Colombia’s Eternal War: The Triumph of ‘Peace Through Extermination’

Corey Payne, Johns Hopkins University:

Last week, a Colombian referendum to approve a peace agreement—painstakingly negotiated over four years in Havana—between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) failed by less than half a percentage point. Colombian social media was abuzz with political cartoons and editorials: “We didn’t vote against peace,” they said. “We voted against this agreement.”

But it is important for us to unveil this rhetoric and reveal the results for what they truly are—a surprise win for repressive reactionaries.

The “Colombian Conflict” is a war largely waged between the Colombian government and the FARC, a leftist revolutionary rebel group. But other groups—such as right-wing paramilitary militias and drug cartels—have played a dirty and horrific role. Over half a century, the conflict has killed over 250,000 people and displaced millions. Colombia had the highest population of internally displaced refugees in the world until the Syrian war started in 2011.

After decades of war and years of negotiation, the peace agreement was nearly certain to pass. Polls leading up to the referendum estimated 54-72% of Colombians supported the deal. I was in Colombia during the last presidential election of 2014—the voters turned that campaign into a referendum on the peace negotiations, and the incumbent President Santos won with a clear mandate to continue.

But when the votes were counted, the results were a surprise: 50.2% to 49.8%; the ‘no’ camp triumphant.

The ‘no’ campaign was spearheaded by Alvaro Uribe, the far-right former president who established the policy of “peace through extermination” in the early 2000s. Through organizing ‘death squads’ and affiliating with paramilitary militias, he waged a bloody campaign against the FARC on both the battlefield and the political arena. These far-right paramilitaries have been charged by the United Nations with causing more than 80% of the deaths associated with the conflict. There are even stories of paramilitaries slaughtering civilians and then dressing them in FARC uniforms in order to curry favor with the unknowing civilian population.

But despite the unequal amounts of harm to civilians inflicted by each sides, Uribistas believed that the FARC could not be negotiated with but that they must be eliminated. When Santos proved that the FARC were willing to negotiate—and concede much in the process—the Uribistas began to argue that the FARC would not be punished enough in this agreement.

The irony of Uribe demanding justice for war criminals was lost through much of the Colombian media, which are controlled by elites primarily living in regions that have been insulated from most of the conflict.

Support for the ‘no’ camp came mostly from these same regions—who have largely not felt the direct strain of war. The coastal and mountainous regions where most of the conflict has waged—and from where most of the millions of displaced Colombians come—were strongly in favor of the peace accord. And yet, the referendum failed.

Several factors contributed to this result—the most important of which was voter turnout. 63% of the voting population did not vote—an incredibly high number for a country which usually turns out above 50% of its population for elections (52% voted in the 2014 election between Santos and his far-right opponent, and Uribe’s protégé, Oscar Zuluaga).

But more significant than the simple fact of low turnout is the cause of it. In addition to the usual structural factors—wherein turnout is low in poor regions hit hardest by the conflict due to constraints on mobility and information flow—we are looking at what could be the greatest intensification of conflict caused by climate change yet.

Hurricane Matthew struck the Caribbean coast of Colombia— where a stronghold of ‘yes’ voters who had been hit hard by the conflict reside– just before the vote last weekend. The destruction and devastation that remained took immediate precedence over a political referendum, no matter how important. —to say nothing of the infrastructural struggles to now cast a vote. Even in the most developed of countries, a natural disaster like this can wreak havoc on elections—e.g., Hillary Clinton requesting (and Governor Rick Scott denying) an extension of voter registration deadlines just as Matthew was striking the West Coast of Florida.

But hurricanes were not the only obstacle to voting in many ‘yes’ strongholds. There has been great speculation—and even some reports—of paramilitaries using intimidation tactics to drive down voter turnout and ensure a ‘no’ vote.

So while voter turnout was artificially low in the regions most affected by the conflict, the voters least affected by it were barraged with national and international media—as well as thoroughly discredited ‘human rights’ organizations—painting the deal as a sign of weakness, the FARC as murderous militias, and Urbistas as peace-and-love centrists.

This compelled many to vote against this accord in the hopes of a harsher agreement—not because they believed it will bring a better peace, but because of an innate desire for punitive action.

The failed armistice agreement stated that the FARC would lay down their arms in exchange for a transition back to civilian life, without criminal charges. Leaders and those suspected of grievous crimes would be charged with high amounts of community service (including a dangerous variety, such as disarming land mines). The FARC as an organization would make the transition from an insurgent organization to a political party, with guaranteed representation in the national assembly for a set of years.

With the government and paramilitary forces unable to achieve any form of settlement on the battle field, the laying down of arms and the transition to civilian life is viewed by many in government as the ultimate victory. Before the referendum, the FARC had already begun the process of disarming—despite significant threats from paramilitary forces to not do so.

To add insult to injury, Santos alone was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to secure peace—excluding the leaders of FARC. But this time, the irony was too much to bear. Colombians have taken to the streets by the thousands to demand peace.

There are some that believe a new agreement will be more tolerable to the far-right. But the FARC are unlikely to agree to harsher sentences for themselves just to soothe the bloodlust of a neo-fascist hell-bent on their extermination. Both sides are still acting in good faith—and the ceasefire is holding, for now.

But the far-right belief—pervasive in even US political culture—that peace is only desirable when the adversary has been thoroughly destroyed is a childish response to conflict. This bloc is small, but powerful, and the inability of this fair peace accord to be ratified leaves many with little hope for anything other than a bloody and eternal stalemate.

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