A Racial Analysis of Colombia’s Peace Plebiscite


I offer the following analysis of the recent Colombian plebiscite as a political geographer from the United States, currently working in Colombia, who has worked in solidarity with Colombian human rights organizations since 2008. On Sunday, October 2nd, 2016, a slim majority of Colombians, 50.2%, voted to reject the peace accord between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas. Written to end 50 years of armed conflict, it included agreements on rural development, political participation of opposition parties, illicit drugs, victims, and disarmament. Signed by both parties in September, the accord was the outcome of five years of negotiations and reflected concessions from both sides, especially by the FARC, who eventually agreed to disarm and face potential prison sentences for their crimes against humanity.

Colombian social justice activists frequently point out that the agreement is a far cry from addressing the structural issues at the root of Colombia’s war. By re-affirming the country’s neoliberal political-economic model, for instance, it does not touch large landowners’ private properties linked with rates of land concentration and inequality among the worst in the world. Yet an array of groups beyond the government and FARC, such as victims organizations and Indigenous communities, championed ‘Sí,’ the yes vote. Many argue that Colombia needs to end the state-FARC confrontation in order to inaugurate a new era of democratic politics. The FARC’s transition from an armed insurgency into a political party, many say, could induce a broader transformation towards national conflict transformation through dialog and debate rather than armed confrontation. Moreover, the deal stipulates 16 ‘Circunscripciones Transitorias Especiales de Paz,’ in which rural communities most affected by the armed conflict would elect representatives directly to Congress for the next two terms, to address the historical marginalization of these groups from national politics. The agreement also takes a progressive approach to illicit coca crops, in which peasants-campesinos’ cultivation and consumers’ consumption would be treated as questions of poverty and public health, respectively, rather than equated with the criminality of the drug cartels. Additionally, as part of the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparations and No Repetition, a Truth Commission and an Agency to Look for the Disappeared would be created, in which guerrilla and state forces will be required to reveal details about their actions to victims and help locate disappeared people, whose families still have no idea where they are since the day they vanished.

The ‘No’ victory in the referendum surprised everyone. Polls predicted that the ‘Sí’ would win by a two to one margin. Even advocates of the ‘No’ did not appear to expect victory. The Centro Democrático Party, the primary opponents to the accord, was already strategizing to challenge elements of the agreement from within Congress following its expected passage, while campaign posters against the accord posted in Bogotá implied an expected defeat: ‘Vote No for the peace of your conscience.’

The ‘No’ victory pushed the country into political turmoil. Although it has already been signed by the government and FARC before the United Nations, the Centro Democrático calls for a re-negotiation of the accord but has yet to offer concrete proposals following the plebiscite. FARC combatants preparing to demobilize are left in a state of flux. And the almost equal split between ‘Sí’ and ‘No’ could intensify already tense polarizations in the country, including within families and organizations, as well as across political and racial-class lines. Such uncertainties persist, despite the international community’s re-affirmation of support for the peace process in the form of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Santos on Friday, October 7th.

A geographical analysis of the plebiscite results points to a depressing reality: While the ‘No’ won nationally, almost all areas most affected by the state-FARC war voted in approval of the accord. One exception is Trujillo in Valle del Cauca province, the site of hundreds of military and paramilitary murders, where 63% voted ‘No.’ Yet the ‘Sí’ won resoundingly in Riosucio, Chocó (91%) and Apartadó, Antioquia (52%), two municipalities whose emblematic ‘peace communities’ have resisted mass displacement since the 1990s due to guerrilla-state-paramilitary combat; San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá (63%), whose residents have lived under FARC rule for decades; Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca (71%), where levels of violence in recent years have spun out of control, with paramilitary groups running ‘casas de pique,’ houses in which they cut up the bodies of their victims; Toribío, Cauca (84%), where Indigenous Nasa communities amidst the crossfire between state and guerrilla forces have long struggled for autonomy from both groups; and Bojayá, Chocó (96%), the site of the horrific 2002 FARC massacre of civilians in a church from a cylinder bomb. The ‘No’ victory looks to nullify the voices of those emphatically calling for a peace accord from the war’s frontlines.

Like any voting bloc, those voting ‘No’ come from a variety of different groups with diverse arguments. For example, many argue that the government’s concession to allot the FARC’s new political party 10 seats for the next two election cycles in Congress (currently over 260 total seats between the Senate and House of Representatives) would suddenly lead the country to “castrochavismo,” i.e., the socialism of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Many also insist upon harsher punishment for the FARC. According to the agreement, there would be a general amnesty for rank-and-file guerrillas, while FARC members found guilty of crimes by the Special Peace Tribunal could avoid prison by collaborating with the Truth Commission and doing restorative community-service projects for those they victimized. Others fiercely oppose the temporary stipends that would be granted to demobilized FARC members towards their ‘re-integration into civil society.’ Meanwhile, numerous Colombians, when asked why they planned to vote no, without referencing or even having read the accord, have simply explained, ‘No, because no! After all the damage the FARC has done…’ It is no exaggeration to say that among much of Colombia’s population, there is a deep-rooted hatred of the FARC, and as the ‘No’ vote attests, an unwillingness to grant its members any concessions. Surely, a key factor is opposition by former President Alvaro Uribe, leader of the Centro Democrático, whose hardline right-wing approach that attempted (yet failed) to militarily annihilate the guerrillas remains popular among various sectors of Colombia.

Another current against the ‘Sí’ is a highly patriarchal movement that rejects the accord’s so-called ‘ideology of gender.’ Indeed, the accord is historic in its recognition of women as the primary victims of the armed conflict. And delegations of women victims of state, paramilitary, and guerrilla violence presented stories and demands to the government and FARC at the negotiating table in Havana. As a result, countless affirmations of the rights of women—as well as that of Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, campesino, and LGBT groups—ring throughout the accord. The ‘No’ movement, which includes various Christian sectors, thus branded the peace accords as a slippery-slope threatening the traditional, heterosexual family. This resonated strongly with conservative and homophobic people, and appears to have motivated many voters. Moreover, following the referendum, Juan Carlos Vélez, an organizer of the ‘No’ campaign, revealed its strategy to garner support by spreading lies about the accord, which were widely reiterated by the mainstream media.

From a critical race perspective, I would push the above analyses further. I have yet to hear anyone analyze the racial dynamics of the vote. Many commentators have signaled an urban-rural divide, in which rural areas tended to support the accord while cities more detached from the war’s direct effects tended to vote against it. Yet there are major exceptions that suggest against such a correlation. While large cities such as Medellín and Bucaramanga voted ‘No’ (63% and 55%, respectively), the ‘Sí’ won in Bogotá (56%), Cali (54%), and Barranquilla (57%). I would point to the much stronger correlation with race and ethnicity.

The country’s departments/provinces with the largest concentrations of Indigenous and Black territories all voted ‘Sí’: Chocó (80%), Valle del Cauca (53%, where Cali is also located), Cauca (67%), Nariño (65%), Putumayo (66%), Amazonas (57%), Vaupés (78%), Guaviare (53%), Guainía (56%), Vichada (51%), Magdalena (61%) and La Guajira (61%). Meanwhile, among the departments most strongly voting ‘No’ are those populated by Colombians known as ‘paisas’: Antioquia (62%, where Medellín is located), Quindío (60%), Caldas (57%), and Risaralda (56%). Paisas celebrate their supposed pure Spanish and Jewish ancestry, as well as their civilized values of hard work, entrepreneurship, Catholic faith, and conservativism. As scholars Cristina Rojas and Claudia Steiner have shown, paisa is a code word for whiteness, given these people’s insistence that they are the ‘most European’ among the population. And as scholars Frantz Fanon and Frank Wilderson demonstrate, to claim ‘civility’ is to relationally revile the ‘barbarians’: non-white Indigenous and African descendants.
Is there a relationship between race and the plebiscite vote? There is at least a correlation between departments’ ethnic make-up and their ‘Sí’ or ‘No’ vote. The votes of paisa departments were just enough for the ‘No’ to win a slim national victory. Or, put another way, Indigenous and Blacks’ votes for ‘Sí’ prevented a ‘No’ landslide. Of course, none of the voting percentages are 100%: the overlaps between ethnicity and majority votes signal general tendencies, not absolute causality. And surely, as I have delineated above, there are a diverse number of factors for which people voted ‘No,’ not necessarily reducible to race.

Yet I would argue that a racist project is implicit in the ‘No’ movement. The intense rejection of any concessions to the FARC is linked to a deeply conservative ideology fearful of social transformation regarding land concentration, wealth distribution, and patriarchal hierarchies. As black feminists such as Kimberlé Crenshaw have noted, forms of domination such as sexism, racism, and class exploitation intersect in complex ways, in which it is difficult to divorce patriarchy from racism. Who comprises the FARC? Mostly rural farmers: campesinos. And who are the campesinos? Most are direct descendants of Indigenous and African peoples, even if many identify as so-called (mixed-race) mestizos. Yet the extent to which such mestizo campesinos divorce themselves from their Indigenous or African ancestry does not necessarily safeguard themselves from the continued discrimination against non-whites; indeed, members of the Campesino University of Resistance—whose network of Indigenous, Black, and campesino groups across Colombia periodically gathers to share knowledge towards each community’s autonomy and food sovereignty amidst the war—affirm that they all face the same violence regardless of ethnic identity, with some members explicitly denouncing racial persecution. The FARC itself has advanced this racist project, by attacking Indigenous and Black communities who reject the FARC’s authority, such as the Nasa in Toribío, Cauca. Given that such groups have been the primary victims of the FARC-state conflict due to their struggles for autonomy—stigmatized by both sides as ‘not with us and thus against us’ in their struggles for autonomy—it is thus no surprise that so many of these ethnic communities would vote to pass the peace accord.

The ‘No’ vote against the FARC’s so-called ‘re-integration’ into ‘civil society’ reflects a deeply racist imaginary looking to protect not only gender and class but also racial privilege. The ‘No’ arguments against meager stipends for demobilized guerrillas as they transition away from the battlefield remind me of anti-welfare discourses in the United States, code for ‘None of my (white) tax dollars for those (black) crack babies.’ Like Black Lives Matter has forced racist violence into public debate in the United States, listening to the voices of Indigenous and Black organizations in Colombia, such as Black Communities Process (PCN) and the Association of Indigenous Councils in Northern Cauca (ACIN), will be paramount to deconstruct and undo the racism at the root of Colombia’s war.

The slim ‘No’ victory, re-vindicating the far right wing, was definitely a set-back for the construction of a more just future in Colombia. Yet from Cauca and Chocó to Bogotá and Medellín, organizations of victims, conscientious objectors, and Indigenous and Afro-descendant campesinos did not wait for a state-FARC accord to begin creating peace through autonomous projects of dignity within and across communities. The silent march in Bogotá on Wednesday, October 5th—the largest mass mobilization for peace to date—coupled with Santos’ Nobel Peace Prize inject new life into the peace process. Not ready to surrender anytime soon, the Colombian social justice movement deserves our international solidarity in this crucial moment of struggle over the type of ‘peace’ to prevail in Colombia.

Chris Courtheyn earned his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently a board member of FOR Peace Presence and Professor of Peace and Citizenship Studies at Minuto de Dios University in Bogotá. He can be reached at christopher.courtheyn@uniminuto.edu .

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