Colombia signs peace deal with FARC, but bitter referendum fight lies ahead
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President Juan Manuel Santos on Wednesday announced that a referendum to approve or reject the historic peace deal in Colombia will be held on October 2, but a bitter campaign has been underway unofficially for months.
The Santos government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) unveiled the landmark peace deal in Havana, Cuba, where negotiations to end the 52-year civil war have been painstakingly crafted by leaders from both sides over the past four years.
The conflict has killed approximately 250,000 people and displaced nearly 7 million more. It has also seen the rise of paramilitary units, splinter guerrilla groups, and fomented the devastating cocaine trade.
A detailed roadmap for peace – which includes, among other things, the demobilisation of guerrilla fighters and special tribunals to judge the worst atrocities of the conflict – must now be put before ordinary a Colombian voters.
Even though the referendum was only announced on Wednesday, just as the accord was unveiled, political experts on Colombia say the rival sides in the referendum are already hard at work.
“The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns have been underway for as long as the negotiations have been going on,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Colombia specialist.
President Santos, who wants his political legacy to be the peace accord with the FARC, has said his whole government will work tirelessly for the ‘Yes’ campaign. His predecessor, former president Alvaro Uribe, has opposed the peace talks from the beginning and is now the most vocal campaigner for the ‘No’ vote.
Arnson expects the referendum contest to give way to “ferocious campaigning” now that a date has been set.
Andrei Gomez-Suarez, an expert on Colombian politics and a professor at both the University of Sussex and the University of Los Andes in Colombia, agreed that the referendum campaign had started in earnest well before Wednesday’s big announcement.
Gomez-Suarez said both camps had gained new momentum over the past month.
“Workshops and conferences have been organised, you can see posters, but the campaigns have mostly been on social media. WhatsApp in particular has become a hugely important way for communicating for the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps,” Gomez-Suarez said in reference to the popular mobile chat application.
Santos has argued that peace with the FARC, despite the years of fraught negotiations and the long path to implement the accord, is the only way for the South American nation to prosper and move forward.
While Uribe is not promoting a return to all-out war with the FARC, he has repeatedly accused Santos of ceding too much to the rebels at the peace table and spread the idea that the guerillas will be granted blanket immunity.
“[Uribe] is saying that if people vote against the peace deal the FARC will be forced to renegotiate peace under terms that are less favourable for them. Meaning, maybe there will be longer prison sentences for FARC commanders,” said Gomez-Suarez.
The Wilson Center’s Arnson said that dispensing justice will remain the main bone of contention during this critical referendum campaign. “What kind of investigations and prosecutions will there be for FARC fighters who have committed atrocities? By far this will be the most volatile issue in public opinion,” she explained.
‘Referendum on Santos’
Opinion polls have already swung wildly and should be viewed cautiously in a country where surveys are “notoriously fickle”, according to Arnson.
But what is certain is that the peace deal has now grabbed the public’s attention.
“Three years ago, after the start of the peace talks, there was a lack of engagement. Colombians really didn’t care, it was a secondary issue,” Gomez-Suarez stated. “Then the prospect of peace became the main topic of the  presidential election, so more people started talking about it. Today, everyone is talking about it.”
The scholar welcomed the increased level of interest in the upcoming vote, but is concerned about the “highly emotional” tone of the debate, which has quickly polarized the country. He blamed both Santos and Uribe for fomenting a debate short on facts and full of character attacks.
Former president Uribe has denounced the government for “cutting a deal with terrorists”, while Santos has labelled Uribe and other critics of the agreement as “enemies of peace”.
Gomez-Suarez fears the October 2 ballot will increasingly turn into a referendum on the Santos administration rather than the accord itself.
“What is worrying is that people are not really debating the points of the deal. The risk is that the referendum will not be about obtaining lasting peace but about how people assess Santos and his government after six years in power,” he said.