Colombia Votes NO Amid Polarization and Misinformation

imagesColombia voted NO in a referendum on the peace agreement signed by the government of President Santos and the FARC, after four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba. The NO vote won in a close decision on the question: “Do you support the final agreement for the termination of the conflict and the building of stable and lasting peace?” The margin was 50.21% of the votes (6,431,376) against, with 49.78% of the vote (6,377,482) in favor.

What’s at stake?
In recent years, the Santos adminstration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached an historic agreement on six main points:

  1. A comprehensive agrarian reform that involves the restitution of lands to peasants whose lands were usurped by different actors in the conflict, including powerful ranchers and farmers who used paramilitaries to displace and kill hundreds of people.
  2. Political participation that includes granting ten seats total in the Senate and the House of Representatives to members of the FARC, which in no way represents a structural change to the legislature, nor gives the guerrillas the necessary force to implement major changes in the Colombian political system.
  3. The end of armed conflict, a bilateral ceasefire and a final laying down of arms. This agreement and the process that the parties had already begun implementing during the talks led to a reduction in homicide rates in the last three years to the lowest levels in nearly two decades.
  4. Solution to the problem of illegal drugs through crop substitution programs, drug-use prevention, public health and supply reduction.
  5. Victims of armed conflict, truth, justice, reparation and the creation of a special jurisdiction that places priority on the victims and the truth.
  6. Affirming the agreement by the instrument defined by the Constitutional Court–the referendum held over the weekend. The referendum has political effects but does not have not legal implications.

Did the desire for war win?

Although the media presented it as a decision between support for peace or the continuation of the war in Colombia, the fact is that the debate was over a peace agreement forged in Havana, according to official spokespersons, precisely to prevent the interference of the press because it was considered an obstacle in previous peace processes.

Perhaps the lack of clear communication in everyday and familiar language for the poorest people in Colombia, in conjunction with the spread of misinformation, lies and fear, led many to vote against the referendum. The extreme right promoted arguments with wild claims like approving the agreement would turn Colombia into a “Castro-Chavista” country, would bring communism or atheism, that farmers would lose their land because it would be turned over to the FARC, or that workers would be stripped of their pensions.

A high percentage of landowners in Colombia do not have land titles and the possible agrarian reform poses a risk to those who illegally obtained their land at the hand of paramilitaries. Meanwhile, the political participation of the FARC did not sit well because it does not remedy a structural problem in a political system that does not represent the majority of the country; Colombians made it known with 62.57% abstention on the referendum, which sends an alarm signal to those who supported NO to the peace agreement.

Polarization inherited from the war

The way the results of the peace referendum were handled was very similar to the 2014 presidential campaign, when Juan Manuel Santos and Álvaro Uribe’s candidate faced off. Santos won 50.98% of the votes, against 44.98% for Zuluaga, the Uribista candidate. Abstention was 52%.

For the referendum, they used the same worn out, political-electoral dispute between the YES represented by Santos and the NO represented by Uribe. Uribe once again impeded Colombians from broadly understanding the peace agreements and their importance and limitations, and reduced the debate to a media antagonism between two electoral opponents.

Perhaps for this reason, the media narrowed their analysis by reducing sources to the communications of the Santos negotiating team and what the “opposition” headed by Uribe had to say. The impressions and doubts of the millions of Colombians who live in the most war-torn regions were practically silenced over the past years, but they were skillfully manipulated to further polarize the country.

There is grassroots rejection of the FARC by citizens who have been victims of atrocities such as kidnapping, armed takeovers of villages, extortion and land mines, although such practices were used equally by paramilitary groups that are responsible for the largest number of massacres in the history of Colombia. But the YES vote won in the regions that have the largest number of war victims and have suffered the brunt of FARC attacks, compared to central regions of the country where NO won, in part due to an aggressive media campaign of misinformation, stirring the hatred that has been in the country for decades.

There is an authentic rejection of different armed actors in Colombia, but as a result of the armed conflict there is also a lot of fear: of being poorer, of losing what little they have, of difference in the uniformity of the war. The rejection of the agreement between the government and the FARC by 50% of voters cannot be read as an apology to a war that has claimed more than 7 million victims and 81,000 missing, according to official figures.

The way forward

Until Oct. 2, in Colombia there was an atmosphere of triumphalism among those who believed the referendum would pass. Given the electoral results, today’s landscape is one of confusion among political analysis and polling firms that did not accurately predict any outcomes.

Nevertheless, the FARC have said they will stay on the path to peace. It would be a historical blunder that the government and the ultra right-wing opposition party let pass this historic opportunity to end, once and for all, the longest armed conflict the continent.

The real challenge now lies is in civil society organizations, which must find a strategy that can bring on board the citizens who seem to have no interest in this peace process.

NGOs and traditional grassroots leaderships remain in the same historical dynamics that require now more than ever new languages to overcome individualism and the frustrations of political and economic opportunism.

The mobilization called by different sectors and led by youth brought more than 80,000 people out in Bogota and thousands more in cities throughout the country. The recent declarations of Juan Carlos Velez, a former senator, member of the Center Democratic Party and NO coordinator, that the NO vote was based on promoting indignation, not information among the citizenry, revealed an environment where lies and misinformation are common. People are upset that the peace process is getting more complicated, and that it seems some want to put it off as part of Uribe’s strategy for the 2018 presidential elections.

Only time and the capacity of a broad citizens’ strategy will show if the political and electoral interests will win out or the noble cause of a society tired of the violence.

It is a matter of connecting in a sincere and profound way with those who have suffered and survived the war, to open spaces so that they would be the leaders of a country that demands real transformations despite having the highest levels of social inequality in Latin America after Haiti.


Alex Sierra, (Colombia) Columnist, is an Anthropologist and has worked as a researcher and independent consultant on topics related to human rights, international development cooperation and public policies in Colombia. He has conducted work in the areas of armed conflict and among vulnerable communities in his country during the last 14 years.