was a massive misjudgement on behalf of the government. Furthermore, the arrogance showed by some FARC leaders during speeches and interviews just days before the referendum boosted the anger and reluctance of those who said No on Sunday.

On the other hand, there was a great risk that the President’s unpopularity would affect the results of the referendum. It did. Since taking office in 2010, President Santos has set negative records of approval ratings plummeting to its lowest in May 2016 (only four months before the referendum). Moreover, he was unable to persuade the voters, despite the unprecedented support of the international community.  As The Economist wrote in June 2016, in relation to his inability to be eloquent in public, “he seems more comfortable among bankers than peasants”. Still, it was the peasants who were the direct victims of the conflict who resolutely voted Yes on Sunday.

In this sense, paradoxical (and at the same time unfair) is the fact that the regions that suffered the least consequences of the conflict decided over those who have suffered the most. Paradoxical because in most of the municipalities that have historically been affected by the conflict, the Yes won decisively. For example, Bojaya, which is a municipality in the Pacific region of Colombia, that suffered one of the most atrocious massacres of the conflict in 2002, had an overwhelming 96 per cent of the population voting Yes.

What Follows

The government was clear on saying that if a “No” vote won, both parties would not sit again to renegotiate the agreements. However, reality is different and after acknowledging the results both, government and the FARC have expressed their willingness to retake the negotiations involving ALL parties. Meaning that an apparent “new process” would include the opposition led by former President and now senator Alvaro Uribe Velez.

Thus, the opposition will also have to take responsibility over the result of the referendum and will now have to take a step forward to explain what the new strategy will be to reach a peace agreement with the FARC guerillas without returning to conflict.

Additionally, the call for a constituent assembly, which was initially proposed by the FARC and the opposition, but continuously ignored and rejected by the government, would reemerge. Still, the assembly is a complex and long process that would take at least another year and for which results are uncertain.

Finally, for the other half of the voters who supported the Yes, they cannot lose their hope and must continue supporting the ideal of peace with the largest and oldest guerrilla in the world. In the end, as famous Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, “make no mistake: peaceful madmen are ahead of the future.”


*Enrique Gutierrez currently works as Project Development Officer at the European Centre of Minority Issues Kosovo. He has worked with minority communities who have been systematically marginalised in Kosovo, and victims of the internal conflict and indigenous peoples in conflict zones of Colombia. He holds a Master’s Degree in Theory and Practice in Human Rights from the University of Essex and a BA in Political Science and International Relations from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia.

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the UCL Organised Crime Research Network.