By Jamie McKay
Over the past few years the Colombian government and the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been engaged in complex and intense peace talks to bring an end to more than 50 years of violence. This year a final agreement was made between the two parties and incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos has been awarded his years Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But, just two weeks ago, the agreement was rejected by Colombian voters by a razor-thin margin of less than half a percentage point. So what happened? And what comes next?
The conflict between the two sides has a long history with origins in the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a populist political leader, in 1948 and strong anti-communist suppression in the 60s that saw Marxist militants reorganise themselves in rural areas and form FARC. The conflict has seen an estimated 220,00 dead and upwards of five million people displaced from their homes. Both FARC and the Colombian government and paramilitary groups have been accused of drug trafficking, terrorism, and numerous human rights abuses.
Given the numbers of people killed or displaced by the conflict most pundits in Colombia and elsewhere expected the plan was sure to be accepted in the referendum, that after so many years of suffering people would jump at the chance for peace to end the longest running conflict in the Western hemisphere. British commentators rushed to make comparisons with last Summers decision to leave the EU with the Independent referring to the vote as “Farcxit”. Such comparisons are perhaps understandable, given the dive the Colombian peso took against the dollar amid market uncertainty. So why did 50.2% of voters decide against the deal?
Critics argued that the deal was too lenient on FARC leaders. Had the deal been passed, FARC leaders would have avoided prison time as long as they made a public apology and paid reparations, the deal would have also seen the group gain ten seats in Congress for the next ten years. Former President Álvaro Uribe who led an aggressive campaign against FARC during his eight years in office between 2002 and 2010 was the political leader against the deal. In his time in office, he made real progress in combating the guerrilla forces; clearing and occupying former rebel-held areas and increasing police and military presence, though his time in office was not without scandals concerning alleged corruption and human rights abuses. But his time in office saw the number of FARC guerrillas more than halved and general living standards improved to a large degree.
Even without a final peace treaty violence in Colombia has seen a sharp decline over the past decade. The number of tourists deciding to visit has shot up and Medellín, a city once known as one of the most dangerous on Earth, has now won several awards for urban design and dynamism. With FARC on the back foot, a return to previous violence seems unlikely and given the narrow, a renegotiated deal with slightly harsher terms has a greater chance at success.