All Colombians want peace. Any future deal with FARC, however, must address citizens’ concerns.
A majority of Colombians this month voted to reject the government’s deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Marxist narcoterrorist group better known as the FARC. The government used and abused all its powers in an effort to ensure victory, but millions of voters decided that the country would be better off without giving in to the rebels’ demands. All Colombians want peace. Any future deal, however, must address voters’ substantive concerns.
Colombia has long been Latin America’s most stable democracy, with popular rule for almost all of the past century. While the government’s battle against the FARC rebels is often described as a civil war, this conflict is not an uprising against an oppressive regime. Rather, it is a struggle that has pitted democratic governments against persistent terrorist threats to the rule of law. Recall that FARC is also a prolific cocaine cartel.
When I was president of Colombia between 2002 and 2010, we implemented an aggressive security policy to crack down on narcoterrorism. It was aimed at protecting citizens’ freedom and rights, as well as promoting investor confidence and strengthening the bonds of social cohesion across the nation. While still far from a paradise, Colombia in 2010 was a safer country with a rapidly growing economy.
These achievements led to the election of the current president, Juan Manuel Santos,whom I supported at the time. Yet shortly after taking office, Mr. Santos shifted his political platform and focused his presidency on negotiating with the FARC. Data from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime show that illegal coca production has doubled between 2012 and 2015. Public debt grew to 54% of GDP in 2015, up from 43% in 2010, according to Colombia’s central bank. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report indicates that effective corporate tax rates have reached about 75%. Colombia has become less appealing to private investors.
After years of discussions, Mr. Santos reached a deal with the FARC, which came in the form of a 297-page accord. The public then had its chance to weigh in. There were plenty of reasons to reject the deal, including serious doubts about the legitimacy of the plebiscite itself. The government questionably lowered the turnout threshold that would have made the report binding to only 13% of those eligible to vote. Originally it had been 50%.
Mr. Santos also presented the enormously complex agreement as a simple yes or no question. Had “yes” won, the agreement would have been incorporated in the country’s constitution. It would have overridden many of our fundamental principles.
The government ran a disgraceful campaign. It threatened to withhold money from governors who did not openly support the deal. It used public funds for a massive advertising campaign, while denying public resources for the opposition campaign.
Despite all their advantages, proponents of “yes” lost because of the substance of their policy. Consider some of the most egregious aspects of the deal: It would have replaced Colombia’s judiciary with a separate tribunal tailored to FARC’s needs—and designed to guarantee impunity for their war crimes. It also provided a blank amnesty for drug traffickers, on grounds that their behavior was an extension of political crimes.
The “no” vote means that the original agreement no longer exists. Yet peace can still be attained with deep and necessary changes that millions of Colombians have called for. Only these changes can ensure that Colombia will not fall prey to the Venezuela-backed socialist populism advanced by FARC and its allies. I consequently hope that the Colombian government will heed the people’s mandate to renegotiate with FARC.
The country’s existing judicial institutions must be charged with the task of operating the transitional-justice scheme. Rank-and-file guerrillas not responsible for atrocious crimes could receive an amnesty, but FARC kingpins who have committed war crimes and egregious human-rights violations must be punished. What kind of message would impunity send to other terrorists?
FARC commanders who have committed grave crimes should not be given the privilege of running for public office—as other convicted felons also lose this right in Colombia. We enforced a similar restriction on the 35,000 paramilitaries who demobilized during my administration. Political leaders should be role models—not former terrorists.
A new peace deal must also require FARC to give up its drug fortune to help victims of its violence. The group must release the children it has recruited over the years and account for every citizen it has kidnapped. Further, the deal should include proper safeguards for private investment in Colombia, such as a commitment to respect land rights, preserve the government’s fiscal health, and keep the private economy competitive. Somehow the original agreement was silent on these matters.
Colombia needs the international community’s understanding and support to make profound changes to the agreement. This is what the Colombian people have decided, knowing better than anyone else what is at stake.
Mr. Uribe was the president of Colombia (2002-2010).