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Power Over Peace in Colombia

Proponents of Colombia's peace deal underestimated their opponents' strength and failed to mobilize their own base.

The crowd in a rally supporting the peace process in Bogotá, Colombia on June 20, 2016. Agencia Prensa Rural

Considerable ink has been spilled over the results of the October 2 plebiscite on the peace accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Decided by the thinnest of margins, “no” prevailed by just under .3 percent, or 53,900 votes out of 13,066,025.

How are we to make sense of this outcome, and what does it mean for the prospects for peace in Colombia? How will it affect mobilization from below and the building of a new, independent left? And, most puzzlingly, why did almost two-thirds of potential voters (62.6 percent) stay home rather than weigh in on the most important issue facing the country?

There can be little doubt that in political terms, the historic bloc led by former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe was victorious, and the bloc led by Uribe’s former minister of defense and current president, Juan Manuel Santos, vanquished. It is equally certain that the two differ hardly at all on the fundamentals: both favor a militarized, export-based extractive economy powered by free trade and foreign and domestic investment, closely tied to US markets.

As in the 1930s, the weakness of the Colombian left has pushed it into Santos’s camp — despite its critique of Santos’s neoliberal economic policies. The Right, meanwhile, has rooted itself in the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Protestant sects, led by Miguel Arrázola.

In his quest to secure the referendum’s passage, Santos had assembled an impressive array of supporters: the country’s largest conglomerates, business associations, the United States and the United Nations, a decisive sector of the Colombian military high command, professors, students, cultural producers, feminists, LGBTQs, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, a range of rural producers’ movements, victims’ rights movements, and even former right-wing paramilitary commanders.

But the peace deal could not contend with the organization of Uribe’s political machine and its ubiquitous message: that the accords would let the FARC get away with murder, thereby turning the country toward “Castro-chavismo.” Private property and the patriarchal family were said to be threatened by the FARC’s and the government’s proposal to create peasant reserve zones, their commitment to more equitable gender relations, and their willingness to accept alternative genders and sexualities.

As in the 1930s, the Right successfully equated political liberalism with godless, libertine communism in a country with a large number of mobilized religious fanatics — perhaps with greater success today than eighty years ago.

In retrospect, perhaps the most shocking thing about Uribe’s victory is that neither the supporters of the accord — signed by Santos and the FARC on September 26 — nor those opposed, ever contemplated it as a real possibility. So no one had made contingency plans for what followed.

There are a number of reasons why this is surprising. First, Uribe’s candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, ran against the peace process and won the first round of presidential elections in 2014 by more than 3 percent (Santos triumphed in the second round by just over 6 percent, with 50.95 percent of the vote). The Uribe-led right gained about 500,000 votes, while Santos lost around 1,500,000, compared to the second round in 2014.

Second, Uribe’s home city, Medellín, and the region of which it is the capital, Antioquia, are reliably reactionary, and carry great demographic and political weight; with over 60 percent voting “no,” Uribe’s stronghold made the difference between victory and defeat, even though the former president’s machine delivered fewer votes there than in 2014.

Third, the two private media conglomerates, RCN and Caracol, campaigned against the peace process, apparently to considerable effect. The support of print media — Santos’s family owns the country’s most important daily newspaper — amounted to little more than preaching to the educated, literate, middle-class choir.

And fourth, those in favor of the accords did not have the requisite time, resources, or infrastructure to persuade desperately poor people on the urban peripheries — nearly all of which are undeclared war zones between local youth gangs involved in retail drug sales, and/or between contending factions of organized crime that employ some of them — that the peace accords’ implementation would bring benefits to all.

In the long run, Colombia’s future will be decided in these zones — that is where a majority (or close to a majority) of Colombians live. Organized crime, youth gangs, and their corollaries — extortion, narcotics, homicide — along with grinding poverty and precarious access to public services and waged employment in the licit economy, define everyday life beyond the reach of state sovereignty.

The US-backed Plan Colombia helped create this world, forcibly displacing residents as the war escalated. This is ironic, both because the scheme was designed to reduce drug traffic and because Washington and Bogotá repeatedly trumpeted the plan’s success in bringing legitimate central government institutions to regions and territories formerly off-limits.

Yet in most of these territories, neither the FARC nor the central government has ever ruled, much less with legitimacy. (Municipal governments, needless to say, haven’t been up to the task of state-building either.) Although urban peripheries in Latin America have expanded apace in recent decades — to the point where the border between city and country has become a continuum — only in Colombia have insurgency and counter-insurgency hastened, as in a hothouse, the emptying out of the countryside.

The cities haven’t come out well in the process. The cycle of primitive accumulation, characterized by violent dispossession and proletarianization — which Uribe led regionally (as governor of Antioquia from 1995–97) and nationally (as president from 2002–2010) — has born perverse fruit in the form of frightened, desperate, poorly educated, and un- and underemployed people in hyper-violent urban frontier zones. These people are highly susceptible to the siren song of right-wing demagoguery about the FARC, particularly through the Evangelical sects. And no independent left exists to win them over or to address their problems.

For this sector, the “no” vote represented not only a rejection of the accords, but also, and perhaps more significantly, a way to manifest their opposition to Santos’s economic management, which has left them in circumstances so precarious as to constitute a permanent crisis.

We do not know how widespread or influential the “no” vote was on the urban periphery. But anecdotal evidence from the eastern sector of Cali, where most of the city’s two thousand annual homicides occur, suggests it was both. Unless and until a broad urban left materializes — one that is independent of the country’s rural insurgencies yet linked to its powerful rural movements, and capable of rearticulating relations between the city and the country — state and society, along with region, race, and nation — Colombia will likely remain at a catastrophic impasse, evenly divided between progressive neoliberalism and regressive neoliberalism.

Certain Uncertainty

In large measure, the electoral map of the second round of the 2014 presidential elections overlaps with that of the plebiscite. In addition to the regions they took in 2014, Uribe and Zuluaga won Arauca, Santander, and Northern Santander (including the capital cities of Bucaramanga and Cúcuta), which they had won in the first round in 2014 but not the second; they lost Boyacá, Guaviare, Vichada, and Amazonas, as well as the Pacific and Caribbean lowlands.

The regions that the Right won are at the heart of Colombia’s petroleum- and mining-based export economy; those it lost are peripheral coca, African palm, and bio-fuel frontiers (except Boyacá, which they lost by less than 1 percent). This was especially noteworthy along the northern Caribbean coast, a stronghold of Cambio Radical and Partido de la U, two of the three parties in Santos’s governing coalition: in spite of the 7 percent margin of victory for “yes” in Barranquilla, the department of which it is the capital delivered half the number of votes for Santos that it did in the second round in 2014; “no” registered nearly thirty thousand more votes in 2016 than Zuluaga did two years ago.

Though torrential rains may have played some role in keeping potential voters home — 5 to 10 percent turnouts in Gabriel García Márquez’s hometown of Aracataca and the banana zone of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta suggest as much — voter participation was also low in the southwest, which opinion polls forecasted to deliver 85 percent of the vote for Santos.

In Cauca and Nariño, two of the departments most affected by the war between the counter-insurgent Colombian state and the FARC insurgency, respective vote totals were 77,253 and 94,438 lower than in 2014.

In other words, had Santos maintained the levels of support he had in these regions in 2014, he (and the peace accords) would have secured a larger victory than Uribe and Zuluaga did. But people who voted for Santos in 2014 did not turn out, presumably because they hold Santos’s government responsible for deteriorating conditions.

In Valle de Cauca, for example, backed by the mayor and the governor, Santos won Cali by 4 percent and the department as a whole by 2 percent. But he registered 198,419 fewer votes than in 2014, whereas Uribe and Zuluaga won in a range of municipalities throughout the department, especially in the northern section (such as Ginebra, Rio Frío, Tuluá, Restrepo, Cartago, and Alcalá) contiguous to the coffee axis, which also voted “no.” In Palmira, to the north of Cali, and Buenaventura, located west of Cali on the Pacific, forty-five thousand fewer people voted “yes” than cast a ballot for Santos in 2014.

While Uribe’s campaign was united and disciplined through his party, the Centro Democrático, Santos’s campaign, was carried by seventeen different parties that failed to coordinate and cooperate with one another: in the crucial region of Santander, two of the pro-accord forces tussled for control.

It is an oft-repeated cliché that Colombia is a country of regions with a weak central government in Bogotá. Similarly, one of the leading syntheses of modern Colombian history refers to the country as a nation in spite of itself.

This extreme fragmentation, coupled with a weak but arrogant political center, has always favored oligarchic domination at the regional and local levels. But no group of entrepreneurial elites, whether regional or sectoral, has established hegemony by exercising moral and political leadership with respect to other groups of elites, much less working- and middle-class Colombians. Nor have social movements, trade unions, insurgencies, or left political parties ever built counter-hegemony beyond regional and local horizons.

Thus the answer to the first question — how did this happen and what does it mean? — as well as the third — why did so many people stay home? — must be sought in the fractured nature of sovereignty and political power, the consequent importance of regional and local patronage networks rooted in land ownership and public office, and the widespread perception that a range of urgent socioeconomic problems that have grown worse under Santos were not discussed in Havana.

As for the second question — what does this mean for the prospects of an independent urban left? — it is too early to say.

Indeed, it is not yet clear what the “no” vote means for the future of peace. Both the US and Colombian governments are betting on increased investment flows and exports of petroleum, minerals and metals, and agricultural commodities in the post-accord period, and it is hard to see how fifty-four thousand votes could change this projected course.

But it could. Uribe is demanding the renegotiation of key points (particularly those concerning transitional justice), while the FARC has said that the accords are final and binding. Santos, represented by Chancellor María Ángela Holguín, has said that the FARC holds the keys to the future if they are willing to renegotiate.

In what would appear to be a bone thrown to Uribe and his supporters, Santos has also declared that the bilateral ceasefire is valid until October 31, and the FARC’s commander, alias Timochenko, has asked for clarification about the prospect of returning to war, while reiterating the FARC’s commitment to demobilize as per the accord.

For now, the only certainty is nerve-wracking uncertainty.

Still, despite the victory for “no,” there are rays of light in the variety and scope of mobilizations from below in cities and countryside. And there is ample reason to hope that the democratic momentum building around peace and national reconstruction cannot be turned back so easily.

On Wednesday night, overflowing crowds demonstrated for peace in plazas across the country. The best hope now is that such pressure will continue to build, shifting the dynamics of horse-trading and backroom negotiations already underway between Uribe, Santos, and the FARC.