Why Colombia’s Peace Deal Failed

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.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos.

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.

Ex-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. (Photo credit: World Economic Forum)

Ex-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. (Photo credit: World Economic Forum)

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.” 

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13 comments for “Why Colombia’s Peace Deal Failed

  1. Colombiano
    October 19, 2016 at 6:20 am

    Dear Mr. Marshall
    As Colombian Citizen I want to clarify some points.
    People who voted ‘NO’ want peace but no with an awful peace deal that if were approved, it would grant impunity to criminals that had had crimes against humanity, also give them access to government positions without elections.
    About polls, The ‘No’ was the favourite before the government started to regulate the polls…
    Colombia is a banana republic that in mote than 50 years hasn’t been able to provide social justice that at the end is the reason for the violence. While the Guerrilla commandants have been there for decades the government change every 4 years and the corruption is a constant. Only the last two presidents have been re-elected,
    the first one was Alvaro Uribe who recovered the country after president Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) failed in a peace deal and leaved the country in a really bad shape, guerrilla everywhere (30,000) kidnapping in the roads, extorsions.
    Alvaro Uribe was the first president in Colombian history that killed some untouchables guerrilla heads, after his 8 years the Country has improved and the guerrilla went from 30,000 to less than 6,000 people.
    The Hurricane Matthew did not affect the voting that much, as per comparison with the previous election.
    There is more info but not enough time to tell.

  2. wobblie
    October 18, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    Wow! Hurricane Matthew was weather warfare. Dane Wigginton points things like this out at geoengineeringwatch.org. He’s very good.

    The US has a lot to lose with peace. Plan Columbia has been so lucrative. It’s hard to imagine the DEA would just sit back and watch it disappear.

    https://therulingclassobserver.com/2016/10/01/squandering-our-most-precious-resource/

  3. Elizabeth worline
    October 18, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    I am sorry folks but as an Colombian I have the right to comment how bias this article is. Many of Colombians who voted NO to this fake deal were motivated by many events during his presidency combine plus the real intentions of the FARC a Marxist terrorist group. They had long stop fighting for equality but for money and power. It is very unethical to make writers think that the NO voters were motivated by Uribe’ message, I wasn’t and I didn’t need it to as many others didnt. History is the key of how the politics, power and money can define my country and this is the first time in my life that I have to see such everything together while my country is divided because of this deal which is the generalization of everything that Colombia is well know around the world. Santos the president didn’t consult us about this process that he was already working on long before making it public, he didn’t ask us if we liked or disliked the main points in the agreement, he just signed while he had spent $$$billions and billions of pesos from our taxes since this process started while the unemployment rate increased, the health service got worse, insecurity increased, basic needs increased like food, medicine, house, kids dying from starvation, no to mention the production of cocaine increased as never bedore since Pablo Escobar was killed thanks to his order when he started the peace deal to stop the fumigation in the areas where the drug activity is higher or I may say where these terrorists live. He didn’t act when this criminal group were still killing people, kidnapping and extortionate civilians while in this process. This article just mentioned what Uribe had done to make people vote NO, but it is not that true, this is about common sense, justice, and love for our death. Santos had paid billions of dollars promoting the SI campaign making exorbitant deals with mayor news inside and outside, he had paid non-profit organizations to convince people , he had paid almost a billion of pesos to his brother’s company for a simple service, Semana a magazine where his nephew is the director, he had paid the Cuban ‘government millions of dollars so the big bosses and the worst criminals that now pretend to be angels can live like kings with his commander Raul Castro, the list can goes on. What about the post-conflict? Who is going to pay for it? The same civilians this terrorist , the major enemy of Colombians, as the studies predict would cost us $31 billions even more and by then he will be gone maybe in a huge mansion in some place in Europe. How people can even think or can be so blind that after 52 years the FARC which is the 3rd richest terrorist group in the world and the 1st cocaine producer in Colombia is willing to stop doing what they are so used to do? The fact that if there will be a posibility of peace and that this so called “communist ” group is going back into society in the legal way and be part of the government as they requested and avoiding all the process in the Colombian Constitucion to be a political group is just the worst offense Santos the president can imput against Colombia democracy. This article is explicitly targeting one part of this big circus and why it is not doing the same with the government and the whole Colombia’ community. Both sides had played dirty but the president is the one to blame for trying to use his power as a dictator since it was his deal and not the people’s voice, because he had wasted our taxes in great numbers while other and more important proyects needed it the most, because he had paid the media to brainwash many civilians, because his corrupt government was trying to buy votes with money and big sacks of food in very poor and forgottern towns, because his government was just focusing in creating fear even in the worst possible as if the SI vote won’t won it will be an urban war and he had to be force to rise taxes. The NO won and not an urban war is happening yet but the tax reform is coming soon because Colombia has a fiscal hole and the highest deficit any government ever had in the last 100 years and we still have to wait 1 and half years more. The day he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his great effor and motivation in making this peace deal work but at what cost? That day many Colombians had felt offended, discriminated, and ignored by the International community. Whith this empty and fake process the war is not going to end. The FARC has a very calculate agenda and it is not in their mind and plans to intagrate into sociaty with all the adventages and benefits Santos is offering them. They are used to domain, to be the leaders, to have control and it will be almost maybe impossible for them to surrend their lasting power and the money they have. The war in Colombia is not going to end until the whole erradication of drugs activity will take place with the international community help who are directly the clients being U.S #1 consuming 90% of Colombia cocaine. People want peace but not without impunity, we want to be involve in the process this time and make our voices to be hear.

  4. Elizabeth worline
    October 18, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    I am sorry folks but as an Colombian I have the right to comment how bias this article is. Many of Colombians who voted NO to this fake deal were motivated by many events during his presidency combine plus the real intentions of the FARC a Marxist terrorist group. They had long stop fighting for equality but for money and power. It is very unethical to make writers think that the NO voters were motivated by Uribe’ message, I wasn’t and I didn’t need it to as many others didnt. History is the key of how the politics, power and money can define my country and this is the first time in my life that I have to see such everything together while my country is divided because of this deal which is the generalization of everything that Colombia is well know around the world. Santos the president didn’t consult us about this process that he was already working on long before making it public, he didn’t ask us if we liked or disliked the main points in the agreement, he just signed while he had spent $$$billions and billions of pesos from our taxes since this process started while the unemployment rate increased, the health service got worse, insecurity increased, basic needs increased like food, medicine, house, kids dying from starvation, no to mention the production of cocaine increased as never bedore since Pablo Escobar was killed thanks to his order when he started the peace deal to stop the fumigation in the areas where the drug activity is higher or I may say where these terrorists live. He didn’t act when this criminal group were still killing people, kidnapping and extortionate civilians while in this process. This article just mentioned what Uribe had done to make people vote NO, but it is not that true, this is about common sense, justice, and love for our death. Santos had paid billions of dollars promoting the SI campaign making exorbitant deals with mayor news inside and outside, he had paid non-profit organizations to convince people , he had paid almost a billion of pesos to his brother’s company for a simple service, Semana a magazine where his nephew is the director, he had paid the Cuban ‘government millions of dollars so the big bosses and the worst criminals that now pretend to be angels can live like kings with his commander Raul Castro, the list can goes on. What about the post-conflict? Who is going to pay for it? The same civilians this terrorist , the major enemy of Colombians, as the studies predict would cost us $31 billions even more and by then he will be gone maybe in a huge mansion in some place in Europe. How people can even think or can be so blind that after 52 years the FARC which is the 3rd richest terrorist group in the world and the 1st cocaine producer in Colombia is willing to stop doing what they are so used to do? The fact that if there will be a posibility of peace and that this so called “communist ” group is going back into society in the legal way and be part of the government as they requested and avoiding all the process in the Colombian Constitucion to be a political group is just the worst offense Santos the president can imput against Colombia democracy. This article is explicitly targeting one part of this big circus and why it is not doing the same with the government and the whole Colombia’ community. Both sides had played dirty but the president is the one to blame for trying to use his power as a dictator since it was his deal and not the people’s voice, because he had wasted our taxes in great numbers while other and more important proyects needed it the most, because he had paid the media to brainwash many civilians, because his corrupt government was trying to buy votes with money and big sacks of food in very poor and forgottern towns, because his government was just focusing in creating fear even in the worst possible as if the SI vote won’t won it will be an urban war and he had to be force to rise taxes. The NO won and not an urban war is happening yet but the tax reform is coming soon because Colombia has a fiscal hole and the highest deficit any government ever had in the last 100 years and we still have to wait 1 and half years more. The day he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his great effor and motivation in making this peace deal work but at what cost? That day many Colombians had felt offended, discriminated, and ignored by the International community. Whith this empty and fake process the war is not going to end. The FARC has a very calculate agenda and it is not in their mind and plans to intagrate into sociaty with all the adventages and benefits Santos is offering them. They are used to domain, to be the leaders, to have control and it will be almost maybe impossible for them to surrend their lasting power and the money they have. The war in Colombia is not going to end until the whole erradication of drugs activity will take place with the international community help who are directly the clients being U.S #1 consuming 90% of Colombia cocaine. People wants peace but not without impunity, we want to be involve in the process this time and make our voices to be hear.

  5. Wobblie
    October 18, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    I would not be surprised if weather engineering helped sabotage this peace accord.

    They have the capability. If the parties had reached an agreement. It would have been the end of Plan Columbia and the purchasing of US equipment and weapons.

    https://therulingclassobserver.com/2016/10/01/squandering-our-most-precious-resource/

    • backwardsevolution
      October 18, 2016 at 4:59 pm

      Wobblie – it really makes you wonder, doesn’t it? That storm landed at just the right time.

      “It would have been the end of Plan Colombia and the purchasing of US equipment and weapons.” Is this what it’s about, protecting U.S. arms dealers and weapons manufacturers?

      Really good article. Thanks.

  6. evelync
    October 17, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    Thank you, Mr Marshall for your investigation of why the peace accord failed.
    It’s tragic,
    I hope that Santos can find a way to overcome all the schemes that were tossed in the way of peace.
    It seems so unfair to the people of Columbia what they’ve been through.
    Back in the 1990’s I recall Bill Clinton approved $3 billion military “aide” including spraying herbicides on fields as his “solution” for the drug war.
    Here’s an article I just found that digs into the recent history of the Clinton Foundation’s “work” in Columbia.
    http://fusion.net/story/357169/hillary-clinton-foundation-victims-colombia/

  7. Sam
    October 17, 2016 at 8:07 pm

    I don’t believe the excuse that a storm kept the left wing majority from the polls but did not affect the right wing. Almost certainly this is an excuse for election fraud paid for by the CIA or the National Endowment for Degeneracy. Odd that anyone would even suggest an excuse for a sudden change in the polling. I will bet that fraud will emerge eventually.

  8. backwardsevolution
    October 17, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    Because of Hurricane Matthew, they should have cancelled the referendum for a few weeks. That would have been the fair thing to do.

    “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.”

    Who needs facts! Facts are for bending or hiding (sarc).

    And 52 years of civil war? That’s a lot of people’s lifetimes right there. What a shame for the country.

    I thought I remembered that the Clinton’s and the Clinton Foundation were down in Colombia (with their friend, Frank Giustra). With the help of Bill Clinton, Giustra ended up getting himself a gold mine and lucrative oil and gas deals in Colombia. If something is not nailed down, the Clinton’s are there to pick it up. The following article explains how the Clinton Foundation has done little for Colombia, although its website says otherwise. Very good article.

    http://fusion.net/story/357169/hillary-clinton-foundation-victims-colombia/

    • Jonathan Marshall
      October 17, 2016 at 8:05 pm

      Thanks for your comment. On the Clintons and Colombia, see also my article at https://consortiumnews.com/2016/05/19/the-clinton-colombia-connection/.

      • backwardsevolution
        October 18, 2016 at 1:35 am

        Jonathan Marshall – that was such a good article! Thank you.

        “It’s time to call her [Hillary] out and make her account for that choice — and for a record that calls into question her professed devotion to human freedom, democratic values, and the rights of organized labor.”

        No kidding. The only freedom she is interested in is her freedom to loot. Democratic values? Yeah, right, accompanied by dirty tricks, undermining opponents. Rights of organized labor? This is laughable, jobs offshored, lots of immigrants brought in so that wages are kept low and you have no rights.

        And in developing countries like Colombia, she turns a blind eye to protesting workers being escorted away by the military. You can understand why people there are shaking their heads and wondering why the rest of the world doesn’t speak up for them.

        What used to make the U.S. stand out above the crowd was its Rule of Law. No longer. People are watching in horror as they see their country circling the drain, and what’s taking it down are people like the Clinton’s. Really, the two of them have been instrumental in shredding the Rule of Law. Time to throw them out on their asses. They really belong in jail.

        Thanks, Jonathan. Well done!

        • evelync
          October 18, 2016 at 9:54 am

          Sorry, backwards evolution, for posting the link you already had up – when I started writing the comment there were no other comments – by the time I finished reading that shocking article and linked it to the comment and clicked “post” I didn’t update the page first to see that you had already done that.
          this stuff is bad and there seems no end to it – Haiti is another story with the Clintons. And the Obama Administration/Clinton State Dept helped enable the coup in Honduras – more violence against indigenous people.
          Report of the Commission of Truth:
          report_cdv_honduras_english.pdf
          Starting on page 59 is the role of the State Dept including the leaked State Dept’s own report that determines the coup was illegal according to the laws of Honduras

          Alvaro Valle’s article “Dancing With Monsters” in the Harvard Political Review pertains to Honduras but applies to Clinton across the board:
          “In particular, her attention to business interests in a matter of state should be concerning. When seeking stability in Honduras, Clinton appears to have valued military and corporate interests above Honduran democratic integrity.”
          http://harvardpolitics.com/united-states/us-honduran-coup/

          • backwardsevolution
            October 18, 2016 at 3:16 pm

            evelyn – good article on the Honduras coup. I didn’t really know much about it, and now, because of you, I know a little bit more. Thanks. Same goes for Colombia, after reading Jonathan’s article. Lots of corporate interests and politicians working behind the scenes to bring about regime change. These leaders who want to do good things for their countries are continually thwarted by outside interests. Terrible.

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