Exclusive: Though polls show Colombians strongly favoring peace, President Santos’s peace deal went down to a narrow defeat for a variety of unconnected reasons, including Hurricane Matthew’s impact, writes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
It may take Colombia years to recover from the damage wreaked by Hurricane Matthew, which lashed the country’s coast earlier this month before heading north. It did far more than simply flood roads and rip the roofs off peasant shacks. It also helped send the national referendum on peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) down to an historic defeat that almost nobody expected.
As a result, the nation is now in crisis. No one knows whether the Marxist guerrillas who agreed to lay down their arms will accept harsher terms demanded by leaders of the “No” campaign. Though being selected for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize just days after the narrow “No” vote, President Juan Manuel Santos has been politically discredited inside Colombia, putting his legislative agenda at risk for the next year and a half. International markets punished the country’s currency after the vote, registering investor concern over Colombia’s governability.
Many news analyses blamed the referendum’s defeat on FARC’s history of violence and crime. The Washington Post called the vote “an extraordinary repudiation of the guerrilla commanders of the FARC . . . The outcome reveals the depths of Colombian public animosity toward the rebels, accumulated by decades of kidnappings, bombing and land seizures in the name of Marxist-Leninist revolution.”
The New York Times agreed: “To many Colombians who had endured years of kidnappings and killings by the rebels, the agreement was too lenient. It would have allowed most rank-and-file fighters to start lives as normal citizens, and rebel leaders to receive reduced sentences for war crimes.”
That was certainly the message favored by Colombia’s right-wing Senator Álvaro Uribe, who led a scorched-earth campaign against FARC during his term as president from 2002 to 2010. More recently, Uribe fought tooth and nail to block the peace accord signed in August by President Santos and FARC leaders after 52 years of civil war, the death of a quarter million people, and the displacement of 7 million.
But a closer look at the evidence suggests that the referendum’s extremely narrow defeat was driven as much by voter overconfidence in its passage, bad weather, and a U.S.-style negative campaign that fomented resentment and anger around wedge social issues.
A War-Weary Nation
The referendum did not deliver a popular mandate against peace. It failed by a mere four-tenths of one percent, with only 37 percent of eligible voters showing up at the polls on Oct. 2, which was just two days after Hurricane Matthew reached its peak strength as a Category 5 storm and buffeted Colombia’s Caribbean coast with nearly 160 mile-per-hour winds and torrential rains.
A majority of Colombians clearly favor peace in general and the signed accord in particular. Huge peace demonstrations followed the vote in many Colombian cities, even in Uribe’s traditional stronghold of Medellín. Survey after public opinion survey had predicted passage of the referendum by a two-to-one margin. “We couldn’t imagine that we would win,” said Uribe’s manager of the “No” campaign, Juan Carlos Velez.
So what went wrong? One problem, Velez said, was the polls themselves. Their lopsided margin instilled in the pro-government camp a sense of overconfidence, sapping the “Yes” campaign of energy and voter turnout.
In addition, torrential rainfall along Colombia’s coast — a region of ardent pro-peace sentiment — impeded voting by four million people, or about 12 percent of eligible voters, according to election observers. The rains delayed the opening of polling stations and spoiled election materials. The extreme weather also discouraged supporters — who had every reason to expect victory — from turning out to cast ballots.
Election observers also reported “widespread illegal campaigning” near polling places and inadequate staffing or other poor conditions at nearly 40 percent of all voting stations.
The “No” vote was also inflated by a scare campaign based on misinformation, led by Velez out of the Lee Atwater and Karl Rove playbooks.
Velez explained to a Colombian newspaper — much to Uribe’s chagrin — that he appealed to emotions and fear rather than facts. The “No” campaign “stopped explaining the agreements to focus the message on indignation,” Velez said. “We wanted the people to go out to vote while fed up.”
Velez’s team convinced middle- and upper-class voters to reject the referendum by stirring up their resentment against an unrelated proposal by President Santos to increase taxes to offset declining oil revenues. Radio ads aimed at poorer audiences criticized subsidies the government proposed to pay to former guerrillas to help them reintegrate into society.
“A social media campaign scared pensioners into believing they would have to give over 7% of their pensions to help support demobilized guerrillas,” reported The Guardian. “Flyers for the no side falsely claimed the accord would allow a joint government-FARC committee to prosecute anyone who was against the deal.”
Social Issues in Play
The “No” campaign also rallied conservative Catholic and Protestant evangelical voters by focusing their ire on Gina Parody, a gay education minister who had proposed mixed school bathrooms and more gender-neutral uniforms. She took a leave of absence to become a leading campaigner for the peace accord, which recognized the rights of gays and lesbians. Pointing to her, Uribe’s allies organized protests across the country to denounce the peace deal as a threat to “family values.” Colombia’s inspector general even charged that government officials were “using peace as an excuse to impose their gender ideology.”
Thanks to such tactics, “The ‘No’ campaign was the cheapest and most effective in a long time,” Velez boasted.
Velez has since resigned and is now under investigation for electoral fraud. Also under investigation is another former campaign chief for Uribe’s party, who allegedly ordered an aide to bribe military and police officials to help steal to the private emails of the government’s peace negotiating team.
Perhaps the most disturbing, if unproven, charges are those that connect Uribe and many party members to the country’s large paramilitary drug trafficking organizations, which also opposed the peace accord.
Some 3,000 of these heavily armed criminals are active across the country, according to the national police. Their threats to kill FARC members created one of the most significant obstacles to demobilizing the Marxist guerrillas, who feared the government could not protect them.
Now, unless President Santos and FARC can find a way to get peace back on track, all it may take is one massacre by these paramilitaries against FARC soldiers or sympathizers to plunge the country back into the dark hole of civil war — a war that the vast majority of Colombians want to end.
Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America (with Peter Dale Scott). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews included “Derailing Peace Deal in Colombia,” “The Clinton-Colombia Connection,” and “Colombia’s Peace Finally at Hand.”