Colombia Needs a Plan B for Peace

No we can't.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

To widespread dismay, Colombians voted on Sunday to reject an agreement that might have ended Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict -- a decades-long insurgency that has taken more than 220,000 lives, displaced more than 10 percent of the country’s people, and inflicted enormous economic damage.

The upset underlines the risks of government by referendum -- as if further proof of those hazards were needed. The important questions for Colombia now are these: What went wrong, and what happens next?

Many Colombians apparently felt that the deal struck by President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC rebels was too generous to the insurgents. Rather than punishing the widely detested group, the proposed agreement guaranteed it political representation.

Such concessions when conflicts are wound up are always hard to swallow, but are often the lesser evil -- as in this case. The alternative to coming to terms with the rebels was not victory, but more years of violence. Colombia’s army has been capturing and killing FARC revolutionaries for half a century, yet the war has ground on. Despite some recent gains, a military end to the conflict was not in sight. Setting aside 10 seats out of 272 in Colombia’s parliament for two terms was an affordable price to pay for peace.

And it’s unclear, in fact, that most Colombians disagree. The turnout for the referendum was low -- roughly two-thirds of the electorate stayed home -- and the margin of victory for the No side was narrow. Hurricane Matthew didn’t help, depressing turnout in areas that had earlier helped Santos win re-election. Official complacency also played a part: Pre-referendum signing ceremonies and hoopla featuring the likes of Bono, Ringo Starr, and numerous heads of state may have led Colombians to think their votes didn’t matter.

The result is hard to read for another reason. The underlying politics is complicated -- no simple matter of elite opinion clashing against populist anger, or of FARC’s victims on one side against the blithely unaffected on the other. The No voters included wealthy landowners, led by ex-President Alvaro Uribe, whose families and fortunes have suffered in the fighting, and whose economic interests were threatened by the agreement’s provisions. At the same time, in some of the areas that had suffered the worst FARC massacres, the rural poor voted overwhelmingly for peace.

The fact remains, an agreement reached after four years of talks, with the widespread support of the international community, is now in limbo. Santos has reached out to leaders of the No campaign and ordered his negotiators back to Cuba, which hosted the talks and helped to broker the deal. For now, the FARC’s leaders have pledged to maintain a cease-fire. There’s hope the agreement can be modified and revived.

If so, the government would be wise to seek a way for the legislature to consider it without another popular vote. With or without another referendum, though, any revised agreement will need to be sold more effectively to a country paying closer attention.

Colombia has many other problems to address, from a burgeoning cocaine trade to a yawning budget deficit. Economic inequality, a forbidding geography, and the vast gap between those who live in the cities and the countryside all cry out for attention. Without a peace agreement, healing those divisions will be not just difficult but impossible.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.