It took​ four years for the Colombian government and the Farc – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – to reach the peace agreement signed earlier this year. President Juan Manuel Santos insisted that putting the deal to a referendum would give it legitimacy and silence the far-right party Centro Democrático, which is masterminded by the former president Álvaro Uribe and had opposed the negotiations from the outset. No one I knew was betting on a No vote on 2 October. At a barbecue in Bogotá forty people, many of whom had been working to promote the peace deal around the country, made bets on the result: we put the Yes vote at somewhere between 65 and 80 per cent. Many of us were members of the network Rodeemos el Diálogo (‘Embracing the Dialogue’); we’d been on the road for months, holding talks and workshops about the agreement convened by teachers’ unions, lawyers’ collectives, universities, farmers’ associations and victims’ organisations. Despite Santos’s unpopularity, we felt that the work had paid off. We were wrong. Sixty-three per cent of eligible voters abstained: indifference was clearly the majority position. But in terms of votes cast, the polarisation of Colombian opinion is dramatic. In the final count 50.2 per cent opposed the deal.

In half a century of conflict 220,000 have been killed by the guerrillas, the army, and the paramilitary death squads, which emerged in the 1980s as civilian self-defence contingents and worked with the army, often in conjunction with drug mafias. At least six million people have been displaced. The government has tried, and failed, to negotiate peace with the Farc on three occasions since it took up arms in 1964 to overthrow the government and create a socialist state. Finally, on the fourth attempt, which produced the Havana Accords last August, the Farc agreed to lay down their weapons and participate in the democratic process. As president, Uribe had avoided terms such as ‘war’ or ‘conflict’, preferring to say that Colombia had an internal terrorist threat that required a firm security response. When Santos took office in 2010, he formally acknowledged the existence of an internal armed conflict, which meant that international humanitarian law applied and could provide a framework for negotiations between the government and its adversaries. In October 2012, when the negotiations began, the parties announced a six-point agenda. Experts from Northern Ireland, the Philippines and South Africa were consulted. Cuba, Norway, Chile and Venezuela chaperoned the talks; delegates from the US and the EU took part.

Unequal land distribution was largely responsible for the emergence of the Farc, and land-grabs by paramilitary groups and businessmen worsened the problem. In response to the first of the six points, an agreement was made to create a land fund of three million hectares for landless farmers, and to formalise land titles on another seven million: underdevelopment and forced displacement have left many smallholders without deeds to their properties. Development plans were drawn up for the worst affected regions, with the input of local communities. The other points dealt with a wide range of issues, among them access to the political process and the media for communities affected by the conflict, a pact designed to end the use of violence for political ends, and security assurances for all parties, including the one that will be formed by what’s left of the Farc and its supporters after it has disbanded. (A leftwing party, the Patriotic Union, emerged in the mid-1980s from negotiations between the Conservative president Belisario Betancur and the Farc, and many Colombians joined it, but in the years that followed five thousand of its members were assassinated by an alliance of paramilitaries, politicians, drug traffickers, landowners and the army.)

The accords also establish mechanisms for dismantling criminal and paramilitary groups via the creation of an elite police force, a special investigation unit, and a review of the institutional failings – the inadequacy of background checks on civil servants who have been involved with death squads or human rights violations, for instance – that encouraged the spread of paramilitary groups in the first place. The ceasefire arrangements involve tripartite monitoring by the Farc, the army and the UN, and a six-month period during which the Farc is to deposit its weapons under UN supervision in 27 camps across the country. Measures for bringing the movement and its members back into civilian life include ten guaranteed seats in Congress for their future party, and economic support for ex-members over two years. The drug economy also comes under scrutiny. The Farc has admitted to involvement in drug trafficking, and pledged to help the government eradicate illicit crops, but the accords also provide for a crop substitution programme as part of a broader agricultural reform package: many small farmers currently grow coca in order to survive. Concrete plans to reduce drug trafficking, combat the cartels, curtail money laundering and treat extensive local drug use as a health issue rather than a crime, have also been signed off by both parties.

Point five envisages a three-year truth commission and a special unit to investigate the disappearance of more than 45,000 people. The existing reparations system will be strengthened. Colombia is the first country to negotiate a peace deal since the creation of the International Criminal Court, and as a party to the Rome Statute, it is obliged to investigate and try those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. An amnesty clause will absolve members of the Farc who are guilty only of rebellion, but a tribunal will investigate crimes committed by the Farc, the army, the paramilitaries and others, including some landowners who are implicated in human rights crimes and forced displacement. If you acknowledge your crime, you’ll do five to eight years of community service (rebuilding damaged infrastructure, working on demining programmes). If you’re slow to acknowledge it but do so before sentencing, you’ll get five to eight years in jail. If you refuse to acknowledge a crime of which you’re found guilty, you could go down for twenty years.

So what is wrong with these accords that foresee almost every obstacle on the road to stability, and call for the truth commission’s report to be incorporated into the school curriculum as a lesson to future generations? The main sticking point is their complexity. Many – possibly most – Colombians didn’t entirely understand this legalistic text, which is 297 pages long. It was easy to misinterpret, and the No campaign did a lot of misinterpreting and outright lying, in pamphlets handed out at traffic lights, at public question-and-answer sessions, and, crucially, in posts on WhatsApp and Facebook. By contrast, when I talked to people face to face about the contents of the deal they were quick to see its strengths.

Many myths have been circulating. That Farc members would receive 1.8 million pesos – about £500 – per month to do nothing. In fact, they will receive 90 per cent of Colombia’s minimum wage, 620,000 pesos (about £170). That no one would be charged with crimes against humanity. In fact, the attorney general of the ICC commended the accords for not granting amnesties on crimes under international law. That Santos is leading the country towards a Castro-Chavista socialist state. That Santos is destroying the family by imposing homosexuality. This is a wild spin on the negotiators’ gender sub-commission, which looked at the differential impact of the conflict on women and the LGBTI community: a first in global conflict resolution. Conveniently, just before the No campaign was launched, a fake copy of an education ministry manual about gender discrimination, with images of a gay couple in bed inside it, did the rounds. In August 35,000 people joined a demonstration protesting that ‘gender ideology’ was going to ‘turn’ their children gay. Many of the same activists, often influenced by church leaders, joined the No campaign.

Other rumours: pensions to be docked by 7 per cent to pay for the Farc’s integration into society; an onerous peace tax; cuts in the military; capital flight. Above all, the electorate was promised that a No vote was still a vote for peace, pending a renegotiation of the points they did not like. But the deal hung on all six points being agreed: the government and the Farc could not cherry-pick. Both parties also stated plainly that a renegotiation was impossible. Post-referendum, it looks as though some kind of compromise will have to be made. Uribe’s objections were couched in rhetoric about the state not negotiating with terrorists, but his real aim is to sideline the political party that will replace the Farc. Uribe is seeking to regain power in the 2018 elections. He will try to renegotiate certain points, aiming to limit political participation for the Farc and to treat members who committed crimes less leniently. In these circumstances, the best outcome would be a compromise which allowed the No campaign to feel that its demands had been addressed: more severe treatment of the Farc’s crimes (‘No peace with impunity’ is the key refrain of the Nos), and fewer guarantees – for instance, the ten congressional seats – for the political party that succeeds it. But it’s not clear that this could happen without the deal falling apart.

The clock is ticking and the world is watching: presumably the Nobel judges honoured Santos five days after the referendum to endorse the accords and signal to Colombia that it must not let this opportunity slip away. Uribe may well try to spin things out while he gains political strength; if negotiations drag on, mid-level Farc commanders might lose faith in their leaders’ capacity to negotiate the deal, and in the government’s ability to guarantee its promises. The Farc could split under this kind of pressure. Peace activists on the ground in conflict regions are now receiving threats from paramilitary groups, along these lines: ‘We are glad the communist agreements have not been passed; now we are going to kill all peace activists, who are really guerrillas in disguise.’ The referendum has reaffirmed the gap between city and countryside: most No votes came from urban areas unaffected by warfare. A great majority of the places most affected by the conflict voted Yes. In Bojayá, where Farc commanders publicly apologised for a 2002 massacre when they bombed a church full of civilians, 95 per cent voted for the peace plan.

The day after the vote, I got a message from Algeciras, a small town we visited during the campaign, where the Farc had bombed a block of houses. Only the façades were standing, with government soldiers camped behind them. When we arrived the town was firmly for No: they argued that Uribe and his administration had managed to beat the Farc back from their area. ‘In the midst of our sadness,’ the message read, ‘we want you to know that your grain of sand paid off. Algeciras voted Yes.’

7 October

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