WOLA’s Adam Isacson weighs in on the results of Colombia’s plebiscite, and lays out possible next steps for the peace process. Mr. Isacson was on the ground in Colombia during the plebiscite, monitoring voting with the Carter Center.
“The horrible night has ceased,” a tearful Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on September 26, quoting a line from his country’s national anthem. He was speaking before an audience of world leaders—the UN Secretary General, several Latin American presidents, the U.S. Secretary of State—at a joyful ceremony in the Caribbean port of Cartagena, where he and leaders of the FARC guerrilla group signed an accord to end a 52-year-old war.
A week later, it looks like the “horrible night” will go on for at least a bit longer. By a razor-thin margin, Colombians voted October 2 to reject the peace accord. The result confounded pollsters’ predictions and leaves the South American country wondering what comes next.
That is impossible to predict: during the plebiscite campaign, the government made clear that it had no “Plan B” if the accord was rejected. President Santos’s brief concession speech the evening of October 2 made clear that no plan exists.
A return to war is not inevitable. The FARC’s leadership says it will continue to seek peace. The leading proponents of the “no” vote, especially former President Álvaro Uribe, say they want dialogue with the Santos government on a “better” accord. Still, in the new post-plebiscite reality, those who seek war are more likely to get it.
In the best-case scenario, the parties will agree quickly on a new agenda, taking into account the concerns of Colombia’s political right, with a clear timetable. They will move determinedly in a process that revises the accords in a matter of weeks.
A Sobering List of Consequences
If this does not happen, however—in even a “medium-case” scenario in which the negotiations don’t collapse but suffer delays or a sense of drift—Colombia faces a grim list of negative outcomes.
A Shift to Surrender Negotiations?
Did Colombian voters know about these risks before they voted “no” (or in the case of 63 percent of voters, failed to vote at all) on October 2? Some did: a minority believe that the solution lies on the battlefield, and that the negotiations were premature. But many others believed that their “no” vote was a vote for a better peace accord.
Opponents said that voting “no” would force the government and guerrillas to renegotiate a pact with stronger punishments for guerrillas and soldiers guilty of war crimes. If such talks proceed in Havana, they will push for prison time for FARC leaders (perhaps similar to the five to eight years given to paramilitary leaders after they demobilized in 2006), rather than the nebulous “restriction of liberty” punishment laid out in the accords.
Opponents of the peace accord will also push to rescind the government’s concession of 10 automatic congressional seats (5 in the 102-person Senate and 5 in the 166-person House) for FARC members between 2018 and 2026. They also wish to reduce the ambitious scope of promised investments in rural development programs, which Ex-President Uribe insists Colombia can’t afford.
A renegotiation that waters down these government concessions would result in an accord that looks more like terms of surrender. This is only possible if Colombia’s government is in a position to demand surrender. That is far from clear. For Colombians in urban areas, who have not strongly felt the conflict’s impact in years, perhaps a surrender negotiation seems like the way to go. But consider:
These are not characteristics of surrender negotiations. The FARC has no chance of taking power on the battlefield. But it still has wealth and the capacity to carry out hostilities in many regions throughout Colombia. A renegotiation on tougher terms is not a certainty. (Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle, who tendered his resignation the morning of October 3, seems to recognize this.)
Needed Now: Clarity and Momentum
The way forward is not clear. But it needs to become clear soon. A situation of drift and crisis is unsustainable, and could lead to an outcome that the vast majority of Colombians do not want: either a collapse of the talks and a return to war, or a disintegration of the FARC into structures that would be impossible to demobilize.
As soon as possible, renewed talks need an agenda, possibly a timetable, and a sense of what is achievable.
The U.S. government’s role is not central here, but it is still important. The administration and Congress must send clear signals that they continue to support President Santos’s negotiation effort, and that they desire a quick resumption of talks with a new and achievable agenda. It is at crucial moments like these that the flexible, supportive role of Special Envoy Bernie Aronson is most important. To the extent that diplomatic efforts can help get things back on track, Washington should spare none.