The referendum in Colombia: A missed opportunity


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(The Spanish original can be found at:

The result of the Colombian referendum revealed the depth of polarization that has characterized Colombian society since the beginning of its history. It also exposed the archaic political system that was unable to muster citizen participation before such fundamental referendum - nothing less than ending a war of more than half a century: Barely one out of three registered people voted - a participation rate lower than the already low number that characterizes Colombian politics. Yesterday’s referendum had the lowest turnout in the last twenty-two years and the result was so close that it made the NO victory [1], which would have occurred before an eventual YES triumph, more of a statistical fact than a decisive political event. Supporters of the YES had been told that what was needed to consolidate peace was a massive victory, not simply outvoting NO supporters. The same holds true for the NO supporters. None, however, accomplished that goal, because the difference of 0.5% in favor of NO, could be considered from a sociological viewpoint considered a statistical error which a recount could eventually reverse.

It is premature to provide a complete explanation of what happened. We need more detailed information that is yet available. It is nonetheless surprising that the desire for peace, which anyone who’s visited Colombia can immediately feel from the vast majority of its population, has not translated into votes to ratify the pacifist and re-foundational willpower of a country mired in endless bloodbath. Instead, citizens reacted with irresponsible indifference to the call to support the agreements laboriously achieved in Havana. Why? Some hypotheses point to: first, the low credibility in Colombia's political institutions, long corroded by the oligarchic tradition, the penetration of drug trafficking and the role of paramilitarism. This credibility deficit is expressed in a pulling back of the electorate: this was more important the farther they were from the zones of conflict. Here the NO won with a comfortable margin.  However, those departments [2] where the conflicts took place came out largely in favor of YES. In other words: where the consequences of war were unmediated and experienced firsthand— mainly agricultural and peasant regions— the YES won overwhelmingly. In Cauca, 68% voted YES; in Choco, 80%; Putumayo, 66%; Vaupes, 78%. However, in the urban districts where the war was just a media story, relentlessly demonizing the insurgency, those who went to the polls did so to express their rejection of the peace accords.

This refers to a second consideration: the weakness of the educational effort made by the Colombian government to explain the agreements and its positive consequences for the country's future. This shortcoming had been noted by several observers and actors of the political life of the country, but their calls to President Juan M. Santos went unheeded. The confident optimism that prevailed in government circles (and in some close to the FARC-EP sectors) attached to a reckless reliance on forecasts of surveys which failed outrageously underestimated the gravitation of the enemies of peace and the effectiveness of the campaign promoted by Uribe based on a visceral rejection of the agreements. The role played by the right linked to paramilitary groups and the media reproduced endless accusations of President Santos’ "treason" and  galvanized a core that strongly opposed the ratification of the agreements. Despite being a minority in the population, they managed to prevail because they flocked to the polls, while only a part of those who supported the peace agreement dared to defy the weather [3] and go to vote. The “terror campaign” carried out by the right, which presented ominous caricatures of Commander Timoshenko already sworn into office with a presidential sash and ready to impose the dictatorship of the "terrorists" on a defenseless population immersed in ignorance and presented the NO vote as the necessary antidote to avert such a terrifying threat.

In short, it is impossible to evade the sense of frustration that this result provokes. As was said a thousand times, peace in Colombia is peace in Latin America. Faced with such deplorable referendum result, the FARC-EP now faces a tremendous responsibility. The wisdom shown by the guerrillas in the arduous negotiations in Havana will now undergo a new trial by fire. And it is hoped that the temptation to resume the armed struggle given the electoral rebuff will be neutralized by a thoughtful and responsible attitude which unfortunately the Colombian citizenry did not have. Commander Timoshenko’s statements confirming that now the weapons of the insurgency are words allow us a grain of hope. The same goes with the rallies by the leaders of the ELN and the speeches of President Santos shortly after the results of the referendum. Hopefully, it will be so, and this war of more than half a century, whose cost over the years was equivalent to almost half of the current GDP of Colombia; which stripped nearly seven million farmers of their land and displaced them from their homes; which resulted in 265,000 officially recorded deaths; which indirectly victimized two and a half million minors; that this nightmare, which in short has plunged beloved Colombia into mourning, can sink permanently into the past and open those avenues evoked by the heroic President Salvador Allende upon which the men and women of Colombian can pass through to build a better society. [4] Yesterday, an excellent opportunity was missed to advance on the path of peace. There will be others without a doubt.  

written by Atilio Boron translated by Lillian Hexter (Editor, World Current Report)

  1. Editor’s note: the NO vote refers to those that rejected the peace agreement.
  2. Editor’s note: Departments refers to political geographic units analogous to states or provinces.
  3. Editor’s note: Hurricane Matthews affected the Caribbean coast of Colombia during the elections, regions that would more heavily have voted for the peace agreement.
  4. Editor’s note: "Sigan ustedes sabiendo que, mucho más temprano que tarde, se abrirán las grandes alamedas por donde pase el hombre libre para construir una sociedad mejor." This was the last public speech by Chilean Salvador Allende before being assassinated. It translates as “Know that sooner than later, the wide avenues upon which free men can pass through to build a better society will be opened.”