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Colombians will vote on the FARC peace agreement soon to be signed off in Havana.

Should they vote yes to peace?

It will be incomprehensible to many outside of Colombia even to ask this question. But for many Colombians it is a very real dilemma… 


If you suffer from vertigo don’t drive along the high street of Anserma in Colombia’s coffee region. Turn right or left off the main drag and your Willys jeep will descend at 150 degrees. This is crinkle cut Colombia, as topographically as up and down as the emotions of its inhabitants.

I head to coffee country as often as possible, to escape the Bogota bubble. This time, as we drove through town, I spotted a small desk and a few flapping flags occupying an already crowded spot on the pavement. We stopped to let unhurried locals amble across the road, and I took a closer look, noticing some clip boards and the earnest faces of volunteers.

Immediately I knew it was part of Ex President Alvaro Uribe’s “Civil Resistance” movement, set up ostensibly to oppose the FARC peace talks. After six years of official and secret negotiations, the FARC and the Colombian state last month agreed to a bilateral ceasefire, effectively ending a five decades long, 7 million victim, civil conflict.

Last week, Colombia’s top courts gave the go-ahead to President Santos’ plan to put the full and final peace agreement to a public vote. Santos has looked to Northern Ireland, and Tony Blair’s decision to ratify the Good Friday Agreement via a referendum, as the ideal way to draw the curtain on conflict.

The “Si” campaign is now underway, with Santos’ coalition government leading the charge. Uribe has been pondering whether to encourage his supporters to abstain or to vote no.

Either way, enthusiasm for the vote is, so far, difficult to find. Bogota’s political class, concerned about the outcome, argue openly that President Santos has the constitutional right (and duty) to implement the peace accords, whatever the result.

Few predict Colombians will vote “No”, (since publication, however, the first nationwide polls suggest “No” has an early lead) but there is real concern about the level of engagement and eventual turnout. So much so, the government has been forced into constitutional change, reducing the voting threshold referenda must pass to be valid, to just 13 per cent.

But were anything like 87 per cent of the population to abstain, President Santos would have extreme difficulty in presenting the result as anything other than a catastrophic failure. Vote-buying is systemic in Colombia, so it is unconscionable we will fall short of the threshold. The question will be by how much it passes, and what legitimacy this lends to the peace deal.

Why would Colombians not turn out to vote for peace, or why would they vote against it?

In Anserma I spoke to a friend, an independent businessman who works in finance. I asked him about the stall I saw on the high street, and what impact it will have on the referendum. “I will vote no”, he told me. When I questioned why, he revealed the deal included promises to “give the demobilised guerrillas salaries two or three times higher than most of the farmers who work here. They are criminals, they are not going to spend any time in jail, but will get away with it, with impunity, and they will be better off than people here who have worked hard all their lives”.

My friend is educated, considered and outward looking. He is not particularly right wing, perhaps even veers to the left on some issues. Would you join the “Civil Resistance” campaign, I asked? “No. I am not really an Uribista (supporter of Alvaro Uribe)”. Will you be voting because of your dislike President Santos, I wondered? “Yes, but more because of the contents of the deal. I just don’t trust Santos. I don’t believe he has the interests of the country in mind, but is more focused personal interests”.

Santos has been accused of pursuing a peace agreement for his own posterity. Some are suspicious he would sign at all costs, and that as a result, the FARC have been given an overly generous deal. This is a perception Santos has failed to shift. Considered by many commentators to be a weak leader, Santos is also seen by them to be untrustworthy. “Who knows what Santos has really agreed with the FARC?”, worries my friend.

General disquiet with the peace talks has been exacerbated by the FARC top command’s evident relish of the limelight. It used to be only a few, hard left European intellectuals, who gave the FARC time of day as a political force. Now Timochenko, Ivan Marquez, and the rest of the gang, feel like the darlings of the world’s media.

Many Colombians understandably find this hard to stomach. For millions of people like my friend in Anserma, having seen the effects of the FARC’s cruel war, the idea that they are now being applauded and given special status is about as gut-wrenching as it gets.

Of course the FARC’s propaganda machine has worked in exactly the way we would expect; their rhetoric and tactics are straight out of the Marxist handbook. But it is the lack of leadership of the government that has allowed this to generate such public scepticism.

Yet the deal is better than many had hoped. The FARC have committed to a tighter than expected timetable for disarmament, and the UN will oversee this. Santos’ negotiating team in Havana have done the job he asked.   

Colombians are also worried about the future. They wonder how much the country will change, how many benefits of the post-conflict will come their way. Again, the government has failed to translate the results of peace into anything meaningful for the average Colombian. Its focus on abstract GDP growth shows just how out of touch its cabinet and president are.

Speak to some Colombians and they feel things will get worse, rather than better. They point to how drug production in Colombia rocketed last year. The country’s cocaine output is at similar levels to the period just before Plan Colombia came into effect.

Back in Bogota, a journalist friend and opponent of the peace agreement tells me, “the FARC will continue to grow rich on the drug trade. They will swap the hard life of “el monte” for the quiet life of ‘legitimate crime’, protected by the state, rather than pursued by them”. An argument I have heard repeatedly on the airwaves, and a concern Santos is finding difficult to assuage.

And fears abound too about looming tax reforms required to deliver policies within the peace agreement. Santos heralds the billions he has secured in aid commitments from the international community, but the reality is, post conflict Colombia will be a higher tax Colombia.

Some of this is the inevitable consequence of a modernising state, as the government seeks to play a more meaningful role in the lives of its citizens. Santos argues that money hitherto spent on the war can be redirected to education, and health. Welcome words, perhaps, but the efficiency and capability of Colombia’s state apparatus is questionable. And anyway, haven’t we already heard Santos promising health and education reform only for it to come to very little indeed?

As unwelcome as higher taxes are, they are not a good reason to vote against peace. I can empathise, however, with those who ask whether the FARC could do a bit more. Their ill-gotten billions should help finance Colombia’s reparation. If they were truly committed to peace, for peace is the exercise of justice, not just the absence of violence, wouldn’t they pay, if not with their time behind bars, then at least with their fortunes?

On a night out in one of Bogota’s Zona Rosa bars, I spoke to a few expat friends dismayed at the Uribe “Civil Resistance” campaign. How could Colombians oppose peace? ‘What is wrong with these people’, seemed to be their exasperated view.

To most people the idea of not voting for peace is anathema. Whatever the problems and difficulties, surely an imperfect peace is always preferable to war?

Yes, but…

I may not agree with my friend in Anserma – I have of course supported the peace talks since they began – but it isn’t my conflict, or my country. I can understand the desire to see the FARC pay for their crimes, and I can understand the fears about justice. If I were Colombian, that’s to say a victim of the war, I would resent having to pay to support those responsible.

So should Colombians vote for peace?

The referendum was seen as a way for Colombians actively to close this period of conflict. The nation has been at war with itself almost without pause since gaining independence from Spain. For peace to be meaningful and for it to last, it will need collective participation.

What strikes me is the president’s inability to lead in this. The ceasefire was historic, the peace agreement when signed will be too. But while the international community has warmly and excitedly received this news, the response in Colombia has been muted, or worse.

It ought to be a real opportunity for the nation, it ought to be reason for cheer and celebration. Mr Santos might be showing Colombians a form of sunlit upland, but he has neither the vision to light the way, nor the leadership to take them there.

In 2018 Colombians will vote in a new president. He or she will be the first post-conflict president. I am sure that Colombians, despite the failings of their government, will vote for peace. We must hope for a strong and capable leader that translates the benefits of this new dawn. For if Colombians do not feel either a part of, or the benefits of peace, who could blame them for voting against it?

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