A Nation in Spite of Itself: Uncertainty and Hope in Colombia After the Referendum

Last week was full of emotions for Colombia. From hope to uncertainty, from sadness to happiness, from indignation to joy, Colombians have been experiencing a chain of contradictory emotions in the midst of a fragmented and polarized country. In the past 10 days, the country lost a historical opportunity to ratify a peace deal to end a 50 years old civil war; the hurricane Mathew hit the Caribbean coast with massive rains and over flooded several towns; huge crowds pro-peace marched on the streets and occupied public squares in Bogota and other major cities; and the Nobel Peace prize was given to the president Juan Manuel Santos.

Some issues have become evident after the peace agreement referendum and would need to be confronted in order to move forward with the construction of peace and democracy. First, Colombia is a divided nation, fragmented by poverty, rurality, and violence. Second, despite the emergence of new forms of civic engagement and online activism for supporting the peace agreement, they did not translate into an organized movement nor were able to mobilize enough voters. Third, in the digital age, political campaigns that rely on fear and misinformation can win democratic elections and mobilize lots of people to vote through hate and lies. Fourth, the country confirmed its status as a unique and paradoxical entity that continues to be to be a nation in spite of itself as David Bushnell famously argued in his history of modern Colombia.

A Fragmented Socioeconomic Geography.  



In the Colombian referendum of October 2nd, voters defeated the ratification of a peace deal between the government and the FARC guerrillas. The No won with 6,431,000 votes (50,22%) over 6,377,000 votes of the Yes (49,78%). However, the almost 13-million citizens who voted represented only the 37.4% of the electoral census. The abstentionism was high, similar to the one of previous presidential elections in the country (2010, 2014). Two-thirds of the potential voters (62.6 %) stayed at home and decided to not participate voting Yes or No to the question: Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?

The map of the referendum results shows how fragmented the country is at the political, socioeconomic, and geographic dimensions. The distribution of the votes across the country reveals that the No won at interior provinces (departamentos), except in Boyacá and the city of Bogotá. In the peripheral provinces, the Yes won, particularly with more votes in territories affected by the civil war and poverty such as Chocó, Cauca, y Putumayo.

According to the analysis published by Juan Mauricio Ramirez from Centro Latinoamericano para el Desarrollo Rural (Rimisp), territorial disparities in Colombia can explain the socioeconomic geography of the referendum. The Yes won in the Colombia that is more rural, impoverished and with higher presence of ethnic populations (afrocolombians and indigenous people). Marginal rural towns are claiming for peace and opportunities to develop and connect. They are the ones that have been in the middle of the armed conflict, disconnected from the cities and the state.

The results of the referendum show the disconnection of the urban centers with marginal and peripheral areas in the country. That is, the inability of many city dwellers to solidarize with the Colombians in the margins (both victims and fighters), and place themselves in the others’ shoes. For many of these Colombian citizens, it was unacceptable to ratify a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas after all the crimes that they committed for more than 50 years. They thought that the political, judicial, and economic costs of stopping the civil war were too high and voted No.

The power of the No: Mobilizing Citizens through Indignation, Fear, and Hate.

The defeat of the peace deal in the referendum took most Colombians by surprise. Despite the multiple citizen media initiatives on the Internet that supported the peace agreement, and the emergence of new forms of online activism that campaigned for the Yes, the voters for the NO won by a very small margin (0.4%).

Although the opposition to the government and the peace deal have said that they also want peace but with a different kind of agreement, they have not been able to clearly articulate an alternative to the one that was negotiated during four years in La Havana. Especially the opposition leaded by ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez and its right wing party Centro Democratico focused its energies on a systematic critique of the agreement and were not propositive.

In order to gain voters the campaign for the NO developed a media strategy that relied on circulating lies, and inciting hate, and fear. As Juan Carlos Vélez, the director of this campaign, explained in an interview published in a regional newspaper last week, the communication strategy consisted in exploiting the fears and anxieties towards social change of many Colombians, as well as the hate towards the FARC guerrillas. According to Velez, the strategy consisted in “avoiding to explain the peace agreement and instead focus the message in the indignation.” As he explained, the campaign “aimed to make people go to vote with anger.”

Leveraging both old and new media, including printed fliers, radio ads, billboards, private TV stations, newspapers, WhatsApp messaging, social media (mainly Twitter and Facebook), and a couple of websites, the campaign for the No successfully spread their message among a growing group of conservative oriented citizens that were already organized in christian evangelical churches, and in the Centro Democrático political party. As Nicholas Casey has argued, this campaign  harnessed “a resurgent conservative movement angered by Colombia’s socially liberal tilt in recent months.

In contrast to the multiplicity of initiatives and voices that tried to develop a “pedagogy of peace” and that experimented with diverse communication strategies for supporting the Yes, the campaign for the NO relied on few visible voices (e.g. former president Alvaro Uribe Velez, former  general attorney Alejando Ordoñez) that stated powerful messages of fear and hate. Those messages, as Juan Carlos Velez explained, were designed and customized for different socioeconomic status and geographical regions so they could connect to different forms of “indignation” among Colombians. For instance, while for the middle and high social classes the messages were based on the impunity and political participation of the FARC guerrillas (e.g. photoshopped images of the FARC leader Timochenko appearing in billboards as the president of Colombia or surrounded by Fidel Castro, Hugo Chaves, and Juan Manuel Santos), in the lower social classes the messages focused on the subsidies that FARC soldiers were going to receive during the process of reintegration into civilian life (e.g. “criminals were going to get greater salaries than the honest working class citizens”).

The list of rumors and lies used during the referendum campaign in order to promote the No vote is extensive (the hashtag #MentirasContraLaPaz on Twitter aggregates many of them). They spread broadly through the networked communication environment.

The victory of the No shows us that in the struggle for mobilizing the civic imagination, narratives of indignation and fear are easy to disseminate, and can successfully move people to vote. Even if these narratives relied in improbable scenarios caused by the peace deal such as the one of Colombia becoming a socialist country like Venezuela, or that the traditional Colombian family would be destroyed by a “gender-oriented ideology” (e.g. the peace deal supposedly promoted homosexuality), they were easier to understand and imagine for many citizens than the post-conflict scenarios articulated by the supporters of the peace deal.

La votación según las zonas vistas en términos de pobreza (Crédito: Juan David Herreño y Juan Sebastián Muñoz)

In contrast, the messages promoted by the Yes campaign lacked the power of a narrative about the future that was easy to imagine for Colombians. They did not articulate a plausible future that could convince the undecided voters and the ones who stayed at home (62.6 %) about the importance of the referendum for continuing the peace-building process. Perhaps the most significant, the narratives of the Yes campaign and the “pedagogy of peace” failed to convey the importance of ratifying the agreement for stopping the violence in the peripheral regions of the country, developing marginal rural areas, and stopping forced displacement.

What is next

Colombia dreamed about peace and but woke up after the referendum without it. The country missed an important historical opportunity. Although the defeat of the peace deal does not imply an immediate return to a state of civil war, it is not clear how the agreement would be renegotiated. Both the government and the FARC guerrillas stated they would meet again in La Havana and already re-initiated the peace talks. However, the cease of fire would be difficult to maintain for a longer period of time. The government has said it would keep it until October 31st although it seems that it can be extended. The leaders of the opposition and the campaign for the NO have claimed, after days of silence, that they want to participate in a re-negotiation of the peace deal, and change several sections, including the ones related to transitional justice, rural development, and political participation. That is, the ones intended to address issues of reconciliation, land redistribution, and warranties for democratic participation, that are key for constructing democracy and a sustainable peace.

Meanwhile, youths and other members of the society have jumped into the streets and public squares in major cities across the country, and organized marches and protests demanding the immediate implementation of the peace agreement. On the Internet and social media, many Colombians have also tried to make sense of the agreement defeat, and called for concrete actions that warrant peace. They have published analysis of the elections, discussed the causes of the political polarization, invited the voters of the NO to join forces to build peace, and organized conversations and meetups using hashtags such as #AcuerdoYa, and #PazAlaCalle. Despite the shock and sadness of the referendum results, there is also hope in Colombia. The fact that the referendum results have created such activity among citizens reveals that the desire for ending the civil war is huge among many, and that Colombia, despite its fragmentation, can continue moving forward in the long road (perhaps a labyrinth) of peace-building.

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