Some are comparing the surprising rejection by Colombians of a peace accord with the FARC guerrilla movement as another Brexit-like rebellion. There are certainly resemblances: The accord was pushed by a liberal-minded elite that saw it as a means to put their country’s violent past behind it, open rural areas to development and attract more trade and foreign investment. They had the endorsement of a global cast ranging from President Barack Obama to Raúl Castro and Pope Francis. Pollsters, who predicted an easy win for the yes vote, were blindsided.
The causes of the referendum’s failure, however, probably had less to do with resistance to Colombia’s modernization and globalization than with its success. The severe threat the insurgency once posed to the country receded years ago, in large part because of an intensive U.S.-backed buildup and professionalization of Colombia’s armed forces. A large majority of those living in areas where the war with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, continues supported the accord, but residents of big cities other than the capital, Bogotá, rejected it. More than 60 percent of voters failed to turn out.
In short, a lot of Colombians appeared to calculate that there would be little consequence for rejecting the relatively generous concessions to FARC leaders negotiated by President Juan Manuel Santos. Ordinary citizens far from the jungles where the FARC had its bases and cocaine-trafficking operations felt safe in rejecting the billions of dollars for land reform and subsidies to ex-fighters; reserved seats in Congress for a Marxist-Leninist party with scant popular support; and light consequences for FARC leaders who confessed to war crimes. Opposition was validated by the popular president who preceded Santos, Álvaro Uribe, who led the military offensive against the group as well as the no vote campaign.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the naysayers’ logic seemed vindicated. Both the government and the FARC immediately announced that a cease-fire would remain in place and talks reopened. FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño said it would “use only words as a weapon to build toward the future” — and militant leaders who favor renewed warfare may find few fighters to follow them.
The problem is that Colombia’s sprawling countryside, with its concentrated landownership and lack of infrastructure for crops other than coca, needs the reforms that were built into the peace deal. Without them, violent drug-trafficking gangs and other criminals will continue to dominate the landscape and terrorize the population, whether or not they call themselves revolutionaries.
At best, the pact might be revised to provide for tougher treatment of FARC leaders guilty of crimes, while continuing to pardon rank-and-file fighters. But Londoño and his clique stoutly resisted such accountability through years of negotiations. Santos could also try to push the accord or a slightly amended version through Congress in spite of the referendum, which was nonbinding. Better, however, to accept democracy’s verdict, and look for another way forward.