- - Monday, October 3, 2016


On Sunday, Colombians stunned the country’s political establishment by voting down a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The pact lost by a razor-thin margin, 50.21 percent to 49.78, but it was a rejection all the same.

There’s no doubt that Colombians overwhelmingly want an end to their country’s 52-year-long conflict with the Marxist rebels, but, in the end, most found the terms of this deal to be unacceptably generous toward FARC.

To finance its interminable guerrilla war against the Colombian government, FARC adopted methods that terrorized the country. They collaborated with Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, forcibly “recruited” children into their ranks, and scattered land mines throughout the countryside. Extortion, kidnappings and bombings were the tools of their trade. Ultimately, they are responsible for the deaths of 220,000 Colombians and the displacement of 6 million more.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos wasn’t the first to negotiate with the FARC. From 1999 to 2002, then-President Andres Pastrana talked with the rebels. He met initial success, negotiating a demilitarized “safe space” roughly the size of Switzerland. But when it became apparent that FARC wished only to prolong further negotiations until it could to regroup, Mr. Pastrana broke off the talks.

Mr. Pastrana’s successor, Alvaro Uribe took a different approach. With U.S. support, his “democratic security” strategy militarily defeated FARC.

Possessed of that strong position, Mr. Santos reopened peace talks in 2012. But the deal he reached fell short of the people’s expectations.

For one thing, it recognized FARC as a legitimate political party — and guaranteed the group three seats in each chamber of Congress, with that number slated to increase to at least five each in the 2018 elections.

Also unpopular was the issue of “transitional justice.” The deal would have created a new judicial system for FARC fighters, one in which many crimes would be regarded as political rather than criminal. FARC combatants would face prison only for “major” crimes, with the criteria for making that determination as yet undisclosed.

Moreover, countless FARC members would have been made immune to extradition to the U.S., despite active warrants. Sunday’s vote ought to not be interpreted as Colombia’s support for the continuation of a conflict. Rather, Colombians rejected a flawed deal that guaranteed impunity to the FARC.

Colombians were also leery of putting their future in the hands of Cuba and Venezuela — the designated guarantors of the peace process. Both governments’ are longtime FARC allies and supporters of their Marxist ideology.

To support the deal required blind faith in the disarmament of 7,000 combatants, all of whom maintained full control of their weapons and munitions going into the referendum.

They also retained all their money. In 2014, Forbes magazine ranked FARC as the third richest terrorist group, trailing only the Islamic State and Hamas. The Colombian government estimates FARC’s drug-trafficking revenues at $2.4-3.5 billion annually.

Much like Brexit, the political establishment in Colombia expected a guaranteed win. Shortly before the vote, Mr. Santos hosted regional heads of state for a triumphant signing-of-the-accords celebration. The subsequent rejection of this sweetheart deal leaves much uncertainty about the future.

FARC leadership has declared it remains committed to peace and supports continuation of the cease-fire while a new deal is negotiated. It’s unknown whether their rank-and-file fighters share those sentiments.

FARC negotiators have already been forced to abandon many issues central to their cause, such as overhauling the country’s capitalist structure and “foreign ownership of land.” They appear unwilling to make further concessions.

Mr. Santos tied his legacy to reaching a peace deal. As a result, he gave away much of the government’s leverage. But on Sunday, four years of unilateral and unpopular concessions took a back seat to the Colombian people’s skepticism about the FARC.

To obtain a deal that ensures peace and gains the backing of the people, The Santos administration must change its overly conciliatory nature.

Ana Rosa Quintana is a policy analyst in the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

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