Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Colombia decides: Imperfect peace or perpetual war?

In a country with such vast inequality, along with a significant disconnect between officialdom and the masses, to say Colombia's 'vote for peace' is its moment of truth might be overstretching it a little. Nonetheless, in the unlikely event of the Colombian electorate rejecting the October 2nd plebiscite on the agreement reached between the government and Farc rebels, such an outcome would be met with bewilderment by a watching outside world; a people says no to 'peace'. (Although, as written about here previously, it wouldn't be a complete surprise to those who have been following events closely.) It would also signal the need for a change of administration, one that would have to pursue a far tougher line on leftist guerrillas; not virgin, if largely unsuccessful ground that.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shakes hands with Farc leader Timochenko before signing the peace deal in the city of Cartagena ...
Much more peaceful times ahead for Colombia?  (Photo from Facebook.)
The opinion polls, in any case, tell us that the yes side should comfortably win the day, despite a not insignificant no minority that appears to cross class boundaries. From well-to-do business people and professionals to tienda owners and hard-pressed youths in working-class barrios, in my conversations I've encountered more people who are going to vote 'no' than 'yes'. (Odd enough considering the no side is polling about 30 per cent.) I've also spoken with plenty who just won't bother to cast their ballot; a symbol of that disconnect from 'official' Colombia in what, according to the powers that be, is such a momentous decision for the country.

Leaving aside the argument that the referendum question is of a leading type favouring a 'yes', Colombians must ask themselves the following: Is this an agreement that will be a positive game changer for the country, a step in the right direction? Or is it just a coming together of a few elites, unrepresentative of the reality on the ground, and something that will change very little? A 'television peace' as one Colombian farmer put it.

You won't find many, even the most optimistic of yes voters, expecting instant change. Peace won't come overnight. We've seen that before in the likes of Northern Ireland — not that we can draw too many comparisons between the two conflicts.

One argument coming from the no side is that the agreement is overly lenient towards Farc from a financial and political point of view — guaranteed senate seats for the leftist movement is one bugbear in this regard. For a country that has traditionally steered a centre-right/right path in national politics, there seems to be some fear that this deal might mark the start of a drift towards some sort of socialism, a dirty word in these parts considering the situation in neighbouring Venezuela and Colombia's sour relationship with that republic.

Another source of fuel for the 'no' ire comes from El Presidente himself, Juan Manuel Santos. His approval rating has been at an all-time low and it appears some Colombians just can't bear to endorse anything that he is behind. The wrong occasion for a protest vote it might be, but it carries weight.

Other points being made against the agreement include the belief that there are greater problems in the country that need to be sorted out. This may be so, but the counter-argument is that by at least putting the Farc to bed, the other issues can then be tackled with more vigour. As for former Farc members carrying on their criminal ways under a different banner post peace endorsement, only time will tell on that one.

Should, as expected, the yes side win on Sunday, it's not, at the risk of sounding facetious, going to be a case of peace and love from Monday onwards. However, the hope must be that it marks the start of a move to a more positive era in Colombia's story. As Santos himself said, and here's hoping he and his ilk mean it, 'the hard work starts now.' Creating a more equitable Colombia is something that requires much more than a few handshakes and the signing of an agreement. A sceptical Colombian public needs convincing that the times are indeed a-changin' for the better.
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  1. Perpetual war!? That's a bit harsh. Yes, the war has been ongoing for and age. That is down largely to a weak state. But perpetual war as a threat to agree to this terrible deal. It was as a result of the Colombian state getting increasingly strengthened that the FARC were brought to the table to begin with. They are close to collapse and being out maneuvered by the changing world. It is fair to say that this represents a terrible deal for the good people of Colombia with no justice at all. Justice being a key component in moving on from the episode.

  2. A little bit of poetic license there in the title; but as you write, it has gone on for quite some time in any case.
    If the deal ends even just some bloodshed and helps Colombia make some progress, then you would have to say it's worth it. Plus, if it allows children who would otherwise have been forced into rebel ranks the chance of another, less violent path, then you would also have to say it's worth a try. A sense of, you could say, 'nothing ventured, nothing gained'.
    Colombia's myriad of problems will not be solved overnight or with the signing of one peace deal, but perhaps this is the start of something brighter. Time will tell as is written in the article.

  3. It is a point that you've come back with but it is an all or nothing perspective. These angle can be applied in any debate. This deal that gives far too much to criminals and thus diminishes the purpose of the state which is to uphold the rule of law that is there to protect it's citizens. I would like to add that I believe everyone even the FARC would like peace (although they see it in a Marxist Utopian state). I am sorry to insist that your reasoning could be applied to almost any bad deal. A prisoner who is not redeeming himself. Let him out because he is wasting his time and that of others.. The conflict has persisted yes, due to many factors that were basically the state being too weak. Now with a lot of help the FARC have been brought around but peace being sold far too cheaply and in a way that diminishes the peace at express of Justice something that should have been paramount. I just feel it's a vanity project of Santos that just wanted to sign a deal, any deal for his own political benefit. The innocent Colombians have been sold off and their basic rights to justice for some pompous rich lot in Bogotá.

    1. Considering the links between previous government officials and paramilitaries (paracos), like we saw in Northern Ireland, the finger of blame can be pointed at many people depending on one's point of view.
      In any agreement there must be compromise, that's the whole point of making a deal. For any peace, the hawks have to give way at some stage.
      The question facing Colombia is, 'Is now the right time?'