Who Gains from Colombia’s Vote for Permanent War?

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(Photo: medea_material / Flickr)

In early October, the Colombian people voted NO to peace.

Or to be exact, 50.2 percent of 37 percent of the eligible population voted no. In the referendum held on October 2, the majority of voters decided to scuttle the agreement between the government and FARC rebels, which had been reached after four years of peace talks dedicated to ending 52 years of bloodshed.

The vote came just days after the celebratory signing of the agreement, which was lauded in the international community for achieving a bridge between historic enemies and dealing broadly with the root causes of the conflict. The rest of the world was stunned.

Most pundits have begun the post-mortem analysis of the referendum by saying something like “Colombians did not vote against peace.” They go on to discuss other factors, including people’s ignorance of the accords, or their mistaken belief that after four years it could simply be renegotiated.

But the fact of the matter is that the NO voters voted clearly and unambiguously to continue the war. The words on the ballot read: “Do you accept the final agreement to terminate the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?” It’s almost inconceivable that any population would vote no on this proposition, but they did.

So why did they?

Although even former president Alvaro Uribe, the nation’s leading warmonger, now makes the politically correct statement that the ultimate goal is peace, the macho sentiments of total domination and punishment (of one side), along with a strong dose of Cold War hysteria (yes, in the 21st century) won the day.

The NO promoters knew what they were doing. They were not promoting an alternative peace. As a 32-year old NO voter quoted in the New York Times put it, “If ‘no’ wins, we won’t have peace, but at least we won’t give the country away to the guerrillas.”

His statement reflects the patriarchal logic that has started and perpetuated wars since time immemorial — the only good enemy is a dead enemy, and if I don’t win, nobody wins.

At least some NO voters and many of the leaders are betting on continuing war until they gain by force their entire military and political agenda — a prospect that, given the war’s longevity to date could easily be another half century. Or never.

The Perks of Permanent War

For many NO promoters, including Uribe himself, “never” could be the best-case scenario. Basking in the limelight of a political career rebuilt on the ruins of one the most complex and progressive peace agreements in history, Uribe released proposals for revamping the peace agreement designed to throw a monkey wrench into any process to salvage peace in Colombia.

Analysts quoted on CNN’s Spanish channel observed that Uribe’s wish list is aimed at “torpedoing the peace accords.” That’s correct: No one expects the FARC to accept Uribe’s terms, which include banning the group from politics, sentencing members to 5-8 year prison terms for crimes including drug trafficking, pardoning Colombia’s security forces for their own serious crimes, and eliminating the meticulously negotiated Tribunal for Transitional Justice.

Huge sectors of the population reject Uribe’s terms as well, since his proposals would also wipe out the parts of the peace accord that regulate the return of stolen lands to peasant and indigenous communities and seriously hamper, if not strike altogether, plans for reparations to victims. They also could rollback meticulously negotiated gains in gender justice and LGBT rights.

To pretend that everyone wants peace and the only issue is how to get it is to ignore the fact that the war benefits many powerful interests. Those interests will fight to keep fighting.

On the political front, war assures military control over a population and justifies authoritarianism and repression through fear. In general, the most militarized parts of the country are areas where peasants, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous peoples are defending their lands and resources from the incursions of transnational corporations and mega development projects. Fear and murder are powerful repressive tools.

War is also a huge business. Thanks to U.S. Plan Colombia and policies that fanned the conflict, Colombia became the third largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world during the war, behind only Israel and Egypt. Colombia’s budget for security forces skyrocketed; between 2001 and 2005, it grew more than 30 percent, and by 2006 it was double its 1990 levels — some $4.48 billion for military and police.

U.S. Interests

The U.S. military-industrial complex also has a vested interest in continuing the war. The conflict justified Plan Colombia, the $10 billion dollar counterinsurgency and counternarcotics plan that allowed the Pentagon to establish a military presence in Colombia, both physically and by proxy. With the pretext of Colombia’s internal conflict, the U.S. government built up a platform not only for control in Colombia, but also for regional strike capacity, as leaked in the proposed agreement to establish seven U.S. military bases.

Plan Colombia and its later incarnations kept U.S. contracts for weapons, espionage, intelligence equipment, and military and police training flowing to the most powerful lobbying industries in the nation. Billions of dollars have been poured into Plan Colombia and national security investments that ended up in the pockets of political elites and U.S. defense companies. In the budgets for fiscal years 2010-2017, the United States allocated over $2 billion in military and police aid — most of that during the peace talks.

In the process, Colombia was converted into a testing ground for the latest in counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare techniques and equipment from the United States. The blood spilled on its soil feeds the global war machine, to such an extent that Colombia has been groomed as an exporter of counterinsurgency and “security” training, despite its reputation as a gross violator of human rights and the disastrous humanitarian impact of its prolonged war. Colombian forces now work throughout the region to promote the same counternarcotics-counterinsurgency model that left more than 5 million people displaced and untold thousands of innocent peasants executed by security forces.

So very powerful interests saw the peace agreement as a threat. In addition to Uribe followers who viewed it as soft on the FARC, the war economy of the nation and its ally, the United States, was at stake.

In this context, the U.S. government reacted tepidly when peace was voted down. Bernard Aronson, the special envoy to the peace talks, expressed no regret in a press interview after the vote, stating, “We believe Colombians want peace, but clearly they are divided about terms of settlement.” The State Department limited its statement to support for Colombian democracy and further dialogue. After four years of ostensibly supporting the peace talks, neither mentioned the vote as a setback.

An analysis published by the U.S. Army War College, although it is not an official document, openly expresses relief at the continuation of indefinite war in Colombia. Through a mixture of hawkish arguments and lies, the analysis recognizes that the country now enters into a “period of uncertainty,” but notes that this “presents a strategic situation less grave and more manageable, than had the accords been approved.”

It goes on to predict that the FARC will likely break the ceasefire, despite the group’s explicit and public commitment to respect it even in the absence of the guarantees provided in the peace agreement. This position — coming from sources close to the U.S. military, which has in many senses called the shots in Colombia’s war since Plan Colombia began in 2000 — indicates that there is a dangerous possibility of a provocation to further undermine the peace process that has now been thrown into crisis by the NO vote.

The writers also advise President Juan Santos, who staked his political capital on supporting the deal, to retract his commitment to the ceasefire following the vote. They note that Santos promised to “not authorize military operations in the areas where FARC units are located in order to avoid an incident which breaks the fragile truce. Yet not doing so will allow FARC dissidents to operate with almost complete impunity in these areas. Indeed, within the new background of uncertainty, such impunity will increase incentives for FARC units to continue illicit activity, such as drug trafficking, since doing so will pose relatively low risks.”

War Engenders More War, Not Peace

Before the NO vote, the U.S. press hailed Plan Colombia for making peace possible. President Obama, in his self-congratulatory last speech to the UN, proclaimed that we “helped Colombia end Latin America’s longest war.” The logic of this bizarre argument went that were it not for the military debilitation of the guerrillas thanks to the U.S.-Colombian military alliance, the FARC could never have been brought to the negotiating table.

The NO vote is the classic example of the fallacy of that logic. The war fomented by Plan Colombia built up a mentality that made peace an unacceptable solution for many. It revealed the fundamental clash of perspectives between diplomacy and annihilation.

The lesson couldn’t be clearer: War is a terrible preparation for peace. Peace depends on much more than a favorable correlation of forces. Peace, at its core, is a rejection of force as the way to confront differences, and a search for non-violent solutions to conflict and conflict prevention.

With U.S. military theorists openly calling for reopening hostilities, it is a dangerous myth to assume that at this juncture everyone wants peace and the only open question is how to do it. Plan Colombia, the U.S.-sponsored war on drugs, and Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy all posit continued militarization. Those who promote peace and reconciliation in the country must deal with that mentality head on. To second-guess or justify NO voters with “they-know-not-what-they-do” arguments reflects the kind of complacency and misreading of the public that created this dangerous debacle in the first place.

There is no doubt that a massive campaign of misinformation and scaremongering played a role. Voters were bombarded with alarmist messages that spun out wild scenarios, from a legislative takeover by the former FARC to a “Chavez-Castro style dictatorship.” CNN’s footage of the NO celebration showed the crowd chanting “The NO won, now we won’t have a Cuban dictatorship.” It didn’t seem to matter that there was no logical relationship between voting for the peace agreement and the nation becoming a dictatorship.

For followers of Uribe, who led the massive campaign against the negotiations and the acceptance of the agreement, the vote was ideological and personal. It represented the right against the left, and Uribe against Santos. For many people stuck in bitter partisan politics, to vote for peace was to vote in favor of the latter.

It is also likely that many people did not have a clear understanding of the accords or their implications, which is a failing of the negotiators and SI (yes) promoters that left a fatal opening for NO propaganda. Some voters also apparently believed that four years of arduous negotiations with the technical support of scores of international experts and mediators could simply be reopened and “fixed” to their liking, though Santos made it clear there was “no Plan B.” Some NO voters quoted in the press even expressed dismay that they had won, believing they were merely casting a protest vote.

Despite these factors, the NO vote reveals a major obstacle: Society has been trained over years of conflict — one of the longest-running internal conflicts in the world — to acquiesce to war as the only response, to dehumanize the enemy and overlook the obvious fact that it takes two sides to sustain hostilities. It’s created a society that believes the only solution is to drive the enemy into the ground — even when they are men and women from one’s own country and their grievances reflect serious social problems.

This is the patriarchal mentality that the war industry thrives on. Plan Colombia has fomented this mentality since it began. It conflated a war on drugs with a counterinsurgency war to justify foreign intervention and broaden the war. The U.S. government knew that military funding was going directly to paramilitary groups. A 2010 empirical study demonstrated a measurable relationship between increases in U.S. security funding and paramilitary homicides. War propaganda presented the FARC as the sole culprit, when terrible atrocities were being committed on both sides.

With the exceptions of Arauca and Norte de Santander, the departments on Colombia’s borders that have suffered most in the war voted to end it. They know what it’s like to feel their houses shaken by bombs, to risk life and limb walking through minefields, to lose their loved ones in crossfire. They know that to stop the violence in their day-to-day lives is far more important than the political games of how punishment and power are dished out.

War as a policy is almost always favored by those farthest from the battlefields.

The Road to Peace

Understanding the very real and perilous obstacles is not the same as being pessimistic or defeatist at this point in the Colombian peace process — it’s a process, after all. It’s important not to minimize the enormity of this setback — President Santos’ Nobel Peace Prize may be deserved, but it’s a sorry consolation prize for having gotten so close only to be slapped down. But it’s also important to acknowledge that there is still room to move forward.

The peace accords opened up a dialogue and allowed the nation to envision peace. Grassroots organizations are mobilizing in defense of this vision and the possibility of a new reality.

This is the hope on the horizon. Since the NO vote, thousands have marched to support the peace process in Bogota, and also in Cali and cities across the country. The marches have awakened and united groups of indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, victims, students, human rights defenders, peasants, women, and the LGBT community in defense of peace.

The international community should openly and actively support the call for a broad grassroots dialogue for peace. It must continue to be firm and vigilant, because there will be a serious attempt to force a return to the model of military annihilation of the left-wing guerrillas while leaving right-wing paramilitaries and other militarist structures intact.

International organizations committed millions of dollars to support peace implementation, and it must be clear that those funds will only be released when the process is back on track. Part of creating adequate conditions is to deny any new funding to militarism — including the war on drugs, which acts as a thinly veiled excuse for militarization.

The NO vote unexpectedly flipped the political situation back in favor of the right-wing hawks. This uprising could not only flip it back in favor of peace, but also create a social movement capable of going beyond the accords in terms of establishing social justice and human rights and addressing the enormous backlog of demands from below.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen heads the Center for International Policy’s Americas Project.