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Colombia's ex-president spent years trying to thwart FARC peace deal

After years of hard work to prevent a peace deal between the rebels and his successor's government, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has propelled himself back into the global conversation

by Joe Parkin Daniels
Oct 4 2016, 5:00pm

Une femme colombienne vote lors d'un référendum concernant l'accord de paix entre les FARC et le gouvernement. Photo de REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe spent his eight years in office, between 2002 and 2010, waging a bruising military campaign against the country's largest rebel group, FARC. He spent the last three years trying to torpedo the historic peace deal between them and his successor and former political ally turned foe, President Juan Manuel Santos.

On Sunday, Uribe's hard work paid off when Colombians voted "no" to peace and handed Santos a razor-thin defeat. Now, Uribe is seeking to dictate the terms of a new deal that's tougher on the rebel protagonists of a 52-year civil war that has killed over 220,000 and displaced nearly 7 million.

"The victory of 'no' puts us in a difficult moment, but when it won I felt relief because I know that a victory for 'yes' would have been more difficult for my homeland," Uribe told CNN on Monday night. "We are proposing that everybody remains at the table and the accords are renegotiated."

President Santos had made it clear in the weeks leading up to Sunday's referendum that there would be "no Plan B" on his deal with the FARC. Now, the president has no choice but to accept the idea of a new negotiation if he has any hope of salvaging the historic deal — and his political legacy — which he had pinned on the vote.

The government's chief negotiator and two members of the cabinet are due to meet leaders closely linked to Uribe this Tuesday to start the new process.

No politician is so naive as to think it wil be easy for these sworn political enemies to find common ground, let alone give Colombia a second shot at securing peace after so many bloody decades.

And that's before taking the FARC into account.

Sunday's shock vote came less than a week after Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, nicknamed Timochenko, signed their agreement last week in a ceremony dripping with reconciliatory symbolism and international adoration. It came with the implementation of the peace accord already tentatively underway in certain parts of the country.

The immediate aftermath saw Timochenko, hurrying to promise that the FARC remains committed to an unlimited ceasefire currently in place. But will he really be willing to lead the rebels back to the table and negotiate away at least some of the gains made over four long, hard years of talks?

So far the path forward is unclear.

"The FARC will remain faithful to what was agreed," Timochenko said in a video released Monday, which could be interpreted as reiterating the rebels' commitment to peace or as reluctance to change the terms of what has already been agreed. "The plebiscite does not have any legal impact at all. The impact of the vote is [only] political."

Related: Victims of Colombia's long war fear peace won't be any better

But politics prevailed, and chief among its victors in Sunday's startling result is Uribe, whose frequent and vociferous opposition played a significant role in torpedoing the peace deal.

The populist Uribe and his supporters took particular issue at the special courts that would allow rebel leaders who confess to war atrocities to avoid going to prison, and the promise of a quota of seats in the national legislature for the FARC for the first decade after its transformation into a political party.

"There's a chance the rebels will see the vote and realize the public isn't behind them, and force their hand to concede more than they have [in the Havana accords]," said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. "It's more likely they will see it as surrender negotiations, and that they are less likely to take."

The FARC's position is particularly delicate, as some of the estimated 7,000 rebels had already begun moving towards the special UN-monitored demobilization camps where they were to begin their transition into civilian life.

"That process is frozen now," Isacson said.

He pointed out that the peace deal suspends arrest warrants for FARC combatants which could now, potentially, be reactivated. Other analysts suggest combatants are likely concerned about their leadership's capacity to keep them safe from retaliatory attacks if they do fully demobilize. On the opposite end, concern is growing that FARC leadership will be hard-pressed to get members of its rebel army to give up their lucrative drug trade business in exchange for an increasingly insecure demobilization effort in a country where large swaths of the population hates them.

"FARC may start facing internal dissent on the best way forward," Kristian Herbolzheimer, a London-based conflict resolution expert at Conciliation Resources, told VICE News. "This will depend on how long the current stalemate of no-war no-peace lasts. It is paradoxical to observe a country blocking FARC access to the political arena now that they have taken the decision to abide by the rule of law and respect the current institutional setting."

Related: Colombia finalizes peace deal with FARC rebels, ending half-century war

Sunday's vote has also inevitably put President Santos' future in doubt. Far less charismatic than Uribe, frequently accused of playing to the international choir rather than Colombian sensitivities, and struggling to deal with a battery of economic problems, Santos' approval ratings were already down in the 20s even before Sunday's electoral debacle.

With or without him, some observers have already condemned his government to helplessness, and train their sights on the next presidential election in 2018. Political maneuvering is already underway: Former finance minister Oscar Iván Zuluaga, one of the three Uribe allies designated to attend upcoming talks with Santos' representatives, is widely seen as the former's president's favorite to run in the 2018 presidential elections. Much to Uribe's dismay, he is constitutionally barred from running again.

"The government has been mortally wounded, politically," well-known Colombian political analyst Jorge Restrepo told the Chilean newspaper La Tercera. "This will have an important economic impact."

Related: How a French woman became a Colombian rebel

For many observers, the stunning upset in Colombia recalls the UK's surprise Brexit vote to leave the European Union in June, where misinformation and heated populist rhetoric prevailed over reason.

"I have absolutely no doubt that this was the best possible peace deal that could have been negotiated," Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican foreign minister and author of numerous books on Latin America's armed insurgencies, told Mexico's Radio Fórmula. "It is a lesson for us all that what is sensible, reasonable, and logical is losing ground in the world today."

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan

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