Photo: Voters react to the results of the plebescite. Photo by James Bargent
“Sí se puede.” It starts out as a gentle reassurance, there is still hope. “Sí se puede!” With more urgency now, a pleading to have faith. “SÍ SE PUEDE!”He screams it into the microphone, a battle cry for peace, for not giving in to violence and hatred. But though there is a call, there is little response. A few defiant shouts break through the shell-shocked murmur of the crowd, but nothing more. After over a half a century of war and four years of negotiations, Colombia cannot bring itself to believe in peace.
The old man in the all-white suite and hat with his bright “Sí” badge, who just moments before had been boisterously celebrating a new dawn, now just seems sad and ridiculous. The white flowers the crowd clutch, which had stood proud as piercing symbols of change, now seem to droop, frozen awkwardly in the hands of people who do not know what to do. The results are in, and a slim majority has voted not to end the half-century-old war between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). They can’t believe it. And neither can I.
I have spent six years living in Colombia. Six years trying to understand its suffering and its resilience. Trying to pick apart its dark, tangled webs of politics, business, war and crime. Trying to comprehend how the limits had been lifted on violence, how a country of warm and sharing people could have turned on each other with such savagery. For four of those years, I have also been trying to understand what the word peace means to Colombia, how Colombians conceptualize something most have never experienced, how it could work, why it might not. And as with everything I have learned in these six years, I thought I understood, until I realized I had barely scratched the surface.
It was close enough to keep hope hanging on to the 99th percentile. In the end, 49.8 percent voted to approve the peace deal struck by government and FARC negotiators, and 50.2 voted against. There was less than 60,000 votes between them.
The grievances of the “No” camp were not difficult to comprehend. It is not right, they said, for war criminals to be punished with no more than “restricted liberties” and restorative justice work schemes. But while it may be not be right, it was an inevitable compromise. The FARC members guilty of crimes against humanity were never going to submit themselves to common justice. No conflict where no one is militarily defeated ends with one side’s leaders rotting in prison for the rest of their lives.
The “No” campaign’s laments about transitional justice were also tellingly partial. Their leaders only talked about the guerrillas’ many crimes. Not the crimes against humanity committed by the military, the police, their paramilitary allies and their civilian leaders and paymasters. Not those committed by the administration of the peace process’ loudest critic, ex-President Alvaro Uribe, who has seen numerous members of his inner circle and family members arrested or flee the country due to charges of collusion with death squads and drug traffickers. Half a century of war not only makes many victims, it also leaves very few innocents. If all the guilty were to disappear from Colombia, little would remain of its political, economic and social elites or of its security forces. Instead, the country was presented with an opportunity to learn the truth of how it had fallen so low and to learn to forgive so it wouldn’t again.
But in the end, Colombia’s endless cycles of war, which stretch back far beyond the formation of the FARC, are a story of revenge. The blood stained figures that sit astride Colombian history almost all began as victims. Nearly every ex-combatant I have spoken to has a story of how first they suffered murder, displacement or violence and only then they took up arms for protection and for payback. Perhaps it is unfair, but it is hard to look at the “No” vote’s rejection of transitional justice and understand it outside of this context. Do they want justice, or do they want revenge?
It is also understandable why voters rejected the second most polemical part of the accord – the FARC’s political participation through their guaranteed representation in congress for the next two electoral cycles. They have earned a seat at the table through arms and that is not a sign of a functioning democracy.
But Colombia is not a functioning democracy, and armed politics has long been a reality. It is a country where an entire political party was exterminated in a political genocide, a country where paramilitaries co-opted up to a third of congress. A country where leftists and anti-corruption campaigners are threatened and murdered but Alvaro Uribe, whose election as president was funded by paramilitary warlords, is untouchable.
Bringing the FARC into congress would not be bringing arms into politics, but taking them out. Two election cycles is a long time to watch war criminals playing politics. But it is far better than watching them play war. And in the end, if they had not convinced people they could transform into a positive force for change, then they would pass away into history. They would not have made for a formidable power bloc, instead they would likely have been shunned and stigmatized. But let them try, and then let the Colombian people decide. An agreement with no political path for the FARC only has a path leading back to violence.
However, perhaps the greatest obstacle to peace wasn’t the obstinacy of the “No” camp. It was cynicism and apathy. We cannot say half of Colombia was for peace and half was against because over half of Colombia did not vote at all. Turnout in the plebiscite was just 37 percent.
When the peace deal was formally announced, we received messages from friends and family back home. It must be incredible to be there right now, they said, are there street parties? No street parties. No sign of anything changed, just the normal hum of daily life, the normal faces going through the normal ranges of emotion. Did anyone care? It didn’t seem like it. That is not an easy thing to grasp. Everyone in Colombia has suffered from the conflict in one way or another, even if it was only from the shared pain of national tragedy. But that suffering manifests itself not only in pain but also in cynicism, a population weary of the violence and lies of people speaking noble words. That cynicism has now metastasized into apathy.
This is their peace? It was a remark I heard over and again in the run up to the vote. I heard it from a neighbour complaining about violence and crime in Medellin. I heard it from a striking miner with a t-shirt wrapped around his face and a stick in his hand, moments before we fled a barrage of tear gas canisters fired by riot police. I heard it from a man whose friend was gunned down in the street because the company he worked for wouldn’t pay extortion.
And they are right. It is not peace. Colombia is not at peace and it will not be at peace no matter what happens with the FARC. There are still guerrilla armies, neo-paramilitary groups, drug trafficking networks, street gangs and corrupt elites, and they will continue to look for easy loans online and wealth and power through extreme violence. The scourge of poverty and inequality that has fuelled the fighting over the years remains firmly in place.
But there are questions I have not yet heard answered from those flinching from the white shirts, silver dove pins and photogenic handshakes between enemies. Is this not better than what there is now? Would this not remove thousands of fighters from the battlefield, save thousands of lives and result in thousands of children not being sucked into war before they have a chance to live? Is there not even a chance this could build a platform to tackle these other sources of conflict, or at the very least free up resources to do so? What plan do you have that is better?
In the end, I can’t understand. The “No” campaign says it is too simplistic to say it was a vote for war or peace, that they too want peace, just on the right terms. The abstainers say they also want peace, just a real peace, not the illusion offered to them by liars and killers. Their grievances and concerns are legitimate. But I just can’t see it any other way. Colombia had the chance to end a half century of war. And it said no.
James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in the city of Medellin. He has reported on Colombia for a range of publications including the Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, the Miami Herald, the London Independent and the Toronto Star.