(CNSNews.com) – Colombian voters have thrown into disarray a recently-signed peace deal with Marxist rebels, narrowly voting down an accord which critics say capitulates to terrorists and will deny justice to victims of the “Western Hemisphere’s longest war.”
The unexpected outcome of Sunday’s referendum – 50.2 percent of votes opposed to the deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and 49.7 percent in favor – is a setback for its champion, President Juan Manuel Santos, and a victory for his predecessor and rival, former President Alvaro Uribe, who campaigned against it.
Critics argue that the agreement negotiated over four years would let FARC off lightly for a half-century long insurgency that has cost more than 200,000 lives. The group, which has been a U.S.-designated “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997, financed a long and deadly campaign with drug money and kidnapping ransoms.
The “transitional justice” component of the deal, the critics say, will allow FARC rebels who admit to carrying out atrocities to get off with little more than limited and temporary restrictions of movement. The same will apply to military and paramilitary figures who confess to abuses.
And rather than treat FARC as a defeated enemy, the agreement allows it to transform itself into a political party – with state funding – and even guarantee it 10 seats in the country’s two chambers of congress through the next decade.
In a bid to justify the promises of immunity, Santos has argued that an insistence on full justice will never allow for peace.
The official truce was signed last week by Santos and FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez (“Timochenko”) in Cartagena, in the presence of keen supporters of the agreement including Cuban President Raul Castro and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Despite its flaws, many Colombians welcomed the agreement as a way for a country long plagued by violence to move forward, and polls in the run-up to the vote had suggested the “yes” vote would easily win (by a 62-38 percent margin, according to one poll just days ago.)
Although the turnout was low, less than 40 percent, enough voters cast ballots to make the referendum valid. (The requirement was support for the deal from at least 13 percent of the electorate.)
What happens now that Colombia’s voters have rejected the initiative – albeit it by a small margin – is unclear, as is the future of a ceasefire that came into effect just weeks ago. Also in question is what will happen about the planned U.N.-supervised disarming of more than 5,000 FARC fighters.
In August, the Santos government’s chief peace negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said it would be “catastrophic” if the referendum did not endorse the agreement, and noted that previous Colombian peace initiatives had taken years to recover from failures.
Speaking on Colombian television after the results were announced, Santos said the two sides would meet Monday in Havana, Cuba – where the marathon negotiations were held – to discuss a way ahead. In the meantime the ceasefire would hold, he said.
FARC reacted to the result with a brief statement saying that it “deeply regret[s] that the destructive power of those who sow hatred and rancor have influenced the opinion of the Colombian population.”
“With today's result, we know that our challenge as a political movement is still bigger and requires being stronger to build a sable and lasting peace,” it said, reiterating that it continues to support the peace process.
“To the Colombian people who dream of peace, count on us,” the group said. “Peace will triumph.”
Last August Douglas Farah, senior visiting fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations, cautioned in an essay that FARC may use the peace process to wage “economic and political warfare” aimed ultimately at taking and holding onto power in Colombia, like its leftist “Bolivarian” allies in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
He expressed doubts that the group would genuinely embrace democracy or dismantle clandestine, criminalize structures developed during its long insurgency.
Meeting with Santos on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month, President Obama praised what he called an “achievement of historic proportions.”
But, writing on the eve of the referendum, Fraser Institute economic consultant Fergus Hodgson called Obama’s praise for the Colombia peace accord “naiveté and wishful thinking.”
He said there was a reason Uribe had rejected concessions to FARC when in office.
“He understood that there was no common ground, and that the FARC would renege on any agreement,” said Hodgson, who is also a research fellow with the Tax Revolution Institute in Washington. “Colombia yearns for peace, but she need not capitulate before Latin America's most bloodthirsty guerrillas.”
In a tweet after the results were announced, Hodgson called it a “great day” for Colombia.
Obama early this year pledged more than $450 million to help Colombia implement the peace agreement.
The administration’s FY 2017 budget request included $187.3 million in economic support funds, $143 million in international Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement funds, and $38 million in foreign military financing for Colombia.
“Helping Colombia consolidate its peace accord implementation would cement a major bipartisan U.S. foreign policy success and position Colombia to expand its support for U.S. foreign policy priorities, including regional security cooperation,” the budget justification stated.