Scratch Colombia off your mission list, Mr. Sajjan
A man reads a newspaper with a headline that reads in Spanish: "Colombia said No" in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
It is now unlikely that Canadian peacekeepers will be needed in Colombia after voters rejected a planned agreement to end the country’s 52-year civil war.
The rejection of the deal by a tiny majority in a referendum with a turnout of less than 38 per cent is likely to restart the war with elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The war started around 1965 and claimed the lives of about 260,000 people; 45,000 went missing and 6.6 million have been displaced.
The unexpected result of the vote has left the government of President Juan Manuel Santos scrambling to keep alive the Sept. 26 peace agreement signed in Havana with FARC leader Rodrigo “Timoshenko” Londono. For the moment, both sides have agreed to observe the ceasefire.
But the situation offers another depressing example of a fearful leader attempting to give himself political cover by calling an ill-judged and unpredictable referendum over a major national issue.
In June, British Prime Minister David Cameron lost his job and assured himself a fool’s role in history books by losing an unnecessary referendum on continued membership of the European Union. A major motive for Cameron was to placate rebellious backbenchers — people who, as party leader, he should have had the confidence to confront.
Santos also felt he needed public backing for the peace deal at a time when his approval rating is only 29 per cent, down from almost 70 per cent when he was elected in 2010. He insists he will not resign, but that decision is no longer in his hands — and his legitimacy in power will erode further the longer efforts to revive the peace process continue.
Why Colombians didn’t go to the polls is hard to fathom. Some commentators have put it down to the weather; Hurricane Matthew is spreading mayhem and destruction around the Caribbean.
Whatever the reason, the result means that just over 19 per cent of Colombia’s voters — 50.2 per cent of the 38 per cent who turned out — have effectively killed the prospect of a process to end a 52-year-old war.
The result is yet another stark reminder that in democracies, elected governments should make decisions — however tough — and make themselves accountable at regular elections instead of trying dilute their responsibility through referenda.
That message should resonate with the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which has not ruled out holding a referendum on any proposed electoral reform package ahead of the next national ballot.
The pending collapse of the Colombian agreement is also a setback for Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s efforts to restore Canada’s reputation as an eager participant in United Nations’ peacekeeping operations. Ottawa has offered to take part in the Colombian peace, disarmament and reconciliation process in partnership with Mexico. That offer is an initial move in what is envisaged as joint peacekeeping operations between Ottawa and Mexico in other trouble spots in Latin America.
But now there’s little reason to think that the Colombian peace will hold, despite Santos’ efforts to keep Londono on side and to reach an agreement with his predecessor as president, Alvaro Uribe, who led the “no” campaign.
Uribe tapped into widespread public anger at the agreement, which gives FARC almost total immunity from prosecution for killings, torture and drug trafficking during the war. It also gives FARC fighters unearned “salaries” worth 90 per cent of the minimum wage for surrendering their weapons. And FARC is guaranteed five seats in the national Congress and five in the Senate until 2026, by which time the Marxist movement is expected to have become a regular political party.
The “corrections” demanded by Uribe are that FARC leaders be subject to prosecution and imprisonment, and that those found guilty be barred from running for public office. He also reflects the public belief that FARC should be required to donate to victims of the war the fortune it obtained through drug trafficking and other criminal enterprises like illegal mining.
It’s evident that Santos cannot move towards Uribe’s position without FARC — or at least major elements within the movement — walking away from the deal and returning to jungle war.
Santos can probably buy off the FARC leaders with promises of legitimate political participation through the Patriotic Union, FARC’s political party. It was founded in 1985 as part of the protracted peace process, but it was dissolved after 500 of its members were assassinated by government-linked paramilitary forces.
The aging FARC leaders doubtless will prefer to be bought off rather than spending their waning years back in malaria and zika-infested jungle camps, focused only on daily survival, when they could be giving public voice to their dream of a more equitable Colombian society.
But for middle-rank FARC commanders, the choice is not so clear. The chances of a resuscitated Patriotic Union becoming a viable political party are slim. Public hatred of FARC is visceral. And FARC commanders have little reason to trust the Colombian military or believe that disarming will not just make them easy targets. Bridging this perilous divide was to have been one of the main tasks for Canadian peacekeepers.
There is also little prospect of middle-rank FARC leaders and their guerrilla fighters making as much money in civilian life as they do from drug trafficking and illegal mining operations.
On top of that, FARC is not a unified movement. A splinter group called the Armando Rios First Front has already rejected the peace agreement and has called on other FARC units to follow its lead. It is likely that other FARC factions will answer this call and return to the jungle war.
Then there’s Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, known as ELN. It began peace talks with the Santos government in March, but those have stalled. ELN backed away after Santos demanded as a condition of continued talks that they renounce kidnapping, the group’s main source of income.
There is also the temptation among criminal and quasi-political gangs to take over the territory and illegal enterprises vacated by the FARC. There are reports that a paramilitary group called the Gaitanista Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC) has doubled the territory it controls since the government peace talks with FARC got into high gear in 2012.
In late March, AGC staged a two-day armed shutdown of hospitals, schools and businesses across northern Colombia. The group is said to be collecting taxes in some of the areas it has taken over from FARC.
There are also indications of disenchanted FARC guerrillas joining purely criminal gangs such as Oficina de Envigado, the Rastrojos and the Puntilleros.
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