The Colombian people voted in early October 2016 to reject a peace agreement negotiated by the government and the Marxist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end their 52-year war. The national referendum asked voters the following question: “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and construct a stable and enduring peace?” 50.21 percent voted “No,” while the remaining 49.78 percent voted “Yes.” The margin of difference was just 53,894 votes. The turnout was low, at just 37 percent of the country’s 34 million eligible voters. The low turnout was reportedly due to “extreme tropical rain, mostly in coastal departments where ‘yes’ won handily.” However, the low turnout could also have been due, as we shall see, to unhappiness among Colombian citizens stemming from their perceptions of injustice in the terms of the peace agreement (Grandin, 2016; Cobb & Casey, 2016).
The rejected peace agreement, which was the result of four years of negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC representatives in Havana, Cuba, had proposed “reforms aimed at bringing the rebels into the political system, addressing drug trafficking through crop substitution and allowing for reduced prison sentences for rebels who lay down their arms.” The agreement included “a system of reparations for victims of the conflict” as well as a system of “transitional justice” that would “allow combatants to avoid jail time in exchange for full and honest participation in a truth and reconciliation process” (Carasik, 2016; Duran, 2016; Cobb & Casey, 2016).
Senator Álvaro Uribe, who was Colombia’s president from 2002 to 2010, led the opposition to the peace agreement, successfully reframing the “vote that was supposed to be on peace into a vote on the FARC.” Uribe, whose father had been murdered during a botched kidnapping attempt by the FARC, argued that “the agreement was too lenient on the rebels,” whom he suggested “should be prosecuted as murderers and drug traffickers.” Uribe’s “No” campaign struck a chord with the “many Colombians who had endured years of kidnappings and killings by the rebels.” As one “No” voter complained about the agreement: “It’s not fair for them not to go to prison without repentance … These murderers should pay.”
In short, the “No” campaign “wanted FARC commanders to get jail time for their crimes, face prohibition from entering Congress and forfeit ill-gotten land and money” (Duran, 2016; Grandin, 2016; Cobb & Casey, 2016; Forero & Vyas, 2016). Many of the “No” voters also strongly opposed political provisions in the peace agreement that would have granted the FARC “nonvoting representation in the legislature through 2018,” as well as the guarantee of “5 seats in the 106-member senate and 5 in the 166-member lower chamber over the next 2 election cycles” (Carasik, 2016). Senator Uribe and the “No” campaign warned that “letting the FARC into congress risked turning Colombia into far-left dystopia like neighboring Venezuela” (Forero & Vyas, 2016).
The anger of the “No” voters stemmed from their traumatic experience of the extreme violence of the FARC insurgency, which featured “massacres of civilians by the rebels, paramilitaries and the state” (Duran, 2016). As Cobb and Casey (2016) recount:
“The war left brutal scars in Colombia. About 220,000 people were killed in the fighting, and six million were displaced. An untold number of women were raped by fighters, and children were given Kalashnikov rifles and forced into battle … In the end, the war lasted so long that it might have been difficult for many Colombians to forgive the FARC.”
The involvement of the FARC in Colombia’s illegal narcotics industry also contributed to the nation’s history of violence. The FARC have long admitted to being involved in coca cultivation, the precursor to cocaine production, and the government estimates that the group earns almost USD 1 billion per year “from the production and sale of cocaine in Colombia.” Recent estimates of the scale of coca cultivation in Colombia indicate an expansion to between 69,000 and 159,000 hectares in the country. The government has also accused the FARC of trafficking cocaine overseas, including the United States and Europe, accusations which the FARC has denied. Nonetheless, drug profits have become a key source of revenue for the rebels, allowing the FARC “to buy weapons, uniforms, and supplies and to recruit fresh troops.” However, drug wars “between the FARC and illegal right-wing paramilitary groups over coca fields and drug smuggling corridors has been a key factor in the conflict’s extreme levels of violence, forced displacement and land grabs.” Experts have hence noted that drug profits are “the fuel that feeds the conflict” (Otis, 2014, p. 2; Acosta, 2016; Murphy & Acosta, 2013).
Given the numerous atrocities that were committed by all sides during the FARC insurgency, Human Rights Watch (HRW) supported the “No” campaign. José Miguel Vivanco, the director of HRW’s Americas division, warned that under the agreement the “perpetrators — in the FARC and the military — of human-rights violations would receive immunity” (Grandin, 2016). Kenneth Roth (2016), HRW’s executive director, tweeted after the vote that: “Looks like Colombians aren’t so eager to premise ‘peace’ on effective impunity for FARC’s and military’s war crimes.”
The rejection of the peace agreement raises questions of whether China, which is Colombia’s second-largest trading partner, will want to increase its investments in the country.
Following the rejection of the peace agreement, the leaders of the “No” campaign have stated that “it was time to negotiate more stringent terms with the rebels,” including “harsher punishments for FARC members, especially those who had participated in the drug trade.” Rodrigo Londoño, the commander in chief of the FARC, reiterated that the FARC are not interested in resuming war, and that the referendum result showed that their “challenge as a political party is even greater and requires more effort to build a stable and lasting peace.” The government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos likewise reiterated that it will not resume war, and government negotiators have returned to Havana to discuss with their FARC counterparts how best to move forward. The Santos government has also opened discussions with the opposition politicians who led the “No” campaign.
In the meantime, the demobilization timetable for the FARC rebels will no longer be followed. If the peace agreement had won approval by the Colombian voters, the rebels were to have left “their battle camps for 28 ‘concentration zones’ throughout the country, where over the next six months they would hand over their weapons to United Nations teams.” The demobilization of the FARC and the end of the insurgency now await fresh negotiations (Cobb & Casey, 2016). However, experts warn that the FARC may simply abandon future negotiations should the Uribe faction succeed in removing the government’s offers of amnesty and political participation. As Professor Roddy Brett from Universidad del Rosario points out, “Those conditions were utterly fundamental for the negotiation and for the peace accords to be signed … You don’t lay down your arms to go to prison” (Alpert, 2016).
The rejection of the peace agreement raises questions of whether China, which is Colombia’s second-largest trading partner, will want to increase its investments in the country. Colombia is an attractive investment destination given its prime geographic location in South America. As Jairo Muñoz (2016) notes, “Colombia has port cities in the Pacific and can serve as a doorway to the rest of South America; with proper infrastructure it can become a strategic entry point for Chinese products and influence.” Indeed, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang included Colombia in his inaugural tour of Latin America in May 2015, during which he and President Santos “signed cooperation agreements in a range of economic sectors including agriculture, finance, industrial manufacturing, infrastructure, and science and technology,” and moved forward the process towards the establishment of a Sino-Colombian Free Trade Agreement (Lim, 2015a). Existing Chinese investment projects in Colombia include the construction of a USD 3 billion industrial park in the major port city of Buenaventura, which is expected to generate 45,000 jobs when completed, as well as the construction of road connecting the Orinoquia region with the coast, which will “make the Meta River — along which the road will run — navigable so as to spur agricultural development” (Gonzalez, 2015).
It is true that Colombia presents security issues for foreign investors, including the Chinese. As Ellis (2014) recounts:
“Chinese companies operating in Colombia have faced significant problems from extortion and other activities by criminal and terrorist groups. The best-known case was the June 2011 kidnapping of three Chinese, working for the oil sector subcontractor Great Wall Drilling, which was supporting the operations of the Chinese-owned company Emerald Energy in Caquetá … In Bogotá, Chinese employees of the telecommunications Huawei were victims of an express kidnapping while eating lunch in an affluent area just several blocks from their company’s Colombia headquarters facility.”
However, Chinese firms have a global reputation for having a significantly large risk appetite, which can be seen in their willingness “to undertake megaprojects in some of the world’s most dangerous regions,” including projects in Pakistan and Somalia (Lim, 2015b). Even so, the additional costs of hiring private security guards to protect their employees will have to be factored into these firms’ cost/benefit analyses of their investments in Colombia, and Colombia has developed a reputation in China of being “a dangerous, if exotic land, with more warnings about Colombia put out by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Commerce than for any other country in the region” (Ellis, 2014). The security dividends which had been expected from the successful implementation of the Colombian government’s peace agreement with the FARC, including the benefits from the FARC’s divestment from the narcotics trade, would have gone far in raising the profile of Colombia as a safe venue for foreign direct investment. However, all that is now on hold pending the Colombian government’s negotiation of a new peace agreement with the FARC.
Acosta, L. J. (2016, April 12). FARC rebels involved in drug trade despite peace talks: police. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-rebels-drugs-idUSKCN0X92JF
Alpert, M. (2016, October 3). There is no Plan B for the FAR deal. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/10/farc-colombia-uribe-santos-peace-referendum/502703/
Carasik, L. (2016, September 7). Will peace bring justice to Colombia? Boston Review. Retrieved from http://bostonreview.net/world/lauren-carasik-colombia-farc-peace-accords
Cobb, J. S. and Casey, N. (2016, October 2). Colombia peace deal is defeated, leaving a nation in shock. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/03/world/colombia-peace-deal-defeat.html
Duran, P. (2016, October 1). Colombians see vote as a means to secure peace, if not justice. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/world/americas/colombians-see-vote-as-a-means-to-secure-peace-if-not-justice.html
Ellis, E. (2014, October 27). New developments in China-Colombia engagement. The Manzella Report. Retrieved from http://www.manzellareport.com/index.php/world/910-new-developments-in-china-colombia-engagement
Forero, J., and Vyas, K. (2016, October 3). Former president who fought Colombia’s peace deal holds key to its future. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/former-president-who-fought-colombias-peace-deal-holds-key-to-its-future-1475522967
Gonzalez, E. (2015, June 9). China eyes infrastructure investments in Colombia. Americas Society / Council of the Americas. Retrieved from http://www.as-coa.org/blogs/bogota-2015-blog-china-eyes-infrastructure-investments-colombia
Grandin, G. (2016, October 3). Did Human Rights Watch sabotage Colombia’s peace agreement? The Nation. Retrieved from https://www.thenation.com/article/did-human-rights-watch-sabotage-colombias-peace-agreement/
Lim, A. C. H. (2015a, May 28). Latin America and China’s ‘new normal.’ Eurasia Review. Retrieved from http://www.eurasiareview.com/28052015-latin-america-and-chinas-new-normal-analysis/
Lim, A. C. H. (2015b, August 20). Chinese perspectives on Obama’s 2015 visit to Africa. Eurasia Review. Retrieved from http://www.eurasiareview.com/20082015-chinese-perspectives-on-obamas-2015-visit-to-africa-analysis/
Muñoz, J. (2016, September 13). Will China make the most of Colombia’s peace deal with FARC? The Diplomat. Retrieved from http://thediplomat.com/2016/09/will-china-make-the-most-of-colombias-peace-deal-with-farc/
Murphy, H., and Acosta, L. J. (2013, April 22). FARC controls 60 percent of drug trade—Colombia's police chief. Reuters. Retrieved from http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-colombia-rebels-police-idUKBRE93L18Y20130422
Otis, J. (2014, November). The FARC and Colombia’s illegal drug trade. The Wilson Center. Retrieved from https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Otis_FARCDrugTrade2014.pdf
Roth, K. [KenRoth]. (2016, October 3). Looks like Colombians aren’t so eager to premise “peace” on effective impunity for FARC’s and military’s war crimes. http://bit.ly/2dChD9F [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/KenRoth/status/782710795436163072