Processing the Plebiscite and the Power of Hate

Yesterday afternoon I watched the results of the referendum vote on Colombia’s peace accords. Since last Monday afternoon when the final version of the agreements was signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timochenko, Bogotá was overtaken by a sense of optimism for the future. The campaign for the Sí conspicuously dominated in the capital, and it pleased me to see posters promoting Sí a La Paz on every avenue. So many friends I spoke to, both Colombians and foreigners, commented on how lucky we were to be in Bogotá for this historic day. My Colombian friends were planning a celebration on Sunday evening, and one was kind enough to invite me to her watch party.

All morning while my Colombian friends were out voting, I was reading an abridged version of the official accords, with news programs on in the background showing the voting locations and interviewing voters in line. I read the slew of compelling Facebook posts by my Colombian friends, full of hopefulness and pride in their country for finally achieving peace but also acknowledging the pain and suffering in these 50+ years of war leading up to the long awaited first step of unification towards peace. With everything I read or watched, I was becoming more caught up in the energy of the day. Like so many Colombians, I was certain Sí would win, and I couldn’t wait to feel the excitement more directly later in the day, sharing the experience with Colombian friends.

Right at 4pm as voting closed, I arrived to my friends house. The TV was on and as we waited for the counting to start (voting is done on paper and each ballot is counted by hand), there was dancing and rejoice. The girls all fished out their voting certificates from their bags. They intended to save the small pieces of paper as souvenirs to one day show to their grandchildren as proof that they participated in the peace process that fateful day. They posed so proudly with these voting certificates for some photos, then around 4:30pm we settled onto the couch as the results began to come in.

Things started out strong, with a close race but Sí winning. Plebiscito, the government-run website about the referendum, was posting live results by department and updated several seconds before the TV programs, so we were all refreshing our phones constantly. Twitter was exploding with commentaries from our favorite political analysts as well as the vociferous opponents, like Uribe.

A wall of posters from the Sí campaign along Carrera 3 in El Centro.

By 5pm, the race looked close, but Sí was still winning by a few percentage points. We had hit the minimum number of votes necessary for the plebiscite to pass if Sí won, so voter turnout was not a terrible disappointment. Things seemed to be going as planned, and my friends were energized. But minutes later with 75% of the ballots counted, it was announced that No was creeping up and about to overtake the number of votes for Sí.

The first whimpers from my friends were released, but we reminded each other many votes were still to be counted, and I remained hopeful. The results of so many departments that had been heavily affected by the war, like Chocó (containing the town Bojaya, the site of a major massacre) and Nariño (also a site of several massacres), had been counted and they reflected resounding encouragement of the accords. If these victims were accepting of the terms of the agreements and the stipulations for a disarmament timeline and pardoning of rank and file soldiers of the FARC, then wouldn’t the rest of the country be on their side?

But over the next half hour the disappointing news continued to flood in. It was excruciating to watch the results with 80% of votes counted then wait five minutes for 85% to see the No votes evening out with the Sí then taking the lead by a tiny margin. As Sí went from 52% down to 50% then 49% the sobs were unleashed. The girls were getting calls from their parents and relatives watching in other areas, comforting each other. It was completely unexpected throughout much of the country as well as within my group of friends, and the implications of No winning were startling and uncertain.

At this point, the TV programs became especially difficult to watch. The news channel we selected showed the counts and political commentators to one side then had a split screen showing live footage of the campaign headquarters for Sí on top and No on the bottom. As No began to overtake Sí, the headquarters for No erupted into a spirited celebration. It was disturbing to watch these people, mostly conservative politicians from extremely wealthy and powerful families, unflinching followers of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, reveling in their “win.” Were they celebrating the fact that Colombia would not have peace, not yet? Were they dancing because they were thrilled about the possibility that war could continue? No. But if their position was that the accords could have been negotiated better, that is fine and an opinion they have the right to voice, but their response could have been more appropriate and sensitive.

In fact, their reactions today have continued to appall me. Now that Colombia is in uncertain terrain, it is time for those who take issue with the accords to propose their alternatives. Since they’ve successfully prevented accords–and accords that were declared by international leaders as the best possible for Colombia–from becoming law and beginning the peace process, they must be held accountable. Last night during President Santos’s statement as he acknowledged the outcome of the plebiscite, Santos discussed this, and he declared that dialogue is open, asking those in charge of the political party that mobilized the No group to contribute. Thus far 3 voices from Uribe’s party have been added to the negotiation team, which seems like what could be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, Uribe’s statements today were in line with his recent tendency to the extreme, and it is unclear how negotiations will go from here on out. The lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, presented his letter of resignation to President Santos earlier today, so that doesn’t bode well, though it still seems early to tell.

But before I get too focused on the uncertain future, I want to explain a bit more of how I am understanding yesterday. My sense is that the vote yesterday was essentially a popularity contest between President Manuel Santos and ex-President Alvaro Uribe. For months Uribe has been spreading outrageous lies about the accords. This is especially hypocritical considering the peace agreements he hoped to negotiate with the FARC during his second term as President contained the same major points as those created by Humberto de la Calle and Santos’s full team. But whether it was because he couldn’t get past his ego and wanted his name to be associated with Colombia moving towards peace rather than Santos’s or whether he genuinely took issue with the terms of the accords can never be known. Regardless, for years he has been a staunch opponent and the campaign he launched against the plebiscite is what I attribute to the outcome yesterday.

There are some legitimate reasons why some Colombians might be against these accords–some believe they are too lenient for the FARC and wish for all members FARC to all be jailed rather than handled on a case-by-case basis and pardoned if not part of the strategic team or indicted in major operations. But neither the details of the accords nor the major ideas are the real reasons there was such a strong turnout of voters against the agreements.

Rather, the leader of the opposition, Uribe, waged a war against the accords. Over the last several months Uribe has spun fact into fiction, propagating lies about the contents of the accords, and the results of yesterday reflect that his massive following is still taking his side, and blindly following the word of Uribe regardless of what the accords they are actually voting on stipulate. Uribe played up the arguably lenient plans to reintegrate demobilized members of the FARC in his statements, claiming that the peace accords that Santos’s team negotiated were rewarding terrorists. And he also portended that the peace accords, for how they allowed the FARC to participate in the political process, would turn Colombia into a Marxist-state. In statements circulating on radio programs all over the country and even internationally, an enraged Uribe declared with certainty that Colombia was on the path to devastation like Chavez’s Venezuela.

As if these outrageous arguments weren’t enough to manipulate the masses who are already under the charm of Uribe’s charisma, he also straight-up invented some contents of the peace accords that would predictably persuade voters; namely, Uribe’s group disseminated through videos and by word of mouth via pastors in local churches that the accords contained actions to incorporate homosexuals and transexuals into society and give them more rights. This was blatantly false, yet as the rumors circulated, many uneducated voters made up their mind to vote No based solely on this issue (which was not actually in the accords, I must reiterate!.

*     *     *

On the whole, yesterday’s events disappointed me deeply. For my Colombian friends, the news hit extremely hard, and I also am concerned about the country. I also see parallels to the US and perhaps lessons that could be learned for the upcoming US presidential election. The results yesterday in Colombia illustrated the extent of divisions within the nation, and the close polls for Clinton versus Trump similarly suggest great divisions in the US. The two US presidential candidates could not be more different and that the race appears so close is an alarming sign that there is deep discontentment and tension throughout the US. As demonstrated by the effectiveness of the No campaign, Uribe seems to share some of the tactics of Trump of mobilizing the masses through fear-mongering and by fomenting hatred. Both Uribe and Trump are also similarly obsessed with power and pride.

As for the day of the voting itself, many people were confident Sí would win and never went to cast their vote (the margin was a mere 60,000 votes!!!). For weeks, reporting in the international media has declared the war in Colombia has already ended, and the widespread idea that the job was already done could be part of why No won since voters felt less incentivized to cast votes. The same could happen with those overly confident that Clinton will win, the thinking being Trump is too crazy and could never become president. I hope the plebiscite outcome can serve as a reminder to not feel comfortable with polls or predictions and assume your candidate will win; just go and vote, and vote thoughtfully.

While this is a rougher parallel, there were thousands of ballots cast yesterday where the voters either selected both or neither option (null votes or abstention, many supposedly intending to make the point they wanted peace but were not pleased with this agreement) and if these individuals had selected an option, this could have changed the outcome; so for all of those intending to write in Bernie Sanders or vote for a third party candidate because Hillary isn’t “good enough,” think carefully about the consequences of voting to make a statement. Will any platforms of third party candidates be even remotely considered by a President Trump?

In the case of Colombia, the next few weeks could be critical. Hopefully we will soon know if those opposed to the peace agreements signed last Monday are able to achieve the “more perfect” agreements they are demanding. But in the US election there are only two options for the presidency and there is no chance for a “renegotiation” or redo considering what is at stake in this presidential election; both candidates are flawed, yet one is so much more clearly suited for the job than the other. My heart will be even more broken come November if the nightmare of yesterday’s surprise outcome is repeated in the US.

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