First there was disbelief, nothing but disbelief. Huddled around a table in a steamy restaurant in a quaint Bogotá neighbourhood, my Colombian wife, our friends and I literally couldn't believe our eyes. It was the 2nd of October. After a tranquil day, with no reports on anything out of the ordinary, the results of the plebiscite on the peace accord with the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began rolling in. Up during the first few minutes after the voting ended at 4pm, 'yes' was soon matched by 'no' and finally overtaken. By the slightest of margins, a majority of thirteen million Colombians - less than 40 per cent of the electorate - opposed the accord that the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the leftist guerrilla group had hammered out in four years of talks in Cuba and signed only days before in the city of Cartagena.
Then there was frustration and anger. Across the country dumfounded supporters of the peace deal broke down in tears, literally gasping for air after the blow. How on earth could that have happened? Why did nobody see this coming? What kind of a society was Colombia's to oppose a well-crafted, progressive agreement on ending armed conflict and build peace in this South American country of eternal war that had cost the lives of some 220,000 people and displaced six million more? Was the huge effort of the past four years - which Cuba, Norway and others in the international community had helped keep on track - all for nothing? Would a deeply polarised Colombia now descend again into senseless violence and bloodshed? How would any parent be able to explain to their children, including our three-year old daughter, that this historic opportunity to make Colombia a better place had been squandered?
And then, as the country was still trembling from the political quake that had just hit, the leaders spoke. First in line was a visibly shaken Santos, who addressed the nation flanked by his stern-faced negotiators. FARC commander 'Timochenko' followed suit, transmitting a brief statement from Havana. The last to go on air was former President Álvaro Uribe, the staunchest of critics of the peace process and spearhead of the 'no' campaign.
Quite clearly, none of the three parties expected the 'yes' to lose. Just like the rest of us they appeared to be taken by utter surprise, which perhaps explains why, on all three sides, the initial statements were measured and bent on sending conciliatory messages. There was no 'plan B'. The Santos administration and FARC had put all their eggs into one basket, and now they were hard-pressed to control a mounting political crisis. Having run a protracted anti-peace campaign without proposing any convincing and real alternatives, the 'no' camp equally was caught wrong-footed.
These first official reactions helped allay the worst fears that Colombia was poised to descend into political chaos and witness a bushfire flare-up of violence. Particularly President Santos and the FARC commanders ought to be commended for living up to the situation and not losing their nerve on that ominous night. Uribe and the anti-peace camp too acted as responsibly as responsible goes, not appearing triumphantly and hell-bent on drawing political capital from their foes' defeat.
Yet the poll and its turbulent aftermath reveal that Colombia remains a nation that is fractured and polarised to the core. And not only that, but evidently also not interested in getting its act together and building a better, less violent and more inclusive, democratic and modern society. It is more than telling that those regions of the country most hit by the armed conflict in the past, such as Nariño, Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Chocó departments on the Pacific coast, all voted in favour of the peace accords. This contrasts starkly with the much less affected central highland departments of Cundinamarca and Antioquia, for instance, where a majority said 'no'.
The peace process also shows that the critics of closed-door elite negotiations to end armed conflicts are not entirely mistaken. Time will tell with more certainty, but the indications are that both government and insurgents, holed up in Havana for four long years, lost touch with the realities on the ground. While not sparing any effort to craft a sterling peace accord, both parties underestimated or simply did not pay sufficient attention to the mayor challenge entailed in getting the deal approved and legitimated by popular vote. Nobody knows what kinds of obstacles they would have encountered during the implementation phase had the 'yes' vote been the winning choice.
Now that Colombia is faced with a harsh new reality, it is futile to dwell on the ifs. A minority vote accompanied by massive popular abstention sent a well-designed and handled Colombian-led peacemaking effort crashing to the ground. The future of the peace process is up for grabs, the vultures are up in the air. The anti-peace camp headed by Uribe now says they are all in favour of peace, but with strings attached. What for four years has been a tango between the Santos administration and FARC is now set to turn into an unsavoury threesome.
What are Uribe's and his followers' motives, what is the strategy that lurks behind the argument of seeking inclusion in the negotiation with the insurgents? Again, peacemaking and peacebuilding theory - both conventional and critical - is not of any great help here. By virtue of a plebiscite the Colombian peace process has been broken open, with powerful political forces that hitherto had opposed any negotiation now claiming the right to participate. The big question is whether this represents a genuine broadening of the political and social base involved in finding peace or whether a beautiful but pampered peace deal is in the process of being hijacked by the jackals.
In the flux of the current events and the uncertainty that engulfs the rapidly unfolding situation, we do not know the answer. However, it is quite obvious that peace with FARC hinges on the adroitness and disposition of the Santos administration, the insurgents and the political opposition to find and agree on a new institutional framework for (re)negotiating peace that would be sufficiently robust to carry them out of the present mess. Other forces, such as Colombian civil society and victim and business organisations, would have to make their voice heard much stronger than before to make this happen. Many of their representatives did vote in favour of the peace accord, but evidently that was not enough.
The international community too needs to reconsider its rather complacent stance regarding Colombia's peace process. As it turns out, Colombia is not a 'quick win' scenario for peacemakers. In the past years, valuable international good offices have achieved so much. Now is the time for more decisive political engagement.
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