Peace deal plebiscite defeated - what next for Colombia?

On Sunday, October 2, Colombian voters rejected the agreement between the government and the FARC guerrillas “for the end of the conflict and the building of a stable and lasting peace.” Jorge Martín explains the process leading up to the referendum and what this will mean for the future of the class struggle in Colombia.

The NO vote won by the smallest of margins, less than 54,000 votes out of a total of over 13 million, with the lowest turnout in a national election in 22 years. The agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government had the full support of US imperialism, the European Union, as well as the Venezuelan and Cuban governments and was supposed to put an end to 52 years of war. What were the contents of the agreement? Why was it rejected? What will happen next?

The history of the FARC

The FARC were originally established in 1964 but its origins can be traced back to the Bogotazo uprising in 1948.

FARC commanders during the Caguan peace talks 1998-2002 - DEA Public Affairs FARC commanders during the Caguan peace talks 1998-2002 - Photo: DEA Public Affairs.html The Bogotazo was sparked by the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a very popular left wing anti-imperialist politician. Gaitán became prominent for his denunciation of the 1928 massacre of United Fruit banana workers, in which up to 2,000 strikers were killed by government forces. Gaitán was a mass leader fighting against both the Liberal and Conservative parties and set up his own Revolutionary Left National Union (UNIR) party. Later on he decided to push for his ideas within the Liberal Party. In 1946 he was the presidential candidate of the left of the Liberal Party standing against both the Conservative candidate and the Liberal Party official candidate. He came third, but managed to win in most of the urban areas, where he had won the support of workers and the important sections of the middle class, with his attacks on the oligarchy and his programme of social justice, Agrarian Reform and anti-imperialism.

Alfonso Cano FARC - US State Department Public Domain Alfonso Cano, assassinated FARC leader - Photo: US State Department/Public Domain In 1947, the Liberal party won the parliamentary election and Gaitán supporters had a majority within the Liberal parliamentary faction. That meant that he became the leader of the party and its presidential candidate for the 1950 election. The oligarchy was in panic at the prospect of Gaitan taking power. A violent campaign started in which activists and leaders of Gaitan’s movement were being assassinated.

On April 9, 1948, Gaitán was assassinated in broad daylight in the capital Bogota. That led to a nation-wide uprising of the popular masses against the conservative government which they blamed for the killing.

Then followed ten years of an undeclared civil war between the Liberal and Conservative parties, known as La Violencia (The Violence) in which the Liberals established guerrilla organisations and peasant self-defence. The Communist Party was also active at that time within the peasant self-defence organisations as a response to the white guard violence of the landowners.

By 1957-58, the Liberal and Conservative party leaders decided to put an end to their conflict and signed the National Front agreement. Many of the peasants involved in the conflict refused to accept what they saw as a betrayal of their leaders. Some were inspired by the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959. An alliance between communist and liberal guerrillas continued the struggle by forming the Republic of Marquetalia. This was in fact a small area of land defended by a group of 44 armed men, led by Manuel Marulanda Tirofijo and Jacobo Areas. It was the brutal and disproportionate smashing of this small enclave by the army which led to the formation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1964. Their program was one of struggle for Agrarian Reform through the confiscation of the latifundia and the distribution of the land to the peasants.

Thus, the FARC guerrillas were rooted in the social conditions existing at the time in Colombia: the extreme inequality in the distribution of land and the brutal violence of the landowners and the state (with full backing of US imperialism). Most of these conditions have barely changed over the five decades since the founding of the FARC and has provided the organisation its endurance.

The history of previous failed attempts at peace agreements between the Colombian state and the FARC and other guerrilla organisations has also played an important role. In 1985-86 the FARC and other left wing organisations attempted to set up a legal political organisation, the Patriotic Union (UP) as part of peace talks with President Betancur. The UP quickly became the country’s third party and its support was growing amongst workers and peasants. The ruling class could not allow that to happen. In the space of a few years two of its presidential candidates, eight congressmen, 13 MPs, 70 local councillors, 11 local mayors and about 3500 of the party’s members were assassinated in a concerted campaign which became known as the “Red Dance” (el baile rojo), carried out jointly by the state and paramilitary groups to prevent the UP from developing.

In 1990, a separate peace process led to the demobilisation of the M19 guerrillas which then stood in the elections. Their presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, was killed in broad daylight in Bogotá by hired guns.

Again from 1998 to 2002, during the administration of President Pastrana, there was another attempt at peace negotiations with the FARC, a recognition that the guerrilla organisation controlled large areas of the country and could not simply be defeated by military means. Those negotiations also collapsed amidst mutual recriminations.

By that time, the illegal drug trade had already become big business in Colombia. The narcos infiltrated large sections of the bourgeois state and the capitalist political parties. They also set up their own armed gangs to defend their businesses. Progressively these paramilitary groups fused with local white guards created by the landowners and cattle ranchers forming a powerful alliance with 30,000 men in arms, known as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (Colombian United Self-Defence) carrying out the most brutal crimes against anyone suspected of guerrilla sympathies, left wing activists, trade union and peasant organisers, etc.

According to some figures, out of 250,000 people killed during the conflict, 80 percent were assassinated by the paramilitaries. No amount of words can describe the particularly brutal methods used by the paracos. Not happy with simply killing their opponents, they perpetuated massacres in rural communities and used chainsaws to dismember the bodies of their victims who on many occasions were still alive. In many instances they operated in conjunction or with the acquiescence of the state forces (police, Army, secret service).

Plan Colombia: US imperialist intervention

At the same time, the United States stepped up its intervention in the country through Plan Colombia, under the excuse of the War on Drugs. What started under the guise of “development aid” and “fomenting crop substitution” quickly became a full scale intervention with a total bill of $10 billion. That’s just the open and legal side of US intervention. Plan Colombia was accompanied by a covert operation involving CIA operatives, “contractors” (read mercenaries) and others, involved directly and training the Colombian Army in the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read torture), targeted killings of guerrilla leaders and even the illegal invasion of Ecuador.

A 2013 article in the Washington Post provided some details about this little known side of US imperialist intervention in Colombia: “By 2003, U.S. involvement in Colombia encompassed 40 U.S. agencies and 4,500 people, including contractors, all working out of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, then the largest U.S. embassy in the world.” (Covert Action in Colombia)

The very dynamics of the need to finance a large guerrilla army, pushed the FARC towards methods which undermined its own basis of support, from levying a “tax” on businesses (including narcotics production and trafficking) in the areas where they were active, to terrorist attacks on infrastructure and even civilian targets, kidnapping for ransom, and so on. This was skillfully used by the state to launch a propaganda campaign which had an impact amongst certain layers of the population.

In the context of heavy repression by the army, the police, the intelligence service and the paramilitaries (all acting in unison), the strategy of guerrilla warfare effectively cut the FARC off from the movement of workers and youth in the cities and even to a certain extent from sections of the peasantry. In the 1960s, at the time of the founding of the FARC, the rural population represented 55 percent of the total population in Colombia. Today it has declined to less than 25 percent. This massive rural exodus has been partly due to the violence in the countryside, which has displaced approximately seven million people, but also the normal process of development of capitalism which has also gone on in other Latin American countries.

Álvaro Uribe - Center for American Progress -Álvaro Uribe - Photo: Center for American ProgressThe election of Alvaro Uribe as president in 2002 marked a turning point. He represented the interests of the rotten Colombian oligarchy, based on the cattle ranchers, narco traffickers and was backed by the paramilitaries. His aim was simple: to smash the FARC by whatever means necessary. He wanted to “make the country safe for capitalism” and for that reason he counted on the support of the main capitalist groups in Colombia, as well as the United States government and multinational corporations.

Even the Washington Post described Uribe’s policies in extremely grim terms: “With U.S. backing, the Colombian government launched a scorched-earth counter offensive against the FARC’s rural strongholds after President Álvaro Uribe was elected in 2002. Government troops were often followed by right-wing militias that targeted suspected rebel sympathizers and massacred civilians. More Colombians were driven from their homes during the first stages of Plan Colombia than at any other time in the half-century conflict.” (‘Plan Colombia’: How Washington learned to love Latin American intervention again)

The combination of paramilitarism, Plan Colombia, US intervention and widespread human rights abuses on the part of the Army had the effect of severely weakening the FARC and their ability to continue fighting. In a series of high profile actions, many of its leaders were killed.

Uribe’s presidency ended amidst multiple scandals: “parapolitics” linking him and close political allies to paramilitary groups, illegal wiretapping of political opponents by the DAS secret service and finally the “false positives” in which army units would kill civilians and then pass them off as guerrillas.

Movement against false positives - Protest against "false positives" - Photo: Uribe’s removal from power in 2010 when he was succeeded as president, by his former Defence Minister Santos, was another turning point. While they are both reactionary capitalist politicians, they come from and represent different sections of the Colombian ruling class with different strategies. Uribe represented the landowners and cattle ranchers whose conflicts with rural farmers were at the root of the creation of the guerrillas. They created and financed the blood thirsty paramilitary groups which used terror to defend the interests of the oligarchy. Their strategy to achieve peace was to annihilate the guerrillas by any means necessary.

Santos on the other hand comes from a wealthy capitalist family in Bogotá, representing that wing of the ruling class which views the guerrillas as an obstacle for further capitalist “development” and imperialist plunder. Santos recognised that while cornered, the FARC would not be completely defeated. His strategy was to achieve peace by bringing the guerrillas into civilian life.

On the other side, the FARC realised that after 40 years of armed struggle they were no closer to achieving their aims. On the contrary, their forces were constantly being reduced, their support amongst the population diminished and their leaders taken out one by one. That was the basis for the current peace process, which started in 2012.

The experience of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela played an important role in pushing the FARC towards a different strategy, away from guerrillaism and towards a mass movement participating in elections. For the Cuban leadership, brokering this deal was also a demonstration of good will which opened the way for the reestablishment of relations with the US.

What does the peace agreement consist of?

If one looks at the details of the peace agreement (full text in Spanish) we can see that its essence is the demobilisation of the FARC in order to make the country safer for foreign investment, including agriculture.

The first section of the agreement deals with agrarian reform. The distribution of land in Colombia is extremely unequal, thus being the main root cause of the conflict which gave rise to the guerrillas over five decades ago. According to a recent Agricultural Census, 0.4 percent of land owners control 46 percent of agricultural land, while 70 percent of land owners have amongst them only 5 percent of agricultural land. In the last 20 years, 10 million hectares of land have been wrested from their previous owners, in the main taken over by large landowners from small peasant farmers. In rural areas, 65 percent of the population live under the poverty line (30 percent in the cities) and 33 percent are extremely poor. In the countryside, 60 percent have no access to running water and 18.5 percent are illiterate.

The peace agreement contains many nice words and grandiose promises, but very little concrete details. It is said that a Land Fund of three million hectares will be created over the next 10 years to be distributed amongst peasants. That is less than a third the extension of land which has been taken away from them.

The second section of the agreement deals with “democratic opening”. This consists entirely of a series of nice sounding commitments by the Colombian state to “promote political plurality”, “strengthen participation” and “struggle against persecution of leaders of political parties and movements”.

The third section deals with the end of the conflict, ceasefire and giving up weapons. This is one of the most substantial parts of the agreement as it is laying out the basis on which the FARC will become a legal political party. The FARC fighters will receive a one off payment of two million pesos (US $675) at the time of demobilisation, will have access to US $2700 to invest in productive projects, as well as receiving a pay equivalent to 90 percent of the minimum wage for two years. The political campaigns of the new party will have guaranteed public funding for two consecutive elections as well as having five guaranteed seats in Senate, and five in the congress for two terms.

The FARC will concentrate their fighters in a number of gathering areas for a period of 180 days, while the process of surrendering weapons is carried out. Those who give up their weapons will be provided with amnesty for “crimes connected to the rebellion” and those who are responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity will be tried under a separate jurisdiction, explained in section five of the agreement. The process of giving up weapons will be jointly supervised by the government, the FARC and the United Nations.

Section four of the agreement addresses the problem of illegal drugs. The agreement focuses on crop substitution (as opposed to the current policy of fumigation). This, however will not be an easy task while widespread rural poverty remains and drugs are much more lucrative crops than any other alternatives.

The agreement addresses the question of the victims of the conflict in section five. It establishes a special “truth, justice, reparation and no repetition” justice led by 24 magistrates to deal with members of the FARC and the state apparatus. Guerrillas who have committed “crimes connected with the rebellion” will be given amnesty. Anyone who has committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, confesses fully and collaborates with the special justice system created, will be given a maximum sentence of eight years, but these will be under house arrest rather than jail. None of them will be disqualified from political participation. Those who do not collaborate and are found guilty could receive a jail sentence of up to 20 years.

The FARC have already started to collaborate with this system and have organised a series of meetings with communities where massacres were committed in order to seek forgiveness.

Finally, section six of the agreement deals with implementation, verification and approval. This section basically deals with the technical aspects of the international supervision of the agreement implementation, the actual plebiscite (which was lost) and other aspects of when and how different aspects of the agreement will be implemented.

This is what is actually written in the agreement that the Colombian government and the FARC signed in a very public ceremony on September 26, in the presence of international dignitaries. What does it mean? In essence, this is an agreement by which the Colombian state agreed to a number of conditions by which the FARC will give up their guerrilla struggle. These include the integration of the guerrillas into civilian life, the transformation of the FARC into a political party and a wide ranging amnesty for most of its members.

What the FARC wants out of it is to be able to abandon guerrilla struggle without having its members massacred and the possibility to defend its policies via legal means. The Colombian state wants to end the armed conflict in order to create better conditions for capitalist exploitation, particularly in the countryside, including potentially attracting foreign capital.

The agreement will certainly not resolve any of the problems which led to the formation of the FARC (particularly the question of agrarian reform). As for putting an end to political violence, this is also doubtful. After the much talked about demobilisation of the paramilitaries ten years ago, these groups just re-emerged under a different guise, known as “Bacrims” (Criminal Gangs) who are still active and committing assassinations of trade union and peasant activists, as well as attacks on peasant communities on behalf of the capitalists and big landowners.

An additional problem with the FARC is the fact that the political strategy of its leaders is one of stage-ism. They have always insisted on the idea of a broad alliance of all patriotic sections of the country (in which they include sections of the capitalist class and big business owners) to promote its development within the limits of capitalism. Only later, after the country has developed, would the question of socialism be posed.

Santos Clinton - US State Department Public Domain President Juan-Manuel Santos with Hillary Clinton - Photo: US State Department/Public Domain As a matter of fact, reality does not correspond to this scheme which they have inherited from Stalinism. There is no significant section of the ruling class which is prepared to realise a genuine agrarian reform and lay the basis for the progressive development of the country while defending national sovereignty. The Colombian ruling class is divided (as demonstrated by the clash between Santos and Uribe in the referendum), but at the same time all of its wings are united in their fear of the revolutionary movement of the workers and peasants. There is the danger that the transformation of the movement will lead to the formation of a political party in which its leaders defend weak reformist policies.

We have seen many cases before in which former guerrillas become political movements whereby their leaders defend mild social democratic policies, or in some cases join the bourgeois camp wholesale (as in the case of Joaquín Villalobos from El Salvador).

Hints of this could already been seen during the peace talks, when FARC leaders went out of their way to insist that they were not against private property. In an extensive interview with Semana, FARC Commander Rodrigo Londoño Timochenko was asked about the guerrilla’s views regarding capitalism and free enterprise. He answered: “We have never said that we are against private property. What we oppose is overexploitation, we are against the enormous inequality in the distribution in wealth we have in Colombia.” In the same interview he also explained how the FARC had a meeting with prominent Colombian businessmen in Havana as part of the peace negotiations. He said that “they were satisfied with the explanation that was given to them about the perspectives for the process … that this process is not aimed against the employers.” Timochenko also explained that: “What we want is a Colombia which develops. That the productive forces develop. We need to rescue national industry, our own wealth.” (Let’s Give Colombia’s Peace a Chance)

The referendum

The defeat of the peace agreement in the referendum caught everyone by surprise. The majority of opinion polls gave the YES side a substantial two to one majority. The agreement was backed by the ruling party of Uribe, most of the left, the FARC, Cuba and Venezuela, the European Union and the US, in addition to the Pope.

The NO camp was mainly dominated by former president Uribe. He opposed the agreement by a rabid campaign of anti-communist scaremongering. He argued that the deal would lead to a “Castro-Chavista” dictatorship, that soon FARC leader Timoshenko would become president and above all that, yes, he was too in favour of peace, but that this was a surrender to the FARC.

The referendum result was extremely close. With a turnout of only 37.43 percent (13 million votes out of 34.9 million eligible voters), 50.21 percent voted NO and 49.78 percent voted YES. The turnout was the lowest in any national election in 20 years, but not that far from the 40 percent turnout in the first round of the presidential elections in 2014.

One factor was the impact of Hurricane Matthew which affected areas of the Caribbean coast on the day of the referendum. The referendum was disrupted in these areas where the YES won,voted YES, but turnout was lower than expected. However, the referendum was just the accident that tipped the balance. The big question is, why was Santos and the YES campaign unable to mobilise the electorate?

2014 Presidential_elections_-_Own_Work2014 second round Presidential elections (Green: Santos Orange: Zuluaga) - Own workMore generally, if one looks at the map of the result, you can see how it follows closely what happened in the second round of the presidential election in 2014 which pitched Santos against Uribe’s candidate Zuluaga. (see to the right).

The coastal and border areas voted YES, while the central Colombia voted NO, with the exception of the capital Bogotá where the YES side won with 56 percent (see the map here and official results here.)

Colombia Referendum Map Registraduría Nacional Colombia Referendum Map - Image: Registraduría Nacional ColombiaThese central areas had all voted for Zuluaga in the second round of the presidential elections. The exceptions to this were Santander and Norte de Santander, which voted for Santos in 2014, but voted NO in the referendum. Here, the proximity to Venezuela, where there’s a deep economic crisis and severe scarcity problems, probably played a key role considering Uribe’s scaremongering about a “Castro-Chavista” dictatorship.

In the second round of the 2014 presidential elections, turnout was higher at 47.8% (15.3 million votes in total), but at that time the question of the peace agreement was also central. Santos got 7.8 million votes, while Uribe’s candidate Zuluaga received just over 7 million. If we compare those results with the referendum, we can see that Santos lost 1.5 million votes, while Uribe’s camp lost just over half a million. The reason why the YES lost is because it was unable to enthuse people to vote for it. The hurricane was just an accidental factor.

It is significant to note that the areas which have suffered the most from the violence during the conflict, were the ones with the highest votes for the YES side. This was particularly the case in Chocó (79 percent YES), Cauca (67 percent), Nariño (64 percent), Putumayo (65.5 percent) and Vaupés (78 percent). In the town of Bojayá (in Chocó), where there had been a massacre in 2002 in fighting between the paramilitaries and the FARC, the vote was over 95 percent YES.

Thus, the NO vote was strongest in those areas which are heavily dominated by Uribe and the network of political patronage, paramilitarism and by the interests of the capitalists and cattle ranchers. It was a heavily anti-communist vote as well as being a vote against Santos.

In addition to the factors already mentioned, we need to remember that the Colombian economy has been hard hit by the collapse in the price of commodities, with the price of Colombian oil having collapsed by over 50 percent in the last two years. In this context, the idea of taxation to pay for the demobilisation of the FARC guerrillas was not an attractive proposition to wide layers of the petty bourgeoisie.

Santos is an extremely unpopular president, criticised both from the right by Uribe, but also from the left by the trade union, student, farmer and social movements which have been mobilising against his policies of austerity and privatisation, his assault on democratic rights and continued repression of social movements. In this context many would have been rightly skeptical about his promises in the peace agreement.

Wide layers of the Colombian masses want a solution to their pressing problems of access to land, poverty, education, healthcare, housing, state violence, inflation, impunity of the paramilitary and army violation of human rights. They looked at Santos’ record on all those issues and couldn’t bring themselves to come out to vote.

Santos wanted to use the referendum to receive personal legitimacy but it backfired. It is Uribe who has been strengthened.

What next?

Despite the victory of the NO side in the referendum, that does not necessarily mean the return to armed conflict. The FARC have already said that they are committed “to defend their views with words, not weapons”. President Santos has reaffirmed that he wants this peace agreement to be implemented and has called for a “national dialogue”. Meanwhile Uribe has declared that he is not against peace, but he doesn’t like the terms agreed.

This is certainly a dangerous situation which has dealt a severe blow to President Santos. Though none of the actors want to return to a situation of open war, provocations by the far right paramilitaries cannot be ruled out and could spark renewed hostilities.

What is likely to happen now is that Santos will have to involve Uribe in some sort of renegotiation of certain aspects of the deal. Uribe will want to toughen it up particularly regarding punishment for guerrilla leaders. He will particularly want them to pay with jail sentences as well disbarring many of the most prominent leaders from standing in elections. This is a particularly cynical demand on his part as Uribe used all sorts of tricks to prevent the leaders of the paramilitary gangs from facing justice for war crimes. The most prominent ones were extradited to the US where they’ve received extremely lenient sentences for drug related offences. (See: The Secret History of Colombia’s Paramilitaries and the U.S. War on Drugs). Uribe feared that if they were tried in Colombia for human rights abuses they would spill the beans on who actually financed and supported the paramilitary gangs, something which would involve him directly. Uribe is also demanding a wide ranging amnesty for members of the Armed Forces involved in human rights abuses.

A meeting has already been set up for today including Santos and Uribe to discuss how to proceed. It would seem that Uribe is under a lot of pressure from the ruling class not to create a situation where there is a return to violence.

The FARC will probably be forced to accept harsher terms. They have already started to destroy part of their explosives and have shown a willingness to contribute to reparation for the victims from their own funds (something they had refused before). They have no other viable alternative and they’ve already gone a long way in their commitment to abandon armed struggle. In exchange, they might want to bring issues which were discarded back onto the agenda.

There is another factor in the situation which is key: the revival of the movement of workers, students, peasants and the indigenous communities. For the last five years there has been wave after wave of mobilisations. The students’ movement in 2011, the peasant mobilisation of 2013, the strike of justice sector workers in 2014, the national strike earlier this year, and thousands upon thousands of local or sector struggles, for better wages, in defence of education rights, against open cast mining, in defence of peasant rights and so on.

Once the conflict between the state, the paramilitaries and the guerrillas is removed, there can be an explosion of the mass movement, which the government will find more difficult to dismiss as “manipulated by the FARC terrorists”. The end of the armed struggle in Colombia will by no means be the end of the class struggle, but quite the opposite.

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