Colombia’s Brexit moment

Author Patricia Garip, Senior Contributing Editor

The pollsters got it wrong again, this time in Colombia.

The pollsters got it wrong again, this time in Colombia.

A hair-thin majority of Colombians yesterday spurned a proposed peace accord between the government and the country’s main rebel group, Farc. A bilateral ceasefire remains in effect, but oil and mining companies are surely wondering how long it will last.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who has banked his political legacy on ending the five-decade-long violent conflict, told a shocked nation last night that he will listen to the victors and bring together all sides to find another path towards peace.

Farc’s leader, known as Timochenko, has likewise promised that peace will prevail. The accord, signed with great fanfare in Cartagena on 26 September, following four years of negotiations in Cuba, lays the groundwork for Farc to transform into a political movement. This is a historic opportunity that the group’s leaders don’t want to forgo.

But the conditions for such a transition will now become tougher. The main critic of the now defunct peace deal, hawkish former president Alvaro Uribe, is already starting to build on the victory of the “no” camp to force renegotiations. Under that scenario, it would be all too easy for hardliners in Farc to fall back on bombing pipelines and other infrastructure, to keep up the pressure.

But Farc is perhaps the least of the myriad security threats facing Colombia, and the oil and coal industries that underpin its commodity-based economy. The ELN, a smaller, more ideologically driven rebel group that the government hoped to pacify next, suspended attacks for the plebiscite. That is unlikely to endure.

More worryingly, armed criminal groups are a growing threat, irrespective of the fate of the Farc deal. In all cases, lucrative drug-trafficking, extortion and kidnappings keep the rebels and the criminals in business. And in many cases, they take refuge in a lawless Venezuela next door.

To his credit, Santos swiftly recognised the result of yesterday’s poll, projecting a sense of institutional strength and statesmanship. But he cannot salvage the peace process on its present terms, which a narrow majority of voters rejected as too lenient on violent perpetrators. How Colombia navigates out of this predicament will inevitably be coloured by posturing ahead of 2018 presidential elections.

One needs only look at the enormous political fallout of the UK’s bombshell Brexit vote in June to appreciate how arduous it will be for Bogota to implement the unpredictable will of the people. But the stakes are far higher in Colombia.

The economy is already faltering on lower commodity prices and declining oil production. The peace dividend promised by Santos — in the form of fresh investment and generous post-conflict programmes — is off the table for now. So, it would seem, is the Nobel peace prize that he and Timochenko had been tipped to receive.

The dialogue that Santos says he now wants to forge seems to be the only viable way to keep the forces of confrontation from resurfacing.