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Colombia’s big referendum: time for peace?

Hundreds march to support a Yes vote in the referendum. Source: The Guardian

While Britain has just come out of what many were calling a “generation-defining” referendum, the people of Colombia are about to vote on something much bigger than EU membership.

Colombians will soon go to the polls to ratify a peace deal made with a guerrilla Marxist organisation called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or the FARC. Since 1964 the FARC have terrorised Colombia and held swathes of land in an attempt to install a Marxist government. However, after nearly three years of negotiations, a Yes vote in the referendum could see a conflict which has involved numerous deaths, kidnapping and drug trafficking, come to an end.

The FARC was originally set up in 1964 as a form of self-defence against the Colombia government who had started attacking communist groups. Sixteen thousand Colombian troops attacked a group of forty-eight communists who managed to escape to the northern mountains and set up the FARC. They steadily grew in number and by the 1980s had a good source of income from coca. They were further helped by military training from Vietnam and the USSR. Several times cease fires and then peace deals were brokered between the FARC and the Colombian government. However, they tended to break down very quickly. A turning point was reached in 2002 when right-wing President Alvaro Uribe took power. Backed by the US, Colombia launched a counter-attack against the FARC and drove them out of many key holdings.

This renewed offensive saw an increase in guerrilla activity which has made Colombia restless for peace. Coupled with the death of key FARC figures, both sides have sought out peace talks. These have lasted for three years with both sides making appeasements to the other. The FARC have agreed to cease guerrilla terrorism while the government have agreed not to extradite or prosecute any of the FARC. In what was an extraordinary peace process, the FARC and the government have come to an agreement with the help of many of the FARC’s victims.

While it seems very much like the referendum should only go one way, it may not be as clear cut as that. Recent polling data has gone either way with many media outlets saying that Colombians will say “no” to the peace deal, while the government polling seems more optimistic. The problem with the deal is that many feel as though the FARC are getting away lightly. The government have agreed not to prosecute any of the FARC members while agreeing to an integration programme which sees the FARC return to work in society. Many feel as though this is unfair and believe the FARC should be harshly prosecuted.

Furthermore, some parts of the FARC have stated they do not intend to put their guns down and re-join society. These rebellious members of the FARC also have large amounts of income mainly through drug trafficking and so are willing to carry on. While the Colombian government have been cracking down on these sources of income much of the FARC see guerrilla warfare as a way of life and will simply refuse to adhere to the peace deal. Additionally, integrating those who refuse to lay down their guns will be tricky for the government and for the people who they will be integrating with. Making those who committed acts of terror and those who have been terrorised work together will be a tough ask.

All this leaves Colombia in a difficult situation. A Yes vote will see peace in many communities for the first time in fifty years but at the cost of letting many get away with terrorist acts. Whereas, a No vote could see the war continue but in the long run those who have terrorised Colombia could be brought to justice. The voting population will go to the ballot box with the knowledge that the ramifications of their vote will be massive for the future of their country.