Kenneth Frankel is the president of the Canadian Council for the Americas.
With apologies to Sophocles, not many Colombians seem to love the messenger who brings good news. That says as much about the messenger as it does about the wannabe oracles and the legacy of a gruesome 50-year armed battle with moral certainties mottled in dark grey tones rather than highlighted in chiaroscuro effects.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Aug. 24 that after four years at the negotiation table, the government and the FARC guerrillas, the largest and most vexatious of the country’s armed insurgent groups, had signed a historic peace agreement. The internal conflict has left 220,000 killed, 45,000 disappeared and seven million internally displaced. For context, using 2016 numbers, this would equal 162,000 Canadians killed, 33,128 disappeared and 5.2 million displaced.
The signing of the agreement is the first step in a national reconciliation and remediation process that could take 25 years to implement fully. The first tangible result was the announcement by both parties last week that the FARC fighters and 480,000 Colombian soldiers have ceased hostilities.
The next major step will be a plebiscite called for Oct. 2. Colombians will have two choices: Vote sí or vote no for the 297-page peace agreement, which is widely acknowledged to be the world’s state-of-the-art accord for settling internal disputes. Polls predicting the outcome vary widely and Colombian analysts agree that the result is in limbo.
An outsider might scratch his head wondering how Colombian voters could consider rejecting the opportunity to move beyond a national nightmare. The Pope has blessed it and it has received the support of United Nations General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon among others.
Part of the indecision has to do with the terms of the agreement, particularly the judicial and political treatment of FARC commanders who committed atrocities and other crimes. Those who reject the accord understandably decry provisions that leave open the possibility that the commanders who confess to their crimes would receive a punishment as light as community service. It would also grant them complete political rights, including the right to sit in Congress.
But this doesn’t fully explain the polemics surrounding the peace accord. The other parts have to do with the way Mr. Santos practises politics and the way political feuds in Colombia often turn into an annihilation derby.
Renowned for his poker-playing prowess, Mr. Santos pushed his chips to the centre of the table shortly after assuming the presidency in 2010. The former defence minister who waged war on the FARC guerrillas during the presidency of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, bet his legacy on ending the conflict. He did so with a relentless determination in the face of unyielding skepticism by citizens whose previous, hopeful attempts for peace had been dashed.
But poker players sometimes run out of good cards to play before the pot is divvied up. Mr. Santos, clinging now to an upgraded 30 per cent approval rating, plays a wheeler-dealer style of politics that has alienated many of the people who should support the peace agreement. He has few chips to call in to assure that they do.
Eager to capitalize on Mr. Santos’s political weakness and oppose the peace accord is Mr. Uribe, who desperately wanted to deliver the peace during his eight years in office. The two share a level of enmity that only jilted confidants can.
So, for some, the vote for the peace agreement is seen as a referendum on Mr. Santos. For others, a vote against the accord is viewed as a sign of support for Mr. Uribe, who enjoys a 60 per cent approval rating.
There is no plausible alternative to the peace accord, as much as the “no” proponents would try to convince otherwise. There is no military solution. Few believe that the FARC and the extensive international support team that worked overtime for four years would reassemble to renegotiate new terms. And few believe that there was a much better deal on the table if only the government’s team had been better negotiators.
Humberto de la Calle, the government’s very able chief peace negotiator, described the momentum to succeed at the negotiating table shared by all parties as an escalator ride upward in which there was no possibility of walking back down. The only way to escape before reaching the top would have been to throw yourself over the guardrail.
That is Colombia’s choice.Report Typo/Error
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