“The horrible night has ceased,” a tearful Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on September 26, quoting a line from his country’s national anthem. He was speaking before an audience of world leaders—the UN Secretary General, several Latin American presidents, the U.S. Secretary of State—at a joyful ceremony in the Caribbean port of Cartagena, where he and leaders of the FARC guerrilla group signed an accord to end a 52-year-old war.
A week later, it looks like the “horrible night” will go on for at least a bit longer. By a razor-thin margin, Colombians voted October 2 to reject the peace accord. The result confounded pollsters’ predictions and leaves the South American country wondering what comes next.
That is impossible to predict: during the plebiscite campaign, the government made clear that it had no “Plan B” if the accord was rejected. President Santos’s brief concession speech the evening of October 2 made clear that no plan exists.
A return to war is not inevitable. The FARC’s leadership says it will continue to seek peace. The leading proponents of the “no” vote, especially former President Álvaro Uribe, say they want dialogue with the Santos government on a “better” accord. Still, in the new post-plebiscite reality, those who seek war are more likely to get it.
In the best-case scenario, the parties will agree quickly on a new agenda, taking into account the concerns of Colombia’s political right, with a clear timetable. They will move determinedly in a process that revises the accords in a matter of weeks.
A Sobering List of Consequences
If this does not happen, however—in even a “medium-case” scenario in which the negotiations don’t collapse but suffer delays or a sense of drift—Colombia faces a grim list of negative outcomes.
- The FARC is not going to spend this week concentrating its forces into 26 zones around the country to start an agreed-upon 6-month, UN-verified disarmament process. This plan was just getting underway, with the FARC declaring its troop strength, its weapons stockpiles, and its assets. However, with the accord laying out that procedure now invalidated, the disarmament timetable is frozen.
- Even if the FARC wishes to undergo this process anyway, it cannot do so, as its members are all technically fugitives. A ceasefire between the government and the FARC, which is still in force, suspends arrest warrants for guerrillas. However, it can be lifted at any time, so the FARC’s members do not have legal guarantees.
- Without verification or concentration, and without a clear direction for the talks’ future, the ceasefire—which has reduced armed conflict-related violence to mid-1960s levels— may become unstable, especially if efforts to arrive at a new accord drag on.
- The UN, following two Security Council resolutions, has set up a monitoring and verification mechanism, with over 200 international observers ready to begin work immediately. Now, with no accord to implement, the UN mission’s present role and immediate future are unclear.
- Peace talks with the smaller ELN guerrilla group, which were already adrift, are not likely to see a formal start in the near future. The Colombian electorate’s delegitimization of the FARC agreement strengthens hardliners within the ELN leadership who are wary of peace talks.
- A prolonged state of “limbo” may cause a deterioration of FARC command and control over guerrillas in the field. Even if commanders in Havana remain committed to renegotiating, the number of fighters whom they can “deliver” for demobilization may drop as time passes. Fighters who would have demobilized may begin carrying out hostilities on their own, or forming or joining new criminal groups.
- Efforts to implement a new strategy for reducing coca cultivation, as foreseen in the accord, will be delayed, while coca planting continues expanding rapidly around the country.
- The White House’s proposed “Peace Colombia” aid package may suffer a deep cut. It was approved by both houses of Congress, but the 2017 foreign assistance budget law has not yet been reconciled, and may be rewritten after the U.S. presidential elections. The lack of a peace accord to implement may cause the US$450 million appropriation for Colombia to fall back to its 2016 level of about US$320 million. Meanwhile, other international donors may similarly redirect foreign aid funds to urgent needs elsewhere in the world, such as the Syrian refugee crisis.
A Shift to Surrender Negotiations?
Did Colombian voters know about these risks before they voted “no” (or in the case of 63 percent of voters, failed to vote at all) on October 2? Some did: a minority believe that the solution lies on the battlefield, and that the negotiations were premature. But many others believed that their “no” vote was a vote for a better peace accord.
Opponents said that voting “no” would force the government and guerrillas to renegotiate a pact with stronger punishments for guerrillas and soldiers guilty of war crimes. If such talks proceed in Havana, they will push for prison time for FARC leaders (perhaps similar to the five to eight years given to paramilitary leaders after they demobilized in 2006), rather than the nebulous “restriction of liberty” punishment laid out in the accords.
Opponents of the peace accord will also push to rescind the government’s concession of 10 automatic congressional seats (5 in the 102-person Senate and 5 in the 166-person House) for FARC members between 2018 and 2026. They also wish to reduce the ambitious scope of promised investments in rural development programs, which Ex-President Uribe insists Colombia can’t afford.
A renegotiation that waters down these government concessions would result in an accord that looks more like terms of surrender. This is only possible if Colombia’s government is in a position to demand surrender. That is far from clear. For Colombians in urban areas, who have not strongly felt the conflict’s impact in years, perhaps a surrender negotiation seems like the way to go. But consider:
- In the 12 years between Plan Colombia’s 2000 launch and the peace talks’ 2012 inauguration, the conflict killed nearly 25,000 Colombians in combat, plus a similar number of civilians. The result was a two-thirds weakening of the FARC, from about 20,000 to about 6,000-7,000 members.
- Would it take a similar effort to weaken the FARC by another two-thirds, which would render them about as strong as the smaller ELN group is today? (Recall that peace talks with the ELN still haven’t started.)
- Even with this correlation of forces, it took negotiators four long, uninterrupted, intense years of formal talks to achieve the accord that was rejected yesterday. Of those four years, nineteen months were spent negotiating the part of the accord that deals with war crimes.
These are not characteristics of surrender negotiations. The FARC has no chance of taking power on the battlefield. But it still has wealth and the capacity to carry out hostilities in many regions throughout Colombia. A renegotiation on tougher terms is not a certainty. (Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle, who tendered his resignation the morning of October 3, seems to recognize this.)
Needed Now: Clarity and Momentum
The way forward is not clear. But it needs to become clear soon. A situation of drift and crisis is unsustainable, and could lead to an outcome that the vast majority of Colombians do not want: either a collapse of the talks and a return to war, or a disintegration of the FARC into structures that would be impossible to demobilize.
As soon as possible, renewed talks need an agenda, possibly a timetable, and a sense of what is achievable.
The international community and the United States have a very important role to play. The administration and Congress must send clear signals that they continue to support President Santos’s negotiation effort, and that they desire a quick resumption of talks with a new and achievable agenda. It is at crucial moments like these that the flexible, supportive role of Special Envoy Bernie Aronson is most important. To the extent that diplomatic efforts can help get things back on track, Washington should spare none.