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Latin America

Colombia's peace deal: What comes next?

The package of bills and reforms from the peace process is now on hold after Colombian voters narrowly rejected a referendum on the accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
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3 Oct 2016 – 06:29 PM EDT
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Tens of thousands of weapons used by Colombia's leftist rebels were set to be melted and fashioned into three monuments – in Colombia, Cuba, and New York – to mark the end of 52 years of a brutal war.

That's how confident both sides were in the outcome of Sunday's plebiscite on the country's recent peace accords. But those monuments won't be erected, at least not anytime soon. The war in Colombia is not yet over.

During four years of peace talks in Havana, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest rebel group, negotiated an agreement that would have allowed the rebels to leave the jungle, re-enter society and form a political party.

The peace accord was heralded by the international community as a global model of reconciliation and transitional justice. Besides giving up their guns, the FARC also pledged to abandon the nation's lucrative cocaine business.

But ultimately, too many Colombians couldn't swallow the prospect of former fighters holding political power and dodging time behind bars for their human rights atrocities.

A public referendum was not required by law, but President Juan Manuel Santos wanted the historic deal to be publicly ratified. So voters were asked Sunday whether or not they supported "the final agreement for the termination of the conflict and a stable and lasting peace." About 50.2 percent of voters selected 'no,' while 49.8 percent voted in favor. A staggering 63 percent of registered voters did not cast a ballot.

And just like that, 297 pages of bills, reforms and plans inked over four years were left hanging in the balance, with no legal validity.

The result was unexpected, and left in its wake big questions about what's next in the war-torn country where peace had finally seemed feasible. Santos, whose term ends in mid-2018, declared Sunday night that he'll continue seeking peace, but admitted he has no "Plan B." The future of the rebels is now unknown. The United Nations had set up a monitoring and verification mechanism with over 200 international observers ready to start work in Colombia, now unsure what to do.

"We are in a political limbo, a legal limbo," Ariel Ávila, assistant director of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, told Colombia's El Espectador newspaper on Monday morning.

Santos and FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez, alias 'Timochenko', promised that the ceasefire between both parties would remain in place.

On Monday, the Colombian government ordered negotiators back to Havana to begin discussing next steps. Santos invited Colombia's opposition leaders to an emergency meeting. But former President Álvaro Uribe, a right-wing conservative and the loudest 'no' supporter, didn't even attend the meeting.

Virginia M. Bouvier, senior advisor for peace processes at the U.S. Institutes of Peace, tried to give a positive spin to the news. "It’s common for processes to have these setbacks," she said. "But all parties have attempted to find a solution moving forward. People want resolution and peace, the question is what the terms of that resolution will be."

A new round of negotiations

It’s highly unlikely that a new agreement will be easy or quick to negotiate. A renegotiated peace deal would seem to hinge now on the FARC accepting tougher sanctions. In recent weeks, Uribe waged an aggressive campaign against the agreement, arguing that its acceptance would turn Colombia into a "Cuba or Venezuela." His 'no' supporters said the deal was too lenient on the rebels, who should be harshly prosecuted.

Adam Isacson, the senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said the ideal short-term measure would be a new timeline for renegotiation.

“In the best-case scenario, the parties will quickly agree on a new agenda for renegotiation,” he said. “You need momentum. It has to appear there's an agenda in place and that people are moving in a disciplined way towards it.”

But accommodating Uribe and his 'no' supporters would mean a shift from "negotiations of mutual concessions to one that's really terms of surrender," Isacson said. "And it's not clear FARC will agree to that."

The accord's so-called "transitional justice" element took 19 months to negotiate, and was lauded by the international community. Under the deal, FARC fighters who committed or ordered atrocities but confessed their crimes would have avoided serving their sentences in jail, instead performing "community service" projects, like clearing landmines.

The guerrilla group still has 6,000 fighters in the field at 22 locations around the country. Without a clear direction for their future, they could turn violent again, Isacson says.

Prospects of a war renewed

Colombian journalist Daniel Coronell, who is vice president of news for Univision, says he fears that will mean a "new impulse towards war."

The current conflict in Colombia dates back to the outbreak of civil war in 1948. In 1964, the FARC was born as a leftist agrarian movement, which the military promptly tried to eradicate. May 1964 marked the beginning of the violent conflict between the government and the FARC, which has left more than 8 million victims, among them 283,000 dead, 29,000 kidnapped and 7 million displaced people. The vast majority of victims have been in remote rural areas.

On Sunday, the majority of voters in those areas supported the peace deal. Municipalities where some of the worst guerrilla violence took place, like Bojayá, Mitu, and Tumaco, enthusiastically voted yes to end the conflict.

Peace has been tried many times before.

"After every failed peace process, there's an immense wave of guerrilla attacks," Coronell said, adding this time was likely to be no different. "It’s very hard for me to say this, but I think an erosion of the ceasefire will be gradual and irreversible."

Coronell worries about the growth of dissident FARC fighters. In July, FARC expelled its so-called First Front, after the unit said it would refuse to demobilize with the rest of the organization, perhaps foreshadowing more criminalization to come. The First Front is centered in the remote eastern departments of Guaviare, Vaupés and Guainía, in an important coca growing region.

"The [First Front] is only 100 men right now but that could grow to 2,000 by the end of the month," Coronell said. "Part of the problem now is that the FARC leadership has lost credibility with their troops."

In the lead-up to the vote, the government itself maintained that renegotiation would be nearly impossible. Ex-president César Gaviria, head of the 'yes' campaign, told Colombia's Semana magazine recently that any renegotiations would have to happen under another government.

"It’s hard to say it, but we'd return to war," he said.

Humberto de la Calle, the government's head negotiator, offered to resign Monday. Before the vote, he had suggested that it could be 10 years until the two sides sit down again at the negotiation table should 'no' win.

"In world history, like in the Arab-Israeli conflict, you see that the groups return to their radical positions and that any transitional gain is lost," De la Calle said in a recent interview on Blu Radio.

Uribe's comeback

Many saw Sunday's result as Uribe's victory, who considers Santos – Uribe's former defense minister – "a traitor" for negotiating with the FARC.

Uribe criticized the international community Sunday, and said he was hurt by the fact that countries like Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Spain and the United States had participated in the peace negotiation, claiming they were supporting "impunity" for the world's largest cocaine cartel.

Bouvier says Uribe's participation is key going forward. "Uribe is a key now in whether or not violence resumes," she said.

Because the referendum result leaves Santos with little political power to broker a new deal, next steps for implementing an accord would likely fall to legislators.

Rescuing the peace deal

After the results came in Sunday, Former judge Augusto Ibañez suggested taking a constitutional route by convening a national constituent assembly with a variety of participants.

Negotiators could also send a version of the peace deal directly to Congress, where many legislators have expressed support for the accord.

The FARC could not unilaterally go ahead with the agreement, even if it wanted to, as its members are technically fugitives.

Now that there’s no accord to implement, the United Nations mission may be unnecessary.

“I guess those observers are going home,” Isacson said.

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