“No” won because the right wing, led by former President Álvaro Uribe, was able to turn a vote that was supposed to be on peace into a vote on the FARC. The geographic breakdown of the referendum indicates that “no” won in areas where Uribe and his political party have their support. Take a look especially at the department of Antioquia, where Uribe got his political start as a champion of paramilitary death squads. Sixty-two percent of Antioquia’s voters cast “no.” In the department’s capital, Medellín, a city that has been sold in the United States as a neoliberal success story—Modern! Urbane! Fun! Come visit!—63 percent of voters said “no” (for Medellín’s neoliberal “makeover,” see this essay by Forrest Hylton).
Uribe served as president from 2002 to 2010. He is best thought of as a Colombian Andrew Jackson, riding to the top office of his country on the wings of mass murder, rural ressentiment, and financial speculation. As an ex-president, he has been toxic, doing everything he could to keep the war going.
The Colombian elite, especially the retrograde sector Uribe represents, has much to lose with peace: The end of fighting would create a space in which the country’s many social conflicts—having to do with land, labor, and resource extraction—could be dealt with on their own terms, rather than distorted through counterinsurgent politics. And peace would be costly for some sectors, especially for all those Colombians in the “security” business who for years have fed off the Plan Colombia trough.
Polls show that a majority of Colombians favor peace. But Uribe and his allies in the media and congress lied, obfuscated, and scared. They managed to convince a small minority (the 54,000-vote victory margin for “no” is about a quarter of the number of civilians killed or disappeared by the state since the start of the civil war) that the agreement was a giveaway to the FARC and that Santos was “delivering the country to terrorism.” The Times identifies Uribe and the “far right” as the “biggest winner.” The former president “had argued that the agreement was too lenient on the rebels, who he said should be prosecuted as murderers and drug traffickers. ‘Peace is an illusion, the Havana agreement deceptive,’ Mr. Uribe wrote on Twitter on Sunday after casting his ‘no’ vote.” Thus Uribe has forced himself on the bargaining table, with Santos saying, as paraphrased by the Times, that he would be “reaching out to opposition leaders in the Colombian Congress like former President Álvaro Uribe,” with the Times adding that “experts predicted a potentially tortured process in which Mr. Uribe and others would seek harsher punishments for FARC members, especially those who had participated in the drug trade.”
The campaign to keep Colombia’s war going had an unlikely ally: Human Rights Watch. José Miguel Vivanco, the head of HRW’s Americas Watch division, emerged as an unexpected player in Colombian politics when he came out strongly against the “justice” provisions of the peace agreement. Vivanco agreed with Uribe by offering the most dire reading of the agreement possible, saying that perpetrators—in the FARC and the military—of human-rights violations would receive immunity. Vivanco was all over the press in Colombia, with his comments used to build opposition to the accords. Once it became clear that he was lining up too closely with Uribe, he staged a mock public dispute with the former para-president, even while continuing to basically support Uribe’s position (h/t Alejandro Velasco).