Colombia grapples with fallout over historic plebiscite rejection of peace accords


There is always a search for culprits after a monumental event, such as the historic plebiscite on October 2 in which the “No” voters rejected the Havana peace accords. Now we have to pick up the pieces of a shattered peace, laid-out in 297-pages and already signed by President Santos and FARC’s “Timochenko” in a bombastic ceremony before dignitaries in Cartagena.

Santos wanted the world the world to know that peace was assured in Colombia, and after three encounters with the head of FARC, only in Cartagena did “Timochenko” offer-up some sense of remorse and a vague “forgiveness” for crimes committed over a half-century of conflict and that left 260,000 dead.

Santos’ preemptive presumption that “Yes” would clinch victory was miscalculated and ill-guided by his closest advisors and ministers, who took this peace as a fait accompli shunning the democratic right of 34 million registered voters.

For the majority of Colombians who voted “No” on the ballot, the fault with this peace was that it was interpreted as Santos’ peace and that it excluded participation from persuasive former presidents Álvaro Uribe Vélez and Andrés Pastrana. Then there was the shadow of a harsh tax reform, the dreaded Reforma tributaria, to pay for Santos’ peace, hitting the wallets of ordinary Colombians and castigating them for decades to come with more taxes to finance a peace that, according to the opposition “No,” could potentially bankrupt this country and lead to a socialist state like Cuba and Venezuela. Hours after the final votes were counted, senator Uribe called on Santos for “austerity” as this is not the time to squander the resources of the state on a post-conflict.

On Sunday, Colombians slammed shut the door on any prospect of a tax reform led by Santos and his Minister of Finance Mauricio Cárdenas. For many, Uribe is an astute economist who guided Colombia through two war-time administrations with economic prosperity and a revalued currency hailed as “the envy of the world.”

Santos has staked his presidency on peace and inherited the economic growth of his former commander-in-chief, Álvaro Uribe. But the tide turned on carefully managed macro-economic policy, and during Santos’ first term the nation was hit by global realities such as the collapse in oil prices and lack of confidence in emerging markets. The peso lost its lustre, trading most of this year above $3,000 to the U.S dollar. Higher-than-projected inflation, a weak currency, prolonged strikes, and tight budgetary cutbacks all played an important role in why Colombians headed to the polls on Sunday with heavy hearts.

The “castro-chavista” connection also weighed heavily at the ballot, especially after Colombians tuned in to Cartagena and saw Raúl Castro and Nicolas Maduro applauding the FARC commander’s speech. Noticeably absent among all those gathered and dressed in linen whites: former presidents Uribe and Pastrana.

Santos was so self-assured that he could push through the Final Accord, pumping millions into the “Yes” campaign, that Colombians rebuked his administration and arrogance of signing first and letting his fellow citizens “eat their cake” and pay for it. Santos is scheduled to visit the United Kingdom this month to present Colombia’s peace to another nation grappling with post-referendum malaise; and here another missing piece to the peace puzzle.

While Santos glowed in the limelight of international recognition for this peace, “No” ploughed away silently on the home front, a grass-roots movement with a mandate to exercise their democratic right. The plebiscite showed that Colombian democracy is strong, and possibly revitalized after Sunday’s vote.

On Sunday night there were gestures of consolation and reconciliation from “No.” Uribe, in a rare public discourse from Río Negro, Antioquia — as he usually communicates via twitter — offered FARC protection and said that all Colombians want peace, including him. Minutes after President Santos’ “I will not surrender” speech, “Timochenko” reassured Colombians that the guerrilla organization will “use only words as a weapon to build the future” and that, at the end of this political quagmire, “peace will triumph.”

Not all is lost with the 297-page peace accord. The bilateral ceasefire holds, and FARC will not return to the hills to pick up their AK-47s in an age of drone and laser-guided missile warfare. Even the country’s second rouge guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) sent out a missive on Sunday night asking Colombians to persevere in a negotiated end to the internal conflict with FARC. The ELN has confirmed that peace talks with their 3,000-strong group will commence in Chile.

With the signatures of Santos and “Timochenko” brandishing a hollow document, on Sunday night a polarized nation came together under one flag to chart a new peace route forward. The president has dispatched his negotiating team to Havana and Uribe’s call for a united National Pact for Peace is in the works and now has a majority mandate.

Where polls failed, democracy triumphed. Colombians should feel proud that they had their say and that even the most vitriolic of former enemies have extended conciliatory gestures and messages of hope for a not-so-uncertain future of forging a lasting peace that recognizes historical responsibility, breaks with party politics, and holds the country’s leaders accountable for their personal ambitions.


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