Colombia is a country in which truth and legend intertwine on a daily basis, where everything is possible and impossible at the same time, and there is sometimes more truth in the old folk’s tales than in official news reports, just like one of Gabriel Garcìa Màrquez’s novels. Garcìa Màrquez also used to say that people never realize that starting a war is way easier than finishing it, and the undeniable truthfulness of this statement is still having painful repercussions on the country: the very soil of Colombia is soaked in the blood and tears of a people that has not seen peace in over a century. For while the country may technically be at peace with its neighbours, it has been torn apart by intestine disorders for way too long.
The very birth of Colombia as we know it today was an act of rebellion, led by the mythical figure of Simòn Bolìvar, against the former Spanish rulers. Even after the colony seceded from Spain in 1819, it was broken down by civil wars, resulting in the separation of Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama from the former Greater Colombia. Since 1905, when the last civil war ended with the independence of Panama, Colombia has been involved in several conflicts both in the Southern American scenario – against Perù – and on its own territory. The heavy political turmoil that followed the end of the Second World War caused many political movements in Colombia to rise up in arms to follow the path of guerrilla, the “little war”. In the spirit of the Cold War, the Colombian government found itself facing militias of both communist and fascist inspiration (not to mention the cocaine cartels and their mercenary armies) that aimed to take over the rule of the country, paramilitary groups that are still active as of today and continuously threaten the stability and safety of Colombia. Among the former, the most infamous and influential guerrilla group is the FARC.
The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, or Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) were founded in 1964 by Manuel Marulanda Vélez as a result of the violent repression of the protest movements of Colombian farmers by the government. The survivors of the army’s crackdown, who escaped the attack and started hiding in the jungle and on the mountains, managed to gather enough followers to their cause and organized a real army with the intention of turning Colombia into a socialist state. After 20 years of relentless fights, in 1984 the Colombian government, led by President Belisario Betancur Cuartas, agreed to a deal which would allow the FARC to participate in the country’s elections as a normal party, named Uniòn Patriotica. In 1985, the Uniòn Patriotica managed to elect 14 members of Parliament; however, the candidates and many other members of the party were assassinated in the following years, possibly by other guerrilla groups, and as a consequence the Uniòn Patriotica was disbanded and the FARC came back into action, gaining even more strength and support. By 1998, the FARC had become so influential that President Andrés Pastrana decided to negotiate a new deal, negotiations which were encouraged by the United States with a significant economic and military aid. As it happens, as soon as the United States entered into play the situation escalated in an unexpected way: in the belief that US support would give the Colombian army the decisive edge needed to finally eradicate the guerrilla, President Pastrana and his successors – Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos – decided to interrupt the ceasefire and launch a large-scale military operation to eliminate the FARC. The campaign lasted over ten years and was largely unsuccessful, also because of the strong popular support that the FARC enjoy in many regions of Colombia. As a result, both the FARC and the Colombian army (and the Colombian population, unfortunately) suffered heavy losses, but no progress was made towards a resolution of the conflict. As of 2008, the FARC still counted 8,000 to 16,000 effectives, and as of 2011 controlled 20-25% of the territory of Colombia.
Facing the impossibility of a military victory, in 2012 both parties finally agreed to meet in Havana, Cuba, to initiate what promised to be a final negotiation. While this theoretically implied a truce, the two sides continued their skirmishes until 2015. Then President Santos and the new leader of the FARC, Timoléon Jiménez, completed the final draft of the peace proposal, which was then signed and made public in 2016, at the presence of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon. A referendum, scheduled for October 2nd, was expected to finally legitimize the treaty and bring a 50-year long war to its end. Only, it didn’t, because the result of the referendum was slightly against the deal, by 50.25% against 49.75%, against all odds.
“Why is such an important matter even submitted to referendary vote?”, you might be wondering. The reason is, indeed, very simple: the terms of the deal itself imply major changes to the Constitution of Colombia, which means that, under Colombian law, such changes must first be approved by the main constituent (the people). This is called principio de substituciòn constitucional and cannot be taken lightly: if anybody could modify the Constitution freely, it would be like not having a Constitution at all. Hence why the chance of ending such a terrible conflict was delegated to a referendum. Did the Colombian people choose wisely? That’s a completely different matter.
According to the terms of the treaty, after the referendary approval of the deal, Colombian troops would have withdrawn from the warzone as to allow FARC members to move to “Temporary Hamlet Zones” safely, under the supervision of the United Nations. In these specifically designed areas, the FARC militia would have turned all of its weapons and military equipment in and surrendered. Any FARC member not facing major charges of violations of human rights could have then been granted pardon and reintegrated into Colombian society, after contributing to the removal of landmines and FARC military infrastructure from Colombian territory. Members charged with such allegations, or that refused to cooperate with UN authorities, would have faced prison sentences of up to 20 years, unless they admitted to such crimes, in which case they would have endured a reduced sentence. In addition to a safe surrender, the Colombian government agreed to take many reforms suggested by the FARC into consideration, especially a rural reform aimed at improving the conditions of Colombian farmers: it is estimated that around 1% of the Colombian population owns more than 50% of the land, following a very ancient feudal model of latifond. Thus, the Colombian government would consider a reform for the redistribution of land and the development of better infrastructure, education and services in rural areas, with special emphasis on putting an end to child labour in farms. Moreover, former FARC members would have received a limited amount of parliamentary seats in order to transition from a guerrilla group to a de facto political party, with special protection as to avoid the massacre that occurred in 1985. Surprisingly enough, the agreement does involve any measures about the involvement of the FARC in the Colombian cocaine trade: the guerrilla group was in fact at the very least in contact with the drug cartels (another plague of the country) from which it collected a tax aimed at financing its operations. Although the leaders of the group often stated their divergence from common drug traffickers, they did in some way benefit from the trade. However, this is not taken into account.
According to the Colombian public opinion, the deal went way too soft on the FARC: the 50-year long war against the guerrilla caused more than 7 million victims, half a million of which Colombian civilians, and many citizens don’t see the conditions determined in the peace deal as a sufficient retribution for all the harm caused in the conflict. This partly explains the unexpected outcome of the referendum. However, there are several external factors that should not be neglected. The most important, in my opinion, is the still relevant influence of the drug cartels in Colombian politics: a country at war cannot fully dedicate itself to eradicating crime. The Narcos are the party that most benefits from the on-going state of conflict between the government and the FARC, and their connection to Colombian politics may have influenced the outcome of the referendum through propaganda and the spread of misleading data on the peace deal. This is, of course, pure speculation and should not be taken seriously by any means, though I believe this is something that should be reflected upon.
So did Colombians make the right choice? Probably not. “Pride, the never-failing vice of fools.”, said Alexander Pope, and I pretty much agree with him. The general sentiment of the Colombian people is at the very least understandable, and yet I believe that some peace and stability, no matter the cost, could greatly benefit Colombia, allowing the country to finally face its demons and establish order in a land ravaged by war. Keeping the country torn between factions, at the cost of more lives, helps crime thrive and presents the prospect of future military “intervention” from other players, and is definitely not the solution. “The dreadful night has passed”, recites the Colombian national anthem. Perhaps not yet.