Colombia Decides: A Guide to why Colombians should Vote “Yes” in Peace Plebiscite

By Catalina Paez and Juan Andrés Misle

On August 24, fighting forces in what remains the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas, eternalized by half a century of war between the Colombian State and informal armed actors, agreed – albeit on paper – to begin to end the hostilities that have caused the deaths of over 260,000 Colombians and millions more violently displaced.

This is a major historic announcement. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – known as FARC – have been battling the Colombian state since 1964. With the help of the “guarantor” countries Cuba – host country for the formal talks – and international peace diplomats Norway, the Colombian State and FARC have been able to ink a deal that would begin to address some of the major root causes of the conflict. “Accompanying” countries Chile and Venezuela also provided major logistical resources for the talks to materialize. 

The agreement traces a route that seeks to overhaul the country’s vast and diverse social dynamics. From a comprehensive agrarian reform plan that would help close the gap between the prosperous cities and the largely abandoned countryside, to inclusive social reforms that would contribute in ending the marginalization of millions of Colombians – ethnic minorities, leftist sympathizers, grassroots social movements and others.

The deal offers an alternative path to the atrocities that many Colombians have either become desensitized to, or in many cases, simply learned to accept as a status quo with a price tag to the tune of $151 Billion.

Under the agreement we can expect a United Nations-monitored disarmament process of FARC militants, as well as a painful truth commission to uncover some of the darkest secrets of this multidimensional bloody war.

The agreement is not without controversy. It is indeed likely and understandably indignant that many responsible for horrific war crimes will be let loose with minimal penalties and even be allowed to participate in politics.

For decades, Colombia’s governing elites have maintained the idea that the armed conflict is a two-dimensional battle between two opposing forces. Elected representatives – and the FARC –  argued for easy-to-understand dichotomies – good vs. evil, the oligarchy vs. the people, left wing vs right wing, ‘Castro-Chavismo’ vs. a free society, and so the list of platitudes goes on.

But like in other countries, this dichotomy has only proved a disservice for those seeking to understand the complex power dynamics at play in Colombia. For instance, it ignores or downplays the thousands of innocent people massacred by government-sponsored paramilitary death squads, or the ‘false-positives’ scandal where thousands of knowingly-innocent impoverished urban Colombians were systematically murdered at the hands of state forces. One could even point to the long-lasting effects of narcopolitics present in virtually every major political party in Colombia, including those who today outrageously claim the moral high ground in the battle against drug-trafficking and impunity.

As it stands today, since 1964, the armed conflict has been the best guarantee of institutionalized impunity. In Colombia, this seemingly understood oxymoron carries the banner of the “Todo Vale” – a Machiavellian idea that the ends justifies the means, even if that means the arbitrary and loose definition of who has a right to life.

On October 2, 2016, Colombians will go to the polls to vote on a plebiscite that would either ratify or reject four years of intense negotiations. Colombians will have to answer the following question:

“Do you support the accord that puts an end to armed conflict and constructs a stable and durable nation?”

The Latino Giant Editorial Board has chosen today, to fully endorse a “Yes” vote to a campaign that promises under any scenario to be the most transcendental choice Colombians will face in their lifetime.

This is not an argument over the semantics or wording of the question at hand, nor a referendum on the effectiveness of the government and policies of president Juan Manuel Santos.

The choice is an endorsement of a new social pact that explores the opportunity of finally creating a truly democratic society and presenting a roadmap to reducing the suffering of a divided and marginalized citizenry.

There are three points that we will examine in order to fully explain the decision taken by the Latino Giant Editorial Board.

The democratic deficit in Colombia:

Under and because of the armed conflict, Colombia has regrettably suffered important democratic debts.

It is no coincidence that a country where few know what a normalized society looks like, has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the hemisphere, even if it’s the third largest economy in the region. On the first round of the 2014 elections, barely 40% of the voting population participated in that year’s presidential contest.

turnout

The reasons are many, but all share the burden of the armed conflict – and the polarized environment it creates – as one of its key components.

There is an important sector of Colombian society – and more broadly Latin America – that sees with deep suspicion any attempt, no matter how mild, to address vast social inequities lingering across society. Many embrace victim-blaming and belittling vulnerable citizens: the working class, impoverished peasants, ethnic minorities, aboriginal communities, and others automatically dismissed and associated with guerrillas, thus deemed as undesirables and unworthy of the same rights as the political establishment’s representative minority. The FARC have proudly played into this idea for their own political motives, disregarding the stigma such a move has incurred on anyone adverse to the country’s ruling elites.

The stigma is so powerful that a government like that of president Santos – a conservative one by any measure anywhere – is often absurdly labeled by opponents as ‘Castro-Chavista’ – a term often repeated by former president Alvaro Uribe to connote affinity for Venezuela’s political model.

No social group better embodies this stigma than labor advocates and unionists in Colombia. Year after year, Colombia consistently ranks as the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. Hiring death squads to systematically assault workers for years has been a standard business procedure used by multinational companies and agribusiness interests, and for as long as the conflict dominates headlines, these practices have continuously been condoned by the state.

Make no mistake. The armed conflict is directly linked to what is chipping away at the country’s rule of law: it creates massive opportunities for abuse by making it easier to create second-class citizens.

The real losers in this narrow minded appreciation of civics are the Colombian people; the millions that through violence are deprived from access to land, bargaining collective rights, and political participation. Addressing their concerns by transitioning from an armed war to a war of ideas would be a major gain for the overwhelming majority of Colombians.

A New Deal for the Countryside:

The democratic deficit is particularly critical for communities in the Colombian countryside, where weak or inexistent state presence creates a breeding ground for armed groups to impose a power vacuum at odds with state institutions.

rural

In other words, millions of Colombians living in vast rural areas are routinely denied the right to effectively participate in politics and engage in economic activity. The accord seeks to bridge the urban-rural gap in Colombia by focusing on reforms that diminish rural poverty through a comprehensive expansion of social services.

The Integral Rural Reform section of the accord looks to better address living conditions in rural areas of Colombia. The reform, centered primarily on territorial equity and restitution of land, can be broken down into three carefully considered points:

One effort expands access to land to those displaced during the conflict by tackling the lack of property titles and formalizing ownership. Committed to solving the issue, the Colombian government will be implementing a large scale formalization plan to benefit small landowners.

Additionally, the reform creates a Land Fund for the free distribution of land to those who were displaced or who own less than the Family Agricultural Unit (AUF) – an index used to measure whether a rural family can support themselves economically with a designated amount of land. A pending issue for the Land Fund are the figures: the amount of land distributed and the extent of time it will take to effectively redistribute are at the heart of the controversy. There is no clear path on how this program will be implemented.

Lastly, the state agrees to pursue rural development projects that invest on social services and economic incentives; from creating irrigation systems to ensuring food security laid out in an extensive national development plan.

Other outlined initiatives provide subsidies and credits that prioritize the displaced and women seeking to acquire land in conjunction with programs that inform rural inhabitants of their basic labor and social rights.

Change in the social dynamics for those living in rural Colombia is the primary focus of the peace talks. Semana magazine said it best: “The paradox is that the majority of the votes for the plebiscite are precisely in urban centers where the cruelty of the Farc has been, for many, more a picture on a television screen than a firsthand experience.”

International Stage:

regalo

Finally, no understanding of what has been agreed on paper can be complete without carefully assessing the international environment at the center of the negotiations.

Beginning in 2012, when the talks were first announced, an unlikely team of allies throughout the global stage have actively voiced support by providing logistical, symbolic, and financial resources to negotiators.

Who would have ever thought bipartisan support in the U.S. government, alongside Cuba, the Vatican, the European Union, and international financial institutions would together help put rest to the last guerrilla war in the western hemisphere?

There is indeed much that post-war countries like Germany and Northern Ireland can teach Colombians about transitional justice and victim reparations. Other countries marked by deep racial and social divides of the likes of post-apartheid South Africa and Chile after Pinochet clearly exemplify the benefits of prioritizing national reconciliation.

These countries are today more prosperous and democratic societies precisely because they agreed to see each other as political adversaries and never again as enemies unworthy of existence.

By becoming the first peace process to actively incorporate victims in negotiations, Colombia joins a list of countries that have positioned themselves historically at the vanguard of international conflict resolutions. The ‘Unidad de Víctimas’ agency created during negotiations registers more than 8 million members, 274,784 of which have already been legally recognized as victims by courts, making them eligible for reparations once the agreement has been approved.

The coalition to end the armed conflict is therefore a plural, diverse, and powerful group of state and non-state actors with the support of local and international human rights and victims organizations at the forefront.

And if the polls are to be believed, it seems increasingly likely that a plurality of Colombians will vote in favor the plebiscite. Polls signal a “Yes” vote between 54-62% while the “No” camp with a voter intention ranging from the mid-to-high 30s%.

Contrary to what opponents argue, the apparent overwhelming support has nothing to do with any perceived confusion with the wording at the heart of the plebiscite, but a long-held wish for an opportunity to take a drastic different course from half a century of drug war-fueled confrontation.

The accords negotiated by the Colombian state and the FARC in Havana will never be a silver bullet for the country’s deeper and long term development challenges. Spoiler scenarios of potential paramilitary and state violence – a repeat and reason for a failed peace deal in the 1980s – against demobilized insurgents can cause tremendous damage to reconciliation efforts. Continuous funding for job training and reintegration projects for demobilized fighters will also  be critical in determining whether the FARC can fully transition to civilian life and avoid the fate of the demobilized paramilitary insurgents of the mid-2000s, who went on to form criminal networks known as Bacrim. Lastly, there is the long term question of whether Colombia will continue to pursue a reactionary approach to counternarcotics policy, or if it will build on the drug reforms agreed by the accords and rethink the war on drugs.

A “Yes” vote would be the most rebellious and courageous act against the mistakes of the past. An act we call on Colombians to embrace.

las-balas

“Las balas escribieron nuestro pasado. La educación nuestro futuro.”