Peace Deals and Populism in Colombia

The Colombian government delegation head negotiator Humberto de la Calle (2-L), and High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo (R), are received by former mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus (2-R) upon their arrival in Bogota, Colombia, 26 August 2016. (EPA/MAURICIO DUENAS CASTANEDA)The Colombian government delegation head negotiator Humberto de la Calle (2-L), and High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo (R), are received by former mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus (2-R) upon their arrival in Bogota, Colombia, 26 August 2016. (EPA/MAURICIO DUENAS CASTANEDA)

By Adithya Sivakumar

2016, regardless of its flaws, was a reactionary year. However, the interesting component of decisions made throughout this cycle has been that populism, not necessarily politicians, have fueled these choices. From Trump to Brexit, voters have signalled a wakeup call to the establishment, letting them know their voices are loud and present. Colombia, a nation in the upper region of South America, was one of the countries to fall victim to the incendiary political forces of this wild year, where a peace deal between the country and an rebel group was put up to the scrutiny of the nation’s voters, leading to a surprising result.

Created in response to perceived government neglect, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was first a group that protected rural communities from government attacks, but soon developed into a group that participated in kidnapping and drug trafficking to pay for their expenses. Despite a peace deal in the 1980’s, conflict between the government and FARC continued, with major crackdowns by the government and renewed attacks by the group leading to further violence. After years of war between the Colombian government and FARC, both sides finally sat down and hammered out a peace agreement earlier this year, under the watchful eyes of various other countries and organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church and Cuba.

For the peace agreement to be put into effect, however, the Colombian people needed to ratify it. In Colombia, just like other nations around the globe, a choice with wide-ranging implications was to be made by its population.To an outsider, the decision may seem simple. Peace seems the safest way to proceed, and could heal the divide caused by years of war. It seems like a no-brainer, right?

The Colombian people, however, did not think so.

In a decision that shocked the world, the peace deal was rejected in a razor-thin margin, with 50.2% saying “No” to ratifying the peace deal. Despite backing from the Prime Minister of Colombia and various members of the United Nations, the deal failed to be enacted by less than 54,000 votes. The voting turnout was low, which may have contributed to the decision, but many were confused as to why this rejection had occurred in the first place. Were those who voted against the deal less willing to compromise with FARC, or less affected by the conflict than those who voted yes to the deal? Or, as seen with Brexit and Trump’s win in the United States, was this simply a rejection of the establishment’s position on a certain position?

Turns out, it was a mixture of some of these factors. Many who voted “no” did not necessarily reject peace, but rather rejected some of the terms laid out in the deal, which were viewed as too lenient in some views. For example, provisions that allowed those who confessed to war crimes more lenient sentences and gave a monthly stipend to demobilized rebels were seen as too much for some citizens. Additionally, these voters may have been distrustful of FARC due to its violation of ceasefires in the past. Alvaro Uribe, the primary opponent of the peace deal and also a President of Colombia during a crackdown on FARC, insisted that he wanted peace, but wanted, among other stipulations, that those convicted of crimes were to be barred from political office and FARC leaders spend time in prison.

However, unlike many populist movements around the world, the decision in Colombia was unique in that it demonstrated a urban-rural divide in terms of the vote. Urban areas, which had been shielded by the conflict, primarily voted no, while rural areas, who were experiencing the brunt of the conflict, voted yes. Therefore, the vote did not seem strictly defined by populist sentiment, but rather various other factors that may in fact indicate an elitist sentiment among those who voted no.
With these factors in mind, both the Colombian government and FARC sat back down at the negotiating table to create another settlement, one that would take the concerns of the voters into consideration. More severe restrictions were imposed on rebel movements, while rebels would also be required to reveal drug-trafficking routes to the government. After these changes were sown into the deal, the Colombian Congress approved the deal unanimously, bypassing the will of the voters and leading to a new peace in the Colombian nation. Although the deal was approved, the nation will have to deal with the lasting after-effects from the war, in which more than 260,000 have died, at 79,000 have gone missing, 30,000 have been kidnapped, and 7 million have been displaced. The new outcome gives a wider berth for hope in Colombia’s future, and it is up to the government, FARC, and the people of Colombia to actively participate in the next steps of the reconciliation process in the region’s longest-running conflict.

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