Despite polls predicting a handy win for the ‘yes’ vote, the ‘no’s’ had it by a slim margin in Sunday’s plebiscite on Colombia’s peace accords. 

The turnout, despite rainy weather, was heavier than expected.  Was it a slap in the face for President Santos?  Sign of a divided nation?  Hardly.  Although the answer to those questions may vary among those who voted, it’s more likely a signal that the Colombian people care about peace and want to get this one right. 

History points out why.  The conflict that this accord addresses began in the 1960s, has killed more than 220,000 people and, over time, displaced nearly 7 million.  However, it was actually a resurgence of an earlier partisan war sparked by the assassination of a politician in 1948 that ended up killing some 300,000 and took almost a decade to calm down.  Who wants a similar flare up again? 

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla group that negotiated with the government did terrible things during their 52-year existence, such as kidnapping, terrorizing rural villages, driving people off their land, planting landmines and bombs, and trafficking huge quantities of drugs all in the name of forcing the government to adopt their communist agenda.   The peace plan would have guaranteed the FARC seats in each house of congress for the next two electoral cycles and lenient sentences for combatants as long as they confessed their crimes.  Some felt it gave away too much. 

The government’s efforts to gain control of the countryside that the FARC, and then groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the United Self-Defense Forces (paramilitaries) came to dominate, took more than 40 years.  The effort required billions of dollars, the help of foreign governments (such as the United States under Plan Colombia), a war tax, and a serious investment in the professionalization of the armed forces and police.  Would the proposed accord walk that back? 

On the flip side, the FARC guerrillas have made a leap of faith that abiding by the rules will be less costly for their members than continuing a war of attrition.  They have indicated their willingness to lay down their arms in transition zones and to advocate their agenda by democratic political means.  The FARC’s commander, Rodrigo Londoño said Sunday night that the FARC would not go back to war, but would use “words as a weapon to build toward the future.” Guerrillas such as the M-19 did that successfully in the 1980s, but when others tried (some tied to the FARC), they were slain by paramilitaries.  

So it would seem both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ voters would want to get the most out of the peace accords—revealed in detail for the first time only a few weeks ago.  Going forward, there may be no need for another plebiscite.  The demobilization of the paramilitaries formalized in 2005 didn’t require one, and the current template could be adjusted and approved across the political spectrum in congress.  However, once that process starts, reparations to victims, restitution to those who lost property, rehabilitation of former combatants, and opening competitive space for a new political party must begin in earnest. 

Beyond that, an enduring peace depends on changing conditions that prolonged Colombia’s rural conflict for five decades. When it began, Colombia’s countryside was poorly integrated, out of sight and mind of the national consciousness.  Today, infrastructure that would allow access to markets is still lacking.  Too few hands still control most of the best land.  Though declining, rural poverty is high at 40 percent.  Municipalities, especially those in conflict zones, have had little experience in service delivery and involving citizens in decision-making.  In short, Colombia needs to develop and integrate its regions.  

A peaceful, prosperous Colombia is good for the American neighborhood.  Sharing lessons learned, Colombia can show other countries how to become peaceful and prosperous as well.  So it’s understandable that Colombian voters would want to build a bridge to that future on a solid footing.  

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